Immigration and the Heart of God

This presentation was part of a People of Faith and Immigration gathering, July 24, 2012 at the First Spanish Assembly of God in Waco, Texas.

Immigration and the Heart of God

By Alan Bean

Why are our churches so silent on the immigration issue?    Is it because a range of opinion exists within our congregations on the immigration issue and pastors fear they might spark a civil war if they touch on the subject?

Or do we fear that if we approached the immigration issue from a biblical perspective, or viewed the subject through the lens of Jesus Christ, we might arrive at mushy, impractical conclusions that don’t wear well in the real world?

The biblical narrative begins as Adam and Eve are exiled from the garden.  Next we meet Abraham, Sarah and their descendants.  These people are sojourners, undocumented aliens.  They wander the Promised Land as exiles, never finding a true home.  Eventually, the sons of Jacob show up in Egypt with a message for Pharaoh: “We have come to reside as aliens in the land; for there is no pasture for your servants’ flocks because the famine is severe in the land of Canaan.”

God’s children move from being undocumented aliens in Canaan to being undocumented aliens in Egypt.  They were driven by hardship, by the need for food, work and the means of survival.  They have come to be reunited with their brother Joseph.

Which is why the oldest confession of faith in the Bible begins:

A wandering Aramean was my father; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous.  When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the LORD, the God of our fathers; the LORD heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil and our oppression. 

As a slave nation wanders in the wilderness of Sinai, Moses tells them: “You shall not oppress a resident alien (sojourner); you know the heart of an alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.”

The point is even more explicit in Leviticus 19:33,34:

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.

There are two reasons given for extending the rights and privileges of citizenship to the alien: (1) you were undocumented aliens in Egypt, and (2) “I am the LORD your God.”  The character of God demands that the sojourner, the resident alien, the wandering Aramean is protected and cared for.

God’s people wander as outcasts for forty years before entering the Promised Land.  Then comes the period of the Judges, a time when the Canaanites controlled the land as much as the Israelites.  Only under David, 1000 BC, did God’s people finally claim sovereignty over the land.  But two hundred and fifty years later, the Assyrians swept away the northern kingdom of Israel and placed the southern kingdom of Judah under imperial control.

Then came Nebuchadnezzar, and the brightest and best citizens of Judah were hauled off to Babylon where they were forced to live as undocumented aliens under the control of a foreign power.

Even after returning to the Holy Land after two generations, God’s people lived under the control of the Persians, then the Greeks and finally the Romans.  Only for a very brief period under the Maccabees did Israel have control over its own affairs.

Over a history that spans two thousand years, God’s people controlled their own borders and lived as free citizens for approximately 300 years.  During the other 1700 years, they were wandering Arameans like Abraham, Sarah and Jacob, or slaves in Egypt or captives in Babylon, or vassal non-citizens living within the boundaries of somebody else’s empire.

And so Ezekiel, a resident alien in Babylon, dreams of a redeemed Israel, freed from its undocumented status.  The Holy Land shall be portioned out, the prophet says, just as it was in the days of King David.  In the 47th chapter of Ezekiel we read:

Thus says the Lord GOD: These are the boundaries by which you shall divide the land for inheritance among the twelve tribes of Israel . . .

And when the geographical inheritance has been restored to each tribe, Ezekiel says,

So you shall divide (the land) as an inheritance for yourselves and for the aliens who reside among you and have begotten children among you.  They shall be to you as citizens of Israel; with you they shall be allotted an inheritance among the tribes of Israel.  In whatever tribe aliens reside, there you shall assign them their inheritance, says the Lord God.

This is why the Bible reads like a survival guide for non-citizens, this is why God is Lord of the undocumented, and why the Bible has always been a bit of a puzzle to the powerful, to legal citizens, and especially to those who create and sustain great empires.

Consider this familiar passage from 1st Peter where a beleaguered people, living in the shadow of the Roman Empire, is reminded of its true status:

If you invoke as Father the one who judges all people impartially according to their deeds, live in reverent fear during the time of your exile . . .  You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.

And then, picking up a theme from the prophet Hosea:

Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.  Beloved, I urge you as aliens and exiles to abstain from the desires of the flesh that wage war against the soul.

