In the Promise Land Justice is Extended to All [Immigration in Scripture 2]

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?

For Reflection:

  1. 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?
  2. 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.

 

For You Were Strangers [Immigration in Scripture 1]

The treatment of migrants asylum seekers and families crossing the border illegally has become a national conversation of late.  Christian scriptures have been invoked by politicians and protestors to justify a variety of positions.  As people of faith, we should try to understand America’s immigration policies and call for appropriate action to fix broken systems.  But, to define “appropriate” we need a working knowledge of what the Scriptures say about immigrants and strangers.

This series of posts is a VERY brief primer on six themes.  Several excellent books have been written on immigration through the lens of Scripture. 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.

Theme 1: You were once aliens

Deuteronomy 10:19 says “You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt”.  Any discussion of immigration and scriptures has to wrestle with the fact that the people of God were, more than once, aliens in a foreign land.

Deuteronomy is framed as a retelling of the sacred Law before the people of Israel enter into the promised land.  The promise of that land was first given to Abram (later called Abraham).

Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.  I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.

-Genesis 12:1-2

Abram leaves Ur, his homeland, and comes to reside in Canaan.  God’s promise that this will be the land of his descendants is reiterated, but for three generations the family lives like perpetual migrants.  They reside in tents, they move from place to place with their flocks.  They leave and go to Egypt when there is a famine.  Isaac and Jacob, Abraham’s descendants, each return to Ur for a time.  Even when Sarah, Abraham’s wife and Isaac’s mother, dies and Abraham must secure a place to bury her, he speaks of himself as an alien in the land.

 “I am a stranger and an alien residing among you; give me property among you for a burying place, so that I may bury my dead out of my sight.” The Hittites answered Abraham, “Hear us, my lord; you are a mighty prince among us. Bury your dead in the choicest of our burial places; none of us will withhold from you any burial ground for burying your dead.”

-Genesis 23: 4-6

For the first five books of our scriptures, God’s promise of the land is stable, but the people’s residency is fluid.  Through the end of Genesis, the migrant experience is primarily a positive one*.  But then there comes another famine, and Isreal (Jacob) once again takes his family to Egypt because his son Joseph has become a court official.  That whole generation resides in Egypt until their deaths.  The Israelite community grows.  And then Exodus makes this ominous transition:

Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.

-Exodus 1:8

The Egyptians come to fear the Israelites living among them.  Out of that fear, they become ruthless and cruel.  The lives of the Israelites become so bitter and oppressive that they cry out to God for salvation.  God raises up Moses, does miracles and signs, and finally leads the Israelites out of Eygpt.  But God does not want the people to forget what it was like to be aliens in Egypt.

Deuteronomy chapter 10 recounts Moses receiving the (second) tablets of the Law and God summarizing their essence.  Core to what it means to be Israel is this understanding: that God is just, that God provides for the widow, the orphan and the stranger, and that, having been strangers yourself, you should reflect God’s love for strangers among you.

The call back to the Hebrew’s time as residents and then slaves in Egypt will show up time and again across the scriptures of the Old Testament.  Generations later, when David recaptures the Ark of the Covenant (with the tablets of the Law) from the Philistines, the people sing a song recounting the great deeds of God, including how God protected the people when they were immigrants:

When they were few in number,
    of little account, and strangers in it,
wandering from nation to nation,
    from one kingdom to another people,
he allowed no one to oppress them;
    he rebuked kings on their account,
saying, “Do not touch my anointed ones;
    do my prophets no harm.”
-Psalm 105: 13-15

As we’ll see later, the people do forget.  Later prophets will cite the treatment of strangers and immigrants as one of the reasons for the downfalls of Israel and Judah.  When the people forget what it was to be alien and oppressed, they are cast into exile.  They become immigrants in a strange land once again.

What It Means Today:

It is both presumptuous and risky to rob a Biblical narrative of its context and conflate it with the modern day.  However, these stories have been told for millennia because they contain important lessons.  America has often described itself as a nation of immigrants.  98% of us have at least one ancestor who arrived in the territory in the last 500 years.  The stories of those ancestors are varied.  Some fled persecution, others were destitute and seeking a better life, some came for higher education, some brought desirable skills, some were criminals, some did not come here by choice.

We, like Israel, have to wrestle with our own history of being aliens and strangers.  That does not mean open borders and unrestricted immigration.  In the next two posts, we’ll look at how the law of Israel set boundaries and privileges for immigrants in their midst. However, if we are taking the Biblical witness seriously, our history should instill in us a desire to act justly and with mercy towards present immigrants and asylum seekers.

