Monday, August 18, 2014

Love the Alien

If you're like me, you're having a hard time keeping informed on the state of the world. Not that finding out what's going on all over the globe is hard; rather the news we are getting is so hard to listen to. The ratcheting up of violence and chaos just about everywhere is depressing. So I was heartened to hear that the President is sending aid to the refugees trapped on a mountain after fleeing the largest Christian city in Iraq. ISIS, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, which has be repudiated by Al Qaeda of all things, gave the Christians the choice of converting, fleeing, paying a special tax or being executed for their faith. It won't be long before there will be hardly any Christians in the Middle East. But in view of the fact that we have done very little for the Muslims being harmed by other Muslims in the region, I did worry that this humanitarian action had everything to do with the fact that these were Christians in danger. I'm grateful that we are helping them but why not also the refugees from other countries? Are we playing favorites?

If you took the Bible Challenge last year (or are doing so now) you probably noticed a lot of stuff in the Good Book rarely gets preached about on Sunday mornings or mentioned in most Bible studies. One phrase that jumped out at me this time through the Scriptures was “widows, orphans and strangers.” Starting in the books of Moses, and especially in the prophets, we see over and over again God's concern for these 3 groups of people, the least powerful ones in society. And it remains true today. Change “widows” to “women without husbands,” “orphans” to “the fatherless,” which is actually a more accurate translation, and “strangers” to “immigrants,” which is also a better translation, and you have the 3 groups who still have the least money and least power in our world. The average person on welfare in this country is the child of a single mother. And that woman can be a widow (especially since we have been fighting two wars), divorced or never married but she has less earning potential than most and virtually no champions among those in power. When politicians start cutting funds they go after the programs that help the poor, who are overwhelmingly single mothers and their children. Because they lack lobbyists.

Immigrants are also at the bottom rung of the ladder. Contrary to popular belief, undocumented immigrants cannot get welfare or food stamps, though they can get schooling and emergency medical care. And, yes, they pay taxes. They pay sales taxes, property taxes and up to 3/4s even pay income taxes, because they are withheld from their paychecks. The Social Security Administration estimates that illegal immigrants pay $6 to $7 billion into Social Security which they will, of course, never receive back. As for “anchor babies” we've heard of, while our constitution says that every child born in the US is an American citizen, the federal government has no problem deporting their parents. In fact between 1998 and 2007, 108,000 such foreign-born parents were deported. The children can petition the government to allow their parents to join them in the US—when those children turn 21!

The reason I bring this up is because our passage in Isaiah 56 is another one that highlights God's concern for the stranger, the alien, the foreigner within your land, the immigrant. And it's all the more remarkable because there are passages in the Bible which would make you think God only cares for his people, Israel.

Ezra the prophet, for instance, who returned from exile in Babylon to reintroduce God's law to the remnant in the homeland, was upset that Jewish men had married foreign-born women. Now, mind you, the Babylonians had taken the cream of Jewish society, its aristocracy and its artisans, anyone they deemed valuable, into exile. And they moved other conquered peoples into the land of Israel, for the same reason: it cuts down on the likelihood of rebellion. Defeated people forcibly moved to a foreign land will probably not be able to gather support for an uprising among strange locals. Nor do they want to because they are not in their ancestral home. In fact, the resulting intermarriage is likely to water down their identity. This is what horrified Ezra. And yet...Moses was married to Zipporah, a Cushite. Ruth, the grandmother of King David, was a Moabite. David's ancestors included Rahab, the prostitute from Jericho who hid the Hebrew spies. Ezra may have been worried about the foreign wives turning their husbands to idolatry. And certainly marrying outside one's faith brings this risk. But in 1 Corinthians 7 Paul says that Christians should not divorce non-Christian spouses unless that spouse desires it. Rather, “the unbelieving husband is made holy through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy through her husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy.” (1 Cor 7:14) In other words, it works both ways. A believer married to a unbeliever may drift from their faith but an unbeliever married to a believer may come to the faith. Ezra is worried about the risks; Paul sees the opportunities. And, by the way, this is why it is best to search all of Scripture in regards to an issue rather than fixate upon one prooftext. Otherwise you get a very narrow reading of our very large God.

