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Last week, the stated clerk of my denomination the Presbyterian Church (USA), Grayde Parsons, issued a public letter to Donald Trump about immigration. Parsons was speaking to one of his own–Trump was baptized in a Presbyterian congregation–and to the rest of us about our church’s historic stance on immigration. In doing so, he succinctly summarized PCUSA policy papers and statements as advocating for the humane and just treatment of refugees in light of the refugee whom we call Lord, Jesus of Nazareth.
At the same time that Parsons was issuing his statement, Daisy Machado, a leading Latina church historian in the United States and director of the Hispanic Summer program, presented the annual Stoutemire lecture at my institution, Western Theological Seminary. Machado’s experience is extensive and her CV long. She is an expert on the borderlands, where she has ministered, led immersion trips, and studied the plight of undocumented immigrants—refugees fleeing atrocities and landing all too often in a place like limbo, that precarious state of nothingness between heaven and hell (and yes, here I am speaking figuratively).
In one of her essays, “The Unnamed Woman” in A Reader in Latina Feminist Theology, Machado tells the story of Elena, a woman from El Salvador living in south Texas with her two children. When Machado met her, Elena was awaiting her fate at the hands of the INS. Elena’s first petition for residency had been denied; her second was pending. As Machado puts it, the INS doubted that Elena’s life would be at risk if she was deported.
Elena’s face told a convincing story otherwise. She had no nose. It had been cut off . . . slowly . . . by military personnel . . . while she was pregnant. This gruesome act was preceded by repeated rapes and the murder of her husband, her brothers, and other members of her community. Elena somehow managed to survive and to arrive, with her two small children, on the US and Mexico border in the hopes of finding refuge.
When Donald Trump declares that, as president, he would deport all 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States in an 18-24 month period, he is talking about people like Elena and her children. When Trump likens those crossing the Mexican border to rapists, he is making a similar rhetorical move that sexual offenders make—painting victims as oppressors. His argument is un-Christian and non-Reformed.
Jesus himself was a refugee. Joseph and Mary fled Herod’s slaughter of innocent children in their homeland. They found safe harbor in a country not their own. They were today’s so-called illegal aliens, to use pejorative language to make the point.
Of course, this is the history of the Jewish people as well. God’s chosen people have been homeless and exiled, often living on the brink of annihilation. God chose a people without a land, a people threatened on all sides. And when God brought them to a land, God called them to be a blessing to all, especially those who experienced the same plight.
- “You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 10:19).
- “When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 19:33-34).
Christians, too, are by very definition outsiders. We are Gentiles grafted into Israel, the covenant community. We have been elected into God’s covenant people from the margins. As Willie Jennings argues in his award winning book, The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race, we Christians in the west have largely forgotten this reality and thus lost our ability to be a “thinking margin:” a people able to identify and articulate oppression and injustice; a people buoyed up by surprising hope for the freedom and inclusion for all; a people who become disciples of Christ by learning with and through a different people.
And this brings us to a classic theme in Reformed theology: covenant. Beginning with John Calvin, Reformed theologians have articulated the relationship between God and humanity as covenantal. God binds Godself to us and us to another through covenant, a set of promises and obligations that God alone keeps. Covenant relationships established by God are not contractual, therefore. God’s relationship with us is based solely on grace (the abundant and free gift of life and love) and cannot be severed on our side. Covenant is trustworthy and sure.
To be in covenant relationship with God is to be in covenant relationship with one another. The vertical and horizontal cannot be separated, for to be in Christ is to exist in and with one another. Covenantal identity is communal identity. Baptism is initiation into the covenant community. Infant baptism reminds us that we do not choose this covenant or ensure it. It is gift from above. The Lord’s Supper sustains and nourishes us in covenant with God and therefore with each other. Through the supper, Jesus sends out to share the good news of the Gospel, the message that this relationship includes all, especially those living on the margins.
In its most basic sense, covenant means that we do not belong first and foremost to nation or kindred or affinity group. We belong to God and therefore we belong to and with the so-called alien and stranger. For God has been alien and stranger in Jesus Christ, and so have we.