Yesterday, the Administration missed a deadline to return very young children to their parents.  They have laid out no clear plan for how families will be reunited.  They changed the policy for dealing with asylum seekers and migrants without a way to humanly hold people in detention.  They are turning their backs on immigrants who willingly offered their lives in the service of this countryThey are delaying or denying asylum seekers due process and creating an environment of uncertainty and fear even for those who have abided by the law.  There is no mercy in these acts. Is there even justice?

When you have eaten your fill and have built fine houses and live in them, and when your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold is multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied, then do not exalt yourself, forgetting the Lord your God…
-Deuteronomy 8:12-13 

For Reflection:

  1. Where does immigration play a role in your family’s history?
    • How did your ancestors come to the country?
    • How where they received when they arrived?
    • How has their experience shaped your story?
  2. Read the first chapter of Exodus and imagine you are an average Egyptian.
    • As the Pharoh’s attitude toward the Israelites changes, what language is used to describe Israelites?
    • How is the treatment of the Israelites justified?
    • Do you agree with their treatment?  Why or Why not?

Feature Image by Joel Tanis and available for sale online.

*Arguably the experience worked better for Abraham than Sarah and it was not without its compromises.  Read the whole story in Genesis 20.

A Letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions

**Update: for ways to assist families affected, see this post.

Dear Mr. Sessions,

You seem to be having a bad press week, sir.  I can imagine that is frustrating.  You are enduring a lot of criticism for what you believe is doing your job.  To make it worse, much of the criticism is coming from the Southern Christians you have counted on as a loyal base for so long.  It has been pointed out, Mr. Sessions, that you are a United Methodist.  I am a United Methodist pastor, so in this time of struggle, I feel it is incumbent on me to offer a couple of pastoral words.

You gave a speech today in Fort Wayne.  The prepared text is posted on the DoJ website. In that speech, you attempt to make a case for recent actions as right enforcement of established law.  I will leave questions about the logic and politics of your argument to those more qualified to assess them.  But, a little more than halfway through, you invoke Romans 13.  To be more specific, you seem to be referencing Romans 13:1-7

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but too bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; 4 for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore one must be subject, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience. 6 For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, busy with this very thing. 7 Pay to all what is due them—taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.

I understand the appeal of these verses for your argument, especially when they are taken in isolation.  However, I fear, Mr. Sessions, that you have not done the best exegetical work possible.  Three things are problematic in the way you are using these verses.

Context Matters

First, context matters, and you have not acknowledged the context of Paul’s letter.   You are attempting to justify the policies of one of the largest and arguably most powerful nations the world has ever known.  Paul is writing Romans to a marginalized, sometimes persecuted, minority trying to survive in the very capital of the largest most powerful empire the world had known to that point.  It is important to remember that is the same empire that would eventually behead Paul himself for his faith.

Paul’s comments here stand in line with the prophet Jeremiah’s call to seek the welfare of the city (even if you are an alien) and the words of Jesus.   When those in power are hostile to the people of God, we have to pick our battles.  However you, sir, are speaking for those in power about those who are the definition of powerless.  These might not be your words to borrow.

Romans 12 & 13

Secondly, if you are going to borrow Romans 13:1-7, you need to be reading it as part of the whole letter.  Stepping back just 11 verses or adding the next 3 verses into the conversation colors the meaning of your passage. For the whole of the letter, Paul has been building an argument about the character of a disciple of Christ.  In Romans 12:9-21, we get a climactic list of marks.

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; 10 love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. 11 Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord.12 Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. 13 Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.

14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16 Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. 17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. 18 If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20 No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Disciples are marked by love.  Love shows itself in affection, zeal, patience, and hospitality.  Love approaches relationships from a stance of humility and peace, and above all, it holds to good and trusts God to overcome evil rather than taking matters into its own hands.  This emphasis on love is echoed in Romans 13: 8-10.

8 Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. 9 The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 10 Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.

Taken between these two bookends, I think it is clear that Paul does not intend respect for political authority to overrule love of neighbor.  You do Romans 13:1-7 a disservice if you read it as a justification for rule of law devoid of compassion.  Part of the reason so many Christians are reacting to the treatment of migrant people on our borders is that it feels utterly devoid of compassion.  It is also worth noting that the reason many Christian leaders are reacting badly to your speech is we’ve read  Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  The German government of his day used this exact passage to rationalize many of their most heinous policies to the church.  Now, I am not calling you a Nazi, sir; there is far too much of that nowadays.  But you should be aware you are walking a thin thin line.  I would recommend Bonhoeffer’s Cost of Discipleship as well as Hannah Arendt’s On Totalitarianism.  They both have excellent reflections on the risks of co-opting the church into the work of the State.