For instance, there are other passages where God seems to be a tribal deity, interested only in his people. Yet throughout the Bible we see hints of God actually doing something else: expanding his people's vision to encompass the rest of the world. In fact, the whole point of the book of Jonah is that God cares even for the people of Nineveh, the capital of Assyria. It is Jonah the prophet who doesn't want to see God forgive Israel's enemies.

Each week we say that God created the whole world and all its people. We are all related to each other, all of us having descended from one man and one woman, something that is not merely a theological conceit but a genetic fact. The foreigner is but a distant cousin, something the Bible affirms in all those long genealogies.

Dr. Paul Farmer said, “The idea that some lives matter less is the root of all that is wrong with the world.” And that's largely true. We consciously or unconsciously rate people on their worthiness of getting attention or help or sympathy. We decide who is worthy of living a decent life or not. At our worst, we decide who is worthy of living or not.

Why do we fear the foreigner so? When we lived in tribes and clans, groups of roughly 150 people, we lived our entire lives among those who were related to us. Because of genetics, language and custom, everyone you knew carried a resemblance. That resemblance meant you were among your extended family. You were safe. But if you encounter a stranger, a person from another tribe, their dissimilarities in appearance, speech and customs triggered anxiety, a warning. Did this outsider mean you good or ill? Assuming the latter was the safer course.

And that has carried over to today. We see it in racism, in parochialism, in xenophobia. We see it in the reaction to children fleeing rape and death at the hands of gangs and drug lords in Central America. These kids are not sneaking into the country but going up to border stations and guards and asking for asylum. And some people are responding as if these children were the gangs and drug lords.

I lived on the border. Before moving to the Keys my family lived in Brownsville, Texas. We liked it there. The city goes right up to the Rio Grande. We used to go over to Matamoros, the even larger city on the other side of the border. We ate over there, bought certain staples that were cheaper in Mexico, and took visiting family over there.

Brownsville is 91% Hispanic. Many of the citizens are 1st and 2nd generation Mexican-Americans. Everyone we met was nice and friendly and family-oriented. Everyone worked hard. And though as Anglos we were the minority, we weren't scared and we didn't feel discriminated against. I realize this is a personal anecdote and doesn't hold much evidential weight. But while everyone was aware of the undocumented aliens constantly entering the country, I don't remember any widespread fear or any sense of rampant crime. Even today, at the height of the immigration hysteria, Brownsville's violent crime rate of 2.6 per 1000 residents is lower than the national median of 3.9 and lower than the rest of Texas at 4.09. By the way, do you feel that we are living in the Wild West here? Because Key West's violent crime rate is 8.24, more than 3 times as high as Brownsville's! I don't think immigrants are the cause. According to the Department of Homeland Security, 20% of our jail population are immigrants, both legal and illegal. Which means 80% are Americans.

The important thing is: what should our attitude as Christians be towards immigrants? How does God see it? What does the Bible say? In Exodus 22:21, just 2 chapters after the 10 Commandments, God says, “You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.” And in Leviticus 19:33 &34 it says: “When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. 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.” As you can hear even in translation, the wording and structure of this command is exactly the same as the command to love your neighbor as yourself, which appears just 16 verses earlier.

And notice that God underlines this command by saying, “I am the Lord your God.” In other words, “I'm putting my full authority behind this. Take this seriously.” How seriously? In Malachi 3:5 God says, “Then I will draw near to you for judgment; I will be swift to bear witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired worker in their wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts.” God is putting those who thrust aside, or as the Holman Bible translates it, who “deny justice,” to the immigrant, in the same category as those who cheat on their spouses, who lie under oath, who cheat workers of their wages, who oppress widows and the fatherless. Think that's harsh? When Moses makes the people enumerate the blessings and curses that go along with being God's covenant people, he says, “'Cursed be anyone who perverts the justice due the alien, the fatherless, and the widow.' All the people shall say, 'Amen.'” There are only 12 behaviors cursed here and this was important enough to be included.

Why does this mean so much to God? In Deuteronomy 10:18 it says of God, “He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the alien, providing him food and clothing. Love the alien, therefore, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.” God loves the immigrant. After all, because of him, Abraham became an immigrant leaving Ur and settling in Canaan. As was pointed out, the Israelites were immigrants in Egypt. And Jesus and his parents fled Judea and were immigrants in Egypt. In fact, because they were trying to escape King Herod's murderous rage, they could be called refugees, fleeing from persecution. And maybe that's why Jesus, in his parable of the last judgment, said, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” (Matt 25:35) The Greek word translated “stranger” is xenos, which means “foreigner or alien.” Jesus knew firsthand what it was to be a stranger in a strange land. So what we do or do not do to them, the least of his siblings, we do or do not do to Jesus. And we are to love them.

