Christ at the Border: Finding Courage to Resist in a Theology of the Cross

[1] Johana Medina Leon was taken into ICE custody in El Paso, TX after presenting herself to border security to request asylum. Leon, a trans woman, was facing violence and persecution in her home country of El Salvador and believed that the US would offer her the kind of protection and security she needed to live a full and fruitful life.

[2] “In El Salvador, as a transgender person, she was unable to live her life in peace and without fear of violence,” said Leon’s sister. Unfortunately, it was in the custody of the government of the United States, the country that Leon had hoped would allow her to live as her full self, that she experienced the cruelty and disregard that ultimately led to her death.

[3] In detention, Leon pleaded for medical attention after she became sick and was summarily denied. At one-point Leon, a nurse in El Salvador, even requested water, sugar, and salt so that she could craft her own IV to replenish her fluids. Aware that Leon’s condition was worsening, ICE released her after she had been rushed to a Texas hospital in an effort to distance themselves from responsibility for her care.

[4] Shortly after her release, unable to receive the medical attention she required, Leon died of pneumonia.[i]

[5] The United States has had a troubling approach to immigration throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, especially during and after the World War II and Cold War eras, when ethnicity quotas were enforced to benefit white European immigrants. And, since the run up to the 2016 election immigration has again taken center stage in the political and social imaginations of Americans.

[6] Donald Trump launched his presidential campaign by scapegoating immigrants from Mexico, calling them criminals and rapists and accusing them of taking work from American citizens, placing “illegal immigration” at the center of his political message. This hardline rhetoric was implemented as hardline policy once Trump won the Presidency. His administration brought the popular DACA policy, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, to an end, sought to ban migrants from majority Muslim countries from entering the US, and perhaps most egregiously, implemented a policy of separating children from parents who had crossed the border.

[7] The images of children traumatized by the forced absence of their parents, the immigrants chased from the US/Mexico border with tear gas, and the stories of immigrants like Leon have been indelibly seared into our nation’s collective memory, and for the Church in the United States, we are left asking: how shall we respond?

[8] The witness of murdered immigrants in ICE custody and the many thousands of asylum seekers detained at the border brings to mind for many Christians the image of Christ’s own arrest and abuse at the hands of state power, and this image, this rhyming of history and the Incarnation, has provided Christians with the theological language to give powerful voice to a Christian movement of resistance; the language of a theology of the cross.

[9] A theologian of the cross is someone who, in Luther’s words, “…understands the visible and the ‘backside’ of God seen through suffering and the cross”[ii]. Rather than speculating on the unknown and mysterious ways of God, the theologian of the cross knows God only as God has been revealed in Christ, in the Incarnation and ultimately in his suffering and death on the Roman cross.

[10] In the 20th and 21st centuries, Jurgen Moltmann has been perhaps the most prolific and well-regarded theologian of the cross, and his work “The Crucified God” has re-centered and re-asserted the centrality of a cruciform theology for many. For Moltmann, “There can be no theology of the Incarnation which does not become a theology of the cross.”[iii] Christ did not take on the flesh of a human caricature, but took on the flesh of an outcast, a prisoner, and the victim of state sanctioned violence. Moltmann argues:

[Christ] became the kind of man we do not want to be: an outcast, accursed, crucified. Ecce homo! Behold the man! is not a statement which arises from the confirmation of our humanity and is made on the basis of ‘like is known by like; it is a confession of faith which recognizes God’s humanity in the dehumanized Christ on the cross.[iv]

[11] Christ takes on the flesh of a criminal, a law breaker whose fate is solely in the hands of the legal authorities. In the United States there may be no more dehumanized person than the one labeled “criminal”. Conditions in prisons and detention centers are horrific, and the psychological and physical violence that inmates and detainees experience is akin to torture. If an offender serves their time and returns to their communities, they will often find that their problems have just begun. Felons struggle to find meaningful work, are excluded from housing, are unable to vote, and often find a lack of welcome in their families, neighborhoods, and other communities. Undocumented immigrants, who have been labeled “illegal” by the wielders of legal authority, are left vulnerable to exploitation, abuse, harassment, and complete disenfranchisement. This is the kind of human experience that God chooses to enter into in Christ.

