I recently shared about the many texts which speak to the experience of displaced people, immigrants, migrants, and the many who face threat due to some federal actions going on here in America. These actions are not just being taken in America alone, but similar moves to exclude and put up barriers to displaced people are going on throughout the Western world, as people respond in fear to the movements of refugees fleeing for their lives.
For those of us who claim to be people of faith, particularly people of the Book – which Jews, Christians, and Muslims all claim to be – this is deeply ironic. In a real and profound way refusing to welcome displaced people with open arms is to forgot our own founding story.
Deuteronomy 26 puts it well when it instructs believers to pray the following prayer:
“5 … “My father was a wandering Aramean, and he went down into Egypt with a few people and lived there and became a great nation, powerful and numerous. 6 But the Egyptians mistreated us and made us suffer, subjecting us to harsh labor. 7 Then we cried out to the Lord, the God of our ancestors, and the Lord heard our voice and saw our misery, toil and oppression. 8 So the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great terror and with signs and wonders. 9 He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey; 10 and now I bring the firstfruits of the soil that you, Lord, have given me.”
Here the story at the basis of the Hebrew Scriptures, which lay at the foundation of both the Christian New Testament and also the Muslim faith as well, is laid bare:
The faith we have is borne of the experience of being migrant, refugee, displaced people. Our ancestors in faith – Abraham, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob, Joseph and his brothers, their descendants, the exiles from Judah under Assyria, Bablyon, and Persia – all experienced being displaced. In fact one way to read the story of Exodus is a story not just about slavery but about God’s feelings about how we treat those so displaced. The descendants of Abraham find themselves in famine, so they flee across national boundaries to Egypt, through the work of their far-seeing son Joseph. Egypt treats these immigrants well, and so they prosper. Then, a ruler who forgets Joseph and his family, forget that what makes a nation great is how it treats its marginalized people, arises. He decides instead to oppress and mistreat these displaced people.
Ultimately this leads to disaster, as plague upon plague befall Egypt because of its choice.
The way Exodus is written, when read literally, is that God makes a choice to act and send plagues upon Egypt as if they are curses. This poetically makes clear that God is not impartial when it comes to responding to the question of who is right – the wealthy, landed, long-term dwellers of a land comfortable in their property and status or the displaced people struggling on the margins, whose human rights lay in threat. No, God takes sides, always siding with the poor, oppressed, marginalized.
This is clearly stated in multiple texts of the Hebrew Scriptures:
“But you, God, see the trouble of the afflicted;
you consider their grief and take it in hand.
The victims commit themselves to you;
you are the helper of the fatherless.” – Psalm 10:14
“A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows,
is God in his holy dwelling.
God sets the lonely in families,
he leads out the prisoners with singing;
but the rebellious live in a sun-scorched land” – Psalm 68:5-6
“If you really change your ways and your actions and deal with each other justly, if you do not oppress the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow and do not shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not follow other gods to your own harm, then I will let you live in this place, in the land I gave your ancestors for ever and ever.” – Jeremiah 7:5-6
“This is what the Lord says: Do what is just and right. Rescue from the hand of the oppressor the one who has been robbed. Do no wrong or violence to the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place.”—Jeremiah 22:3
Again and again, God is described as the one who takes sides, siding with the oppressed, marginalized, and forgotten – with those with the least power and weight to throw around in a community. And particularly with the oppressed.
In fact in the Hebrew Scriptures, God is even at times depicted as a migrant God’s self. God is the God of the wandering Aramean, and God for much of early Hebrew history is depicted as traveling in a pitched tent, the tabernacle which contained the symbols of God’s presence, with the people. In fact when King David suggests to God that he build a great house for God to live in, God says that was never God’s idea and God was content to live as the people, as a migrant.
And early in his childhood, Jesus, too, is depicted as a refugee for child. In Matthew’s Gospel, upon his birth, Jesus faces King Herod threatening all the boys born around Jesus’ age with death so his parents, like the early refugees of his ancestors during famine, Jesus’ parents bring him across national lines to hide for their lives in Egypt. With Herod wanting his life, you can bet that Jesus, Joseph, and Mary didn’t seek papers from the government that sought Jesus’ life to make it legal before entering Egypt. The One Christians like myself see as the embodiment of God, God as men with women & men to dwell, begins his earthly life as an illegal immigrant.
Though Islam does not view Jesus as God in the flesh in the way Christians do, it views his example as emblematic since he is viewed as a great prophet. Also, their faith bursts forth among a highly nomadic people whose nation-crossing migrations mirrors that of the wandering Abraham and Sarah, whom they also look to as their spiritual ancestor.
All three traditions point toward a God that sides with such oppressed and displaced people.
Yet, one need not take literally the language of God striking Egypt with plagues to see a powerful message in it. After all, when Deuteronomy talks about warnings for the freed people of Israel of woes lying ahead for them like Egypt faced if they follow its example of mistreating the marginalized, displaced, and powerless among them it does so in a way that makes it sound like cause and effect. If they oppress, naturally woe will fall upon them.
Removed from thought of curses from above, a real truth is spoken of here: As much as we want to divide our future from that of those around us, we are inevitably linked. My fate as an individual cannot be divided from the welfare of those around me, particularly the seemingly powerless. The fate of our nation cannot be divided from that of the most powerless in our midst, nor the welfare of nations around us.
This is what great leaders like Dr. King and Desmond Tutu spoke about, when they wrote
“It really boils down to this: that all life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. We are made to live together because of the interrelated structure of reality.”
“My humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound up, in yours.” We belong in a bundle of life. We say, “A person is a person through other persons. . . A person with ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed, or treated as if they were less than who they are.”
Ultimately to treat migrant people, displaced people, folks fleeing threats to their lives, well is not just selfless but also in our self-interest. For when others discover fullness of life, feel secure, and can thrive, we all will thrive. And to mistreat others, to push them out, only builds up feelings of alienation, mistrust, resentment, which can come back to haunt us when potential allies and friends in those communities we oppress no longer view us as one to support but enemies.
This too is what Jesus taught, when he warned us in Luke 6,
““Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” (Luke 6:37-38)
and in Matthew 7,
“Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” (Matthew 7:1-2)
Ultimately, if we choose to pour out hatred, violence, mistrust, and mistreatment upon the least of these in our midst, we will find such negativity coming back to haunt us in ways we can only begin to imagine. Likewise, if we choose to sow caring, understanding, acceptance, and love in the lives of those most at risk, we ultimately will find it strengthening not just them but our own communities, families, and lives.
We forget this lesson at our own peril. May we embrace the call at the heart of these three great faiths, and choose to embrace the displaced people and the struggling in our midst.
Your progressive redneck preacher,