A family member emailed me recently, asking to hear my thoughts on immigration. To be honest, I hadn’t before pondered the issue within the context of my faith. Immigration, particularly illegal immigration, is a sticky topic at present and not one I prefer to dwell upon much. But as I weighed this request, I realized that the Bible does have some meaningful things to say regarding the Christian response to foreigners within our borders, both legal and illegal. And I think there are many who might find such a teaching helpful.
Illegal immigration is a tough issue to discuss precisely because it intersects those delicate lines of faith and politics. On the one hand, the Bible commands believers to extend generosity and equal rights to foreigners. On the other hand, illegal immigrants are lawbreakers. They’ve found some way to circumvent the system, sneak across the border, and make legal immigration tougher for those who wish to respect our country’s laws. So, what should the Christian perspective be?
In spite of the vast cultural, governmental and sociopolitical differences between ancient Israel and the modern U.S., we share some surprising common ground. The nation of Israel, while encompassing the descendants of Abraham, was diverse. Some historical scholarship suggests that the original band of Hebrews was composed of various exiles and castaways from the Mediterranean region. When God brought them into the Promised Land of Canaan, they came as foreigners. In fact, Abraham himself lived as a foreigner in Canaan hundreds of years before. So did his brother, Lot. The Israelites, as a national people, do not have a single, specific country of origin. And so it is with Americans. We are a diverse people who settled a land that was not originally our own.
Like our Hebrew forebears, we have reaped the fruits of the land we settled and become a powerful people. And exactly like our Hebrew forebears, we have foreigners coming in among us wishing to share in our blessings. With all the attention given to the genocidal commands in the Old Testament, people forget this reality of Israel’s history. Anyone who agreed to live by the Mosaic Law of the Israelites by giving up their pagan practices, becoming circumcised and observing certain social and religious rites was allowed to integrate into Hebrew society. God commanded the Israelites to treat these foreigners with full compassion and equality:
When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God. (Leviticus 19:33-34).
For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt (Deuteronomy 10:17-19).
Do not take advantage of a hired worker who is poor and needy, whether that worker is a fellow Israelite or a foreigner residing in one of your towns (Deuteronomy 24:14).
At the end of every three years, bring all the tithes of that year’s produce and store it in your towns, so that the Levites…and the foreigners, the fatherless and the widows who live in your towns may come and eat and be satisfied, and so that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands (Deuteronomy 14:28-29).
When you are harvesting in your field and you overlook a sheaf, do not go back to get it. Leave it for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow, so that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands (Deuteronomy 24:19).
“So I will come to put you on trial. I will be quick to testify against sorcerers, adulterers and perjurers, against those who defraud laborers of their wages, who oppress the widows and the fatherless, and deprive the foreigners among you of justice, but do not fear me,” says the Lord Almighty (Malachi 3:5).
Yep, the same Israelites who were commanded to stone adulterers, exile eaters of bloody meat and annihilate entire pagan cultures were also commanded to love and care for the foreigners who chose to live among them. In fact, the purpose of tithing in ancient Israel was to provide for foreigners and others who could not provide for themselves! Because when God said He wanted food in His temple, He meant, you know, actual food (Malachi 3:10).
Guess what? The crucifixion of Jesus didn’t change God’s mind on this matter. As Christians, we’re called to continue in the practice of loving our neighbor. Scripture provides no exceptions to that based on the neighbor’s legal status.
Unfortunately, some “Christians” have developed a response to immigrants that combines deep bitterness with irrational suspicion and a solid dose of racism. Every person with an accent and skin a shade darker than tan becomes a target for their vitriol. They are convinced that immigrants are stealing from them personally—their jobs, their children’s scholarship money, and their social safety net. They view the immigrant’s presence as an offense to themselves, believing the person immigrated simply out of envy for their possessions and wealth. A few of these people even see it as their mission to “punish” illegal immigrants by being mean, discriminatory and, in some cases, violent toward them.
This is not a Christ-centered response. And such a response is simultaneously devoid of justice.
As one of my favorite bloggers succinctly put it, “Surely we don’t think that God gives us blessings simply so we can spend nearly $2 billion a year on hair removal?” No. We are blessed so that we can lavish God’s love and abundance on others—so that we can provide for the foreigner, the orphan, and the widow.
And if we, as individuals, refuse to embrace this will of our Father—if we choose instead to hoard our blessings and treat the foreigners among us with contempt—we won’t be happy with the consequences. In fact, I’d say the consequences are already upon us:
Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on you. Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days. Look! The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the innocent one, who was not opposing you (James 5:1-6).
I’m about to say something highly controversial: Jesus doesn’t care one iota about the so-called sovereignty of America’s immigration laws. He doesn’t give two flips about the boundaries imposed by the U.S.-Mexico border. A person crossing that border, legally or illegally, is not injustice in his eyes. Injustice is 4 percent of the world’s population consuming 25 percent of the earth’s resources while 80 percent of the human race lives in abject poverty. Injustice is people who have been blessed with over 100 brands of bottled water (nevermind the tap) and Sleep Number beds and warehouses full of clothing denying charity and asylum to people who reside in countries so violent that they cannot even walk down the street to their jobs. (A fact you probably won’t hear on the evening news, because we get more upset when a former child TV star dances suggestively on stage in a bikini.)
Yes, immigrants want what we have. They want literate kids. And food on the table. And neighborhoods where they can walk down the street without getting shot. And medical care. And a house that has more than one room in it—a house that’s made with something other than sheets of rusty corrugated metal tacked over a dirt floor. They want it!
And there is only one thing Jesus Christ, the sovereign Lord of all, is going to ask us at The Judgment: What did we do for the least of these (Matthew 25:40)? Because when we stand before him and give an account of our attitude and stewardship, he’s not going to be impressed when we—who have so much food that we often throw it at each other for entertainment—say that we upheld the law, policed the border, and demanded that the “lawbreakers” go home and become self-sufficient. Because we were once foreigners and lawbreakers, too, both spiritually and historically. And Jesus gave everything he had to restore us to equality. He’s expecting his followers to act likewise, no matter our political leanings.