An ‘illegal’ on justification: A reflection on Romans 5:1-5

Marco Saavedra (at right) at the annual DREAM Act Graduation in Washington, D.C., with Alejandra Tellez, mother of Julio Tellez, whose deportation was stopped through community organizing. (Photo by Stephen Pavey)
Marco Saavedra (at right) at the annual DREAM Act Graduation in Washington, D.C., with Alejandra Tellez, mother of Julio Tellez, whose deportation was stopped through community organizing. (Photo by Stephen Pavey)

This is the third of a Bible study series by different authors on the key Scripture texts for Mennonite Church USA’s next biennial convention, to be held July 1–6, 2013, in Phoenix. The convention theme is “Citizens of God’s Kingdom: Healed in Hope,” and the Scripture texts are Psalm 24:1, Philippians 3:20-21, Romans 5:1-5 and Ephesians 2:14-22. See www.mennoniteusa.org/convention.

By Marco Saavedra

What does an “illegal” have to say about justification? I mean, really, what does someone who has been judged (or prejudged) to have broken the law, and is therefore not protected by it, tell us—the church, the nation, sinners, lost and broken individuals—about gospel truth?

To us, at least, it means that a people, our people—numbering close to 11 million—who are living outside of the law and outside of the grace of so many of our neighbors need to exhibit faith even more as an act of survival. It is a gift that our very existence is an act of worship and a testament to our beliefs that are and will remain greater than discrimination, detainment and deportation.

And this is the lesson to all others who similarly find themselves removed and estranged from their homes and themselves: That we are all at some level misplaced due to sin and that we all need benefit from the fulfillment of the gospel as it brings about a new creation both within and outside of ourselves.

That is not the starting point for many who wish to talk about immigration. Really, immigration is only a metaphor that exposes what people already hold as truth and what justifications they have depended on as a definition for their identity.

Justified through faith

Who can dare live on faith alone? Especially when there are so many other markers for identity: possessions, power, idolatry, social positions, physical semblances. It is almost too liberating to say that belief alone is required to have

Peace with God
Achieved through the life, light and love of Jesus Christ.

The peace of God which surpasses all understanding;
The reconciliation with all creation which has been yearned for since the fall,
The ability to know your first love,
and commune with the source of all life.

Here is where humility comes in: displaced people who have been stripped of their tradition, native land and tongue; who have crossed borders, deserts and laws; who have forsaken their pride, perhaps lost dignity and traded in their comfort for the livelihood of their loved ones; know something about communion with God through Christ. They know deeply about the disenchanted systems of identity we have created, because they cannot be defined by bureaucratic and unimaginative laws, by a culture of fear and terror, or by the violence we think necessary to preserve our way of life. The “illegal,” the migrant, who is too poor and desperate to wait for the world to change into what it should be, changes reality in greater accordance with the gospel when s/he dares to take on whatever circumstance, challenge and threat in pursuit of life (in flight from death), justified solely through faith.

This should inconvenience anyone who is “legal,” ensconced comfortably in a world that is demeaning to those who do not have documents. This should trouble the believer who partakes in a machine—with which we are all at some level complicit—that deports 1,000 people every day and sends forth waves of separation and distress at the loss of a family member multiplied over a million times.

Particularly in this recent season of Lent, we were forced to remember the Passion of Christ—an all-giving sacrifice to bestow on us the gift of an all-forgiving grace. We rejoice in the resurrection of Christ and suffer the cost of sin, too. This seemingly impossible paradox of holding horror and glory simultaneously is not unlike living illegally. People who suffer persecution fully value everything that could be lost if they were imprisoned, so both liberty and captivity take on greater meaning.

Glory, tribulation, patience, experience, hope

Expanding on the metaphor of the migrant, aren’t we all finding our way home? Aren’t we all harried for years on end, searching for rest and delight? Isn’t that why in Revelation, the redeemed are all given a new name after suffering a lifetime of removal from truth and alienation from God?

