Note: This reflection was written in 2006 when I was the rector at a small parish called St. Timothy’s in Athens, Alabama. At the time, many people were upset about the number of undocumented immigrants coming into North Alabama to work picking tomatoes. Within a year it was necessary for us to organize a counter protest of the KKK in Athens when they held a rally at City Hall. It is incredibly sad that we are still having the same conversation a decade later.
This essay is intended to be a theological reflection on scripture dealing not merely with how we are to treat and deal with immigrants but also, more generally, how we as Christians are called to live with all people whether they be from this country or another.
I begin with an important note on Scripture. As Christians, it is our responsibility to take scripture seriously when we come to ethical issues. Not to quote scripture out of the air and use it as another weapon in debate, but to allow it to enlighten us when we come to difficult problems. Christians are called to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest scripture, both alone and with others, not as a way of finding evidence to backup our already decided notions, but to allow scripture to enter and live inside of us. To allow the Holy Spirit to work in and through us and to enlighten what we have read. Too often we come to scripture looking for ammunition to support our own political ends, knowing that we have the right answer and wanting God, through the Bible, to merely confirm what we already believe. It seems as though everyone can quote chapter and verse to support their own politics. Scripture isn’t a tool to be used against one another, it is not a weapon to be used in our squabbles. Through Scripture we are called beyond Scripture to the faces of our brothers and sisters. It is a prism we look through and ask, how am I to see and live with others, how am I to view the world in light of what I have read? Taking a single verse here or there only it distorts our view. Scripture is meant to become part of who we are, being read over and over again so that it becomes who we are. Study and prayer are what make Christians different as we enter the world.
With this in mind I want to share a collection of verses which provide a consistent ethic on the issue of Immigration and many other issues throughout the Bible as to how we are to live with, and treat one another.
The Image of God
We being in the Beginning with the creation of all humankind. Humans were created as a reflection of the divine, “in the image”. Genesis 1:27 So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them. But throughout our history as humans we have disregarded this belief whenever it has become convenient. Our history is full of stories in which one group decided that another group was less than them and therefore could be afforded fewer rights. This has led to the destruction of many of God’s children in body, mind and soul. It is therefore imperative that no matter what our personal political feelings we not fall into dehumanizing language that refers to people as trash or animals, people should be respected as human beings first and all our debate should reflect the humanity of our opponents. We must also resist falling prey to the sins of racism and xenophobia that allow us to dismiss another’s humanity due to the color of their skin or place of birth and treat them differently. We are all created equally in the eyes of God.
The Exodus and Prophets
The history of the Jewish people, and therefore Christianity, has been influenced by many stories, but none more important than their exodus from Egypt. The release from slavery and exodus is a defining story in the life of Israel. As this story was told and re-told through history, an understanding of justice emerged and was written into the Torah, the first Five Books of Hebrew scripture, and part of our Old Testament. This understanding comes through in Exodus (22:21, 23:9) Leviticus (19:10, 19:33, 25:23) and Deuteronomy (10:18-19, 24:14-19, 27:19). It is a common theme that is summed up In Leviticus 19:33 “When an alien lives with you in your land, do not mistreat him. The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt. I am the LORD your God.”
The Hebrew people understood their responsibility toward those who were aliens to be the same as those who were native-born, because they recalled their treatment by the Egyptians and were determined that others not be treated in the same way. They did not want to become Pharaoh and create slaves of others, they did not want to see widows, orphans and aliens mistreated. On the contrary they felt called by God to show compassion, mercy and hospitality.
This way of seeing the alien was later taken up by many of the Prophets namely Jeremiah (7:6, 22:3) Ezekiel (22:7, 22:29) Zechariah (7:10) and Malachi (3:5) The Hebrew word translated as “alien” in English is ger, which can also mean stranger or sojourner. These scriptures, and this understanding of the stranger, have important implications for how I feel I am called as a Christian by Jesus to see those around me.
Who is Our Neighbor
To say that Jesus issues a radical call to living with one another would be a great understatement. Over and over in the Gospels Jesus challenges those who would be his disciples to shed their old understanding and see the new things that Jesus was teaching. The view of who was to be considered a neighbor and how disciples were to treat strangers was high on the list of how to walk on the Way.
