Last Thursday, April 5, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents raided a meat processing facility about ninety miles away in Grainger County, Tennessee. The result of the raid was that several dozen people were detained for further legal proceedings related to their immigration status.
The first of those “further proceedings” occurred yesterday, as people identified in Thursday’s raid reported to an immigration intake office in Knoxville, Tennessee. Religious leaders from a variety of denominations–including some of my own respected friends and colleagues of the Holston Conference of the United Methodist Church–were present to demonstrate their solidarity with the people and families who fear they are on the verge of deportation.
As you read that last sentence, you may have felt encouraged or outraged, depending on your perspective. It may have given you hope or caused you heartburn.
We live in an era in which our society and church are increasingly polarized, and our deeply held passions and convictions about faith and politics become so commingled that it can be difficult to discern whether our beliefs shape our political views or vice versa. Moreover, we often call this a “Christian nation,” further entangling our views of faith and policy.
So, whether you celebrate or seethe, may I please ask you to stop right now to question why you feel as you do about immigration? What convictions do you hold that make you glad, sad, or mad that ICE raided the packing plant or that the church came out yesterday to show solidarity with immigrants and their families?
As I seek to know and understand my own reactions, the United States citizen in me recognizes the need for immigration policy and border security, and I realize that the ICE agents–both at the processing plant last week and at the intake center yesterday–were doing exactly what we the people have asked and expected them to do on our behalf. I’m grateful for them and for the protection they provide us.
As a follower of Jesus Christ, I am also a citizen of the eternal Kingdom of God, and if I am to obey that Kingdom’s greatest commandment, to love the Lord my God with all my heart, soul, strength and mind, I must allow the Lordship of Jesus Christ reign over the sovereignty of the United States of America.
As a member of Christ’s body the church, I believe that God calls me–and all Christians–to lift our voices on behalf of, to stand in solidarity alongside, and to offer help and support to the immigrants in our midst.
Why? Because God has always shown favor to the stranger, the alien, the immigrant.
Those words are the various translations of the Hebrew word ger in the King James Version, New International Version, New Revised Standard Version, and Common English Bible.
From the very beginning of scripture in the book of Genesis, Abram(-aham) is a ger, a stranger/alien/immigrant, and his descendants keep up the family tradition throughout God’s holy word.
The twelfth chapter of Genesis reports that Abram(-aham) leaves his homeland of Haran, and from then on he is at various times an alien in the lands of the Egyptians, Canaanites, and Philistines. In Genesis 20, he and Sarah are aliens in the land of Gerar, whose name literally means something like “the place of strangers/aliens/immigrants.”
In Genesis 15:13, God tells Abram, “your offspring shall be aliens in a land that is not theirs . . . for four hundred years.” The next four books of the Bible tell us not only about God’s rescue of the oppressed strangers/aliens/immigrants from Egypt, but also about their wandering about for another forty years until they finally occupy the land that will be their home.
Their Exodus is led by Moses, a man who had two sons, one of whom was named, “Gershom (for he said, ‘I have been an alien in a foreign land’)” (Exodus 18:3).
As the Israelites travel through the wilderness, God prepares them to be hospitable to the strangers, aliens, and immigrants who will live among them in their promised land. In Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, God requires that they offer to both citizens and aliens equal protection under the law.
In Leviticus 19:33, God specifically requires, “When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien.” Beyond merely refraining from oppression, God requires the people to provide for the strangers’, aliens’, and immigrants’ needs in Deuteronomy, both as they leave extra produce in their fields for gleaning (24:19-22) and as they provide directly for the “aliens, the orphans, and the widows” from the people’s tithes (14:29).
Because God commanded that the Israelites leave room for the aliens to glean from their crops, Ruth, a ger from Moab, was able to gather enough gleaned barley to feed herself and her mother-in-law Naomi. While gleaning, she meets and eventually marries Boaz, and they become the great-grandparents of David, the great king of Israel.
This is momentous enough that when Matthew the gospel writer records forty-two generations of Jesus’ genealogy, he mentions only five women, and names only four. Ruth, the stranger/alien/immigrant is one of the four (Matthew 1:5).
