Immigration and the Bible

Posted on April 24, 2016

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When not tending my garden or working on my current writing projects, my attention is often drawn to life today and life yesterday. Or, put another way, my tendency is to compare how we live today and how we lived yesterday. And by yesterday I feel free to range from yesterday, literally, which would be Saturday if you are reading this column on Sunday, to two or three thousand years ago, or more, or less.

And as I compare life now and life then, I move beyond comparing medical advances services now for example, and precarious lives then when child mortality was common and medicine was just a sad joke by comparison to today, but also to the way we think about things.

Sometimes we change so much over the passage of generations that it is hard to believe that our ancestors thought and did things which we find outrageous, like embracing slavery, treating women rather cavalierly, and stoning people to death who today proudly proclaim themselves to be what once was considered a heinous sin in the past.

A few weeks ago I dealt with the “cultural captivity” of the Bible, with regards to slavery. The institution exists in Scripture, but we abolished it back in the nineteenth century, and the question I posed is how much of what the Bible teaches is still valid today.

Immigration is a hot button issue today in this country, and Europe, and the Middle East, and you can get a boil going pretty quickly on the subject. We have people who espouse “building the wall,” kicking them all out, and sealing ourselves off from the world trying to get to our country, and, on the other side, such as Pope Francis, who would have us embrace all immigrants unequivocally with love and compassion. Knock down the walls of prejudice and discrimination. Universal love for all.

How do you deal with immigration responsibly, somewhere between the jackboots of hate and suspicion and the doves of love?

I know a lot of the arguments for and against immigration, and while reading the book of Deuteronomy a few weeks ago I tripped over it again. And it came in one of those passages, rather indirectly, but pretty clearly.

When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, you shall not strip it afterward. It shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands.”

And the writer, traditionally thought of as Moses, adds, for good measure “You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore I command you to do this.” (Deuteronomy 24: 21-22)

The word sojourner is just another way of saying immigrant, foreigner, traveler. It means, and we all know this meaning, an “outsider.”

In fact, in the Old Testament, widows, orphans, and travelers were all to be taken care of, in one form or another, by the Hebrews. In the passage from Deuteronomy above one was to allow widows, orphans and travelers access to your vineyard, or, put another way, give them some of your usufruct from your labors, take care of them.

In the New Testament, Jesus taught in parables, but they were usually very clear. He tells his disciples in one instance, “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” (Matthew 25:35) And so the injunction to take care of strangers and travelers was repeated for the Christian community.

It is still valid today. Making it an even more powerful command is the equally clear historical truth that we, in this country, are a nation of immigrants, unless you are a native American Indian.

They came 10 or 12 thousand years ago (or more, depending on which archaeologists you chose to believe) and certainly established their rights to the land and to be considered original inhabitants after thousands of years!

Not so our ancestors. Unless you are a direct descendant of the Indians, all your ancestors were sojourners, travelers, immigrants. They came in various forms and for different reasons over the centuries, some escaping persecution and others to conquer and settle and take the land.

The first were the Spanish and then the French and finally the Johnny-come-latelies, the English. After them the Dutch, Germans and then the deluge it seems of every nationality, race, and people in the world. Some were imported as slaves, others came with nothing but the clothes on their backs, many were rejected and treated with suspicion by those already there. Just one example. When German immigrants arrived in Pennsylvania in the eighteenth century, Benjamin Franklin observed:

“Those who come hither are generally of the most ignorant Stupid Sort of their own Nation…Not being used to Liberty, they know not how to make a modest use of it… they come in droves, and carry all before them, except in one or two Counties…unless the stream of their importation could be turned from this to other colonies … they will soon so out number us, that all the advantages we have will not in My Opinion be able to preserve our language, and even our Government will become precarious.”[1]

And, Ben continued,

“Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a Colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our Language or Customs….”

Sigh. We need to build a border around these Germans and their descendants otherwise they will ruin the nation! Perhaps we could start with Donald Trump’s grandparents from Germany….

Published as  “Seeking the Right Way on Immigration” in The Tuscaloosa News, Sunday April 17, 2016

[1] http://www.dialoginternational.com/dialog_international/2008/02/ben-franklin-on.html

Posted in: History, immigration