This past June, Alabama’s governor signed into law the toughest stance on immigration in the U.S. This law continues to be debated among the citizens of that state, while the U.S. Justice Department has stated that Alabama’s law is unconstitutional.
I am not an immigration lawyer, nor do I pretend to speak to the legalities of this particular law. However, I do think that this law raises the moral stakes, and for those who claim to be Christian, such as Alabama Governor Bentley, the question of potentially denying people "the most basic human needs," as the Justice Department declared Alabama’s law does, ought to be taken seriously. Jesus, himself a stranger and an alien, calls us to do better.
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, an event that many Christians will celebrate in just over a month. Yet, while we annually 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 lifestyle because of the threat of governing authorities. While these stories may rely more on myth than actual history, 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. How might this story speak to our lawmakers, particularly those who claim to be Christian?
Again, I am ill-equipped to answer questions about immigration from a legal stand point. 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.
The law in Alabama is an example of such a lack of compassion, even raising serious questions over whether churches will be held legally accountable if they knowingly provide assistance to any illegal immigrants. Indeed, as Robert Parham, executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics, has pointed out, Alabama’s immigration law is reminiscent of the anti-desegregation era of the 1960’s.
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).
What is about these teachings from Christianity’s sacred text that these Christians, such as Governor Bentley, who would surely point to the Bible on other moral issues, don’t get?
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 also 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.
And, while there may be as many as 11 million immigrants in the U.S. illegally, many of these are hard working people who are seeking a better life for themselves and for their families. The majority contribute to the economy of this nation, including doing many jobs that Americans will not perform, as well as starting small businesses in the entrepreneurial spirit of America, as a recent report on NBC indicated.
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).
I wonder how the Alabama lawmakers will respond.