Border Reality in Tijuana: Horror, Heartbreak – and Heroism

Readings for 3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time: Isaiah 8:23-9:3; Psalm 27: 1, 4, 13-14; I Corinthians 1: 10-13, 17; Matthew 4:23; Matthew 4: 12-23

In recent weeks, I’ve been trying to report on my rich but heartrending experiences in Tijuana Mexico where I’m volunteering for a legal services group, Al Otro Lado (AOL). We offer professional counseling and support to refugees at our country’s heaviest border crossing here in Baja California. For someone in his 80th year, workdays here have been incredibly busy, very exhausting, but also extremely rewarding.

I mean, who wouldn’t be edified to witness the example of heroic but impoverished fathers and mothers AOL counsels each day. Their love for their children is so powerful that it has driven them to leave the homes and countries they love and actually walk hundreds of miles to what they imagine will be safer conditions for their little ones? (How desperate do you have to be to do that?!) It’s like the mythic journeys celebrated in some of the greatest stories human beings have ever produced.  

And yet, whose heart wouldn’t be broken to realize that helping these heroines and heroes fill out reams and reams of invasive forms and questionnaires will in most case lead nowhere but back to their original unbearable circumstances? That’s because the heartless Trump administration is doing everything in its power to thwart the dreams of these mythic champions.

Refugee Testimony

To be more specific, here’s what I’ve been told over the past two weeks while taking testimony from refugees seeking asylum in the U.S. (What follows is virtually in the refugees own words.) See if you find them as distressing as I have:

  • My country (e.g. Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador, or Haiti) is controlled by drug cartels created by the U.S. so-called “war on drugs.”
  • Small business owners in my barrio must offer the gangs protection money or otherwise cooperate with them – either that or suffer horrific consequences.
  • They try to get the rest of us to pay “war taxes” and/or to transport or distribute drugs.
  • For refusing to do so, my father (and/or a brother, or uncle) has been murdered. They’ve beat me up too. They almost stabbed me to death. They’ve burnt down our family’s house.
  • And the gangs are currently threatening to kill me and remaining members of my family if we don’t give in.
  • I can’t move elsewhere in my country to escape all of this, because the gangs are everywhere. They’ve followed me to the border, made threatening phone calls, parked prominently outside my place of work. They always seem to know where I live.
  • Moreover, it doesn’t help to go to the police. They either fear the gangs or cooperate with them. We’re all afraid of the police; they are so corrupt and unhelpful.
  • I’m desperate, so I and my family have walked across three countries to get here.

Women hovering over young children, clinging infants, and adorable babies report:

  • I’ve been a victim of domestic violence for years.
  • My husband who’s alcoholic regularly beats me and my children.
  • Since I left him, there’s been no escape; he stalks me wherever I go.
  • I can’t live like this anymore.
  • I’ve got to get as far away from this man as possible.

To repeat: those are the stories all us volunteers for AOL hear each day. I bring them up today because they turn out to be intimately connected with the liturgical readings for this third Sunday in Ordinary Time. Those selections offer encouragement to our mythic heroes, because their stories are quite like those of 6th century (BCE) Jews reflected in today’s first reading as well as of Jesus of Nazareth in today’s gospel selection. In fact, heroes’ journeys, exile, and refugeeism turn out to be prominent recurring biblical themes. Think about it.

Biblical Parallels

Consider for example today’s first selection from the prophet Isaiah. It celebrates Israel’s homecoming after a 50-year exile in Babylon (modern Iraq). It was then that their leaders had been forced to emigrate from Israel to Babylon. In other words, they were victims of wholesale kidnapping when Babylon’s rulers desired to prevent uprisings in the land they had just conquered and occupied. So, like our clients here in Tijuana, the removed ones became victims of heartless force and violence back home.

And then in the Gospel (500 years later), we find John the Baptist and Jesus similarly victimized by regimes almost as ruthless as the Trump administration. Today’s gospel reading focuses on Jesus himself becoming a political refugee for the second time. [Remember that first time in Matthew’s “infancy narratives,” when he and his parents sought expatriate status in Egypt to escape wholesale state infanticide (MT 2:13-23)?]

This time, that same King Herod has arrested Jesus’ mentor, the outspoken John the Baptizer. (The king would shortly have him beheaded.) And that in turn forces Jesus, as John’s protege, to go underground. So, the young teacher flees for refuge specifically among non-Jews in the Gentile region of Zebulon and Naphtali in eastern Galilee.

Significantly, that entire territory constituted a rebellious district and a hotbed of revolution. As such, it was largely out of Herod’s control. (To some extent, the king had only himself to blame for that, because it was in Zebulon and Naphtali that he had forcefully resettled migrants, non-Jews, and the poor.) In any case, Jesus finds comparative safety in that mixed context of foreigners, rebels and refugees.

Nevertheless, Matthew’s gospel makes it clear that Jesus’ semi-clandestine status didn’t silence him. Instead, he simply took up where John had left off proclaiming their shared conviction that another non-imperialized world is possible. As a world without Caesars – as a world with room for everyone – Jesus called it the “Kingdom of God.” It’s what refugees and immigrants have always wanted.

