The following appeared in the Houston Chronicle Outlook section last Sunday. As you might expect it prompted a spirited discussion. See http://www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/editorial/outlook/6150621.html
. There is also a very revealing story about an immigrant family separated by deportation in this month's Texas Monthly
that is worth reading. See http://www.texasmonthly.com/preview/2008-12-01/feature5
. As always, I am interested in hearing your views on this subject.
What the Bible has to Say about Immigrants
A few months ago I was in church listening to our pastor's sermon. He was describing a feast where the prophets had sent out word for all the people of Israel to come together. Interestingly, the invitation to the feast specially included all of the "aliens living among you."
When I got home and I got on an electronic version of the Bible and did a search for the word "alien." To my surprise, the search turned up dozens of references. It seems that the issue of immigration has been on peoples' minds for some time.
A copy of the passages can be found at www.BillKingHouston.com/scripture
. Most are in the Old Testament and while the message varies, the underlying theme is an admonishment to treat aliens living in your land with tolerance and charity. Frequently, they are grouped with widows and orphans, and the passages charge us with an affirmative duty to see to their well being. In many of these passages, originally written to the Israelites, they are reminded that they will do these things because they once lived as aliens in the land of Egypt.
There are two passages that I found particularly compelling. First is Exodus 12:49:
"The same law applies to the native-born and to the alien living among you."
I am not a big proponent of mixing religion and politics, but I do not believe we should check our faith-based values at the courthouse door or the capitol steps. I find many of the legislative proposals floating around these days pretty inconsistent with this passage.
The second is less legalistic, but even more compelling. Deuteronomy 10:17-19 provides:
"For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality . . . He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the alien,
giving him food and clothing. And you are to love those who are aliens,
for you yourselves were aliens in Egypt."
I suppose that those of us who are Christians should not be surprised that the God that commanded us to feed the hungry, attend the sick, cloth the naked and love our neighbors as ourselves would have a similar soft spot for those who have been displaced from their native homeland.
But certainly this passage is hard to reconcile with the rhetoric I have heard from some of my Christian brothers and sisters on this issue. Skeptics are likely to see such inconsistency as hypocrisy and, in many cases, I share their skepticism. However, for most I suspect there is a more complicated explanation.
You may be familiar with an Anglican cleric named John Newton who lived in the later part of the 18th century. Newton is best known as the composer of what is perhaps the greatest Christian hymn of all time, Amazing Grace. Fewer know that Newton began his life as a rogue and eventually fell into the slave trade. Ultimately, he was the captain of a slave ship and, by his own account, was responsible for the torture and deaths of many Africans during their transport to the Americas.
Later in his life, Newton had a religious conversion. Eventually he foreswore the slave trade and became an ardent abolitionist. He is credited with mentoring William Wilberforce, the member of Britain's Parliament who successfully led the abolition of the slave trade in 1807. He wrote Amazing Grace about his conversion. What is somewhat more complicated and troubling about Newton's story is that after his conversion he did not immediately give up the slave trade. In fact, after his conversion he captained several more slave trips while living an otherwise pious life.
I think this startling moral inconsistency must be viewed in the context of its social setting. During the last half of the 18th century, other than a few Quakers and Methodists, none of the religious establishment had spoken out against slavery on moral grounds. One can find some Biblical passages that seem to, at least, tolerate the institution and it had been interwoven into the social fabric of most of the world for millennia. While the diabolic evil of slavery is patently obvious to us today, it was not so for most people in the world at that time.
Today, when good people are confronted with public schools and hospitals pressed beyond capacity, ever rising property taxes to support these institutions, home invasions by criminals in our country illegally, innumerable auto accidents with aliens having no insurance together with a myriad of other problems associated with our broken immigration system, it is hardly surprising that they are frustrated and angry. And unquestionably, these are issues that should be dealt with expeditiously and equitably. After all Exodus says that the same laws should apply, not that there should be no laws.
However, when I see scenes like a child being torn from its mother because she is being deported or immigrants dying in the back of a truck trying to come to this country to make a better life for themselves and their families, I fear that we are suffering from the same moral blindness that Newton did after his conversion but before his epiphany on slavery. I cannot imagine any Christian can watch families being forcibly separated so that some can be deported and believe that is a scene of which Jesus would approve.
It is said that in the later part of his life Newton memorized the name of every African slave who died in his care and that he daily repeated their names in a prayer seeking forgiveness. Immigration reform is likely to be on the national agenda next year. Some members of the Texas Legislature have indicated that there may be some proposals put forth on the State level as well. Certainly there will be many difficult issues in this process on which people of goodwill may honestly disagree. But hopefully we will undertake reforming our system with our faith-based values in mind and not a moral blindness which we will one day regret.