[12] This particularity frames God’s self-revelation in suffering, weakness, imprisonment, and capital punishment. The incarnation of the crucified God reveals that God’s liberating power is not found in the wielding of legal power, but in Christ’s being crushed by it. Moltmann continues:

When God becomes man in Jesus of Nazareth, he not only enters into the finitude of man, but in his death on the cross also enters into the situation of man’s godforsakeness. In Jesus he does not die the natural death of a finite being, but the violent death of the criminal on the cross, the death of complete abandonment by God. The suffering in the passion of Jesus is abandonment, rejection by God, his Father…He humbles himself and takes upon himself the eternal death of the godless and the godforsaken, so that all the godless and the godforsaken can experience communion with him.[v]

[13] In the spirit of Matthew 25, Moltmann reminds us, that as we look upon the suffering and the godforsakeness of our neighbors, in the case of immigrants a suffering inflicted upon them by our own wielding of the law, we are in fact looking upon the face of our crucified Lord, Jesus the Christ. Christ has gathered up the suffering and the oppressed, yes even the so-called law-breakers, within himself, and therefore is concretely encountered in the pleas for asylum, in the begging for medical attention in an ICE detention facility, and in the succumbing to illness as a result of neglect and abuse.

[14] Not only does the crucifixion reveal divine solidarity with the oppressed, but the foolishness of the cross, a stumbling block for the church in all ages, challenges this very obsession with legality and litigiousness, by revealing to us its inevitable result; division, violence, and death.

[15] This preoccupation with legality is exercised brutally in the political rhetoric and policy surrounding immigration in the United States. The bulk of the critical rhetoric about the immigration crisis is framed shallowly through the lens of the law. “I just want people to come here the right way,” is a phrase whose many iterations make the rounds in our political discourse. This language reveals a culturally high value associated with the concept of the law (without, clearly, and understanding of what “the right way” actually entails), though in practice this value often reveals other underlying and unspoken values, i.e. whiteness, individualism, and resource hoarding.  We appeal to the law, which is not necessarily corrupt, in order to cover for these unspoken and baser values.

[16] This obsession with the language of legality has gone so far that in practice and rhetoric we have associated our neighbors’ right to human dignity to their ability to keep “the law” as we surreptitiously define it. Undocumented immigrants become “illegals”, a nonsensical designation meant to rob immigrants of their humanity and their basic human rights. The flourishing of private prisons, detention centers, and other forms of penalty within the legal system is the direct result of our nation’s continued devaluation of human beings by turning them into “criminals.”

[17] For Christians, the cross has revealed the inevitable violent result of the manipulation and exercise of law as a tool for control and maintenance of structural power. Rome crucified Christ as a rabble rouser, an insurrectionist, as someone who threatened the supremacy of Roman power, despite the fact that Christ was in reality poor, marginalized, and weak, relatively speaking. In the US, local and federal governments harass, detain, and murder immigrants, particularly immigrants of color, from this same position of powerful fear, a fear that lashes out at the other who’s mere presence seems to challenge our assumed supremacy. This kind of power is fragile, and can only be maintained through violence, coercion, and fearmongering and the continued appeal to “law and order.”

[18] This authoritarian impulse lies always at the ready in the exercise of the law, and in the cultural psyche of the human family this authority often provides us with the only security, justice, and power that we feel we can trust. It is the fragility and uncertainty of our own security that causes us to lash out violently, to target the other, and to be transformed into the oppressors. But here again the cross of Christ obliterates our idolatrous legalism, setting free, not only the oppressed, but the oppressor. Moltmann argues:

For Christian faith the crucified Christ stands between the slaughtered God and his apathetic, witless slaughterers. The conflict between guilt and anxiety, between guilty liberation and necessary reconciliation, between authority and annihilation, is transferred to God himself. God allows himself to be humiliated and crucified in the Son, in order to free the oppressors and the oppressed from oppression and to open up to them the situation of free, sympathetic humanity. [vi]

[19] Christ stands between Johana Medina Leon and the ICE officers who neglected her and extends freedom from oppression to both. There is justification for both the perpetrators of sin and the victims of sin.