The Role of the Church

Which brings me to the last point.  In your speech, it felt like you wanted the Church’s support. I know its hard to be out on a limb alone and harder still to field attacks from a quarter you did not expect.  But here’s the thing: it is not the job of the Church to sanction the policies of rulers. It is our job to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ.  At times we will do this by supporting legislation or advocating for marginalized people.  We will also do it by criticizing laws and policies that violate our principles.  The Church does not solely align with any political party because our first allegiance is to God; our work and our witness are devoted to God.  If you ask us to twist the words of the Jesus to suit the policies of any administration we are going to balk.  The God we serve ate with tax collectors and prostitutes. He welcomed gentiles, and the unclean, and children. He told us we would be judged, not by the prestige of our nation or the security of our borders, but by the way we treated the orphan, the widow, the poor, the alien, and the imprisoned.  It is not our job to concoct justifications for your actions, even if they are lawful.  Law and order, peace and security, those are your job.   It is the Church’s job to proclaim the kingdom of God.  I’m sorry that very little of what you have done lately lines up with that kingdom.

As a fellow United Methodist, I respect that you are trying to ground your moral decisions in Scripture.  I’m told you are a Sunday School teacher, so I suspect at some point you’ve walked through the Wesleyan Quadrilateral with folks.   I see what you’re trying to do here.  Taking a text and reading it with Reason.  But Tradition and Experience are also crucial parts of the process.  I think the pressure you are feeling, is the weight of the Christian traditions of hospitality and grace and brotherhood/sisterhood.  I think the outcry you hear is an echo of the Church’s experience with German concentration camps and Amercian internment camps.  The bishops of our denomination along with other faith leaders are calling to you and our Methodist understanding of community and moral reasoning ought to compel you to listen.

I understand that the policies you are implementing are lawful. (Though that does not make them good)  I understand they are a campaign promise fulfilled.  I understand that you may be acting out of the best of intentions for what you think is right for the country.  So plead your case on law, and politics, and intentions, but I would suggest leaving faith out of it.  Scripture will not support you, sir.  And if you are troubled by the outcry from the Church, then listen, heed our wisdom and relent.

You are in my prayers, Mr. Sessions, along with every family detained and separated at the border and every officer asked to enforce these policies.  I hope that you find both peace and wisdom.

In Christ,

Rev. Walker

 

PS:  Mr. Sessions, you and I both grew up in southern Methodist churches.  So I suspect that you know this truth: you do not cross the UMW.  Even today as a grown pastor I know when the UMW shows up in my office, they will walk away with what they want.  Partly because they are a powerful lobby, but mostly because for generations they have represented our tradition at its best.  They are the beating heart of our mission in the world and have often been the UMC’s voice of conscience.  There are excellent reasons you do not cross the UMW.  So I point you to their words:

We know the harm we are doing to children with this policy, which makes this deliberate separating of children from their parents for the intent of punishing the family particularly vile. This must stop now.

[Beyond Sunday] The Good Samaritan

But the legal expert wanted to prove that he was right, so he said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
Jesus replied, “A man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho. He encountered thieves, who stripped him naked, beat him up, and left him near death. Now it just so happened that a priest was also going down the same road. When he saw the injured man, he crossed over to the other side of the road and went on his way. Likewise, a Levite came by that spot, saw the injured man, and crossed over to the other side of the road and went on his way. A Samaritan, who was on a journey, came to where the man was. But when he saw him, he was moved with compassion. The Samaritan went to him and bandaged his wounds, tending them with oil and wine. Then he placed the wounded man on his own donkey, took him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day, he took two full days’ worth of wages and gave them to the innkeeper. He said, ‘Take care of him, and when I return, I will pay you back for any additional costs.’ What do you think? Which one of these three was a neighbor to the man who encountered thieves?”
Then the legal expert said, “The one who demonstrated mercy toward him.”
Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”

-Luke 10:29-37

This week we heard several versions of the parable of the Good Samaritan.  In God’s kingdom, “neighbor” is not defined proximity or by affinity but by the capacity to show mercy.  [hear sermon audio]

This week, take some time to go deeper.  Talk with God about how this story challenges you to grow as a disciple.  Read and reflect on these scriptures and questions.

Texts to read:

  • John 13:31-35, 14:15-21
  • 1 Kings 178-24 (Elijah stays with a Phoenician widow)

Questions to ponder:

  • Who could be your modern day Samaritan?
  • What would it mean to accept their help?
  • Our country is currently wrestling with divisions over politics, race, and faith.  How do you read this story differently than in the past?

Do and share:

  • Go out of your way this week to offer mercy to someone you don’t know.  Do it without any recognition.
  • Check out this story of two Good Samaritans from the concert bombing in Manchester, England. Share another story from the news or your own life on our Facebook or to @dpumc on Twitter.  #jesusstory