What would it take for you to leave your home—to grab your kids, the bare essentials, abandon your house and run?
Would you do it if there weren’t competent police in your town? Or if you realized that you aren’t living under rule of law but under rule of might, where the strong just take what they want even if it’s yours? Would you finally decide to leave the day local gang members started following your twelve-year-old daughter home from school?
This is the grinding reality of everyday violence in the Northern Triangle nations of Central America. And it has been more than enough to make many of the vulnerable citizens of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala decide that the perilous, often fatal journey north is a better bet than staying home.
There are innovative, effective programs—many funded by the US government—that are addressing this violence and instability. The win-win of such programs is that they not only serve vulnerable people often forced to run for their lives, but they also make staying home a real possibility for many people who, violence aside, have no desire to migrate.
The irony is that these successful State Department-funded aid programs have been abruptly and completely stopped as a means of punishing Central American nations whose citizens are fleeing for their lives.
At International Justice Mission (IJM), that aid made it possible to expand our existing program combatting sexual violence against children to four provinces in Guatemala. We’ve trained police and prosecutors to combat this crime and have developed national standards for investigation and prosecution of sexual assault. We’ve created trauma-informed processes, now observed across the country, for working with survivors.
In short, IJM’s work has measurably improved the Guatemalan justice system and protected nearly 2.8 million people. Over a four-year period from 2013-2017, arrests and convictions of perpetrators of child sexual assault more than tripled. Now, the aid cut-off has effectively ended US government support for the program and has left our team scrambling to keep it afloat. At a time when the government should be investing in programs that allow people to live safely in their own communities, it has pulled the plug.
How should people of faith respond? Thankfully, there are some helpful, biblical principles through which individual Christians and churches can avoid divisive vitriol and engage in meaningful discussion leading to Christ-like action. Consider:
This violence is nothing new.
In fact, it was just this kind of violence that drove the infant Jesus and his young family to migrate to Egypt as asylum-seeking refugees (Matthew 2:13-14). They were running from a regime that had ordered the wholesale slaughter of infants. Migration always has “push” factors, and we serve a Savior who finds it remarkably easy to identify with asylum-seeking refugees.
God pays a special kind of attention to the poor and vulnerable.
Again and again we see this in the scriptures, from God’s rescue of Israel at the hands of their oppressors (Exodus 3:7-8, 6:5-6) to Jesus’ assertion that he was sent to proclaim release to the captives and to let the oppressed go free (Luke 4:18). The God of the scriptures is astoundingly identified with the poor (Proverbs 14:31, 19:17, and Matthew 25:35-40). Treatment of the poor and vulnerable is often the key measure God uses when evaluating political and religious leaders (Ezekiel 16:49-50, Isaiah 10:1-2).
Isolation and indifference are not options for biblical Christians
We need to understand that Christian baptism is a citizenship ceremony. In this solemn rite we are declaring the transfer of our primary allegiance from any earthly kingdom to the Heavenly Kingdom. This is not the promise of heavenly citizenship one day, this is the radical declaration that we belong to the Kingdom of God in the here and now—and that the priorities of this Kingdom are our priorities.
Jesus’ golden rule still applies.
The entire law and prophets are summed up in the paired commands: love God, and love your neighbor as yourself (Mark 12:29-31, Luke 10:27, Matthew 22:37, Deut. 6:5). Jesus further clarifies, “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you (Matthew 7:12, Luke 6:31).”
What does love look like when our neighbor is a victim of violence? What would such a neighbor want or need? A sermon? A sandwich? A surgeon? They might eventually need all of those things. But what they need most, and what they need first, is for the violence to stop so that home, community and country can be safe.
Christians who want to lend themselves to something good can contact their local congressperson and urge support for an important piece of bipartisan legislation, the United States-Northern Triangle Enhanced Engagement Act (H.R. 2615). The bill would specifically address the migration “push factors” of violence and poverty in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.
But however we choose to respond to this crisis, as followers of Jesus our response must take into account the principles above. What the vulnerable poor deserve is just what we would want if we were in their place: a safe country with a functioning public justice system.
Jim Martin is vice president of spiritual formation at International Justice Mission and author of The Just Church.
Speaking Out is Christianity Today’s guest opinion column and (unlike an editorial) does not necessarily represent the opinion of the magazine.
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