A Story of Hope?
Despite living across the world in South Africa now, I’ve tried to stay current on what’s going in on the states. I find it healthy to have at least a rudimentary understanding of the different hot button issues since it’s still where my citizenship is (even if my residence isn’t). I’ve found it particularly interesting of late that immigration is the current “hot topic”. I keep seeing news about ridiculous laws in Arizona (and the subsequent profiling that has occurred) as well as the story about the student in Georgia who was illegally brought here at age 11 and is now dealing with the consequences. And according to CNN yesterday, “immigration” was their number one trending topic.
It’s interesting now considering this topic while living as a foreign national abroad. It’s made even more interesting, nuanced and complicated by working in a place that is a melting pot of nations and with its people, many of whom are likely undocumented. Take the story of Hope for instance:
Hope is from a nation north of the one I live in. She’s married, about my wife’s age (25ish) and has an 18 month old daughter. 8 months ago she lived in this northern country and her husband lived here in South Africa. As she prayed and fasted about this, God told her: “Go to your husband. I will protect along the way. I need you there though.” This took her aback: Hope had no passport or papers or anything like that and the political situation in her current country meant that she wasn’t likely to get them. Also money (something she really didn’t have) was an issue. She prayed and fasted more because, while she wanted to do it, this didn’t seem like a realistic possibility. God told her the same thing again, emphasizing that He would protect her and He added, “Don’t try to hide or sneak or creep: just go.” Miraculously the money came for the trip. The pieces seemed to be falling into place. So she went to the bus, without papers or anything like that, and headed to her husband. There were 3 big checkpoints that were a concern though: the border and then two additional, random ones that she didn’t know about. At each of these checkpoints everyone on the bus was asked to get off, line up and get out there papers. She prayed at stop one and God responded, “Don’t hide, I’ll protect.” So she got off, lined up but had no papers to pull out. And at each stop the armed officials looked at her, told her to have a nice day, and moved to the next person, oblivious to the fact that she had no papers — something they checked with every other person. She finally ends up in the township her husband lives in and finds him, having entered completely undocumented.
To me, this story honestly trivializes much of the debate occurring in the states. Here we have a woman told by God to cross borders without papers and He miraculously makes the way for that to happen. Obviously God wanted her here and obviously that was more important than particular notions legal immigration. In the states though this possibility doesn’t really even enter our minds, and unfortunately the debate itself is ultra polarized at the moment: there seems to be one side that seems so bent on protecting their “stuff” (property, rights, opportunities, whatever) that there is no room for civil discussion about immigration and what to do with current undocumented peoples. The other side seems bent on calling all those not in favor of completely open borders Nazis. And lots of typed yelling and name calling and goofiness ensues. People like Hope get caught up in the middle of this debate and are often dehumanized and/or forgotten. We forget in all of our name calling and land grabbing that real people with real stories and real circumstances are deeply affected. And that is really quite tragic.
This has got me thinking about the Bible though and what it says. Surprisingly enough it has quite a lot to say. Let’s start with Exodus 22:21:
You must not wrong a foreigner nor oppress him, for you were foreigners in the land of Egypt.
This particular translation is from the NET Bible and includes a translation note specifically referring to the Hebrew word for “foreigner.” In the context of this verse (and further verses referring to “foreigners”), the foreigner is a resident of the nation. He is living in the land but makes note that he is not necessarily a legal residence. Regardless though, God exhorts His people to not wrong or oppress him, recalling Israel’s own time as resident foreigners in another land.
The OT is rife with similar passages:
When a foreigner resides with you in your land, you must not oppress him. The foreigner who resides with you must be to you like a native citizen among you; so you must love him as yourself, because you were foreigners in the land of Egypt. I am the LORD your God. Leviticus 19:33-34
Leviticus 19:10, Exodus 23:9, and Deuteronomy 10:17-19, 27:19 are all similar, even going so far as putting care for the foreigner on the same level as care for the widow and orphan.
1 Kings 8:41-43 talks of foreigners too. It says,
“Foreigners, who do not belong to your people Israel, will come from a distant land because of your reputation. When they hear about your great reputation and your ability to accomplish mighty deeds, they will come and direct their prayers toward this temple. Then listen from your heavenly dwelling place and answer all the prayers of the foreigners. Then all the nations of the earth will acknowledge your reputation, obey you like your people Israel do, and recognize that this temple I built belongs to you.
I read that and think of how people I know stylize the land I come from: our reputation precedes us in the things that can be done (the American Dream?) and they direct their prayers toward its temple (Wall Street?). We don’t seem to be listening though. It’s just as well though as our reputation and the things that can be done in our nation are so often hollow and compare nothing to that of the Kingdom of God. I do, however, have to think — what if we did pay legitimate and honest attention to the foreigner amongst us? What if we did seek honestly to answer their prayers, not in the name of America (or any other nation) but in the name of Jesus and the kingdom of heaven? I honestly don’t understand how people following Jesus can respond so callously towards the foreigner and alien. And I haven’t actually gotten to the words of Jesus in the New Testament.
Matthew 7:12 tells us, “In everything, treat others as you would want them to treat you, for this fulfills the law and the prophets.” Others includes the alien (as it obviously did in the law and prophets, where foreigners figured prominently, as we saw, with widows and orphans in many passages). Then there is this same idea labeled as the second greatest commandment: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
Then there is talk of Jesus returning and people being separated into “sheep and goats”. The goats He sternly tells to “Depart!” Why? “I was a stranger and you did not receive me as a guest, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” Pretty strong words — words we would do well to keep in mind.
So where does the leave me? For one thing, it leaves me with an earnest desire to love the alien, regardless of their “legal” status. Frankly, as the testimony of Hope and others like her speak to, I’m not so convinced that God is much concerned with man-made boundaries and borders. He will take people where He will for reasons perhaps entirely His own. Often these are unknown to us and I’m perfectly comfortable in this. My task is to worry less about that and more about love and how I am treating them. And I’m more and more convinced that that treatment in the Bible is more than just words: it’s an active welcoming them in, and a seeking of their wellbeing alongside my own. It’s something we walk alongside people in now and will continue to do.
For another thing, it leaves me a bit less concerned about sides in an illegal immigration debate. Frankly regardless of the word “illegal” in the trending topic my call to love — to welcome — to walk alongside — doesn’t change. It doesn’t change with Hope nor would it change with any of the “least of these” back in the states. If the government wants to make such a designation and do something about it — that power is theirs. I likely wouldn’t protest unless it was in some way unjust (as the Arizona laws are — racial profiling, whether strictly codified or the natural product of what is codified should never be acceptable). Honestly if I’m asked of my opinion, it will be in favor of “the least of these” but it’s merely my opinion, formed by what God is doing in my heart. It’s not necessarily what everyone would agree with.
And I guess that leads me to reiterate again, never forget that there are real people at the heart of every number and stat. That’s not ever going to change. You might not agree with my take on the aliens amongst us but don’t forget, none the less, that they are people too — people loved dearly by God.