In the Gospel of Matthew Jesus is asked a question by a lawyer about the greatest commandment, Matthew 22:35-39 reads “…and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. ‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ He said to him, ‘ “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus with this answer is telling not only the lawyer but all those who would follow him his expectations of how they would treat one another.
This story is also in the Gospel of Luke but rather than leave the story where it ends in Matthew, the story continues with the lawyer continuing to ask Jesus about his answer, the lawyer asks “And who is my neighbor?” Then Jesus answers him with one of the best known stories in the bible, the story of the Good Samaritan. Luke 10
Jesus replied, ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while travelling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, “Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.” Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’
Here is what we are left with, the greatest commandment is to love God, the next is to love your neighbor, who is the neighbor, the one who shows mercy. When we show mercy to one another we are being a neighbor. The commandments of Jesus are shown in the scriptures again and again and specifically 1 John 4:20, it reads, “Those who say, ‘I love God’, and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.”
But Jesus’ teaching on the neighbor and story of the Good Samaritan are not all he has to say about how we live with one another. In Matthew 25 Jesus tells his disciples the story of the sheep and the goats. This may have more to say than his teachings on loving our neighbor, because he specifically speaks of those we consider outcasts and strangers.
[Jesus said ]“Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 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, 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.” 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? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” 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, you did it to me.”
Jesus tells his disciples that they will not know when they have seen him, but tells them specifically that when they welcomed the stranger, the alien, they were in fact welcoming him, “Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family you did it to me.” Jesus considers those who are the outcasts, the poor, those who are sick or in prison and those who are the stranger to be his family and tells his followers through this story, that how those family members are treated will be remembered.
Our Baptismal Covenant
As a Christian I believe that through baptism we enter into a covenant with God, that we are forgiven of our sins and that we are sent out to be servants to those in need. In the Episcopal Church we have put this covenant in writing and are asked to enter into a new relationship with God, and with one another, through the sacrament of baptism. At our baptism we are asked a series of questions and the final two are specifically important for us as we reflect on our relationships in God’s family. The first question is “Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself”? Our answer is, “I will, with God’s help”, the second question is “Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being”? Again we answer, “I will, with God’s help.” We realize that we cannot do this alone and that we need the Holy Spirit working through us. We do not answer with qualifying statements such as “I will, with God’s help… but only if they are American, or if they are white, or if they are from my neighborhood.” What we are committing to is justice and compassion for all people.
Up to this point I have been trying to show the importance of treating people with dignity and respect, treating people in a way we would like to be treated. It may fairly be assumed that I have been focused on how we treat immigrants, but this ethic of care is not limited to immigrants. This ethic of care is as important when we look at how we treat those from our own country in terms of economic justice and fairness. Our country does not, at this time demand that employers provide a living wage for workers. Companies can provide whatever wage they determine, limited only by a non-livable minimum, and this is meant to be part of how the market works. A problem arises when companies ignore even the most basic regulations that attempt to assure workers a certain level of pay. The relationship between employers and low wage workers is one of injustice, exploitation, and wage theft. In many cases people will tolerate exploitation because being exploited in the United States is better than not working at all in their own country. The Christian response to economic injustice for workers who are citizens becomes an equally important issue that must be dealt with. Immigration issues do not occur in a vacuum, there are human lives at stake.
I do not intend to suggest that issues surrounding immigration reform are easy or that we must ignore legal and economic implications of people from other nations coming to this country, but I do believe that as Christians we have a responsibility to view all people first as human beings, created in the image of, and loved by God. This in turn leads to a desire for the common good of all people not just those who happen to live within certain geographical and political boundaries. As the grandson of two union steel workers, from Birmingham, Alabama, I understand on a very personal level the difficulties faced by working men and women. But these challenges will not be solved by scapegoating another ethnic or racial group or by treating others as our new servant class to do the work we would rather not do. Issues of economic justice and fair wages for all workers should be dealt with in a way that provides people with a living wage, not just in this country but all over the world.
We must be very careful where politics collide with economic, racial, and ethnic tension. These kinds of tensions have lead to some of the greatest atrocities the world has seen and can quickly go from political disagreement to vigilantism and violence. As Christians we commit ourselves to the betterment of all people through relationships and community. We must not let our discussions or decisions be based on anxiety or fear as we open our hearts and minds to the movement of the Holy Spirit among us.