As the U.S. Senate begins its debate over immigration reform – a debate that will prove to be complicated as well as fierce – how should Christians respond to this debate?
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 (Matthew 2:13-15).
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.
Can this story shed biblical light on the question concerning our current immigration policies?
I am ill equipped to answer questions about immigration from a legal standpoint, 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 been prevalent 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 the United States as the only culturally pure society.
Yet, some blame must also be placed on our fear of not feeling secure and the perception that U.S. 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” (Deuteronomy 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 aliens 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 Gentiles, 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 Galatians 3:28 and Ephesians 2:14-22).
One thing we must keep in mind is that most immigrants we see and meet in our communities are not undocumented 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.
And, while there may be as many as 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S., 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 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” (Matthew 25:31-46).
For anyone interested in a video resource that offers a faith perspective on the issue of immigration, “Gospel Without Borders” is a great tool for faith communities.
Drew Smith, an ordained Baptist minister, is director of international programs at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia, Ark. A version of this column first appeared on his blog, Wilderness Preacher, and is used with permission.