In a recent article published in the Forward, editor-in-chief Jane Eisner wrote about her unease at the prospect of synagogues getting involved in growing Sanctuary Movement. “Unease” doesn’t even begin to describe how I felt upon reading her editorial.
The crux of Eisner’s argument: this “nascent movement of churches, mosques and synagogues to become sanctuaries, to aid and house undocumented immigrants [represents] a further politicization of religious life.”
While I appreciate and even admire the moral compulsion of synagogues willing to go so far as to break the law in this particular case, what about others? What about the houses of worship that have politics I don’t agree with — the ones that exhibit an equal moral passion to, in their words, protect the unborn? Or resist accommodating trans people? Or same-sex marriage?
In other words, Eisner believes it is problematic for progressive houses of worship to engage in acts of civil disobedience to further justice because conservative faith communities might well use the same tactics for their own causes.
Eisner’s argument against religiously-motivated civil disobedience is essentially an argument for neutrality. I can’t help but wonder how she would have responded when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the pastor at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, led a religious call for civil rights in this country. Would she have felt stymied by the masses of Southern whites in states that actively resisted federal laws against segregation and voter suppression? Would she have likewise counseled King to “consider the consequences?”
Of course, we cherish the separation between church and state. At the same time, however, religious life in this country has always been “politicized” - and progressives need not hesitate in celebrating this fact. If religion hadn’t been politicized, we wouldn’t have had the abolitionist movement, the anti-war movement, the civil rights movement or the original sanctuary movement of the 1980s. Each and every one of these movements helped to further the cause of justice and equity in this country - and thank God for that (pun intended).
Eisner correctly observes that “(religion) has flourished in America because it is independent from the state, and able to serve as a prophetic voice against government corruption and cruelty.” But her logic fails her when she concludes, “that standing comes from respecting the law and working within the system.” On the contrary, prophets were not particularly well-known for “working within the system.” As Thoreau, Ghandi, King, Mandela and others have taught us, civil disobedience is a tactic rooted in the conviction that there are laws that must be broken. It does not purport to merely protest unjust systems but to dismantle them.
In this regard, Eisner’s hypothetical citation of those who engage in civil disobedience to “resist accommodating trans people or same sex marriage” is little more than a red herring. In such instances, civil disobedience would be used in order to maintain the unjust systems that exclude and oppress vulnerable minorities in this country. The sanctuary movement, conversely, seeks to dismantle an unjust immigration system that literally treats human beings as illegal, rips families apart, and often sends people back into countries of origin where they will face certain persecution or death.
When Eisner writes that she would feel “more comfortable about the sanctuary movement if it had a specific policy aim,” she betrays an egregious blindness to our current political moment. In Trump’s America, the goal of sanctuary is not political immigration reform, but triage. In my work supervising immigrant justice programs at the American Friends Service Committee throughout the Midwest, I can attest that the threats facing undocumented immigrants in our country have reached emergency levels. While Eisner frets that “resistance from a few renegade churches and synagogues may only alienate… reasonable Americans,” she might do better to worry about the fates of individuals and families who are living with the daily fear of incarceration and deportation.
When I read Eisner’s words, I couldn’t help but think back to the liberal clergy to whom MLK addressed his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”: well-meaning religious leaders who “appealed to white and negro citizenry to observe the principles of law and order and good sense.” In response to them, King famously wrote: Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.
The laws that oppress undocumented immigrants in the US are degrading and unjust - and will become even more so very soon. If we want to be on the right side of history, it’s time for our synagogues to find the courage of their convictions and get “politicized.”
Brant Rosen is the rabbi of Tzedek Chicago and Midwest Regional Director, American Friends Service Committee.