Us vs. Them: Anti-Immigration Fear in the Bible


"Us versus them" is leading the United States from a period in which "poor, tired, huddled masses" are welcomed by Lady Liberty – whose name is "Mother of Exiles" … – to a period of fear-based politics, Dawes observes.
As the 2012 presidential election approaches, various issues vie for a spot in the candidates' "talking points."

With the U.S. military presence in the Middle East waning, the presidential campaign will likely focus on two issues: economic recovery and immigration.

I'm not an economist or an immigration expert. However, as a pastor, I can discuss the Hebrews' experience in Egypt and suggest ways it can influence Jewish and Christian perspectives on present-day immigration issues.

In Genesis 42, Jacob and his family are living in the "land of promise," the land of Canaan, when a famine forced them to journey to Egypt to purchase grain.

Jacob's son, Joseph, had risen to power in Egypt after being sold into slavery by his brothers (Genesis 37). When his brothers came to buy grain, he invited them to live in Egypt, that is, to become immigrants (Genesis 41-46).

After Joseph died, new leaders came to power who became fearful that the Hebrews might become more numerous and powerful than the Egyptians (Exodus 1:1-8).

In response, the Egyptians limited the freedom of the Hebrew immigrants and later made them slaves (Exodus 1:9-14).

Eventually, the cries of the Hebrew slaves were heard by YHWH, who liberated them and brought them back to "the land of promise."

Has anyone read the Exodus narrative and sided with the Egyptians? Has anyone thought the Egyptians were right to fear the Hebrew immigrants and treat them as they did?

I have never heard anyone attempt to justify the Egyptians' actions, but it seems there are many politicians – on both sides of the aisle – who should defend the Egyptians since their beliefs about U.S. immigrants derive from the same fear-based ideology that drove the Egyptians to enslave the Hebrews.

One could dismiss that statement by noting that the Hebrews came "legally" at Joseph's invitation while the issue today is "illegal immigration."

However, I believe a correlation remains between the Egyptians' treatment of the Hebrew immigrants and the U.S. immigration conversation today because – despite distinctions involving documentation – a common ideology is present.

When Joseph was alive, Egyptians and immigrants lived harmoniously, at least according to the Genesis narrative.

In fact, the solidarity between the Egyptians and the Hebrew immigrants was so strong that when Joseph mourned his father's death, the Egyptians mourned as well (Genesis 50:7-14).

This is a beautiful image of humanity transcending cultural and national divisions.

However, when Joseph died, the Egyptians adopted an "us versus them" mentality that bred fear of the Hebrews who had lived in Egypt for at least a generation. This fear resulted in enslaving the Hebrew immigrants (Exodus 1:8-10).

While this is not a one-to-one correlation, the "us versus them" attitude adopted by the Egyptians that led to their unjust oppression of the Hebrews is a prevailing influence on immigration discussions today.

"Us versus them" is found in suggestions that undocumented immigrants are taking jobs from U.S. citizens.

"Us versus them" is revealed in complaints about immigrants who do not speak English well or at all.

"Us versus them" is seen in suggestions to build a fortified and heavily guarded wall along the U.S.-Mexico border

"Us versus them" is present whenever people are denigrated for differing from the majority. Immigrants are easy targets of such fear-based behavior and quickly become scapegoats.

"Us versus them" led away from co-laboring for the common good to fear-based politics that resulted in slavery.

"Us versus them" is leading the United States from a period in which "poor, tired, huddled masses" are welcomed by Lady Liberty – whose name is "Mother of Exiles" and whose "beacon hand glows world-wide welcome" – to a period of fear-based politics leading to the denigration and expulsion of those previously welcomed.

Reform is necessary – and it must foster solidarity, not division, and value humanity more than nationalism.

Whatever your perspective on immigration reform, remember the Hebrew imperative formulated in light of the experience in Egypt: "When an immigrant resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the immigrant. The immigrant who resides with you shall be to you as a citizen among you; you shall love the immigrant as yourself, for you were immigrants in the land of Egypt" (Leviticus 19:33).

Zach Dawes is the pastor and his wife, Peyton, is the associate pastor at the First Baptist Church in Mount Gilead, N.C. He blogs at Scribblings.

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