March 20, 2011
I grew up just a few miles away from Virgil Peck Jr., the state legislator in Kansas who suggested that if shooting hogs works to keep them under control it might also work to shoot immigrants. Rep. Peck lives in Tyro, the town my family was driving through when a tornado ripped through it on March 15, 1982. Our fathers have been friends for many years.
Rep. Peck said that immigrants should be shot like hogs. This certainly is an issue of civil public discourse – rhetoric promoting shooting immigrants like hogs should not be permitted in legislatures and it is sufficient reason for him to resign. I think an even deeper issue is revealed here. Jesus said, “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.” Virgil Peck, Jr. said, “I was just speaking like a southeast Kansas person.” This is the kind of joke I said and heard a lot while growing up as a Christian in southeast Kansas, but I know it is not limited just to that part of the USA and I know that not all people in southeast Kansas agree with Rep. Peck. Rep. Peck claims to be a follower of Jesus. I also try to be a follower of Jesus. So I am going to address this issue as one follower of Jesus to another, addressing two areas – Christian faith and public policy.
First, I think that Christians should never view people in general or immigrants in particular in dehumanizing ways. There are churches in southeast Kansas (and throughout the US) with undocumented immigrants and they are, theologically speaking, “brothers and sisters in Christ” of Virgil Peck, Jr. Peck’s comment about killing immigrants included fellow Christians in his state. It would not be better for him to have joked about killing only non-Christian immigrants, but I want to make explicit the connection between Peck’s confession of Christianity and the (often evangelical and Pentecostal) Christian faith of many immigrants. Making jokes like this in private or public is a failure of Christian faithfulness. When Christians insult violently, in private or public, they do not reflect Jesus. When Christians incite violence, whether in private or public, they do not reflect Jesus. On biblical grounds, I ask Peck and all Christians who may sympathize with him, to reconsider your images and perceptions of immigrants and hear the biblical call to righteousness, hospitality, and love. If immigrants are in your community, welcome them into your homes and lives. If there are laws saying that you cannot give food, water, or shelter to an immigrant then faithfulness to God and love for humanity should trump unjust legislation. Follow Jesus in love and submit to the consequences. The church, the community of followers of Jesus, when influenced by God’s love can have a powerful and transforming openness and graciousness and this is the kind of Christianity that best reflects Jesus’ life and teachings. Welcome immigrants joyfully.
Second, Virgil Peck, Jr. is a state legislator with a specific kind of public voice and influence in public policy. If he is a Christian who welcomes immigrants like the Bible teaches then he would not make jokes about shooting immigrants like hogs. Cornell West said, “Justice is what love looks like in public.” I offer a complementary alternative, “Injustice is what ____ looks like in public.” Do we fill the blank with “hate” which some say is the opposite of love? Do we fill the blank with “fear” since that seems to influence so much public policy and “perfect love casts out all fear” (1 John 4:18)? I think what happened with Virgil Peck, Jr. is that the private script of violent, insulting jokes about immigrants was said in public. The kitchen table joke found voice at the legislature. It was not accidentally said, for Peck approached the microphone, was recognized by the chair, and then spoke his premeditated joke into the microphone. You can hear this in the audio. The private script was revealed more blatantly than usual, and that private script of hate(?) or fear(?) or derision(?) often fuels the public policies that are so destructive to immigrants. Surely Virgil Peck, Jr. does not hate immigrants; that is too strong of an accusation. Perhaps he simply fears immigrants, like landowners fear and despise feral hogs. The association of immigrants with feral hogs reveals a narrative of immigrants as destructive and on the move, taking over “our” land and wreaking havoc. There is no doubt that rhetoric and policy directed against undocumented immigrants thrives on the fear of “them” taking resources away from “us.” “Injustice is what hate, fear, and derision look like in public.”
Virgil Peck, Jr. should resign. After he does I encourage him and Christians who think and act like him to get to know Christian immigrants and hear their stories. If that seems too much to ask, perhaps they can start with immigrants in their own denominations so that the connection is closer. Don’t be afraid, immigrants are people, not feral hogs. And then advocate vocally with immigrants for policies that are more conducive to promoting citizenship and justice for all.