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“Hey, Obama quoted my report in his speech last night!” That was the little (almost tiny) joke I made to my wife in reference to President Obama’s recent speech on immigration reform. Of course, the President has no idea I penned the “Biblical-Theological” part of my denomination’s study committee report on immigration about four years back but in his speech he quoted a line from the Bible that was pivotal in that report’s summary of what the Bible has to say on issues surrounding immigrants (or as the Bible calls them, “strangers,” “aliens,” or “foreign-born”). “Scripture tells us, we shall not oppress a stranger, for we know the heart of a stranger. We were strangers once, too,” the President said. That line is a version of Exodus 23:9 but this same sentiment pops up all over the place in the Pentateuch, especially in Leviticus.
Over and again God commands Israel to make extra provisions for the alien within its gates. And over and again God grounds this command in one of two things (and sometimes in both): first, in the divine character, as when God follows such commands by saying “I am Yahweh!” Second, in Israel’s collective memory of having been horribly mistreated aliens once themselves: “For remember that you were slaves in Egypt.”
This blog post is not the place to replicate all the instances of this command that I found but suffice it to say that they are numerous and end up constituting something of a Bible-wide theme in the end. Once in a while we see the bountiful fruit that can result from Israel’s following these mandates (as when Boaz made extra provision for an alien widow from Moab named Ruth) but more often we see Israel’s dismal failure to follow God’s own example or to hark back to their own history when all the marginalized in Israel are trampled upon again and again. Cue the Minor Prophets and their repeated broadsides against Israel and its leaders for gross failures in exactly this area of life.
The truth is that a sense of homelessness, a sense of being the refugee, was supposed to be part of the spiritual DNA of God’s people. It began with Abram, whose first word from Yahweh was “Leave.” Abram and Sarai had to leave the only home they had ever known in order to get the covenant rolling and, in fact, they’d never know another home for the rest of their lives. Even once Sarah dies, Abraham has to dicker to secure a plot of land just big enough to bury the love of his life. Then there was the long sojourn in Egypt of course and then a long period of desert wandering. But even once the people were settled, their just and generous treatment of other refugees and strangers was to provide living testament to their understanding of both God and of themselves. Once they repeatedly failed at this, the people were again displaced and exiled.
On and on it went until the day came when the Son of God—the Word of God who was with God in the beginning, as John puts it in his Gospel—exiled himself from home to come to this world. And once the Word of God was here as the ultimate alien within this world’s gates, the world did not recognize him and even his own people “received him not.” As it turns out, something of our very salvation emerges from God’s personal experience both with being a kind of immigrant and with being mistreated at that. Maybe this is part of the reason why the seemingly commonplace practice of “hospitality” subsequently receives such a high profile in the New Testament: we do for others what the world did not do for God’s own Son. It’s part of how we display that we “get it” when it comes to God’s own character and how God wants this world to function.
But back to President Obama’s evocation of this biblical theme: the United States routinely runs the risk of confusing itself with God’s chosen people, as though everywhere the Bible says “Israel,” you can just swap in “United States.” Nevermind that this is bad hermeneutics and nevermind that this ignores the deeper reality that now it is the Church—not any nation past, present, or future—that is to be identified as the New Israel. This confusion of categories and exegesis is frequently on display from conservatives but more liberal minded folks can do the same thing, albeit cherry-picking other issues from the Bible and trying to apply them nationally.
Hence I want to avoid any such confusion. I also want to avoid any debates as to the relative wisdom or folly of the President’s executive orders in this area. But if we restrict ourselves to our thinking as individual and as congregations—if we stick to wondering what should frame immigration-related issues for us as disciples of Jesus Christ—then it seems to be utterly correct that Exodus 23:9 and its many, many biblical cousins are the places to start. Does this suggest some crystal clear immigration policy for the United States? No. Even Israel’s geopolitical situation was so different from today’s realities as to make simple policy connections unwise if not perilous.
But when we look at strangers, aliens, refugees, and immigrants, we look at them through the lens of God’s own character as it has been fully revealed now in Jesus, the Word made flesh, the Word made homeless. And we look at these others in our midst through the lens of our own experience as people who had been exiled from home due to our own sinfulness but who were graciously taken in by the kindness and hospitality of a Triune God who from before all eternity had been a whirl of intra-Trinitarian room-making for one another in the Godhead and who now in creation and redemption has opened up that circle to make room for all of us, too.