Since the 2012 Presidential Election, few things have incited as much controversy as the push for an immigration reform which will effectively put 11 million illegal immigrants on the path to citizenship. Some are irate, labeling such an objective as “amnesty for illegals”. Others, such as Senator Dick Urbin, have tried to seek out a middle path – one that will effectively create a working class of second-class citizens who may be utilized for the cheap, unskilled labor that Americans simply don’t want to do.
In the midst of all this, the call is going out for tighter border control. We may plant a mammoth female statue in New York Harbor bearing the title “Mother of Exiles” in the time-honored poem that beckons forth “…your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…” but we will be certain to bar the gates. After all, if someone were to break into your home, eat your food, take your money, and use your resources, you would have them arrested rather than offer them a sandwich. At least, this is the argument.
This fails to acknowledge, however, that we went into their homes to acquire that food; that their cupboards and resources are barren because we have systems that funnel their resources into our own backyard. Mortimer Arias cut to the heart of this in his article Centripetal Mission, or Evangelization by Hospitality which was published in the greater book The Study of Evangelism: Exploring a Missional Practice of the Church. In it, he observed that
“[This] country, which has more than two hundred military bases around the world; which inundates with its mass media production through millions of TV sets, newspapers, magazines, books, and thousands of cultural centers; which is the main supplier of arms in the world; which wants to have access and freedom of enterprise on its own terms in every market around the globe; which consumes 40 percent of all the natural resources of the earth; which considers itself the defender of “freedom and democracy” on six continents; which looks at Korea, the Persian Gulf, or El Salvador as its own zone of “national security” – that nation cannot expect to remain isolated and to keep its frontiers closed to that world that it is pretending to lead!”
Three Reasons for Cultivating a Theology of Hospitality
So, then, we are faced with an influx of immigrants, some legal but many not, and we have to wrestle with what to do with them. It is here that Christians must come face to face with our own theology of hospitality, not just as individuals but as a society. How are we to treat the foreigner in our midst, especially if that foreigner’s presence is a violation of national law? How are we to respond when, rather than launching out from the US to go as missionaries to foreign contexts and cultures, these cultures are arriving en masse on our own shores? How are we to embody a theology of hospitality that approaches illegal immigrants in a manner faithful to Scripture and the Christian tradition?
I contend that these are important questions, the responses to which far too often flow out of a nationalist worldview rather than a Christian one. Yet, to be faithful to our Christian identity, we have to be willing to challenge the prevailing notions which define insiders and outsiders. We have to be willing to rethink our responsibility to the powerless who risk life and law with the anticipation of escaping their poverty and offering hope to their families. We need to careful construct a theology of hospitality for three key reasons.
- Scripture was seldom written for a people in power. With the exception of a brief golden age of Israel, the intended recipients of Scripture were inevitably a people under occupation, and were often a people in exile. Israel’s story is almost exclusively told while under the thumb of Pharaoh, or Nebuchadnezzar, or Darius, or numerous other monarchs backed by the military might of a powerful empire. Jesus yielded to the occupying prefect of Israel, and was crucified. The early church was scattered under the oppressive hand of a persecuting government. To read Scripture from the vantage point of a citizen of the world’s leading superpower is to inevitably read with a tainted lens. The people at our shores are the people in Scripture: the persecuted, the abandoned, the impoverished, and the exiled. We must think carefully about how we respond to their presence.
- The Old Testament speaks extensively about how we treat the foreigners among us. Exodus 22:21, for example, say that “you must not mistreat or oppress foreigners in any way. Remember, you yourselves were once foreigners in the land of Egypt.” Similarly, we read in Deuteronomy 24:14 that we are to “never take advantage of poor and destitute laborers, whether they are fellow Israelites or foreigners living in your towns.” Foreigners, who would often come to escape persecution from some other realm (much as they still do today), were often seen in the same light as the poor, the widowed, and the orphaned. That is, the people of Israel were charged with their care. We must think carefully about whether to do likewise.
- The New Testament does away with insider/outsider distinctions. According to Paul, “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28 ESV) When we are baptized into a new creation, we become united in a manner which does not erase our distinctions, but rather draws us together into a social order which transcends the divisive nature these distinctions previously held. As the goal of the Christian community is to live together in such a way so as to invite people into the Christian story and disciple one another into a transformed people, we must carefully think about how this collective living applies to immigration.
The challenge of illegal immigration, for Christians, is not a nationalism issue, it is a theological one. If we are to live faithfully, we must be willing to engage this cultural influx from the perspective of a cultivated theology of hospitality, answering the question of how we welcome and love a people whose very presence here constitutes a violation of the laws of our land.
How do you see the interplay between theology and the immigration crisis?
Image Credit: Laver Rue