Making Immigration Our Problem
Published by Calvin Seminary
Even as I write this, a caravan of thousands of Hondurans is making the dangerous and harrowing journey north, heading toward the US border in search of a better life. Though some have suggested that the caravan is made up of drug mules, thugs, and terrorists who are planning to “invade” our country, those on the frontlines give a different picture: tired mothers with young children, young men fleeing gangs, families traumatized by violence, people crushed under the weight of corruption and poverty. Some, no doubt, head north in search of economic opportunity or the desire to join family members already in the US. Many others, however, cannot return home for fear for their lives and will make legitimate claims for asylum at our border.
Through no merit of my own, my life is markedly different. I was born in a safe and stable country. Because of this, every day, I wake up in a comfortable bed. I get my children off to a school where I know they receive a quality education. I go to work at a job that is demanding but fulfilling. I have access to sufficient food and clean water. I do not fear daily that my daughters will be gang-raped or trafficked or that my nephews will be pressured into gangs. I do not have to pay off thugs to keep my family safe. My family and I are not denied opportunities for education or work and our lives are not threatened because of my ethnicity or religious beliefs or political convictions. I live a relatively safe existence in a stable and predictable environment that allows me and my family to flourish.
For many of us in North America, immigration and refugee resettlement is something we have the luxury of not thinking or worrying much about. When it does come up, it is in the context of discussions about government policy and national security and protecting our borders and safeguarding American values. It is a political issue, not a personal one, and one from which we enjoy a measure of detachment. After all, it is not our lives at risk, and as such, it is easy to relegate issues of immigration to the pile of things that are not our problem.
But while the plight of the immigrant and the refugee may not be our problem per se, the Bible seems insistent that it should be our concern. In fact, caring for the immigrant goes right to the heart of what it means to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength and to love our neighbors as ourselves. Deuteronomy 10:17-18 tells us, “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 immigrant residing among you, giving them food and clothing.”
Simply put, the testimony of Scripture is that God loves, cares for, and watches over the immigrant (Ps. 146:9). And while Scripture doesn’t explicitly state why this is the case, the association of the immigrant with the orphan, the widow, and the poor provides a helpful clue. God cares for the immigrant because, like these others, immigrants are especially vulnerable to the brokenness and sin of this world. They are people without a home, often without resources, without status, and without a support system, all of which makes them susceptible to discrimination, abuse, loneliness, and hardship. Their very survival and ability to flourish is dependent upon the hospitality of others. For good reason, then, God is concerned for their well-being. God sees their vulnerability, their loneliness, their fear, and His heart breaks for them.
One way that we show love for God is by loving and caring about the things that are of concern to God. Deuteronomy 10:19 makes this explicit when it indicates that not only does God love the immigrant, but we are to love the immigrant as well. What this means, exactly, is spelled out in the law codes of the Old Testament.
There, we find laws that safeguard the just and fair treatment of immigrants. For instance: Deuteronomy 24:14-15: “Don’t take advantage of poor or needy workers, whether they are fellow Israelites or immigrants who live in your land or your cities. Pay them their salary the same day, before the sun sets, because they are poor, and their very life depends on that pay, and so they don’t cry out against you to the Lord. That would make you guilty.”
Leviticus 19:33-36: “When immigrants live in your land with you, you must not cheat them. Any immigrant who lives with you must be treated as if they were one of your citizens. You must love them as yourself, because you were immigrants in the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God. You must not act unjustly in a legal case involving measures of length, weight, or volume. You must have accurate scales and accurate weights, an accurate ephah and an accurate hin. I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt.”
In addition to laws that demand justice for the immigrant, we find laws that legislate compassion and mercy. Good examples of this are found in:
Exodus 23:12: “Do your work in six days. But on the seventh day you should rest so that your ox and donkey may rest, and even the child of your female slave and the immigrant may be refreshed.”
Leviticus 19:9-10: “When you harvest your land’s produce, you must not harvest all the way to the edge of your field; and don’t gather up every remaining bit of your harvest. Also do not pick your vineyard clean or gather up all the grapes that have fallen there. Leave these items for the poor and the immigrant; I am the Lord your God.”
Through these and other laws, the Israelites were encouraged to treat immigrants as they would treat their own, making no distinction between themselves and “the foreigner.” In fact, the Old Testament laws emphasize again and again that being a foreigner, a stranger, the other is a significant part of Israel’s own story.
They too “were immigrants in Egypt.” They knew the vulnerability of being a minority population. And their laws reflect this, exhibiting a profound empathy for those who would uproot themselves from their homeland and family and everything familiar to join themselves to God’s people. Thus, what we get in Old Testament immigration law is not so much laws that focus on protecting Israel, but rather, laws that seek to protect immigrants and that direct Israel to show care and hospitality toward them.
In addition to cultivating a sense of shared identity and empathy for immigrants, this core memory of being immigrants in the land of Egypt served as an important reminder that what distinguished the Israelites from the immigrants who came to dwell among them was God. They were once immigrants in Egypt. But God changed all that when He responded to their cries for help and acted toward them with compassion and grace, forming them as a people and giving them a sense of identity, a land, security, economic prosperity, and well-being. All of it was pure gift, given not because they deserved it but because of God’s great love for them (Deut. 7:7- 8).
God’s intention with this lavish gift-giving, however, was never that Israel protect and safeguard this blessing for themselves. Rather, Israel was blessed to be a blessing. And so God commanded them to share their land, their resources, their culture, even their God, and in this way, to pass on God’s love and compassion through acts of hospitality, extending God’s redemptive work to the nations. As God loved and blessed Israel, so God called them to love and bless others, particularly the most vulnerable, like immigrants.
Now, we are not Israel. And this is not the ancient Near East. But God’s concern for the vulnerable has not changed. He still loves the immigrant. And for those of us who are followers of Jesus, our calling is not so very different from that of ancient Israel. We are blessed to be a blessing, called to participate in extending God’s redemptive work to the nations. To love because God loves. To have compassion because God has compassion.
In this time of fear and anxiety, when the conversation about immigration revolves around protecting what’s ours, Christians have an opportunity to make a powerful, countercultural witness to God’s love and concern for the immigrant and the refugee. So let’s show that we are lovers of God by making immigration our problem.
By Amanda W. Benckhuysen
Professor of Old Testament
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