This blog post is written by Jim Perdue. Jim is the Missionary for Immigration and Border Concerns for Desert Southwest Conference and the National Plan for Hispanic/Latino Ministry
A few years back, film director Mel Gibson managed to stun the sensibilities of polite society, including many religious communities, with his interpretation of the “Passion of Christ.” No one ever asked if it would have been possible not to offend polite sensibilities by portraying the suffering of Jesus of Nazareth in his final days. It is not, nor should it ever be so.
Much of the confusion surrounding the movie came from a modern definition of the word passion. Today, passion more commonly refers to strong inner feeling and emotion, whether of love or of hate. We call people passionate who get out in the street to demonstrate, or who yell at a town hall meeting.
But passion has a much older and richer religious meaning, which we must recover. It comes from the Latin as both suffering and putting up with or enduring something unpleasant but unavoidable.
Passions as feelings are fleeting and contextual. Passion as a process or a work is inexorable and focused. We can experience and express our passions, but we must commit to the work of our passion. The challenge facing us now is that the religious community is not called just to have strong feelings about the world. It is also called to commit to suffer with that world and put up with that suffering until they are transformed.
This irreconcilable distinction between passions and passion is highlighted in the language and experiential divides between today’s U.S. undocumented Latino immigrant community and the U.S. citizen religious community, particularly their actions relative to immigration policy impasse.
The Spanish language of the undocumented Latino immigrant community is the same as the original Latin. In Spanish, when the word passion is used, if often refers to Jesus’ suffering. These Spanish speakers don’t often describe strong emotion as passion. Because of their lack of legal status and the increasing probability of their being caught and deported, this community lives in an ongoing, unavoidable process of passion. Most of them are committed to risking whatever might happen, not for themselves but for their children here or their family back home. They suffer constant fear, but they count their suffering as “worth it” in the long run. In fact, their passion runs so deeply that most undocumented people don’t even describe it as suffering. It is what it is, a life that they must endure as best they can. This community’s situation can give the citizen religious community a new window on what the scriptural account for this Sunday portrays as Jesus’ passion.
Today’s American English used in the religious community must struggle to touch this theological bedrock of passion as suffering and enduring. More often, its passions get caught up in cultural arguments that surround those life situations that someone else must endure until a clearer sense of the problem emerges. Those in the church who feel that national law must be maintained above all else fight passionately, just as do those who feel that the law itself must be changed because it fails to establish just treatment of all involved in the situa-tion. But does either commit to engage the passion of the people being ground up in the middle of the argument?
The passion to which God now leads the religious community involves extricating itself from passions and engaging that passion of an undocumented immigrant people who suffer in the midst of confusion that, at the end of the day, injures mainly them. The church must compadecerse in the Spanish, suffer with undocumented people in their struggle for a better life, come what may legally in the interim. It must have compassion.
We may be at a point when any “reform” of immigration policy will do more harm than good, simply because we refuse to touch base with this suffering of honest, hard-working people, which will continue and intensify until we find the political will as a whole people to solve the problems. Gone is the time to just react with the passions. Being at this point, then, we are called to embrace the passion that entails suffering along with those who suffer and put up with life, even as together we endeavor to struggle to organize and change that situation.
Undocumented immigrants have broken immigration law. They are also our Christian brothers and sisters. They live in an untenable situation that has become reality for them. We do not affirm the breaking of laws. Neither do we accept the survival of laws that use a people’s hope and then try to crush it. All of these are true. We cannot desert this call to the passion of Jesus. Let us choose to suffer and endure together in hope.