In my earlier blog about the crisis we face on the borders of our southern states, I explored how racism leads white southerners too often to respond with fear not just to immigrants but to all people of black or brown skin. When I was working as a pastor in Fayetteville, NC, this reality was driven home to me. A church member had been involved with “the Driving While Black” conversations about racial profiling in town. She invited me to a gathering where a local women’s organization engaged mothers of different races and cultures about how their experience of racial profiling had impacted their children.
One mother’s story was gripping. She shared about the unspoken rules she had to teach her children who were being raised in our southern army town to follow in order to avoid them drawing negative attention due to the color of their skin. This mother was the wife of a leading African American pastor in town whose family would have been well recognized by anyone local to the town. And she shared how not only were her hard working law abiding adult children were often unfairly pulled over by police when driving only because of some police officers’ assumption that there was no way young black men could have come by such a nice car honestly, but also how once while she was on the phone with one of her sons while he was on a business trip to Florida, a whole swat team surround his hotel room because someone had called in saying a ‘disreputable’ person was staying there. What made him look disreputable? He was black. And it was a nice hotel. These events she described did not occur several decades ago, but just within the last few years.
I suggested last week that unless we own up to how such racism insidiously contaminates our approach to issues like immigration, we have no hope of approaching other elements of this discussion. I continue to think that the key to our debates about issues like immigration, prison reform, and so many other issues we face in the south is confronting the legacy of white racism against people of color. We have to confront the ways in which such racism continues to warp our perspectives and create massive structural barriers that have yet to be cleared away to all to fully seek to fulfill the American dream.
Once we begin to confront the ways racism may shape our gut reactions to this crisis, another side of the debate about how to respond to these children is the question of what perspective, if any, God can shed on the issue of immigration. This question is important because of how many on both sides of this issue claim they are speaking for God, arguing the Bible must be our guide in these circumstances.
What does the Bible day about the way people of faith ought to respond to immigrants and refugees such as those on our southern border?
Surprisingly on this topic the Bible has much it says, most of which is fairly clear and straightforward.
Here is a summary of some of the key messages the Bible tells us about the immigrant:
First, the Bible tells us that we are called to identify with the experience of immigrants and their families.
This message of Scripture is beautifully pictured in this classic southern Gospel song:
Scripture teaches in verses like 2 Chronicles 29:15 and Psalm 39:12 for believers to pray words like these:
“…we are aliens and pilgrims before You,
As were all our fathers;
Our days on earth are as a shadow,
And without hope…”
The words alien, stranger, and pilgrim are all translations of words in the original Biblical languages that are the equivalent of our modern word “immigrant”.
A part of the reason for this is the sense that the song above gives us, that ultimately we are living for another world, the world to come which we cannot fully experience in this world, although we can have a foretaste of in so far as we live out the words of the Lord’s prayer by helping this world to be as it is in heaven.
13 These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off were assured of them, embraced them and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth. 14 For those who say such things declare plainly that they seek a homeland. 15 And truly if they had called to mind that country from which they had come out, they would have had opportunity to return. 16 But now they desire a better, that is, a heavenly country. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for He has prepared a city for them.
or in 1 Peter 2 that
11 Beloved, I beg you as sojourners and pilgrims, abstain from fleshly lusts which war against the soul, 12 having your conduct honorable among the Gentiles, that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may, by your good works which they observe, glorify God in the day of visitation.
This perspective of seeing our life in terms of a being an immigrant who is just passing through this earthly world en route to a heavenly one, was meant by Biblical authors to remind us to hold loosely to the worldly riches, prestige, and fame that some sacrifice so much to gain. This is where we usually stop with this rich image. But also it was meant in early Judaism and Christianity as a way of expressing that also one’s national heritage — whether that be the heritage of the Roman Empire, the British empire, or in our case the American dream — must take second place to Gospel values which teach us that we all are one family. So whether a person is Guatemalan, Iraqi, British, Mexican, American, or Iroquois ought not to determine how we treat them. Ultimately we are simply passing through all of those lands, even (and perhaps particularly) the lands we call home. We must treat all people equally as children of God, as ones invited to be citizens of heaven. If we do that, how can we treat a Guatemalan child as any more or less important than an American child?
