The debate on immigration includes a wide variety of issues and topics, from concerns over America’s swelling population to our relatively high unemployment rate. Liberals and conservatives debate whether immigrants are filling the low-paying jobs that most Americans avoid or if they are undercutting a struggling American labor force. National security adds another layer of tension with visions of drug traffickers and terrorists traveling through the border states.
When faced with difficult problems like this, many Christians turn to the Bible for guidance. They are likely first to turn to the New Testament gospels and epistles, since the Old Testaments laws were given specifically to the Israelites and don’t seem to apply directly to today’s problems. But we might be surprised when we study the Old Testament and read what it has to say about our current immigration debates. In fact, reading the Old Testament provides a striking perspective on how we should respond to foreigners living among us.
Abraham is arguably the first immigrant discussed in the Bible. God sent him from his home in Ur of the Chaldees into the land of Canaan where he wandered among hostile kings and suspicious locals. He regularly feared for his life, but God assured him that he would father a great nation that would one day inhabit the entire land of Canaan.
There were boundaries and kings already in place during the time of Abraham, but God did not recognize them. He had his own plans for the people and the land. Whatever the kings of Canaan thought about the land, God asserted his right to place the stewards of his choosing in charge of the land. Psalm 24 is hammered home here: “The Earth is the Lord’s and everything in it.”
Abraham’s great grandson, Joseph, brought the Hebrew people to settle in Egypt. Though the Israelites entered the land of Egypt as guests who enjoyed the fertile pastureland of Goshen at the request of the Pharaoh, the book of Exodus documents a dramatic turn of events in the first chapter due to a government-created national security crisis. Using fear of foreigners and their potential alliances with Egypt’s enemies as the catalyst, a new Pharaoh managed to convince his people that these immigrants must be enslaved lest they overrun the land. The Egyptians were so completely gripped by fear of the Israelite slaves they even killed their children.
This ancient story reminds us that fear of attack by enemies close to home can motivate moral people to commit atrocities. Fear and nationalistic attitudes can drive wedges between people who would otherwise live in peace. The story of the Exodus reminds us that God does not take the side of the oppressor—a lesson that God tried to impress upon the Israelites when they settled in the Promised Land.
In the book of Leviticus, a number of regulations set the Israelites apart from the foreigners among them in the Promised Land. However, the law of the Lord explicitly states, “When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. The stranger who sojourns with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God” (Leviticus 19:33–34). Whether or not this stranger is particularly welcome does not factor in God’s command.
In many ways the Old Testament pushes our own boundaries in today’s illegal immigration debates. For starters, our borders and sense of ownership of America should be relatively low priorities for Christians who are citizens of the Kingdom of God and who believe that the earth belongs to the Lord. We are, at best, stewards of the Lord’s land. If the Lord can give the land to whomever he desires, as in the case of Abraham, then we should approach matters of national boundaries and land ownership with a healthy dose of caution and humility. While we have an obligation to observe our nation’s laws, our laws should not override God’s calling for us. Stewards of God’s land should be wary of the implications of calling anyone an immigrant, let alone an illegal one.
The Exodus also acts as a cautionary tale regarding the consequences of allowing fear of foreigners to drive laws and policies. Fear is the opposite of faith. Fear inhibits our ability to love others as we would love ourselves, since fear sets up boundaries and forces us to act in our own self-interest. Egypt’s downward spiral in the book of Exodus begins with fear of foreigners, and Egypt’s oppression of the Israelites produced terrible consequences. When we approach immigration from a standpoint of fear, we will opt for disproportionate responses that can do more harm than good. There are those who commit crimes and do harm after entering our nation illegally, but our immigration laws should not treat the majority of potential immigrants with the same measure sused for murderers and drug traffickers.
Perhaps there are situations that require strong government intervention. Arizona’s new immigration law, SB1070, was passed with widespread popular support. This new law requires legal immigrants to carry with them documents proving their legal status and requires law enforcement officers to determine individuals’ status during the course of “lawful contact” whenever there is a “reasonable suspicion” that they might be in the country illegally. Arizona has the fastest growing population of illegal aliens in the country. The federal government estimates that over a half million illegal aliens were in Arizona in 2008, and residents are worried that that this large, undocumented population is contributing to higher crime rates and costing their state millions of dollars in education, Medicaid, and other public assistance spending (see Center for Immigration Studies for details: http://cis.org). But some laws responding to real problems may end up being counterproductive and unjust. Many leading Christian thinkers believe Arizona’s immigration law violates the teachings of Jesus. Catholic Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles called it “The country’s most retrogressive, mean-spirited, and useless immigration law,” Progressive Christian activist Jim Wallis of Sojourners writes that this law is “a social and racial sin” (see Wallis’s blog: “God’s Politics Blog.” 21 April 2010, http://blog.sojo.net).
Regardless of the law’s intent, the practical enforcement of the law will make it difficult for Christians to obey the teachings laid out in the Old Testament regarding foreigners and God’s ownership of the earth. Some police officers worry the law will lead them to racial profiling when asking for documentation, while even legal immigrants fear the hostile atmosphere the law will create. If Arizona’s law is strictly enforced, families will be torn from their homes and loved ones. Since the law states that you can be arrested even if you are with an illegal immigrant, Christian ministers are concerned that the law will prevent them from offering assistance such as rides to suspected illegal immigrants. And if illegal immigrants are made victims of violent crimes, will they feel safe reporting these crimes to the police?
Old Testament teachings help us see that we need a new language of immigration. We are called to love the foreigners among us—whatever their status—in a world that is not our home—a world where we are stewards. While we should aim to obey our nation’s laws, we should not allow them to frame God’s view of the earth or foreigners. God frames the terms by which we interact with our world, including immigrants. As fellow sojourners in this world, we will find that we have more in common with the immigrants we’re commanded to love than we’d expect.
Ed Cyzewski is the author of Coffeehouse Theology: Reflecting on God in Everyday Life. He blogs on theology at www.inamirrordimly.com and on writing at www.edcyz.com.