Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Champion the Cause of the Stranger

This was an article I recently wrote for Preacher Magazine.  Expecting publication some time in the Summer.

Champion the Cause of the Stranger

I was reading from Job recently and came across a section in chapter 29 where Job makes a defense of his righteousness (with the conclusion that he doesn’t deserve to suffer as he is), and saw some revealing things about the ethic of that ancient people.  We see the usual items, “I delivered the poor who cried, and the orphan who had no helper. . . I caused the widow’s heart to sing for joy. . . . I was eyes to the blind, and feet to the lame. I was a father to the needy . . . “   And then he says this in the NRSV translation, “I championed the cause of the stranger.

I like the phrasing of the NRSV here.  It occurred to me that now is a great time for the church in the U.S. to champion the cause of strangers.  There are over 37 million foreign born in the U.S.   Of those, recent estimates indicate that about 11.7 million are not authorized to be here.  Who are they?  They are our neighbors; they live among us, work with us, marry among our families, and worship with us.  About 63% of the unauthorized population has been here ten years or more.  They are irretrievably embedded in our society.

The Job passage, however, is no isolated proof text.  The Hebrew scripture uses the word for “stranger,” ger, some 92 times and abounds with instructions to care for them, show them hospitality, and treat them as you would the native born.  See, e.g.   Ex. 23:9; Lev. 19:33.  As in the Job passage, many texts in the Hebrew scripture link immigrants with the widows, orphans, and poor – those singled out for protection by Israel.  God is on their side, and the prophets condemn God’s people for, among other things, the way they abused these groups.  See, e.g.  Zech. 7:9; Mal. 3:5.

As an immigration lawyer, I spend much of my time working to keep foreign nationals right with the law and help those who aren’t to get there.  Sometimes it’s an impossible task because of the harshness and inflexibility (and sometimes injustice) of our immigration laws and the agencies that enforce them.  For many of our unauthorized neighbors, they are here without legal status simply because there is no legal way to come or to stay here, despite the presence of family and offers of employment.

But from a biblical perspective I see absolutely no difference in how we should treat immigrants based on their legal status in the country, and I find nothing inherently immoral about crossing a national border to escape persecution, or work and care for one’s family.  They may immigrate for various reasons, but all are subject to the abuse that can come from being among the most powerless members of a society.

Pity the unauthorized worker in the U.S.  Abused by ruthless bosses.  Afraid to show their faces in public and seek assistance.  Afraid of the police and those we put our trust in to protect us in hard times.  Families travel constantly together for fear of separation.  Children are given instructions on what to do if Mommy and Daddy don’t come home from work that day.  In a six month span of 2011 alone, we deported over 48,000 parents of U.S. citizens, most of whom had no criminal record.  Children are orphaned and permanently separated from parents because of unforgiving and unmerciful laws.

And the harshest cut of all to unauthorized strangers must be the rejection by their brothers and sisters in Christ, harboring some misbegotten notion that they are morally unfit because of their legal status in the U.S. 

Certainly, I do not advocate lawlessness with respect to our immigration laws, but neither do I advocate passive acceptance. Appeals to Romans 13 are inadequate to me.  In the U.S., we have a privilege not afforded to the early Christians – we can actually work to change unjust laws for the “least of these” immigrants among us.

Do not make the mistake of equating our civil immigration law to something brought down by Moses from Mt. Sinai on tablets of stone.  Space does not permit me to list all of the harshness and injustice of our current immigration laws, and in the past 12 years, the injustice has dramatically increased.  Our immigration laws are often unforgiving, unmerciful, indifferent to human suffering and basic notions of right and wrong.    But . . .

The Lord works vindication and justice for all who are oppressed.. . . The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. (Ps. 103:6,8)

Jesus the Immigrant

I think it is helpful for us to consider Jesus the immigrant and the Christian journey as an immigrant path.  First, we see that Jesus’ family fled, as immigrants, to Egypt to escape the wrath of murderous Herod.  Many of the immigrants here also came fleeing persecution in their native lands.  Many came in illegally because that was the only option available to them.  If we turn a deaf ear to them, the scriptures suggest that God may turn a deaf ear to us when we cry.

But I also see Jesus in Matthew 25, the story of the sheep and the goats, the righteous and the unrighteous.  Judgment is predicated on how those suffering were treated by the people of God.  The righteous fed the hungry, gave drink to the thirsty, clothed the naked, and visited the sick and the prisoners, and welcomed the foreigner (xenos) in.   The unrighteous did not.  Moreover, Jesus, the King in the story, puts it in the first person and says, “I was naked; I was hungry; I was in prison; I was a stranger, and you welcomed me in. . . .”  Both the righteous and the unrighteous are ignorant of who they were either helping or ignoring, and Jesus tells them, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” (vs. 40)

The writer of the letter to the Hebrews  tells us “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.”  Heb. 13:2.   God so identifies with the poor, the widow, the orphan, the immigrant, that our help to them is a service to Him.

Lastly, however, I see the incarnation of Christ as an immigrant story – one that we imitate as Christians on our journey.  He left his home above, as the only beloved of the Father, and “the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.”  John 1:14.  But his kingdom was “not of this world” and he looked forward to the day when he would return to the Father and prepare homes for us.  He was willing to humble himself and journey to his own.   But rather than seeking a better life for himself, he came that we might have life abundantly.

Similarly, as Christians, we recognize that this world is not our true home.  We are, as Peter says, to “live out our time as foreigners here in reverent fear,”  (I Pet. 1:17)   and “admit we are foreigners and strangers on earth.” (Heb. 11:13), recognizing that our true home is elsewhere.  We are the ones who are “longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called [our] God, for he has prepared a city for [us].”  Heb. 11:16.  I am blessed to be born in the U.S., but my true home lies far beyond these borders.

Yet we don’t deserve this calling to a home prepared for us by Christ.  In the kingdom of heaven, we are all illegal aliens – someone had to help us over the wall (to paraphrase Shane Claiborne).  As Paul  says, at one time, we were “foreigners to the covenants of the promise” and “separate from Christ.”  Eph. 2.  Once we were not a people, but now we are the people of God, brought near by the blood of Christ. 

If, therefore, we have received mercy on our immigrant journey to a better country, how can we fail to show mercy to those who have journeyed to this country and are in need of our compassion.  When it comes to immigration reform, it amazes me that some Christians act as if the concept of forgiveness is totally foreign to them.

God says to his people in Exodus, “You shall not oppress a resident alien; you know the heart of an alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. Ex. 23.”  Yes, we were aliens also.  This is my prayer --  that God’s people would know the hearts of the aliens among us.  In doing so, we can show them the mercy that God has shown us and be “champions” for their cause.