Sunday, November 20, 2016

Biblical Values for Our Day: Care for the Stranger and the Alien

Then I will draw near to you for judgment: I will be swift to bear witness against…those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired workers 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. Malachi 3:5

Among the primary issues in the election just past have been immigration, the taking in of refugees,
and the presence of people who are Muslim in our midst.  In the days ahead it will be critical for Christian people to be clear about their values in regard to these “problems.”

In the translation of the Bible we tend to use (the NRSV), the word “alien” occurs 125 times and the word “stranger” 51 times.  Clearly the Bible has something to say about those in our midst who are considered aliens or strangers.  Two key verses, one from each Testament, sum up nearly the entire use of these words:

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. Leviticus 19:34

[Jesus said,] I was a stranger and you welcomed me…I was a stranger and you did not welcome me. Matthew 25:35, 43.

There are really two values here:  One, never to forget that you were once aliens and so treat aliens as you were treated (actually, the implication is “better than” you were treated).  Two, one of the ways we find Jesus is our encounter with the stranger.  Both of these obviously relate to what is known as the “Golden Rule,” Do to others as you would have them to do you (Luke 6:31).

Two of the promises of our Baptismal Covenant apply here as well.  We promise to “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves,” and “to strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.” (Book of Common Prayer, p. 305)

In addition, when asked “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus responds by telling the story of a person in the religious minority. The Samaritan is being neighbor and is neighbor himself (Luke 10:29-37).  “Go and do likewise,” Jesus says.

The Bible does not use the words “immigrant” or “refugee.” Why not? It is because these are modern concepts that depend upon our understanding of borders and nations.  The Bible has a lot of trouble with borders and political entities. Jesus, in particular, ignores them all together, and Paul goes about as if they did not exist. And, in fact, anything that smacks of nationalism is not a biblical value.  The ultimate movement of the Bible is to include, not exclude, right through to the Book of Revelation, whose witness we proclaim in Canticle 18 from the Prayer Book (from Revelation 4 & 5).

With your blood you have redeemed for God, from every family [or tribe], language, people, and nation, a royal priesthood to serve our God. (see Revelation 5:9-10)

One of the principles in the history of the church that grew out of these biblical values was the rule of “sanctuary,” that church buildings were a temporary safe place for everyone, and that the church had an obligation to those who sought sanctuary to get them to a more permanent safe place.  One theory about why are doors are bright red is to mark the place as sanctuary. This notion took the form of the Underground Railroad during the time of slavery.

We should be careful to note that this flagrant breaking of the law (helping slaves escape to a safe place) was done by Christians convinced that the law was unjust and therefore could not in their conscience be followed. This was done at the same time that other Christians (including some in the north) were certain beyond all doubt that slavery was a biblical institution. The divide among Christians as to how they interpret the Bible is nothing new.

I am deliberately not going to say, “What does that mean we should do? That is a question that deserves prayer and discernment. My purpose has been to make clear what the biblical values are that we hold so dear. I invite conversation from all sides of the political spectrum!

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