This is why sharing our stories is so crucial and so sacred, because it allows for the expression of our true selves and true loves. In another letter to the Corinthians, Paul says, in brief, “If I know all and have all, and have not Love, I am nothing.” This then proves the inverse correct: If I am, then I love, am love, and am beloved. That love allows us to understand and to prophesy. At a more elemental level, the initial breath of life that awakened us from dust is the means through which creation begins and the Gospel of John is delivered, though the Word.

Therefore, if we are meant to live out God’s kingdom and begin doing so today—for heaven is at hand—then everyone should be welcomed to the water and allowed to drink freely and to bid the Spirit and the Bride’s calling come. That is our definition of celestial citizenship—a beloved community where every voice is held on high, every tear is wiped from our faces, all things old are made anew, and fear, shame, guilt and hate are overcome by faith, hope and love.                   

And hope maketh not ashamed

I grew up very much ashamed of who I was. I was ashamed of our poverty, our beauty, of my aunts and mother speaking our native Oaxaca’s Mixteco during subway commutes, of being fat, brown, unpopular and unattractive. I was ashamed of where we lived and of how many lies I had to tell others (and convinced myself about) because I could not say I was undocumented. I kept one of my biggest truths hidden, and the nearly insurmountable despair left me a hopeless child, teen and man.

The love of God is shed in our hearts by the Holy Ghost

My shame clouded the fact that the “Holy Ghost over the bent world broods” (Gerard Manley Hopkins: God’s Grandeur, 1918). I was too ashamed to hear “Love bidding me welcome” (George Herbert: Love, 1633). I was too ashamed to trust others with my story, and therefore I indicted myself with the identity of being illegal. I was too ashamed to risk being vulnerable and experiencing the pain that produces patience, hope and glory.

The pain is not yet gone, and the restorative process of reconciliation continues, but at least the peace of God, comfort from the Spirit and intercessions by Jesus also add their healing balm to the wounds.

Subverting expectations and holding paradoxical thoughts in communion

We glory in tribulation
This letter to the church in Rome is not easy, and neither is its message: Abide not by the empire’s ways (despite living in its epicenter), but trust faith alone.

Similarly, every time we go before a magistrate or judge in court, stand before a classroom or parish, or are seized by a deportation officer or a police agent, we know we are in the right and thereby can trust our community organizing to deliver us, because the light of truth can only shine when darkness is confronted, because the healing gospel can only save when applied to the scars.

We use our experienced pain as authority over what we’ve yet to overcome and as legitimacy for our cause. We know that things cannot continue as they stand. We know the deep calling for change and the urgency of the moment. It is exhausting, arresting and tiresome, and at times almost despairing. But the only thing worse than actively working toward systemic and spiritual change is to allow current processes and pathologies to continue. Thereby we become true citizens of God’s kingdom, as agents of reconciliation to “change this miserable condition that exists on this Earth” (Malcolm X).

Last month, I told Judge Bain that I did nothing wrong when I crossed the border at age three, and I was right. Yet this single truth took years to develop. If not for my friends, family and faith, I could not have gone before the law with the uncompromising position that the burden of proof was not on me and with the confidence that I could (we could) take on whatever decision came from the court—even a removal order—and fight it, and win.

This is what we have discovered: When we come out, we are safe. When we organize, we develop power and can rely on the truth of our experience and courage of our convictions because they have been developed in a wellspring of a deeply loving Faith.

This testament is needed as an awakening for the church, again. When Isaiah says every hill shall be made low and every valley lifted up, Jesus responds. The prisoners will be released; the broken-hearted will be healed; and a babe, a sex-worker, and yes, definitely yes, an “illegal” can point toward justice flowing down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

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Marco Saavedra is an undocumented poet and painter who lives in New York City and worships at St. Anne’s Episcopal Church in the South Bronx. Originally from Oaxaca, Mexico, he was raised in New York and studied in Massachusetts, Ohio and Washington, D.C. He works with the National Immigrant Youth Alliance, educating and organizing and helping stop deportations.

Image available:
Marco Saavedra (at right) at the annual DREAM Act Graduation in Washington, D.C., with Alejandra Tellez, mother of Julio Tellez, whose deportation was stopped through community organizing. (Photo by Stephen Pavey)