Wednesday, April 19, 2006

How Christians Might Think About the Immigration Issue: Part 3

In this series, I'm viewing the immigrarion issue with which we're dealing in the United States these days through various Christian "windows." Each of these views will hopefully, help us to see our ways to formulating our own views on the subject.

So far, we've looked at the issue through two windows. We've said that:
  • Governments are ordained by God to promulgate laws that maintain order. Inherent in that is the right to maintain and safeguard borders and the inflow of immigrants.
  • God values justice, which in Biblical terms is love enacted in life.
Today, I want to look through a third window. It revolves around the Biblical understanding of the alien. Deuteronomy 10:18-19, finds God speaking a special word to his people, Israel, back during the time of Moses:
Although heaven and the heaven of heavens belong to the Lord your God, the earth with all that is in it, yet the Lord set his heart in love on your ancestors alone and chose you, their descendants after them, out of all the peoples, as it is today. Circumcise, then, the foreskin of your heart, and do not be stubborn any longer. For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall fear the Lord your God; him alone you shall worship; to him you shall hold fast, and by his name you shall swear. He is your praise; he is your God, who has done for you these great and awesome things that your own eyes have seen. Your ancestors went down to Egypt seventy persons; and now the Lord your God has made you as numerous as the stars in heaven.
What themes can be adduced from these words? Let me suggest a few:
  • God is the Lord of all creation.
  • For reasons known only to God, He chose a particular people, the Hebrews or Israel, to be His people. (Later, also by God's mysterious choice, the Savior of the world, Jesus Christ, came from this people. Israel thus fulfilled its historic mission of being "a light to the nations." In Christ, all people have the opportunity to become part of God's eternal community: all who turn from sin and trust in Christ as Savior are part of a new community, the kingdom of God.)
  • Because God is fair, His people were to be fair to all people, even loving the alien among them because, for 430 years, they had been aliens--even slaves--in Egypt. In fact, their whole history from the time of their patriarch, Abraham, was about being aliens.
  • God loved the stranger and His people were to love the stranger too.
What we see from this and other passages of Scripture, both the Old and New Testament, is that in an ultimate sense, all people are our neighbors and today, through Jesus Christ, all people are invited into relationship with God.

In the Old Testament, this is memorably underscored in two extraordinary short books: Ruth and Jonah.
  • Ruth was a Moabite woman who married an emigre from Bethlehem, who had come to her country in the wake of a famine. (An irony in that the name of his hometown, a small village near Jerusalem, means house of bread.)
In time, Ruth's husband, her brother-in-law (who had married another Moabite women, Orpah), and her father-in-law all died in Moab. Ruth's mother-in-law, Naomi, resolved to return to Israel and Ruth went with her. Later, Ruth became the ancestress of Israel's great king, David, a reproach to any later Israelite s who might tend toward xenophobia.
  • Jonah was a prophet told by God to go to the foreign city of Nineveh and announce simply, "Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!"
Nineveh's sins were apparently so egregious and pervasive that God lost patience with the people there. But Jonah didn't want to deliver God's message in Nineveh. He hated the Ninevites. Instead, he booked passage on a ship sailing in the Mediterranean.

You know what happened next: God sent a ferocious storm. The seasoned sailors on board wondered what was going on. Jonah said that God was mad at him and that if the crew simply tossed him into the drink, all would be well. They was reluctant to comply with Jonah's wishes, especially since it appeared that God had his eye on Jonah.

Finally though, they agreed to throw him overboard. As soon as Jonah hit the water, there was a dead calm on the sea.

Jonah, meanwhile, was swallowed by a great fish. There, he prayed for three days and then, the fish vomited Jonah out. At this point, Jonah complied with God's commission, telling the Ninevites, "Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!" Chastened by the impending consequences of their sins, the Ninevites repented and God relented on His resolve to destroy the city. This peeved Jonah. He sulked and asked God:
“O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.”
In the end, God pointed out that He cared about all people, even those not numbered among His fold. Here was another reproach to xenophobia on the part of God's people. All Hebrews were called to have a certain solidarity with foreigners and aliens born of their experiences as a nomadic people.

Christians, too, consider themselves aliens and strangers. We believe that Earth is but a temporary home, that we await the consummation of God's plans when Christ will return and all believers in Christ will reside in a new heaven and a new earth. This is why the apostle Peter writes:
Beloved, I urge you as aliens and exiles to abstain from the desires of the flesh that wage war against the soul. (1 Peter 2:11)
And like the nomadic patriarch of Biblical faith, Abraham, we Christians are to demonstrate hospitality to all:
Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. (Hebrews 13:2)
Historically, of course, the ancient Jews, dispersed by persecution and the presence of foreign armies, often welcomed Gentile strangers who had come to believe in the God revealed to the Jews. These Gentile "God-fearers" as the New Testament calls them worshiped with the Jews in the synagogues dispersed throughout the Mediterranean basin in the first-century and became, along with many Jews, the first Christians.

But this tradition of identifying with and extending hospitality to aliens and strangers had its limits, of course. A perusal of the Old Testament passages dealing with how God's people were to interact with aliens demonstrates that these ancient "immigrants" were expected to abide by the law of the Jewish nation. Consider a few examples: must keep my decrees and my laws. The native-born and the aliens living among you must not do any of these detestable things...(Leviticus 18:26, TNIV)

Assemble the people—men, women and children, and the aliens living in your towns—so they can listen and learn to fear the LORD your God and follow carefully all the words of this law. (Deuteronomy 13:12. TNIV)

There was not a word of all that Moses had commanded that Joshua did not read to the whole assembly of Israel, including the women and children, and the aliens who lived among them. (Joshua 8:35, TNIV)
In other words, acceptance of the foreigner did not include acceptance of the flouting of Israel's laws or of any criminality.

This definitely has implications for any Christian's consideration of the issue of immigration policy: We are to be welcoming and supportive of the strangers in our midst. But, from a Biblical, Christian perspective, no one should get a pass: Just as the host owes the guest hospitality; the guest should not be here on false pretenses or in flagrant disregard of our civil laws. That shows contempt for both the host and for the order God has established by ordaining civil government.

Tomorrow, I hope to put a bow on this series, suggesting a few implications for how Christians might think about the immigration issue after a consideration of the Bible.

[Part 1, Part 2]

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