Why do we live by higher standards than the citizens of this world?  Because we are aliens and exiles.  We have important work to do in this world, but our citizenship is elsewhere.

When God speaks of the river separating Mexico from Texas, does God say Rio Grand, or Rio Grande?  That is, does God address the immigration issue from the perspective of the Mexican citizen entering the United States illegally, or from the perspective of the Border Patrol agent charged with arresting and deporting all those who cross the border illegally?

We know, of course, that God sees the issue from both sides; but I’m not speaking about God’s head; I’m talking about God’s heart.  In the immigration debate where does the heart of God reside?

A few weeks ago, Nancy and I were sitting in a federal courtroom in McAllen, Texas.  A roomful of illegal aliens, most of whom had crossed the river the day before, were being tried for illegal entry into the United States.  In theory, each defendant had met with defense counsel and had decided to enter a guilty plea.  But in the course of the proceedings, one you man, so thin I doubt he weighed 120 pounds, raised his hand.  “I was wondering if there was some way I could get a permit to stay in this country?” he asked.

This opened the floodgates.  Another man informed the judge that he had crossed the river because he wanted to be in Oklahoma City for his son’s first birthday.  A woman explained that she had entered the country illegally because a recent deportation had separated her from her tiny daughter.

The judge hears this kind of thing all day long, but he was moved nonetheless.  He told the group that he fully understood that they had entered the United States for honorable reasons (the quest for a job, the desire to be close to loved ones), but as a judge he had no authority to exercise mercy; his only function was to pass judgment.

I didn’t condemn the judge for doing what he did.  But I wondered what God would have thought had God been in the courtroom.

Of course, if Jesus is anything to go by, God was in the room.  “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”

“I was a stranger and you welcomed me . . .”

Jesus, disguised in his usual fashion in the bedraggled form of an undocumented alien, a stranger, could expect no mercy from an overworked federal magistrate.  This is the way of the world; but it must not be the way of our world.

Is this mushy, over-the-top sentimentality?  No, it is the heart of the Christian gospel.  If it sounds strange to us that God, in Jesus Christ, should slip unnoticed into a federal courtroom and wrap his arms around an undocumented alien, that is only because we have yet to embraced the sheer radicality of our gospel.  This stuff is dynamite, folks.  It blows our religious preconceptions to smithereens.

We understand all the love passages in the Bible, but we are very good at finding clever reasons why they cannot and should not and must not, apply to people who aren’t like us.  We like to think that love is reserved for the deserving, for those who look like us, and sound like us, for those with the good sense to have been born north of the border.

“Oh really,” Jesus says.  “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you?  For even sinners love those who love them.  But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return.  Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.  Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”

Jesus is talking about loving enemies, people who mean us harm.  We can’t even love the young woman who crosses the border so she can be reunited with her tiny child.  We are free to harden our hearts if we wish, but there are consequences.  If we can find no room in our hearts for the men and women who wade the river, the Bible will become a book of fables, gibberish we cannot understand.

When I was a child, they taught us a little song:

One door and only one, and yet its sides are two;
Inside and outside, on which side are you;
One door and only one, and yet its sides are two;
I’m on the inside, on which side are you?

I never asked which side of the door Jesus was on.  According to Revelation 3, we might be on the inside, but Jesus stands outside.  You get the same message from the book of Hebrews:

For the bodies of those animals whose blood is brought into the sanctuary by the high priest as a sacrifice for sin are burned outside the camp.  Therefore Jesus also suffered outside the city gate in order to sanctify the people by his own blood.  Let us then go to him outside the camp and bear the abuse he endured.  For here we have no lasting city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.

A wandering Aramean was my father.

We are slaves in the land of Egypt; aliens in that great city of Babylon.

You shall love the alien as yourself; for you were aliens in the land of Egypt

In whatever tribe aliens reside, there you shall assign them their inheritance

Live in reverent fear during the time of your exile

I was a stranger, and you welcomed me.

For here we have no lasting city.

Therefore, let us go to him outside the camp.

One door and only one, and yet its sides are two,
I’m on the outside, on which side are you?

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