Loving the Sojourner

It’s no secret that I have been on a hiatus for over a month, due in part to some big life changes (which include, among others, preparing to marry my fiancee’ and transitioning jobs). But recent events have spurred me to finally sit down and make the time to write.

There have been several instances during the past month when I’ve almost broken the silence to broach several salient topics–whether they’ve been on defending the lives of the unborn in Ireland or preserving the historical Christian ethic of sex within the covenant of marriage.

But just the other day, President Trump made an executive order to reverse the practice of separating immigrant families at the border, a move that was applauded by both conservatives and liberals alike. Laura Bush, former First Lady, had written an impassioned plea in the Washington Post calling for what she viewed as much needed reform in the process of detaining immigrants and asylum seekers at the border. When the likes of Laura Bush AND Franklin Graham critique a right-wing administration, you know that something’s up.

Before I go on, I should preface by saying that this not the right place to expect a debate on immigration laws per se. There are plenty of other op-ed and wannabe op-ed (i.e. bloggers, like me) pieces floating around the web for that in the event that you need your fix. Republicans want to ensure laws are respected and upheld. I get that. What I want to fight against in this blog post is what I’ve continuously seen on Facebook and Twitter: the dehumanizing of these illegal immigrants as a faceless “other” and the lack of compassion in the rhetoric of some people on social media, many of whom claim to be Christians. In other words, what I want to fight for is loving our neighbors as ourselves.

Many millennials look around for answers toward real-world issues such as this and find the Church wanting. Put another way, the question posed is: how does the biblical, Christian worldview affect our attitude towards immigrants?

 

“You Were Once Sojourners”–The Story of America

Unsurprisingly, the Bible is not silent about this topic. Numerous times throughout the Old Testament, the people of Israel are called upon by God to love and care for foreigners/aliens/immigrants/sojourners because they were once sojourners themselves in the land of Egypt:

18 “He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. 19 And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt.” Deuteronomy 10:18-19

 

“Do not mistreat or oppress a foreigner, for you were foreigners in Egypt.” Exodus 22:21

‘When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the LORD your God. ” Leviticus 19:33

“Do not oppress a foreigner; you yourselves know how it feels to be foreigners, because you were foreigners in Egypt.” Exodus 23:9

 

Unlike the people of Israel, the United States was never meant to be a theocratic government–despite what some people claim about America having been founded as a “Christian nation” on explicit Christian principles. But I will agree that a Christian (and even evangelical) ethos and consciousness has always pervaded and run parallel with America’s history, and indeed is a strong part of its story. The first settlers–the Pilgrims and Puritans–were self-professed Christians who sought the freedom to worship God according to their own convictions. They too were sojourners, and the story of the first Thanksgiving (though potentially apocryphal) is all about the natives overcoming their suspicion to welcome them as sojourners.

As the United States formed, grew, and became a nation, the fervor of many for evangelism coincided with the call for “Manifest Destiny” westward toward the Pacific. To some, the United States represented a kind of new “promised land”–a “land of opportunity”–and the Statue of Liberty stood as a beacon of hope for millions of immigrants hoping to start a new life in a new home.

But this also opened up opportunity for various abuses.

Now, I love the United States. You’ll find my hand over my heart during the “Star Spangled Banner” and an occasional tear in my eye from an alleged speck of dust (or perhaps “allergies”, depending on the day). But though I love my country, I can also acknowledge that its wealth and prosperity was at the expense of an entire population of indigenous people who were displaced and decimated while staring down the barrel of rifles on their way to the Trail of Tears. (Now that population has all but disappeared into obscurity, except for its prevailing presence as several sports mascots.) I also acknowledge that the wealth of this country I love was built on the backs of slaves for over 200 years, who were taken from their families and homeland never to see them again. And finally, I also acknowledge that this accrued and accumulated wealth is presently not always shared with two-thirds of the world’s population. Americans like our comfort bubble, after all.

More personally, Asians weren’t accepted as equal members of our society until the middle of the 20th century. When I was asked by a college girlfriend what time period I would have liked to experience, I enthusiastically responded with the 1940’s before I was promptly reminded by her that I would not have been accepted in society during that time. Such a reminder is always a jarring slap in the face.

Clearly the notion of having once been sojourners ourselves as Americans was lost on many throughout the history of our blessed country, and we have not always loved the sojourner in return.

 

A Call for Compassion

But what about the present? How do we love the immigrant in our contemporary context? Once again, we can debate on immigration policy all we want, but this is not the place for that*. What I want to call us all to do, especially Christians, is to simply have compassion for immigrants, treat them as human beings in our acts and speech, to be understanding, and recognize them as people (and families) with a human face. That can’t be too much to ask. And how do we have compassion?

Allow me to share something of an anecdote. I am the son of immigrants who traveled here from the Philippines in search of a better life for me and my brothers. My Dad is a hard working doctor who made his way up–whose years of grueling, blood, sweat, and tears, and honest hard work paid off. There was a time when I was seven when we were almost made to go back to the Philippines, and the door was almost shut on our American dream. But we overcame. And that exemplifies the promise of America. And so Americans like to watch feel-good movies such as The Pursuit of Happyness and think of it not only as another “triumph of the human spirit”, but a perfect exemplar of American values and the American can-do work ethic–to pull oneself up by your bootstraps and overcome adversity.

But for every success story, there are others who aren’t as lucky or as fortunate as my family–whose chips didn’t fall right in the right place, or who weren’t dealt a good hand of cards in life.** By all accounts, the story of Chris Gardener in the aforementioned movie was an exception to the rules and a high improbability, given his circumstances. And that alone should elicit compassion. It is a generalizing Americanized narrative championed by a political party that believes that all that is needed of a person is to do everything “right” in “the right way”, and you will definitely succeed in this country with little exception. But that’s not biblical.

