I started this series to briefly look at six ways scripture talks about immigrants and immigration. The treatment of migrants and asylum seekers in the US, especially along the southern border, is a daily conversation in the media and among friends. Several excellent books have covered these topics more extensively than I can here; a few recommendations are listed at the end.
Theme 2: There Shall Be for Both a Single Statute
Migration has been a part of human life since before recorded history. We move around. We get pushed out by drought or famine; we flee war; we trade goods; we seek better weather; we get curious about what’s on the other side of the mountain/river/canyon/forest. As we discussed last time, the ancestors and people of Israel were themselves, migrants.
It is while living as aliens in Egypt that Israel grew from a clan to a nation, a people. When that people was oppressed, God led them out of Egypt and back to the land that was promised to their ancestor Abraham. It is during the sojourn in the wilderness between Egypt and Canaan, that the Law of the Israelites began to take shape. Many Christians will recognize Exodus 20: 1-17 as the Ten Commandments. These are the gateway into the law that would form the basis of the Mosaic covenant. (so called because it is made under Moses). The entire section is comprised of chapters 20-23 and sets the conditions by which Israel will be the people of God. In Exodus 23:9 the law gets around to the question of how immigrants and strangers should be treated.
You shall not oppress a resident alien; you know the heart of an alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. In the promise land justice is to extend to all.
In the promise land justice is to extend to all. That theme of equality under the law continues through Leviticus, Deuteronomy and Numbers. As the law is retold, expounded and interpreted, the status of immigrants to the land remains the same. Leviticus 19 lays out what it means to be ritually and morally holy. According to verses 33 and 34, to be holy means to treat the stranger and the alien the same way you would treat a citizen of the land. That command is echoed again in Numbers 15 and Deuteronomy 1.
An alien who lives with you, or who takes up permanent residence among you, and wishes to offer an offering by fire, a pleasing odor to the Lord, shall do as you do. As for the assembly, there shall be for both you and the resident alien a single statute, a perpetual statute throughout your generations; you and the alien shall be alike before the Lord. You and the alien who resides with you shall have the same law and the same ordinance.– Numbers 15:14-16
Distinctions between citizens and aliens would develop over time (more on that next time) but the intent of the law seems to be that Israel’s special status as a chosen people did not entitle them to a higher class of rights, but rather placed on them the burden to treat all people as creations of God.
It is interesting to see how the New Testament writers sometimes picked up the metaphor of strangers in a land. The idea of being a resident alien came to describe how the Church–whose home was the kingdom of God– operated in the world. For instance Ephesians 2:12-13 reads:
remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.
This metaphor serves the dual purpose of strengthening the Church against outside pressure and uniting formally distinct people into a single Body of Christ. The identity of “Christian” comes to trump nationality or ethnicity especially in regards to how we treat a brother or sister in Christ. We are no longer strangers or aliens to one another but citizens of the Kingdom of God and members of Christ’s family. This does not erase whether one was born Jew or Greek, but eliminates the notion of privilege status for either. In an extension of the Law, we treat all our brothers and sisters as creations of God, redeemed by Christ and therefore entitled to our love.
What It Means Today:
All due respect to Mr. Jefferson and Mr. Paine, but the truth is a stateless person is a rights-less person. Without a government, an individual’s rights exist only as far as their fellow humans are willing to recognize an obligation towards them. This theme of scripture argues that because the people of God (first Israel and now the Church) know what it is to be foreign and alien, we must honor–and even fight for– the basic dignity of every person regardless of race, nationality, or immigration status. The issues surrounding immigration and the law may be more complicated, but that does not change the Biblical assertion that all people are created by God and should be treated with a measure of equality.
There are people who will argue that if someone crosses the border illegally, that to be arrested and separated from your children is equal to the treatment a citizen would receive if they broke a law. This is less than have true. Yes, if I as an American citizen broke a law, I could be arrested, imprisoned and, if I had children, they would not be imprisoned with me. However, the conditions under which migrants are detained at our Southern border, the way that children are treated and the lack of a coherent system for tracking and returning children who are separated makes this a false equivalency.
While the treatment of children with incarcerated parents is far from perfect, the first attempt is often to place them with family as soon as possible. In the event they do enter the foster care system, records are kept. Their location is known and (at least in theory) their welfare is monitored. They are not housed in tents or overcrowded barracks. They are not frequently taken across state lines without a parent’s knowledge. When parents leave prison, there is a process by which the can locate and be reunited with their child. The fact that our Department of Justice and HHA have no records connected children to parents and attempted to require parents to pay for DNA testing to recover children the DOJ stripped from them and lost in the system speaks volumes about how unequally we view migrants and citizens.
The central question Christians should be wrestling with is not, “What did they do?” but “Who are we?”. Are we a people who enshrine inalienable rights as an endowment by our Creator; or do we hold rights humans rights to be a part of the rule-of-law contract and thereby forfeit if a law is transgressed?
- Take a look at news stories about immigration from the past two months. Where do you see scripture or faith invoked? Is it used to argue for equality or distinction?
- In the letter to the Colossians, Paul writes:
But now you must get rid of all such things—anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive[d] language from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!
What bearing might those words have on our present struggles?
3. Are there recent immigrants in your family? What was the experience of their first few months in America like?
For a more in-depth look at migration in general, check out Global Migration: What’s Happening, Why and a Just Response by Elizabeth Collier and Charles Strain. For reflections on immigration to America specifically, pick up Christians at the Border by M. Daniel Carroll R. or Welcoming the Stranger by Matthew Soerens and Jenny Yang.