For the NC Council of Churches, Legislative Seminar (North Raleigh UMC)
In the 1980s, as a result of U.S.-sponsored wars in Central America, thousands of migrants fled their homes for safety. The U.S. government washed their hands of the violence, refusing to acknowledge their responsibility. The refugees were denied asylum here in the United States. But they came anyhow, running away from the CIA-trained death squads, mothers and fathers and children walking miles in the desert, eluding border patrols, escaping into California, Arizona, and Texas.
From his ranch South of Tucson, Arizona, a Quaker named Jim Corbett would see people wandering through the borderlands, people scorched by the desert sun. Corbett would give them water and food, to sustain them on their journey, but later in the day he’d see U.S. border agents pick them up down the road and deport them, spending them back to die. More and more people came—Salvadorans, mostly. This was the same era when Archbishop Oscar Romero was assassinated in San Salvador.
Corbett worked out a plan to save as many lives as possible. He convinced his friend, John Fife, pastor of Southside Presbyterian Church, to house refugees in his church building. The congregation voted 59 to 2 to offer their facility as a home, to protect the refugees from deportation. Soon church members were transporting carloads of hitchhikers in the desert to the church.
The U.S. government called it a felony, a felony to transport and harbor illegal aliens. But Southside Presbyterian called it sanctuary. When federal agents told the church to stop or else face prosecution, Southside offered a response, a letter they read at press conference, with church members gathered on the steps leading into the sanctuary, a wall of saints protecting the people inside: “We will not cease to extend the sanctuary of the church to undocumented people from Central America,” they declared. “Obedience to God requires this of us.”
That first year—it was 1982—the congregation harbored sixteen hundred Central Americans on their way to homes throughout the United States and Canada, in what became known as a new underground railroad, an overground railroad, a clandestine network of drivers and safe houses, transporting people to freedom. In North Carolina, we can’t tell this story without Gail Phares, who we will honor here this morning. She orchestrated this, movement here in our state, as part of her work with Witness for Peace.
Those saints in the 1980s who harbored and transported undocumented neighbors—they defied the authority of the government. They defied the law of the land. They defied their president’s the vision for this country. Because, as it says in Hebrews, they were seeking a better country, a heavenly one. Some may trust in chariots, and some in horses; some may trust in governments, and some in presidents—but these saints put their trust in the Lord our God.
We come from a long line of defiant saints, like Rahab in the story we just heard from the book of Joshua—people who disobey the law because they refuse to belong to oppressive regimes, they refuse to belong to injustice, they refuse the violence of this world because they belong to another kingdom, the reign of God’s love.
In the story, Rahab betrays the security of her nation. She helps two foreigners cross the walls into Jericho—her city, her home. She welcomes two immigrants, even though her people call them enemies, even though her country considers them as threats to society. She extends hospitality to strangers who sneak through the night, who climb a wall and hide from Jericho’s patrol units. Rahab provides shelter for invaders. She harbors fugitives. This is a story about sedition against the state. This is a story about hospitality as treason. Rahab welcomes two Hebrews into her house, two men sent by Joshua to scout out the land, two spies to find the weak points of the city. They are there to hatch a plan for the destruction of Jericho. And somehow they find their way to Rahab.
There’s so much loaded into that first verse of our chapter, the beginning of the story. So much is left unsaid. We’re left with more questions than answers: “So they went, and entered the house of a sex worker whose name was Rahab, and spent the night there” (Joshua 2:1). We don’t know if the two Israelites find her or she finds them. We don’t know who seeks out the other. But what we do know is that the story hinges on the hospitality of a sex worker—her offer to harbor these two foreigners, these fugitives.
This story reaches beyond our pieties, beyond the morality of the establishment. This story about Rahab and the Israelite fugitives would make you nervous, if you’re committed to reading the Bible as a lesson in the morality of family values.
What’s striking to me is that this story about Rahab doesn’t embarrass the author of the Gospel of Matthew in the New Testament. The people who tell the story of Jesus aren’t nervous about Rahab. When we read the genealogy of Jesus, when we read about his family tree in that first chapter of Matthew, Rahab is named as a great-grandmother of Jesus. There’s no Jesus without Rahab, there’s no church without the hospitality of this sex worker.
Something about her place in society marks her as the most likely person to receive these two illegal visitors. Something about what’s she’s learned of the men who run the world makes her welcome these undocumented aliens into her protective care. Something about who she is makes her the one to offer sanctuary.
There’s a theology of power here, which has something to do with morality: about where God finds conspirators for the work of liberation. This story gives us a glimpse of where God looks for partners to do a new thing in the world. Not everyone is ready for God’s plan, for God’s new thing as it shakes the foundations of the world as we know it. There’s something here, in the story of Rahab, about who God chooses when a society needs an earthquake to set people free.
When Rabab welcomes these two foreigners into her house, she chooses against her own social codes. She breaks the law. She disobeys the King. “The king of Jericho sent orders to Rahab,” it says in verse three—the King says to Rahab: “Bring out the men who have come to you, who entered your house, for they have come only to search out the whole land.” And what does it say Rahab instead? Verse 4: “But the woman took the two men and hid them.”
She even ends up lying to the authorities to protect the foreigners who have found sanctuary with her. Rahab hides them on her roof and says to the king’s agent—this is verse 4 and 5: “The men came to me, but I did not know where they came from. Where the men went I do not know.” She would do anything for these strangers, even betray her society, even risk her own punishment. Their safety depends on Rahab—her hospitality against the law.
We live in a kind of Jericho. And the question for us is whether we are willing to be like Rahab. Are we willing to let her life become our life, to betray the laws of this society for the sake of people who our rulers have identified as enemies, as threats to our national identity, as threats to our peoplehood?
This is an invitation to live with defiant hope,living in defiance of the borders, the wall, like Rahab. But this way of being a traitor is a kind of holiness, a holy betrayal of the legacy of the founders of this country, the fathers—their genocide, their slavery, their patriarchy, a heritage handed on from generation to generation, the lifeblood of U.S. political power.
To be people like Rahab, to be one of her descendants, like Jesus—that’s the call of the story. To harbor people who bring a new world, a different life.
The president of this country has said that immigrants destroy the European foundations of this culture. I think he’s right. And his supporters realize that. That’s what it means for them to be committed to white supremacy—to make sure that their culture dominates all the others. We are living in the midst of their culture war, as the federal government refuses refugees and deports immigrants. These policies all come together in a desire to protect European legacies of racial dominance—to control who will be our neighbors and our coworkers.
This is about cultural formation, about the making of a peoplehood. This is about who you are, about your life. The political has become personal, reaching into the intimacies of our friendships, of who we belong to and who belongs to us, as a people, in our families and in our churches.
The witness of Rahab is that she’s a traitor to the powers that be, to the people in charge, and opens her life to a new world—where strangers become her friends, where foreigners become her family. That’s the world of Jesus, we learn later in the Bible, when we find out that this woman, Rahab—a foreigner to Israel—becomes part of the family, one of the ancestors of Jesus. She’s a Canaanite mentioned in his Jewish family tree. She becomes part of the enemies of her people, a central character, to the story of another people, a founding mother, through her defiant hope.
To be like her, like Rahab, means that we betray the foundations of this country because we believe in a world yet to come. A holy betrayal, a defiant hope, so that we can become part of a people not our own.