Can the Faith of Wanderers and Migrants Speak to Us?
Ruth 1:1-18, Leviticus 19:33-34, Deuteronomy 10:18-19, Steve Hollaway, Harbor Church, June 24, 2018
After this week, when we saw images of little children being taken away from their mothers and large groups of boys huddled in what looked for all the world like cages, trying to un-see it is not an option. Maintaining silence about how we decide to treat foreigners who come to our borders seeking safety is a kind of complicity. But we speak knowing that to some people saying anything at all is an offense. And I understand that as a biblical scholar and ethicist I do not have the answers about how to develop procedures that work, and how to balance a concern for control of the borders and compassion for those who cross them out of desperation.
What I want to do in this brief time this morning is not to lay out my political opinions about what to do next, or who is to blame, but rather to urge you to think about the immigration issue within a Christian and biblical framework. A Pew survey taken back in 2010 said that only 7% of adults who take a position on immigration say that the teachings of their religion are the most important influence on their views. That is, 93% are likely to ignore what their pastors say about immigration, even though they may listen to their pastors on homosexuality or abortion. What is it that people say is the most important influence of their views on immigration? 27% said “personal experience,” 21% said the media, and 20% said their education. I’m afraid one assumption behind this is that the Bible has nothing relevant to say about how we treat immigrants, documented or undocumented.
I read a book this week by Daniel Carroll called Christians at the Border: Immigration, the Church, and the Bible [Brazos Press, 2nd edition, 2013], and I recommend it to you. The author’s full name, not on the book cover, is Daniel Carroll Rohas, because his mother’s name was Rohas. His mother was Guatemalan and his father Anglo North American, and he grew up bilingual, moving between the two countries. He is an Old Testament professor at the evangelical Denver Seminary and, more importantly, is the Immigration Spokesperson for the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, an association of over 40,000 Hispanic churches. (That’s almost as big as the Southern Baptists; American Baptists have 5,000 churches.)
Danny Carroll says that Christians should respond self-consciously as Christians to immigration, and not primarily as Republican or Democrat, and our fundamental resource for our thinking should be the Bible. He does not deny that there are concerns about borders and national security and legal processes that have to be dealt with, but those matters are not the place to start the discussion. The place to start from is Genesis 1 and 2. Human beings were created in the image of God, and every person has value in God’s eyes. God said that humanity was his “very good” creation, and that status is not limited to one race or nation. We must start any discussion of immigration with the fact that immigrants are people, people valued by God, people with lived experience, needs, and potential. We are not playing a game of Risk where what matters is the borders and the territory you control, and you can move armies around without ever thinking that you are killing actual human beings. Immigration policy cannot be just about ideology, at least from a Christian perspective; it has to be about people, and what is best for people—on both sides of the border.
One of our problems in beginning a conversation is that many Americans exaggerate the problems and the dangers. You would think, from some of the rhetoric even this week, that we are at grave risk because Mexico is sending us criminals, rapists, and drug dealers. The fact is that undocumented immigrants are far less likely to commit crimes than native-born Americans. You would think that our borders are being overrun, when in fact we see far fewer undocumented immigrants today than we had in 2007, before the crash. The number of people coming into the country across the southern border is at its lowest level since 1971. Some of that is because the Mexican economy is better, but the main reason is that fertility among Mexicans has been going down since the 1970’s; there are fewer young adults, and less risk-taking. So, let’s take a deep breath, calm down the rhetoric, and stop acting as if there is a human tsunami about to overwhelm white people.
Yesterday’s New York Times ran a piece about the difference between perception and reality when it comes to immigrants. Americans were asked “What share of the US population is made up of immigrants today?” Survey said: 37%. The actual number: 15%. “What percentage of immigrants do you think are unemployed?” The perception: 26%. The actual number: 5%. Christians have to be reality-based, not people who gin up numbers to make a point.
The Bible is full of reality, and to a shocking degree it’s full of migration. Migration is one of the basic facts of human history. If you take one of those genetic tests, you’ll find out something about what group your ancestors were in when they first moved from Africa into Europe. Large movements of people have been happening for millennia. The Israelites—or Hebrews as they were known before they had land—were a migrant people who moved around looking for food and who were pushed out by war and politics and religious persecution.
Abraham, the father of everything, was a migrant. His family started in Ur, in southern Iraq, but his father moved them to Haran, in Turkey. Abraham was called to leave what was familiar and move his family to Canaan. But a famine forced him to emigrate to Egypt, the breadbasket of the region for thousands of years. Abraham was nomadic, a sojourner. The oldest confession of faith we have preserved in the Torah is the one with the thanks offering in Deuteronomy. Each Israelite is supposed to tell the story of his people, beginning with “A wandering Aramean was my father.” Wandering is core to the history of the people.
Abraham’s son Isaac and his grandson Jacob both leave home to find work and food—and eventually wives. Jacob’s sons, beginning with Joseph, migrate to Egypt and stay there for 400 years. They were not slaves in the beginning, but were received into the society. There must have been some measure of racism and fear of the other, because gradually the Hebrews were forced into debt slavery and terrible working conditions. The story of the Exodus is the story of how God heard the cries of foreign workers who were not being treated fairly and began a Great Migration out of Egypt back to Canaan, with 40 years in the Sinai desert, which basically belonged to no nation because it was uninhabitable.