Just as Matthew’s gospel begins with a ger playing a key role in Jesus’ genealogy, the story ends with Jesus himself telling his followers that our treatment of strangers is a key expression of our faith.
In Matthew 25’s judgment of the nations, he says to the righteous, “I was a stranger, and you welcomed me.” Likewise, he says to the accursed, “I was a stranger and you did not welcome me.”
Through all of scripture, the message is consistent: it matters to God how we treat the ger–the stranger, the alien, the immigrant–in our midst.
As if in summary, God says to Moses and Israel in Exodus 23:9, “You shall not oppress a resident alien; you know the heart of an alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.”
The Common English Bible translates that same verse, “Don’t oppress an immigrant. You know what it’s like to be an immigrant, because you were immigrants in the land of Egypt.”
We citizens of the United States of America could just as easily hear that particular translation entirely apart from any context of faith. We know what it’s like to be immigrants because we were immigrants, or at least our ancestors were. We can find a way to be hospitable toward immigrants, because we have benefited from previous generations’ hospitality.
I can hear the immediate objection: “Let them come into this nation legally!” I agree that it would seem that simple, but my own family’s experience convinces me otherwise.
There are two immigrants in my household, my sons Brett and Micah, whom Suzanne and I adopted (absolutely legally and at considerable expense) from Guatemala as infants. In a court deposition, their birth mother said she was at peace with the decision to make Brett available for adoption because she could not provide for him financially.
She testified that she made a “few centavos per day making tamales.” At today’s exchange rate, a Guatemalan Quetzal, the standard unit of currency, is worth thirteen cents. One centavo is worth 1/100 of a Guatemalan Quetzal, or 1/100 of thirteen cents. In other words, it would take seven centavos to equal one US cent.
I’ll leave you to imagine what she meant by “a few centavos.” Imagine further what she could or could not purchase with those few centavos.
We learned later that she saw a picture of our wood frame home with vinyl siding and said, “Palacio!” To her, our home was a palace, and the child she carried was going to live in a land and family of unimaginable wealth.
There’s the problem with, “Let them come into this nation legally.” Earning a few centavos a day, neither Maria nor hundreds of thousands of her Central American neighbors will ever afford to pay attorneys, to acquire documentation, or to access commercial transportation.
Their financial desperation is often compounded by the circumstantial desperation of living in communities and nations in which the rule of law has not yet superseded the rules of corruption, violence, ethnic conflict, or trafficking, and in which the words “human rights” are merely words, hollow and empty of meaning.
So, in desperation, they come by any means available in search of a job that pays more than a few centavos a day, in pursuit of a modest home that is a palacio compared to what they have left behind, with dreams of an education for their children, in hopes of living in a land without widespread corruption and oppression, a land in which they are not persecuted . . . in short, they are probably very much like our immigrant ancestors.
However, we have become so accustomed to being part of the “we” that it is easy for us to forget that we were once “they.” That’s really what this conversation is all about. In fact, the English word “alien” derives from the Latin word alius, which literally means “the other.”
It is easy to identify what is other than ourselves, and the more foreign something or someone is, the easier it is for us to respond in fear. As foreign as our income and palacio seemed to Maria, she would probably seem even more foreign here in our community.
With her small frame, her dark complexion, wearing her distinctive Guatemalan K’iche’ Maya huipil, and speaking some Spanish, but mostly in her K’iche’ dialect, she would be different from most of “us.” She would be a ger.
Unable to understand her language and unaccustomed to her appearance and habits, we might fear her intentions or dismiss the possibility that we would ever find enough common ground to consider each other neighbors . . .
. . . neighbors, as in “Love your neighbor,” the second great commandment of this Kingdom of which I am a citizen. In this Kingdom, we do the hard work of finding the neighbor in the stranger. In this Kingdom, we walk by faith and not by fear.
Fellow citizens of the Kingdom of God, how would our sovereign God have us respond to the ger, to the stranger, alien, or immigrant in our midst?
How would Jesus Christ have us welcome him by welcoming the stranger in 2018?
We already know the answer to these questions, don’t we?
God calls us to respond from our hearts, because as the Israelites learned so long ago, we know “the heart of an alien.”
For further reflection, the United Methodist Church offers these resources related to global migration.