Take the story of Job, for example, who “did everything right” and was a hard-working family man, and yet still experienced pain and suffering. Or think of the philosopher of Ecclesiastes, who ponders the mystery of misfortune falling on both “the righteous and the wicked” alike in a world seemingly devoid of apparent order. This sentiment was echoed by Jesus Christ Himself, who talked about how the rain falls on both the “righteous and unrighteous” alike (Matthew 5:45). It does not necessarily say anything about a person’s individual ethic, but it says everything about the state of affairs in our post-Fall world due to the reign of Sin and Death. To lay the burden solely on the individual is to ask the same question of the Pharisees towards the man born blind in John 9:2–“Who sinned, this man or his parents…?”. But Jesus saw things differently–He saw it as an opportunity to glorify God through His act of restoration and love. Similarly, Christians can view these circumstances as opportunities to show God’s love. Jesus reserved his most scathing remarks for the religious elite who burdened the people with their legalism and moralism. And Christians ourselves have often instead become the new moralists, attributing lack of success solely to individual responsibility.

It is this proud, moralistic, indignant attitude that implicitly taught me to look down my nose at Mexicans. It is this that implicitly taught me that Mexicans are lazy and blacks are stupid, sometimes by those that I worshiped with in church. And for that, I repent. I am still repenting. I am still asking for forgiveness from the God that bled and died for them too.

This is what I am speaking against when I talk about having compassion and understanding for the immigrant–to change graceless perceptions of them. Some automatically dismiss similar concerns by labeling others pejoratively as “bleeding hearts” (or more recently, “snowflakes”) and insisting on a certain views of justice administered. But it was both God’s love and His justice that was displayed when His heart bled out through his hands, his feet, his brow and his side on Calvary. That is the Gospel, and the Church is meant to be the Gospel lived-out.

The people of Israel were always commanded to love and care for foreigners by “remembering” that they were too were once foreigners in Egypt and that it was by God’s sheer grace that He chose and rescued them. It wasn’t because of their moral aptitude or utility. Simply by grace. We would do well to remember that as first-world American Christians.

 

“Remembering” for the American Christian

But why should the Christian worldview in particular be concerned for the treatment of the foreigner or immigrant?

Just as the people of Israel were called to remember God’s saving work in the past when He rescued them from Egypt in order to love the foreigner, Christians are also called to remember God’s saving work in the past through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ–which the epistles describe as a “new exodus” from the realm of Sin and Death. This reminds us of two things. First, we are called to love the foreigner self-sacrificially because of the love that God displayed for us through Jesus Christ. Second, even a country as great as the United States of America is not our ultimate, permanent home. Like the Lord whom we profess, our ultimate Kingdom is “not of this world” (John 18:36), and the only “border” in that Kingdom will be that which is between Heaven and Hell.

The Reformers in the 16th century often distinguished between “law” and “gospel”. I hear a lot of people pounding their fist on the table and crying “LAW!”, but not quite as many people proclaiming the “good news” of Jesus Christ to the foreigner, who extended his hands to Samaritans, Phoenicians, tax collectors, women, and other second class citizens. The early church picked up on this. They weren’t just known for their high sexual standards, but also their concern for the poor, the sick, and the needy–those marginalized by Greco-Roman society.

In the same way, we are called to be the Church in the way we treat foreigners in our acts and our speech, and we can make a difference. Ardent defenders of the current administration have started to point fingers at the previous two administrations for the practice of separating families at the border. But that’s missing the point. Quite frankly, it doesn’t matter who started the problem as long as we are the ones to finish it. Being preoccupied by going on the defensive rather than trying to fix the problem is not going to get the job done. I have little interest in pointing fingers at the previous administrations just as this administration.

 

In short…

In a previous blog post, I commented on how to two main indictments that God held against the people of ancient Israel were 1) idolatry (or failing to love God), and 2) social injustice (failure to love their neighbors–the marginalized). But the indictment of social injustice was by no means exclusive to God’s people. God also called out nations and cities such as Ninevah, Sodom, Gomorrah, and various other peoples in the prophetic books (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Micah, etc.). Some mistakenly think that Sodom and Gomorrah were wiped out due to their grossly perverse sexual practices. But God tells Ezekiel: “Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy” (Ezekiel 16:49). Biblical scholars will tell you that that is what God means when He refers to the “outcry” coming from the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. It is the cry of the marginalized. 

If judgment is coming upon our nation as some doomsayers forecast, my fear is that it will not be for our diminished sexual ethic (which has noticeably too gone down the drain), but for the way we treat others who have been made in the image of God in our speech and in our acts. I implore: let us love the sojourner.

Image result for holding hands

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*It was never the principle of having prisoners at Guantanamo that was the issue–it was the inhumane treatment and dehumanizing of people made in God’s image. In the same way, it is not the principle of having and enforcing immigration laws for the sake of order, but the way in which those laws are carried out and the effect that they have on American society.

**For Asians like me who tend to be labeled as “model minorities” by the majority for our culture’s posture towards authority, the climb of upward mobility is less steep than those of ethnicities whose caricatures in American society and pop-culture aren’t always quite as flattering.

Author’s note: I had already finished a draft of this article when my fiancee’ informed me that a sermon was just given at a Christian conference she had attended with this very same title (“Loving the Sojourner”). The speaker is a former Iranian Muslim who became a Christian as a young adult and eventually became a pastor. In this talk, he clearly outlines the gospel of salvation by grace alone, the sovereignty of God, and its implications on the immigrant discussion. I ask that you watch/listen to its entirety if/when time allows.

See also:

 

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