What I’m trying to say is that here in Tijuana, AOL deals every day with refugees from violence pretty much like what’s portrayed in today’s biblical selections. Circumstances have forced most of them into exile every bit as effectively as 6th century (BCE) Jews were forced into Babylon. They are just as frightened as Jesus must have been when he fled to eastern Galilee to hide out in a district virtually ungovernable by the reigning King Herod.

Calling attention to the similarities between the stories of heroes at our southern border and those of Israel in general and of Jesus in particular should offer encouragement to both today’s refugees and those who work with them (like the AOL permanent volunteers I’ve found so inspiring). The message for everyone is “this too will pass.” In any case, here are my “translations” of the readings in question. You can find them here in their original form.

Today’s Readings (in Translation)

Isaiah 8:23-9:
Our long, alienated exile
Is finally over.
Anguish, darkness
Gloom and distress
Have been replaced                                       
By light, joy and merriment.
The burdens                                                   
Of foreign taskmasters
Have been lifted
Their instruments of torture,
Smashed.
It is time to celebrate.
 
Psalm 27: 1, 4, 13-14
Indeed, fear is gone
Removed by the Divine One
Who is Light, Salvation,
Refuge and Loveliness
The Source of
Bounty, courage, strength,
And life.
 
I Corinthians 1: 10-13, 17
For us, Yeshua
Is the wellspring
Of such delight
Despite Empire’s
Divide-and-conquer strategy.                        
So, as his followers
We should never
Split into petty factions
But stay united instead.
 
Matthew 4:23
Yes, embracing 
God’s Kingdom
Where disease                                               
Is banished –
Has us rejecting
The World’s division
Its insanity –
Its fundamental sickness.
 
Matthew 4: 12-23
That World even
Imprisoned John the Baptizer
And caused
Yeshua himself
To hide underground
Among anarchists.
Yet he never stopped
Insisting that                                      
Another world is possible
With room for everyone                    
Even persuading
Working class people
To leave behind
Job security
For its sake
With the added bonus
Of free health care
For everyone!

Conclusion

A key foundational principle of liberation theology is the “hermeneutical privilege of the poor.”

It means that since poor people stand on the same ground as the ones whose experience is centralized in the Bible, their interpretations of texts (hermeneutics) are probably more accurate than the readings of the non-poor and even of academics trained in biblical science. The poor and oppressed see elements of historical accounts, parables, and other literary forms that remain opaque to the rest of us.

The truth of that privilege has come home to me strongly since I began my stint two weeks ago here in Baja California. It has forced me to see the world through the eyes of the refugees our group accompanies each morning at the el Chaparral crossing.

So, when I considered this week’s liturgical readings from Isaiah and Matthew, I saw what I never saw before, though I was previously quite familiar with both passages. Today’s readings, I realized, are about escapees from persecution similar to what our refugees from Mexico and Central America have experienced.

In summary, Tijuana’s refugees are more authentically God’s people – God’s favorites – than the rest of us.

I thank the heroes I’ve met here in Baja California for teaching me that lesson. They are mythic giants indeed.

Give Up Church for Lent!

Readings for 2nd Sunday in Advent: Bar. 5: 1-9; Ps. 126: 1-6; Phil. 1: 4-6, 8-12; Lk. 3: 1-6 http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/120912.cfm

In my town of Berea, Kentucky, a kind of religious revival is taking place. A spirited group of people across denominational lines meets once a month to experiment with and “Ecumenical Table Fellowship.” It’s a community of Christians without benefit of clerical leadership meeting to reflect on our common biblical tradition in the light of what Vatican II called “the signs of the times.” The group breaks bread liturgically in the spirit of Jesus’ Last Supper and of the early church. Roman Catholics are prominent in the group. They are discouraged by today’s conservative pre-Vatican II “restorationism” that emphasizes the power of the church hierarchy and ordained priesthood at the expense of Vatican II’s emphasis on the priesthood of the faithful.

Some in the group agree with spiritual theologian, Matthew Fox that their church leadership is in schism against the spirit of the Second Vatican Council, which remains the official teaching of the Catholic Church. Pope John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and the conservative bishops they have appointed are the culprits in schism. These clerics are defensive of hierarchy and the power of an exclusively male priesthood. They devalue lay leadership and the prominent biblical stories of Exodus and Return from Exile that are highlighted in today’s liturgy of the word where they are contrasted with “the priestly story” that currently plagues the Catholic Church.

The great Jesus scholar, Marcus Borg, reminds us that amid the literally hundreds of stories in the Bible, there are three “macro-stories” that give coherence to the Jewish Testament and its Christian counterpart. The first and most important is the story of Exodus. Its’ a tale of liberation from slavery and journey to a “Promised Land.” For the ancient Hebrews, the Exodus was grounded in an actual historical event, the release of slaves from their oppression under the pharaohs of Egypt perhaps 1200 years before the birth of Jesus.  It was the Exodus that provided the ancient Hebrews with their first experience of their God, Yahweh.  For them, Yahweh’s fundamental identity was the One Who Liberates from Oppression. In our day, the macro-story of Exodus has become central for third world people living under the harsh realities of U.S. imperialism.