Ruth is a little book about refugees who went from Bethlehem to Moab (across the Jordan) and then back again. Like many people who migrate in order to survive, Naomi and her husband and two sons left Bethlehem when there was a food shortage. They settled on the plains of Moab, and both sons married Moabite women. Then Naomi’s husband and her two sons all died, leaving her defenseless and poor. She heard that things were better back in Bethlehem, so she decided to go back to her home country where she had family, and Ruth the Moabite woman decided to go with her. The story then turns on a well-off relative of Naomi taking care of Ruth even though she was a foreigner—and marrying her. The surprise at the end of the story is the revelation that Ruth and Boaz were the great-grandparents of David the great king, who was also an ancestor of Jesus.
There are parts of the Old Testament that advocate racial purity and a kind of apartheid, but Ruth is a somewhat subversive book from the other side of that issue. And the truth is that there is a lot more material in the Old Testament about taking care of foreigners and welcoming them even into your family than material about staying separate from them.
The Hebrew word gar which is translated sojourner or alien or even immigrant occurs in the Old Testament more than 90 times, most often in laws. We read four of those passages earlier. In Leviticus (19:33-34) the law says that you must not oppress the alien that lives in your land. In fact, he shall be treated as a citizen! “You shall love the alien as yourself”—where “alien” is substituted for the word “neighbor” in the famous command that is found earlier in the same chapter. And why should you treat them with kindness? “Because you were aliens yourselves in Egypt.” Deuteronomy (10:18-19) points out that the Lord, Yahweh, loves the strangers (the immigrants) and provides food and clothes for them. You shall love the stranger, the Lord says, because you were strangers in Egypt.
There are many passages in the prophets which make clear that one of the things God hates is when people mistreat aliens. Ezekiel (47:22) says that when you divide up the land you inherit, you should include aliens in the division. If they move here and have children, they have the same claim to the land as native-born citizens. This is remarkable, and something you don’t find in the laws of any of the nations around Israel. Zechariah (7:10) warns about four groups you should not oppress—and this grouping comes up many times: widows, orphans, aliens, and the poor, four groups of vulnerable people.
Daniel Carroll suggests three motivations for the laws protecting sojourners or foreigners in Israel:
- It’s because of Israel’s history of being strangers in a foreign country and being mistreated—primarily in Egypt, but in the time of the prophets they had the experience of being forcibly relocated to Babylon as well. Their history as a people made them sympathetic to vulnerable people who live in someone else’s country.
- It’s an extension of the command to love your neighbor as yourself. Love is not just for family members or fellow Israelites, but for those neighbors who came from other countries.
- They understood that God loves the helpless, including sojourners. God initially loved the Hebrew slaves because they were helpless. He loves others who are in circumstances like that—widows, orphans, foreign migrant workers, and the poor. God provided for those groups by telling farmers to leave crops in their field for gleaning and by commanding a tithe to be given to those groups as an early form of “welfare.”
I’m sure you know the story of the last judgment in Matthew 25, where Jesus says that how you treat those in need is in fact how you are treating Jesus. When he says there, “I was a stranger, and you did not welcome me”—as a word of judgment—the word “stranger” does not mean “the new kid in town.” The Greek word in Matthew is xenos, as in xenophobia; it means “foreigner.” I was a foreigner, and you did not welcome me, and therefore I am sending you to eternal punishment. How we treat the foreigner in our midst is just as critical in Jesus’ mind as how we treat the hungry, the thirsty, those who need clothes, and the incarcerated.
Some have said that Jesus’ command about foreigners—and all the Old Testament laws about sojourners—only applied to legal immigrants. That is very hard to demonstrate from scripture. There are a few occasions in which Moses, for example, asked permission to pass through a king’s territory with a mass of refugees. Nations did sometimes build fortresses or walls to protect their land from invasion. But in the laws about foreigners, no distinction is ever made between legal immigrants and illegal immigrants. If there was some legal way to “become” a resident alien in Israel, we have not a shred of evidence for it in the Bible. Not one reference mentions that you had to get a visa or permission. Once you were in, you were included in the community life, so you celebrated Sabbath, and Yom Kippur, and Passover with everyone else, so there is an assumption that you would learn Hebrew and identify with Israel’s history and values. But there is no suggestion that if you were a foreigner you had to pass a test or jump through hoops to become a permanent resident. It’s like they handed out green cards to everybody who was hungry or looking for work or curious about Israel’s God. There is not one story about a foreigner being deported. It’s a different time, yes, but they also had different values.
You have the option of saying that none of the people in the Bible knew much about defending borders. You can say that the whole book is written by Wandering Jews who never got over having to live for centuries on other people’s land. Even Netanyahu doesn’t pay attention to Hebrew scripture when it comes to foreigners. But is it possible that all the tales of migrants can teach us to treat them as sympathetic characters in our own world? Is it possible that the laws about foreigners reveal something deep in the heart of God? What if those people on the other side of the fence are already neighbors we need to love? And what if it’s actually true that the way we treat refugees and immigrants is the way we are treating Jesus?