Some few weeks ago I heard news that ICE agents were rounding up a large group of our neighbors without papers just a county or two over. This news sent definite ripples in the church I attend, where we have a number of members who are refugees and immigrants, some of whom either are undocumented or have those close to them who are undocumented. As I reflect on the difficult situations being faced by such immigrants and displaced people in our country with our tightened restrictions and increased deportations becoming the policy in America, I realize how very much in many people’s minds, these are a pack of “sinners”.
In fact we see this in our rhetoric about immigration, don’t we? While on the campaign trail, our current president described undocumented immigrants this way: as “people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people”. The impression is that these folks are necessarily immoral. For many pushing for a wall on our southern border and mass deportation, the logic appears to be: crossing the border without papers is against the law. That’s necessarily bad. Immoral. It is like someone breaking into our house. This means they are all in league with thieves, murderers, the worst of society who would break into your home.
If, like me, you know personally folks who are immigrants who came here without proper papers, you know this is not close to who they are at all.
Similar concerns come up with displaced people in our country, even who are here illegally. Though we should be concerned about hatred arising against undocumented immigrants, the fact is that it is easy for distrust and loathing of one group of immigrants to trickle down toward others.
Here, in my home state of North Carolina, in a recent meeting by a conservative group concerned about immigration and refugees, a number of speakers began to paint all Muslims as if they are members of terror cells. A few speakers even went so far as to ask why we can’t just kill all the Muslims in our area. This conclusion was leapt toward, even though Muslims are not any more likely to become violent terrorists than average Christians are to become Klansmen or members of armed Christian terrorist militias like we saw break out with violence in the 1990s in the Oklahoma City bombing and the violence at the Branch Davidian compound. Most Muslims, like most Christians, are law-abiding, respectful, compassionate people.
This extreme example is not reflective of all people who are uncomfortable with looser approaches to immigration, but it shows the slippery slope this approach of fear and distrust can bring. We paint a whole group of people as if they are evil, without looking at how they engage the world around them.
In his book Jesus’ Plan for a New World: The Sermon on the Mount Richard Rohr reminds us that, ultimately, Jesus developed a reputation for supporting and advocating those groups in his day known as “sinners”, welcoming them into table fellowship as equals with those society considered holy, acceptable, and good and through baptism announcing people’s acceptance by God into community is as available as water. This approach to those ostracized as “sinner” in Jesus’ name got him the name “friend of sinners” (Matthew 11:19; Luke 7:34). As Rohr continues to explore this, he makes the point that the system in place in Jesus’ day so defined sin and holiness that whole classes of people, for economic and class reasons, could never fulfill holiness requirements enough to not be called “sinner”. Jesus’ life and ministry was aimed at disrupting approaches to holiness that categorize people as sinner for reasons of class, life situation, or qualities other than their heart.
Ultimately, that alone ought to lead us to question society’s willingness to be so quick to list a whole class of people – immigrants – as necessarily sinners.
But I think it is also important to bear in mind the Bible’s rich history of border-crossing saints. These folks did cross legal barriers of their day in some way and that is part of why they are remembered not as sinners but as saints, bearers of the Sacred, in our Scriptures.
Among the most central figures who are such border-crossing saints are the patriarchs – Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph – to whom Jews, Christians, and Muslims all look to as forefathers in their faith. Each of these repeatedly are described in Genesis as crossing the borders from the lands of which they once were a part to enter new ones. In fact, the founding story of their people, which is the foundation of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim spiritual visions of faith, is that of Abraham hearing the voice of God calling him to leave his homeland of Ur, to travel across various national boundaries as a nomad, into a new land God would find him. There is no talk in these stories of getting travel visas, passports, or green cards for Abraham and his family.
In fact, repeatedly Genesis pictures conflict by the locals asking how he and his family have right to live in this land which was historically someone else’s. This holds true for his descendants Isaac, Jacob and his 12 sons. In fact in an experience that carries deep echoes today in the experience of many an undocumented migrant or refugee, multiple times Abraham and his heirs in Genesis are depicted as hiding their identity and that of their families for safety.
Ultimately in the Genesis narrative about the patriarchs, those who receive and welcome the wandering migrant followers of this dream of land as welcome guests are those who are blessed. Those who do not welcome them experience judgment and curses – from the small judgment of illness and struggle by some local rulers who mistreat Abraham and Sarai, to the many plagues that afflict the Pharoah and people of Egypt who forget the importance of welcoming the refugee people of Israel which leads to the Exodus and Passover story, to the total destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah which, in the Biblical story, has nothing to do with sexual ethics and everything to do with how nations at war respond to those who arrive without papers at their doors.