Why does God single out immigrants to be treated fairly? They are his children and any loving parent looks out for the especially vulnerable child, the one most apt to be bullied and mistreated. People cut off from their land and their people are vulnerable. God says treat them right.

Ah, but what about illegal aliens, ones who broke the laws by entering and staying? Aren't we commanded to be subject to the governing authorities, as in says in Romans 13? Indeed, but again we should not see this passage in isolation of the rest of Scripture. We see the apostles disobey the authorities when they conflict with God's laws. More to the point, we see David and his band of men living as outlaws when King Saul was hunting him. His followers are described in the Holman Bible Dictionary as “impoverished and discontented.” They don't surrender to King Saul, the lawful authority. David even takes the sacred showbread to feed his men. David also lies to the priest at the shrine, telling him he and his men are on a secret mission for the king!

Jesus later uses this incident to justify his disciples' picking and eating heads of grain on the Sabbath. In this, Jesus is in line with the Jewish principle that most laws may be laid aside to preserve life. When I was in Brownsville, there was an influx of people from the turmoil in Nicaragua and El Salvador in the 1980s. They were called OTMs, or Other Than Mexicans, to differentiate them from the usual undocumented alien. And I realized that if I lived in a dysfunctional country, in the throes of a civil war, with a shattered economy, and a poor life expectancy for me and my children, and there was a rich stable country to the North, where I could go and work the crappiest job available and still make a better life for me and my family, I would go there. To stay in a hellhole simply because I was born there would be irrational.

Nobody is saying that we should open our borders to any and all who on impulse decide to come and stay. But the process we now have for becoming a citizen is long, complicated and expensive. If you came from a friendly country, like Australia, applying requires not only one's original birth certificate, proof of citizenship, a list of every address you've ever lived at, every job you've ever worked, a police background check, and photos, but also a pile of financial documents. It also costs up to $1000 and takes 3 to 6 months. Now if you are fleeing from a failed nation-state, it can be difficult if not impossible to get all that for every member of your family. Then you must get a medical exam but it is only valid if you get it from a doctor approved by the Department of Homeland Security. There may only be one in whichever US state you happen to be in and due to their scarcity, they could be pricey, charging you an additional $1000—for every family member. Then you have to return to your home country to be interviewed by people at the American consulate. If you are marrying an American citizen, you have to undergo more interviews and produce additional paperwork to show that you are marrying for love and not a green card. None of this is unreasonable if you are an affluent person coming from a country that is allied with the US and has a functioning government. If you are escaping from a non-friendly government that can't keep narco-terrorists from beheading people on a routine basis, this procedure is Kafkaesque. Especially if you are a child refugee.

If we are truly a Christian nation, our attitude towards those who are fleeing war, rape, torture and death should be common sense and compassion, not Pharisaic legalism that elevates rules above human suffering. In fact, it could be argued that these people would make great citizens, seeing that they were willing to cross deserts and face death to come to our country. Whereas only slightly more than 50% of eligible Americans can bestir themselves enough to vote for president and less than that, just over a third of them vote in off-year elections for Congress. (Yet 83% of Americans, according to Gallup, disapprove of Congress' performance.) 

In 1939 a ship named the St. Louis left Hamburg, Germany for Havana. On board were nearly 1000 Jews seeking to flee the Nazis. Neither Cuba nor the US would take the refugees and they were sent back. Half of the 963 Jews died in the Holocaust. The shameful story of our refusal to save them is preserved in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC.

We have right now 57,000 children on our border who have come to the US as refugees. If we send them back and if they fare as well as those Jews in Nazi Germany, then roughly 28,000 would die. How many of the survivors will be raped or dragooned into being child soldiers or into working for the narco-terrorists smuggling drugs into the US, I couldn't begin to guess. That alone should motivate us to find other solutions than simply shipping them back.

But we are Christians. Jesus was a child refugee fleeing certain death by Herod. He said that if we do not welcome the alien, we do not welcome him. His Father commands us not to mistreat the alien but to love him. I think the only Christian thing to do is to agree with Peter and the apostles and say, “We must obey God rather than men!” (Acts 5:29)

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