September 29, 2011

For the Poor and the Alien: An Evangelical-Wesleyan Approach to Immigration

Immigration is a hot-button topic in American politics these days, and it is a topic over which Christians disagree. Recent and stringent laws in Arizona and Alabama have kept the issue at the forefront of national attention, and church leaders have spoken to both sides of the issue. To this point I've held off writing about immigration, because I wanted to take time to think through the issues and reflect on a way forward. I've been tempted to draw a line in the sand, but have thought better of it. Instead, I want to offer some biblical and theological reflections on this polarizing issue.

Let me begin by saying that the following reflections arise out of my evangelical and Wesleyan commitments. I say that up front because it often seems to me that those who identify themselves as evangelical tend to favor strict immigration laws. I will contend, though, that an evangelical approach calls us to remember that God has welcomed us when we were not only strangers but enemies. When I combine this with my Wesleyan commitment that the people of God are to reflect the holy character of God, I find it leads me to believe that if we are to reflect the holy character of the God who lavishes his abundance on the stranger and the alien, then we must find ways to welcome and bear witness to the holiness of God with the strangers and aliens among us.

At the heart of this reflection is Leviticus 19:2, 9-10:
"You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy...When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the Lord your God (NRSV)."
God spoke these words through Moses to Israel on the heels of their deliverance from slavery under the Egyptians. They were strangers in a land not their own; they had no rights, no status, no privilege, no honor, and no opportunity for social mobility. They were poor and alien, strangers and slaves with no land to call their own. And in their impoverished state, God came to them and in his extravagant grace delivered them from bondage and slavery. He called them to be his people who would represent him to the nations (Ex. 19-3-6). They would learn his holy ways; they would share his holy character.

And sharing his character did not include unusual or wild commands (though they might seem that way to us at times); sharing his character meant regarding others the way God regarded them. And in this passage in Leviticus 19 that means showing kindness to the stranger and the alien, because God had shown them kindness when they were strangers in another land. One of the many ways that they were to show the world that their God was the God was by leaving some of their crops, some of their bounty, for the poor and the stranger among them. The foreigner was to be treated with hospitality not contempt; kindness not disdain. Why? Because that is what God is like.

But that is not all. The reflection does not stop with Leviticus, because Leviticus points forward to Christ. When we ourselves were in bondage and slavery to those dual evil masters of sin and death, God came in search of us. We were not merely estranged from him; we were wretched. There was enmity and strife between us and him. And yet he offered himself to us in Christ so that we could be reconciled to him and share his bounty. We had no status, no rights, deserved no favor, and still he demonstrated his love for us in that while we were sinners, Christ died for us (Rom. 5:8). When we were nothing, he gave us everything. And he calls us now to make known to the world the riches of his kindness in Christ Jesus. The question is whether we will live into our calling to make his holy love known to the nations not only abroad but across the street. The Holy One has come to care for the poor and the alien, and they are we. Will we share his holy character? I, for one, am deeply grateful that, when I was a stranger to God, I was not turned away but welcomed with open arms into the bounty of his mercy.
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3 comments:

liquidfaith said...

We also have to be mindful of the laws of our land, so long as they do not call us to contradict Scripture. Operating within this (often tense) framework, I think you have captured the appropriate Christian response very well:

"[W]e are to reflect the holy character of the God who lavishes his abundance on the stranger and the alien, then we must find ways to welcome and bear witness to the holiness of God with the strangers and aliens among us. "

Matt O'Reilly said...

Indeed, I'm advocating neither lawlessness nor completely open borders. I'm tossing around some ideas that might be in the direction of a via media on this.

Thanks for your comment.

ἐκκλησία said...

To that I would add (as a non-American), that though Israel was to treat 'strangers' no differently than native sons, strangers were to seek the same atonement Israel was to seek, for as they fell under Israel's law.

Because they were under the same body of law Israelites were under, foreign ideas were not to dilute Israelite law, or faith.

If we are to somehow apply this to modern American society, immigration and law, we must first recognize that the foundation of American jurisprudence is in fact biblical law. Therefore immigration cannot and should not result in the de-christianization of society as it appears to be doing.

There is a huge difference, practically, between treating others in a Christian fashion and drinking from the wine of Babylon, however, one is often mistaken for the other the two are often confused.