Thursday, July 29, 2010

Entertaining Strangers

Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it. (Hebrews 13.2)

Trust and Obey

The injunction against Arizona’s heinously overreaching immigration law brings a sigh of relief to American believers of every stripe. If not, it should, because it draws us back to Biblical principles that demand hospitality for strangers—i.e., foreigners or people “not like us.” While other sociopolitical issues like marital equality, women’s rights, and GLBT military and ecclesiastical service have become religious flashpoints, immigration may very well be the crucible God uses to melt, refine, and unite American people of faith.

It is not ironic that the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the “In God We Trust” inscription on US currency one week prior to Judge Susan Bolton temporarily stripping Arizona’s legislation of its racist content. If America insists on wearing its faith on its sleeve, it must open its arms to strangers. If it stands on trust in God, it must kneel in obedience to His will. God’s Word—be it the Hebrew Tanakh, Christian Bible, or Muslim Qur’an—can’t be plainer in its expectations that we who believe will welcome strangers. James 2.17 tightens our constraint to heed God’s command: “Faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” A hymn writer put it like this: “Trust and obey, for there’s no other way.” Those who trust in God obey Him. It’s that simple.

We Forget

God commanded Israel and Jesus taught us to embrace strangers for a very obvious reason: we are aliens in a hostile, barren land. “I am a stranger on earth,” David writes in Psalm 119.19. We forget that. In Israel’s case, God’s people were literally illegal aliens. Abraham and generations after him were no less than squatters, camping on land they didn’t own, grazing herds in pastures they didn’t purchase. Moses led the Hebrews out of Egypt into a desert very much like the one in Arizona. A trail of corpses cluttered Sinai just like those in Pima County. They crossed Jordan the same as Hispanic people cross the Rio Grande. They had no papers or passports. They entered Canaan with only the goods they could carry and the promise of a better life. Those who fought Israel’s immigration met destruction. Those who assisted them—Rahab, the prostitute, for example—were protected and blessed. We forget that.

We forget Joseph was imprisoned in Egypt because he was a stranger. The infant Moses was discovered in the Nile because Pharaoh decided to “thin the herd” of foreign slaves. Ruth was an alien in Israel after her husband died. Ezra was a Jew born in exile who faced opposition at home because he was a stranger. Esther was a Hebrew orphan who rose to the Persian throne and rescued expatriated Jews when public opinion rose against them. Xenophobic Babylonians conspired to abuse, imprison, and kill Daniel and his friends. Jesus entered the world in a strange place and foreigners defied Herod to spare His life. The Apostles faced hostility wherever they went. They were repeatedly jailed—and most of them martyred—in foreign lands.

We forget these people were to some extent guilty of the same charges (allegedly) God-fearing Americans level at immigrants. As long as their numbers were “manageable,” they boosted the economy; when they flourished, they were reviled as a scourge. They disrupted the peace and posed a public threat. They altered cultures and defied customs. They spoke odd languages and embraced peculiar beliefs. And we forget these are the people we’re told to identify and emulate as people of God. In the Bible, it is strangers who change the world and bring blessings to nations where they live. This raises thorny questions for a people boasting of its trust in God. How can we believe in Him yet ignore what He tells us to do? How will we be blessed by turning away from His principle?

Angels Among Us

I don’t frequent neoconservative religious sites. But after the Arizona ruling, I cruised a few to gauge their response. While I’m sure there are deviations from what I saw, radically right blogs fell silent, while closer-to-center ones went out of their way to balance their views. They consistently cited Matthew 25’s parable of the sheep and goats, in which those who invite strangers into their homes are rewarded and those who don’t are cast out. The call for compassion and fairness for immigrants cannot be denied—which is why I believe it may serve as the crucible of American faith. That this firestorm erupted in a God-trusting nation proves how far we’ve strayed.

Believers who’ve shaped their opinions of this matter in obedience to God must realize His standard rests above compassion—caring about the fates and rights of strangers in theory, from afar. The invitation Christ speaks of in Matthew exceeds an open door or Welcome mat at the border. It implies a passionate commitment to the welfare and growth of those seeking refuge with us. Once they cross our portal, we’re required to honor the other standards Jesus lays out in His parable: if they’re hungry, we feed them; if they’re thirsty, we give them drink; if they’re naked, we clothe them; if they’re sick and in prison, we care for them. This isn’t manmade socialism. It’s Gospel.

If we honored the Word we claim to know, we’d understand God ordains this edict for our benefit. Hebrews 13.2 insists we entertain strangers—invite them in, care for them, and learn from them. “By so doing,” it says, “some people have entertained angels without knowing it.” God places angels among us—not all of them homegrown. Future leaders and pastors, teachers and physicians, role models and geniuses leave their homes and risk their lives to abide in this land. We can’t scan them for seeds of greatness, yet it’s ludicrous to believe many don’t carry them. Raising walls to keep them out raises barriers for us. Deporting them deprives us. Anti-immigrant legislation won’t make us a better, stronger, more obedient nation. Clipping angels’ wings in the name of self-protection reveals how poorly we trust God and how little we know of Him.

Is this the Sinai or Arizona?


TomCat said...

Isn't it ironic that most atheists support the Christian view, while the religious right does not?

Tim said...

Ironic, and sadly so, Tom.

Glad to see you're back up and at it!


TomCat said...

Thanks Tim. :-) Sadly so, indeed.

Border Explorer said...

Tim, thanks for another excellent offering here. It has sparked lots of reflection while I've been away on vacation, and now I return to it to post a comment. I find that T.C. has said so succinctly what I've been musing upon.

The reaction to this one issue lights up for me the difference between a true faith that is integrated and authentic and a faith that is shallow.

Sincere thanks for consistently modeling here an authentic and genuine faith.

Tim said...

Billie, thank you so much for your generous remarks. You are right--our stance on this issue reveals our depth of faith and commitment to God and one another. I pray (and believe) as we wrestle with this, many who've allowed politicians and special interests to steal their faith will come around and reclaim it.

God works in mysterious ways--and always for the benefit of all concerned.

I trust your vacation was restful and happy. And, as always, it's truly a joy to hear from you!

Blessings always,