Several years ago I worked hard writing something that probably relatively few people have read. That’s partly because my last name is not Keller or Yancey and partly because the writing in question is buried inside a Synodical Study Committee report for my Christian Reformed denomination–and those things sell really poorly on Amazon!! But from 2007-2009 I was part of a Migration of Workers study group and when it came time to start pulling the report together, I was assigned to write the “Biblical/Theological” part. You can see the full report here and the section I wrote is part VII. Here is the summary of our assignment: “The mandate given to the committee was ‘to study the issue of the migration of workers as it relates to the church’s ministries of inclusion, compassion, and hospitality, and to propose ways for the church to advocate on behalf of those who are marginalized’ (Acts of Synod 2007, p. 596).”
Because in both Canada and the U.S. issues surrounding immigrants, undocumented workers, and illegal aliens is such a hot button topic, our committee was at once gratified and surprised when the 2010 Synod overwhelmingly adopted our whole report, including many recommendations that had the potential to raise a few socio-political eyebrows. But this became the official position of the CRCNA on such issues and so far as I know, it stands as such today.
This seems newly relevant, however, in that near as I can tell a good many Christian Reformed people are hurtling toward a November 8 vote for a candidate whose views on such matters come pretty close to being the polar opposite of the biblical-theological perspectives and grounds we developed in the report. This is by no means to suggest that a synodical study committee report alone should tell anyone how to vote. And anyway, it won’t take long for someone to point out that the CRCNA has other positions, including those on abortion, that properly should come into dialogue when it comes to voting for the other major candidate this election. True enough. Our choices in such matters are rarely easy and never clear-cut orthodox all the way down the line for any candidate who has ever run for office.
I am highlighting here the Migration of Workers report as just one piece of a larger dialogue in the church this season. But also, in many ways this issue has gotten far more attention this year than even issues related to an array of other topics partly because rhetoric about building walls and banning faiths and deporting persons have all become rallying banners in a way other issues have not.
I cannot replicate here what I wrote in the report–again, please read it if you have time–but in summary it was glaringly obvious that both the Old Testament and New Testament have a very consistent witness when it comes to how to treat the stranger, the other, the foreigner in your midst: you are to love and embrace such ones. For Israel the reason was clear-cut and repeated by God again and again like a mantra: “Remember that you were slaves in Egypt.” In other words, you know what the Egyptians did to YOU when you were the alien within their gates so don’t ever think to replicate such behavior in your midst with anyone else. Again and again God commanded the Israelites to bend over backwards to welcome migrants and, in fact, to make extra provisions for them. In fact, it’s striking how often God grounds all of this in his very character when he follows a good many commands to treat strangers well with the absolute statement: “I Am Yahweh!” In short, this has something to do with the very nature of God himself.
When Israel respected these commandments, things went really well as in the case of the most famous refugee into Israel ever: Ruth. Boaz followed the laws regarding immigrants and so not only saved the life of Ruth and her hapless mother-in-law Naomi but, as providence would have it, through all this Boaz played a hand in leading to the birth of the Messiah some centuries later. When this did not happen, however, God’s judgment was fierce and the searing words of the prophets testified to God’s disappointment
The New Testament continues these themes. In fact, although Jesus was born into a Jewish household, writers like John make it clear that in a wider sense, Jesus was the ultimate stranger in our midst on this earth. He came from outside, was not respected, had no real home (as he himself testified in that foxes and birds line), and was ultimately executed as the one who just did not fit. Small wonder that after his victorious resurrection and the pouring out of God’s Spirit at Pentecost the apostles immediately began depicting the Church as at once being itself a resident alien population even as within its own fellowship that same Church had to make sure that every dividing wall of hostility among people groups and between genders and across social designations had to be torn down so that all would find a welcome among God’s people (the New Israel) just as they were supposed to have found in the old Israel.
Once you start to read the Bible through these eyes, you discover this is a Bible-wide theme.
Now, in the study committee report, my fellow committee members and I worked exceedingly hard to nuance all this for contemporary geo-political contexts. No nation today just is ancient Israel all over again. Contemporary nations have a right to and a stake in regulating their borders. Governments and churches need to figure out what to do in obeying the governing authorities (a la Romans 13) when faced with those whose entry into a given country broke laws. These are not easy issues. They are not supposed to be.
But where does the Church start? Biblically that much at least is clear: it starts with compassion, it starts with identifying with the stranger, it starts by seeing each and every such person as potentially no less than Christ himself in our midst. Just starting there is no absolute predictor of where things may end up. But it probably makes vastly less likely any number of stances and actions.