It is these migrant saints – traveling without papers across national boundaries – who are the founding figures of three faiths.
This theme continues in the story of our faiths. The people of Israel in their wilderness wanderings continue to cross national borders, with at times rulers objecting. Those who are hospitable to this wandering band experience some share of their blessing and those who are not experience judgment.
Perhaps most amazing in such examples is Rahab of Jericho. She becomes the patron saint of the Sanctuary movement through the ages. When the people of Israel in Jericho’s walls arrive without legal permission from Jericho not to nonthreateningly find work or safety there as many displaced people do in our land, but to actually plot the overthrow of the city, she harbors them. Her home and place of business as a sex worker becomes perhaps the first sanctuary, as she lies to protect the lives of those she has welcomed. Ultimately she is saved from the fall of Jericho, becoming a part of the wandering people of blessing herself, even becoming ancestor to King David and Jesus of Nazareth, key figures in the Muslim, Jewish, and Christian faiths.
Her example is one that inspires Quaker and Congregationalist Christians on both sides of the Mason-Dixon lines to organize safe houses in which were harbored the fleeing runaway slaves heading north to lands where they would not be treated as property. These slaves did not get documents legalizing their move across states. Even the attempt would have brought them back into the slavery they sought to flee or worse! Her example also inspired the small number of Christians like Corrie Ten Boon who hid Jews, gypsies, gay people, and people with disabilities when the NAZI government in Germany sought to gather them up into concentration camps. This example seems to also have inspired the largely Muslim leaders of the Turkish government in the same period to shield people from NAZI death camps, as is recounted in the book Last Train to Istanbul.
In the story pf Jonah, Jonah is turned by God into an undocumented displaced person for, certainly, the sea monster who vomits him up onto Ninevah’s land did not get a passport, green card, or legal status for Jonah before swallowing him from the sea. In that role, again, Jonah could be received as he thought he would – as a threat, a foreigner to be wiped out, by Ninevah’s citizens. The Ninevites receive him instead as the face of God and his words as God’s message. His example is later followed by the early apostles and missionaries of the Christian movement like Paul, Timothy, and Silas; and later missionaries like St. Patrick and St. Francis who travel across national boundaries often without clear documentation.
Of course the ultimate example of the migrant saints is the holy family itself. The Gospel of Matthew pictures Joseph and Mary carrying the baby Jesus across political lines into Egypt when King Herod seeks the slaughter of young children. Clearly, they did not ask Herod’s permission to flee death. For Christians especially this ought to be important, for we view Jesus not just as a rabbi or prophet among many as Jews and Muslims do, but as the Incarnation of God, making the God of Christian tradition necessarily a displaced person, a border-crossing God.
These many examples suggest that, far from it being that displaced people are necessarily “sinners”, instead those we encounter among us who are displaced people need to be received by us as the face of God.
As Jesus is remembered to have said in Matthew 25, in words that are mirrored in the later words of the prophet Muhammad in the Muslim Qu’ran*:
31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33 and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 40 And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family,[g]you did it to me.’ 41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44 Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ 45 Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
Ultimately, in the displaced people who come to live among us, documented or not, we are called to see the face of God. They are neither more sinful nor more righteous than we are. But all three faith traditions that look to the Biblical story as their base, including my own Christianity, suggests ultimately as individuals, as communities, as a nation, we have to answer to God for how we treat those immigrants and refugees as if how we treated them if how we treated God.
May we answer this call.
Your progressive redneck preacher,
*(Note the parallel in the Qu’ran: “Allah the Exalted will say on the Day of Resurrection: O son of Adam, I was sick but you did not visit Me. He will say: O my Lord, how can I visit You when You are the Lord of the worlds? Allah will say: Did you not know that such-and-such servant of Mine was sick and you did not visit him, and had you visited him you would have found Me with him? O son of Adam, I asked you for food but you did not feed me. He will say: My Lord, how can I feed You when You are the Lord of the worlds? Allah will say: Did you not know that such-and-such servant of Mine asked you for food but you did not feed him, and had you fed him you would have found Me with him? O son of Adam, I asked you for drink but you did not provide for Me. He will say: My Lord, how can I give You when You are the Lord of the worlds? Allah will say: Such-and-such servant of Mine asked you for a drink but you did not provide for him, and had you given it to him you would have found Me with him.”