[20] The call of the Church in the US is to proclaim this liberation for all; for the oppressed and also for the oppressor. The weak and fragile power of authoritarian legalism has been dismantled in Christ and revealed as impotent. “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us…”(Gal. 3:13). When elected leaders and people in our communities appeal to the language of the law as a justification for the cruel treatment of immigrants at the border and in our communities, Christians know that the law, taken to its natural conclusion, devoid of God’s liberating promise, will ultimately destroy all of us.

[21] This means that the authority of the law must undergo ongoing justification. In Christ, the law has lost its imagined objective authority. Moltmann says that a

…critical political theology today must take this course of desacralization, relativization and democratization. If the churches become ‘institutions for the free criticism of society’, they must necessarily overcome not only private idolatry but also political idolatry, and extend human freedom in the situation of the crucified God not only in the overcoming of systems of psychological apathy, but also in the overcoming of the mystique of political and religious systems of rule which make men apathetic.[vii]

[22] Having been freed from the curse of the law, Christians must be a voice in our communities that can point to the crisis at the border as a rhyming of the crucifixion of Christ. We must point to the deaths of children at the border and condemn the idolatrous legalism that consumes the lives of children as well as our own. And we must enter into the suffering of our neighbors, not as observers or charitable individuals, but as beloved neighbors standing in solidarity. “For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another” (Gal 5:13). In becoming slaves to one another we undercut the cursed temptation of the law to be transformed into authoritarian control and apathy in the face of suffering, and transform it into love that seeks justice.

[23] Christ became the kind of man we do not want to be; the outcast, the criminal, the “illegal”. As Christians participate in the public political squares, our ethic must start always with the identification of Christ, of the Beloved of God, in the eyes of those who are being crushed by legal power. Having seen Christ in the immigrant at the border, in the tear-filled eyes of the child separated from her mother, in the pleas of Johana Medina Leon, we can act with the full weight of our moral and institutional authority; divestment from private prisons and corporations hired to run and support detention centers, congregational and institutional solidarity with immigrant-led community organizations fighting for immigrant rights, opening our spaces to serve as places of holy sanctuary, mobilization of our communities to carry this cruciform ethic into the streets and the polls, and a firm and persistent challenge to the narratives that reduce human beings to their “legal status”.

[24] Whenever we declare a person or a group of people “illegal” we will inevitably find Christ among their ranks, staring back at us with sorrowful eyes and bearing the brunt of our violent sentence. As the Church, we have been set free from the curse of the law, the inevitability of the law’s destructive nature, and are therefore free to see our neighbor, not as a criminal, not as an illegal immigrant, but as Beloved. This Belovedness supersedes all human designations, be they cultural, familial, or legal and connects each of us one to another.

[25] Johana Medina Leon left El Salvador in search of this recognition, and at the US border found only more judgement, fear, and cruelty. Her death is an image of the prizing of legality, power, and authority over the freedom of the Gospel, over the recognition of Christ in our neighbor. As theologians of the cross, Christians have a powerful and rich treasury from which to draw our resistance and our action in solidarity with migrants across the world, at the border, and in our own communities. May the Church, like John the Baptist, ever point towards the coming of Christ on the cross, in the children separated from parents, in the immigrants living daily in fear, and in the face of a trans woman fleeing persecution in El Salvador.  May we shake ourselves free of the curse of the law and use our freedom to serve one another in love and justice.


[i] Sam Levin. The Gaurdian. “Trans woman who died after illness in US custody had asked to be deported, family says”. (accessed August 17, 2019).

[ii] Timothy J. Wengert and Martin Luther. The Annotated Luther: 1 “Heidelberg Disputation”. Fortress Press.

[iii] Jurgen Moltmann. “The Crucified God”. Fortress Press, Minneapolis. 1993. 205

[iv] Ibid. 205

[v] Ibid. 276

[vi] Ibid. 307

[vii] Ibid. 328-329


Nicholas Tangen

Nicholas Tangen is a writer and a congregational organizer in Minneapolis, MN. He currently serves as the Minister of Faith in Community at University Lutheran Church of Hope near the University of Minnesota.