He’s done it before and he did it again this weekend: a writer named Nicholas Kristof who claims no allegiance to the Christian faith–but who often lauds true Christians doing incredibly noble work when he finds them (usually overseas)–spoke a truth too few evangelicals in this country will acknowledge. While Donald Trump, Ben Carson, and Ted Cruz continue to poll well among evangelical Christians despite lambasting broadsides against all Muslims and most immigrants, Kristof wrote a piece in Sunday’s New York Times that got it right: “As anti-refugee hysteria sweeps many of our political leaders, particularly Republicans, I wonder what they would have told a desperate refugee family fleeing the Middle East. You’ve heard of this family: a carpenter named Joseph, his wife, Mary, and their baby son, Jesus. According to the Gospel of Matthew, after Jesus’ birth they fled to save Jesus from murderous King Herod (perhaps the 2,000-year-ago equivalent of Bashar al-Assad of Syria?). Fortunately Joseph, Mary and Jesus found de facto asylum in Egypt — thank goodness House Republicans weren’t in charge when Jesus was a refugee!”
I have written about this before here on The Twelve and I will write on it again but what we in the church seem repeatedly to forget is the incredibly important connection that exists between our core identity as believers and the whole concept of welcoming the stranger, and most particularly the immigrant stranger. This is so deeply embedded in the DNA of Old Israel and New Israel you’d think no one would need reminding about it. So let me summarize once again why people who support the “build a wall,” “close the borders,” “rough up the immigrants” mentality are missing something:
— God’s first commandment to Abram in Genesis 12 was “Go. Leave.” In an instant of divine calling Abram went from a settled citizen in his home country to someone who would be a wanderer and an immigrant for the rest of his days. When Sarah dies (cf. Genesis 23), he is so homeless, so much a man without a country that he has to bargain and plead to buy a chunk of ground big enough to bury the love of his life in. The father of the faith was called to be an immigrant wanderer because somehow that identity needed to be deep within God’s people.
— After the Israelites are led out of Egypt by God’s mighty hand and outstretched arm, God tells them one thing clear as day and again and again: “Don’t you ever dare forget what it is like to be a stranger in a strange land!” Whether it is Leviticus on Round 1 of God’s giving his Law or Deuteronomy on Round 2 to review that Law for the generation that would finally get a land to call its own in Canaan, God says repeatedly that you leave extra grain on the margins of your fields for the immigrant poor to pick up, you welcome the alien who is within your gates, you bend over backwards if need be to NOT do to the strangers in your midst what the Egyptians did to you. “Remember that you once were aliens too and do NOT do unto others as they did unto you. I am the LORD!”
— Israel did not do well on that score on many occasions but history’s premiere example of what can happen when this principle is followed involved a foreign widow from a place called Moab. Her name was Ruth, she became the great-grandmother of a man named David and thus got included in the family tree of Jesus in Matthew 1. Enough said.
— Speaking of that genealogy in Matthew 1, Matthew went out of his way to include reference to (and in three cases the precise names of) four women (unheard of for the most part in Jewish family trees unless the women were Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, and Leah). Each was a foreign person to Israel who became a part of Israel and thus of God’s plan. As my teacher David Holwerda once said, “It was Matthew’s way of teaching that Jesus was finally more than his ancestry could produce.” God used immigrants and aliens to get us Jesus. MORE than enough said.
–And finally speaking of Jesus: not only did he recreate Israel’s entrance into and then Exodus from Egypt in the story Kristof referenced in his Op-Ed article, we know just generally that Jesus became the ultimate stranger in our midst. John 1 teaches it eloquently: Jesus came from the outside of this world to “tabernacle” among us as one who never quite fit it. In yet another example of God’s people not remembering their covenant obligations to treat strangers well, John tells us that Jesus came to that which was his own but his own people “received him not.”
From the call of Abram to the birth of Jesus, God confronts us with the aliens within our gates. Something of the experience of being a stranger who in turn–and on account of this–is good at welcoming other strangers is meant to be very close to the heartbeat of the Gospel. But these days politics trumps all and Trump et. al. speak what too many seem to think is a Christian sentiment on such matters.
Look, we all want to be safe. We want our children to be safe (my daughter and a friend were in Paris a scant two days before the November 13 attacks–I know the “what if” shivers that gave me). But surely we can work for such safety as Christians without supporting policies and people that betray our fundamental identity as those who were once “no people” but who are now called “the people of God,” as those who were once estranged “and afar off” but who have now been brought near by grace alone.
Or maybe it’s too much to hope.