Another reason that we are encouraged to see ourselves as people of faith from the perspective of immigrants is that the three great monotheistic faiths — Christianity, Islam, and Judaism — all emerged out of the lived experience of immigrants. Those who went before us in trail blazing our faith would have better identified with the following 1980’s Rock Ballad than the signs of the “Respect Our Borders” crowd:
I am not going to talk as much about the way in which the forebears of modern Muslims experienced God as people who were often immigrants on the move, since its not my area of expertise, but I will say that it is important to realize that Muslims trace their faith back to a revelation to God that came to a largely nomadic people, who trace their roots to Esau and Ishmael respectively, the son and grandson of Abraham.
Abraham is also the faith visionary who Christians and Jews look to as the one to whom their faith owes its existence.
Abraham was a man who was the quintessential immigrant. He was settled in the city of Ur, when he felt a call deep within him that he identified with the call of the one true God, and he emigrated out of his home, beginning the long trek to immigrate into Canaan. He led his whole household on this long journey, in search of a better life God had promised him.
Many of the Biblical saints are immigrants. Moses emigrates out of Egypt into Midian, where he meets his wife Zipporah and also first encounters the same living God who called Abraham to begin the faith of Moses’ people. This is why Moses names his first son in Exodus 2 “Gershon”, which means “Stranger in the land” or “immigrant”. Lest anyone think that Moses’ immigration is legal, read Exodus carefully. Moses flees to Midian like many of the children at the border of the US have fled to us — out of fear for his life if he stays. Yet there is a marked difference: the children at our borders are innocents, not yet able by and large to have done anything wrong. Moses is a murderer, fleeing the criminal justice system of his day — execution by Pharoah’s soldiers. Moses could even be said to be a failed terrorist, since the blood he spills is shed in hopes of stopping the abuse and slavery of his people by the Egyptians. Yet this immigrant saint is the one Jews, Christians, and Muslims look to as perhaps the quintessential law-giver, one of the first framers of a free and moral society. He is also not just an immigrant, but a very illegal one at that.
We meet immigrants far more innocent at our borders in these children than Moses was when God called him. They are less like Moses when he immigrated into Midian and more like Moses was when he was placed out, floating on the waters as a baby, to be rescued by Pharoah’s daughter — another illegal act done to save a child’s life.
Christianity grows out of this example with at its center another illegal immigrant — Jesus.
Most of the time people fail to remember that Jesus was a child refugee who illegally emigrated out of his country. Yet the Scriptures make this pretty clear in Matthew 2. Notice:
13 Now when the Magi had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying, “Arise, take the young Child and His mother, flee to Egypt, and stay there until I bring you word; for Herod will seek the young Child to destroy Him.”
14 When he arose, he took the young Child and His mother by night and departed for Egypt, 15 and was there until the death of Herod, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying, “Out of Egypt I called My Son.”
16 Then Herod, when he saw that he was deceived by the wise men, was exceedingly angry; and he sent forth and put to death all the male children who were in Bethlehem and in all its districts, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had determined from the wise men. 17 Then was fulfilled what was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet, saying:
18 “A voice was heard in Ramah,
Lamentation, weeping, and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children,
Refusing to be comforted,
Because they are no more.”
When Jesus’ parents carried him out of Palestine in this birth story, all the male children’s lives are threatened with death. There is no way they could have gotten their equivalent of a “visa” to get Jesus out of their country. No, they fled — without care about the laws. Seeking permission to leave would have meant announcing Jesus’ presence to the very people intent on killing him. The law of preserving the life of a child was a deeper, more important law. So they fled with Jesus, all three of them immigrants, none of them — Jesus included — legal.
It is it any wonder that as an adult, Jesus challenges us to see the stranger, a Biblical word for the immigrant, as if they are Jesus himself come to visit us? After all, Jesus says in Matthew 25,
…I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; 36 I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me.’
37 “Then the righteous will answer Him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed You, or thirsty and give You drink? 38 When did we see You a stranger and take You in, or naked and clothe You? 39 Or when did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ 40 And the King will answer and say to them, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.’
