May 25, 2018
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Religion, justice are connected

By Rev. Becky Gunn, Special to the BDN

Religion and the concept of justice are so intertwined that they cannot be separated. God asks us to seek justice through love and right relationship with our neighbors. So, when an issue of justice is raised, people of all religious persuasions should respond.

Recently in Arizona a law was passed (SB 1070) which allows police officers to ask for proof of citizenship of any individual that the officers feel might reasonably be considered noncitizens. Those writing and then passing the law clearly were targeting individuals from Mexico who may have crossed the border without proper documentation.

This law appears to promote what is called racial profiling. The logic seems to be that an officer will stop and question those that “appear” to be undocumented. How does one select such a person? The process will be based on a person’s appearance. What differentiates an undocumented person from those who were born here or those who have the proper documentation?

This is where it becomes interesting, particularly in Arizona. Thirty percent of the population in Arizona is of Hispanic heritage born in the United States. They are full citizens and previously would never have thought of having to carry papers to prove their citizenship.

But this issue is now one of law — a person who “looks” as if they are undocumented can be stopped and must prove their citizenship. It is clear that those who look Hispanic will be asked for papers. How is this not racial profiling? This is clearly an issue of racial justice. It is framed as an immigration issue. Instead I believe it is about fear, about those who are different, and about hate.

I know this is not a simple question. Justice is not always clearly defined and one’s sense of justice is often based on context. If there is a law, then is it by definition just? No. One needs only think of the “old” laws relating to segregation, to voting rights, or to property ownership. Those laws denied basic human rights to those of different races and gender. Our society recognized eventually that justice was not being served and the laws were changed.

How do we determine when laws are unjust and should be protested and in protesting — violated? How do we prevent violations of basic human rights? We must ask the questions about how we wish to be treated, how we wish to be viewed, and how we wish to view and treat others who might be different from us.

If the answers are at odds with the basic principle of loving one’s neighbor, then the law might be considered unjust. I am suggesting that racial profiling (SB1070) should not be tolerated because we should be judged by our deeds and our character, not by our appearance. I don’t happen to believe that any person wishes to be judged by their outward physical appearance, particularly when it comes to being questioned about their citizenship.

Here in Maine, as a border state, we have similar immigration issues to all other border states. People cross the borders without proper documentation all of the time. The issues here are less overt. That is to say, most undocumented folks are from Canada and fit the appearance profile of most Mainers, which is to say, Caucasian. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to implement a law such as SB1070 here because almost everyone would match the profile for being subjected to scrutiny.

Many may think the Arizona law is not relevant to Maine. Not so. Injustice anywhere is a matter for our concern. It is a matter of deep spiritual concern because we are all connected and all loved by the Mystery, or God, or Allah. If we are to emulate that which is most holy, then we need to consider how we treat other human beings. To judge a person by appearance is not acceptable. To judge a person by race is not acceptable. To love each other is.

The president of my denomination, Peter Morales, is Hispanic. His family of origin was from Mexico. He was born in Texas and English was not spoken in his home. He learned it only upon going to school. Yet, he is a native-born U.S. citizen. He knows when he flies to Phoenix to represent the Unitarian Universalist Association today in a major rally protesting the “papers please” law that he could be asked for proof of citizenship. He goes there, however, knowing that his protest is based on a strong religious perspective of justice. He will be marching with many other UU ministers and congregants along with those of many other faiths. His comment about the new law is: “This is a struggle between love and hatred, hope and fear.”

When I was a young girl growing up in Utah, I remember someone saying that not having to prove one belonged in the U.S. (showing papers) was a mark of how free we were. Today, I question our freedom when we potentially must prove our citizenship. That, I agree, is a political statement. But my religious statement is that we are all equal in the site of the Holy; that we are all loved and that treating others unequally does not augment the spiritual elements in our lives.

What can we do about this issue of racial profiling? If one communicates with our elected representatives letting them know that we don’t want a law like this here in Maine, that is a start. If we ask our representatives and senators to consider that immigration reform in part needs to deal with fear and hatred for the “other,” we can bring a greater depth and sensitivity to the discussion. We can practice being aware of our own tendencies toward “profiling” different types of people. In general, we can just practice the golden rule.

Loving one’s neighbor is not a theoretical premise; it requires action. Living one’s religious beliefs means living in the real world and working to correct injustice.

The Rev. Becky Gunn is minister of the Unitarian Universalist Society of Bangor. She may be reached at Voices is a weekly commentary by Maine people who explore issues affecting spirituality and religious life.

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