Perhaps the most beloved story in the Gospels, and indeed maybe the favorite story for many from the entire Bible, is the story of Jesus’ birth. Even when it is not the time for Christmas, the familiar Nativity story lives on in our hearts and minds, narrating for us the incarnation of God into the world in the person of Jesus. Yet, while we celebrate and retell the story with feelings of warmth and comfort, from its beginning to its end the story is a narrative about the rejection of Jesus as a stranger and alien in a foreign land.
Luke tells us that when Jesus was born Mary laid him in a feeding trough, because there was no room for him in the inn. Matthew narrates a story about a young family having to live a nomadic life because of the threat of governing authorities. While these stories may not be entirely historical, both birth narratives reflect what Jesus knew to be true about his own life, “The Son of Man has no place to lay his head” (Luke 9:58). Throughout his life, while Jesus did gather a small following, in most cases, he was rejected. The story of the incarnation, then, is a story about how the God of creation had entered into that creation as a rejected alien and stranger.
While the nation’s attention has been focused on health care reform, one of the most vital issues that has been and will continue to be debated is the issue of immigration. Indeed, the debate over immigration is closely linked to the issue of health care reform, as many have voiced there opposition to any government funded health care that treats persons who are in the United States illegally. Many others, however, have argued that we have a moral obligation to care for all, whether they are here legally or illegally.
I am ill-equipped to answer questions about immigration from a legal stand point, and I see the strengths and weaknesses of various positions on the issue. But as Christians who follow a Savior who himself lived as an alien rejected by his own, I am troubled that many folks are not concerned about developing a compassionate response to the immigration issue.
Since the horror of 9/11, xenophobia has once again raised its ugly head in our country. This fear of foreigners has grown out of a return to an entrenched and zealous patriotism that has gone too far in its understanding of America as the only culturally pure society. Yet, some blame must also be placed on our fear of not feeling secure and the perception that American culture is under threat. Such xenophobic tendencies may overtly or implicitly influence our feelings about immigrants and our political positions on the issue of immigration.
How might Scripture inform us as we struggle to formulate common sense and faithful Christian responses to the issue of immigration? First, we need to recall God’s commands to Israel regarding aliens in their midst. The Mosaic Law states that God is one “who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing.” Moses goes on to command Israel to “love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Deut. 10:17-19).
When we turn to the New Testament, we find that followers of Christ are called citizens of the Kingdom of God, and alien and strangers to the world. The Christian movement negated ethnic differences and crossed boundaries of ethnic separation to welcome all into the Kingdom of God. Jesus consistently reaches out to the outcasts of society, even the Gentile, who were viewed as ethnically inferior by the Jewish religious leaders. Paul reaffirms the breaking down of ethnic divisions by stating that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, as both have been joined together into one new humanity (see Gal. 3:28; Eph. 2:14-22).
One thing we must keep in mind is that most immigrants we see and meet in our communities are not illegal immigrants. They are law abiding citizens who desire a better economic and political life for themselves and their families. We should remember that at some point in history our ancestors were immigrants to this country seeking exactly what immigrants to the U.S. seek today. Moreover, we cannot simply blame immigrants for problems such as crime, loss of jobs, or other social programs. These problems would exist even if there were no immigrants.
As people of faith, we should be informed about this important issue and voice our religious conscience. But if we claim to follow Jesus, we need to make sure our views are more informed by the compassion of our faith than the fear our culture feeds us. Our positions on the issues surrounding immigration must not only model the teachings of Jesus on welcoming the strangers and outcasts, they should also be views that see the person of Jesus in every human being. If they do not, we may find ourselves asking Jesus, “When did we see you as a stranger?” only to hear, “Just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me” (Matt. 25:31-46).