The second Old Testament macro-story is Exile and Return. It too was grounded in history. In the year 587 BCE, the Hebrews were conquered by Babylon (modern Iraq). The Babylonians transported the Hebrew elite to Iraq till the Persian King Cyrus released them after conquering Babylon in 539.The story of exile and return shaped the ancient Israelites almost as much as the Exodus story. Like oppression and slavery, that narrative represents a human archetype that all of us can relate to it in one way or another.  The archetype evokes the feelings of grief, sadness and displacement reflected in one of the psalms of exile, “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion.” The Advent Hymn “O Come Emanuel” expresses the same feelings in its own reference to the Babylonian Exile: “O Come O Come, Emanuel, and ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lonely exile here.”  For one reason or another, all of us feel somehow exiled, sad, and displaced.

The third macro-story of the Jewish Testament comes from priestly sources. It is not grounded in a particular historical event, but in temple ritual and worship. It is the story of sin, guilt and of forgiveness mediated by the priestly class, their sacrifices, rules, rituals and prayers. Judging from the attitudes of Israel’s prophets and especially of Jesus, the priestly narrative is far less important than either Exodus or Exile. In fact, along with many other prophets, Jesus expressed harsh criticism and even hostility towards priestly pretensions and business-as-usual within the temple precincts. And yet, the priestly narrative has carried the day in terms of dominant Judeo-Christian spirituality. “Jewish guilt” and “Catholic guilt” are legendary. Jesus is primarily understood as the one who “died for our sins.” God’s wrath and the threat of hell are staples of Sunday sermons and of Christian neuroses.

The focus of today’s liturgy of the word is Exile and Return in sharp contrast to the Priestly Story of sin, guilt, sacrifice and forgiveness. The first reading from the Book of Baruch was probably written about 150 BCE when Israel was under the sway of the Seleucid Greeks. However the book is presented as though it were written 400 years earlier during the Babylonian Exile – as if it were addressed to the exiles then. Baruch’s real audience however was the Jews at war with the Greeks. His real intention was to encourage his contemporaries in their resistance to Greece – promising them that the rough road they were then traveling would soon be made smooth by Yahweh –   the one who frees the oppressed and brings exiles back from captivity.

In today’s gospel, Luke presents John the Baptist in terms of both Exile and Return and Exodus. Luke sees John as fulfilling the words of the prophet Isaiah nearly 600 years earlier. By anchoring John’s appearance in Isaiah, Luke is implying that John represents a continuation of Isaiah’s work of announcing the end of exile. This was a bold claim for Luke, since many Jews of his day believed that prophetic voices – nearly always lay people – had forever fallen silent. But here is John presented as fulfilling Isaiah’s words. He is making the rough way smooth. He’s leveling mountains and filling in valleys.  At the same time, John’s proclamation as presented by Luke has overtones of the priestly story. Luke shows John proclaiming a baptism of repentance for forgiveness of sin.

But here it is important to note the Exodus dimensions of John’s work. He is presented as preaching and baptizing specifically outside the temple and sphere of the priests. In fact, John appears in the wilderness – in the desert. For Jews, this would not only have evoked overtones of the Exodus macro-story, it would also have signaled a subversive significance in John’s work. After all, the “desert” or “wilderness” was the place where contemporary resistance movements were spawned. As scripture scholar, Ched Myers points out, Luke could not have picked a narrative “coordinate” further removed from the temple. For Luke the regeneration of prophecy was happening not in Baruch’s Zion but at the margins of Jewish society – in the desert where it all began with the Exodus. In other words, Luke presents John’s ministry as a complete break with the priestly establishment which controlled the mechanisms of social redemption from their power base in Jerusalem.

All of this raises questions for thoughtful Christians in the context of our own exilic sadness as we face the contemporary irrelevance of what happens in our own “temples.”  Is it time to move out of that realm now dominated by schismatic popes, bishops and priests and to relocate where our worship tradition began – in homes with Eucharists led by lay people?

Perhaps we’re not yet ready to substitute an Ecumenical Table experience for weekly Mass. But we could supplement Sunday Mass with such fellowship once a month. Alternatively, what if an Ecumenical Table were offered each Sunday at the very time of our parish Mass (9:00 am at St. Clare’s in Berea)?  That would give parishioners a choice. At least on occasion they could attend the Ecumenical Table and compare it with “business as usual.”

Another idea: Lent is fast approaching (Ash Wednesday is Feb. 13th). Might Lent not be a good time to “give up” church, and for six weeks and experiment with this alternative form of worship?

In today’s excerpt from his letter to Philemon, Paul prays that the church meeting at Philemon’s house might be given discernment to distinguish what is really important. Today’s liturgy of the word suggests that Exodus from business as usual and return from the Exile of pre-Vatican II Restorationism might be more important than honoring the priestly order that has dominated Catholic consciousness for too long.

Let’s consider trying to recapture Philemon’s home church experience and see what happens – if only for Lent’s six weeks. At the very least, the absence of people at Sunday Mass might get the attention of our bishop and pastor. It might help them realize that something’s amiss!

(Discussion follows)