Country artist Colin Raye beautifully pictures this Scripture in the following song:
One image Raye leaves out is very central to Jesus’ message: that Jesus also comes back in every “stranger”, a Biblical word for the immigrant. Jesus himself was a child refugee, illegally brought out of Palestine into Egypt. Jesus considers how we treat refugee children, and immigrants as if we are treating Jesus Himself as we treat them.
That God is watching carefully how we treat the immigrants who come to and through our borders is key to the Biblical message in both the Hebrew Scriptures & the New Testament. Notice God’s words through Moses in Deuteronomy 10:
16 Therefore circumcise the foreskin of your heart, and be stiff-necked no longer. 17 For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality nor takes a bribe. 18 He administers justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the stranger, giving him food and clothing. 19 Therefore love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. 20 You shall fear the Lord your God; you shall serve Him, and to Him you shall hold fast, and take oaths in His name. 21 He is your praise, and He is your God, who has done for you these great and awesome things which your eyes have seen. 22 Your fathers went down to Egypt with seventy persons, and now the Lord your God has made you as the stars of heaven in multitude.
God is described here as showing special care to children without parents — such as many of the unaccompanied minors at our borders — and the stranger, again a term for immigrant in the Bible. Failure to have compassion on them is a sign of an “uncircumcised heart”, a heart needing spiritual surgery.
Yet the Bible does not want us just to have bleeding hearts. God wants us to get things done.
In the Hebrew Scriptures, the same message Jesus gave that God takes personally how we treat children and immigrants is brought up repeatedly.
First we are warned not to mistreat immigrants or strangers.
Notice Exodus 22:
21 “You shall neither mistreat a stranger nor oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.
Notice Exodus 23:
9 “Also you shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the heart of a stranger, because you were strangers in the land of Egypt.
Yet the call of Scripture was not just to avoid hurting the immigrant. It also was to be ready to lend a helping hand. Under the Mosaic law, the people of God were required not only to be hospitable to the immigrant (which I have trouble imagining would be kicking them out of the country) but also to plan to provide for them when they were in need. Every three years, the tithes of the people instead of being given to the priests at the temple would be put aside for the needs of the most destitute among them which included “the stranger and the fatherless and the widow who are within your gates” (Deuteronomy 14): an almost word for word description of the frightened children sitting at our US borders. Likewise, the law prohibited the full wealth of the land, which was the food it harvested, being treated as property to be kept. Instead according to Leviticus 23:22 ‘When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not wholly reap the corners of your field when you reap, nor shall you gather any gleaning from your harvest. You shall leave them for the poor and for the stranger: I am the Lord your God.’” The wealth of the land is not to be hoarded, but some of it set aside for the poor, including the immigrant or stranger.
I think I would also do a dis-service to the teaching of Scripture to not point out Jesus’ words about our treatment of children, since the immigrants in question are children. Notice what Jesus says about these little ones.
Matthew 10:42 And whoever gives one of these little ones only a cup of cold water in the name of a disciple, assuredly, I say to you, he shall by no means lose his reward.”
Matthew 18:5 Whoever receives one little child like this in My name receives Me.
Matthew 18:6 “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to sin, it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were drowned in the depth of the sea.”
Our care for children is also of deep and abiding importance to Jesus.
So to live a truly Biblical ethic, we have to imagine ourselves as immigrants, we have to see Jesus as coming to us in the immigrants (both documented and undocumented) as well as children unaccompanied by parents and treat them as we would treat Christ in our midst. It would welcome and embrace them. It would not harm them. In fact it would go a step further and seek to make sure the basic needs of these children are met, and that they don’t go without.
My challenge for you and me is to truly allow ourselves to see Jesus in the other. This call is beautifully pictured by this Sydney Carter song in which we are called to recognize the Body of Jesus in the poor and, like Mary Magdalene washed his feet, to let our care for our neighbor in poverty be our way of caring for Jesus. I think the Biblical urging is to also see this to be true for the poor, huddling immigrant children at our borders, and for all immigrants in our midst.
The heart of the Bible’s message is to welcome the stranger or immigrant, and care for the father & motherless.
And it ain’t just whistling Dixie, y’all.
Your progressive redneck preacher,