Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Love the Stranger

For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords… Who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. (Deuteronomy 10.17-19)

When I was a kid, I’d visit classmates whose grandparents lived with them. That felt rather odd to me, as the idea of an extended family living under one roof was foreign to my Southern roots. “Our people”—as we called kinfolk—tended to live in close proximity to one another, yet seldom in the same house. If a relative needed a place to stay, they were always welcome. But it was understood these arrangements were temporary; the whole point of welcoming them into the house was getting them back on their feet to make it on their own. So the concept of multiple generations living together was a real curiosity. What’s more, most of my friends’ grandparents came from “the old country,” a euphemism for their homelands. They spoke little, if any, English and always seemed distant from everyday American life. Yet these strange people who neither spoke America’s language nor understood its customs were revered in our community. They were heroes who left the world they knew, often at great sacrifice, to provide something better, richer, and more promising for their children. They were living proof of what America—the “land of opportunity”—was all about.

Getting to America was tough. Being allowed to stay was even tougher. The immigration maze was nearly impossible to navigate. The bureaucratic indifference was disheartening. And the overt hostility many new immigrants encountered while trying to carve out new lives was terrifying. They persevered. But they didn’t do it alone. Everyone rallied around them, driven by a common sentiment that permeated American life—the sense that we were building a new kind of nation where ethnicity and class were irrelevant. In my youth, this was the “American dream”—E pluribus unum, “one out of many”—not the fantasy of personal wealth and social advantage that many mistake it for today.

By and large this dream was made possible by a deeply religious commitment to honor Old and New Testament doctrines of welcoming the stranger. Embracing immigrants was seen as a sacred American and Christian value in response to passages like Deuteronomy 10.17-19: “For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, Who is not partial and takes no bribe, Who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and Who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” As second- and third-generation Americans, we could relate to the Exodus saga. We understood the Promised Land in palpable ways, as many of our ancestors had sought refuge from oppressive European regimes, with African-Americans struggling to shake the chains of slavery within our borders.

Times have changed. European dictatorships are no more. Racial progress has weakened America’s connection with its shameful past. New waves of immigrants cross our borders and light on our shores, fleeing the injustices of Latin American, Asian, African, and Middle Eastern tyranny. Like their European predecessors, they don’t speak our language. They don’t understand our culture. And they too are confronted with a labyrinthine process made nigh unto impossible to satisfy. Many don’t succeed and more than a few don’t even try. It’s all too easy to demonize them—forgetting the sacrifices they’ve made to reach for the promise we call America—and ignore our scriptural obligation to love the stranger. If we do as God asks, we will see their problems as our own, and press our leaders to find mutually beneficial ways to welcome them. Constructing walls and construing more stringent immigration policies most assuredly will reduce their numbers and may ease the burden of integrating them into American society. Yet we whose lives are governed by God’s Word must never overlook the immigration edict it issues over and over. God loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing, Deuteronomy says, charging us to do likewise. Immigration is a problem we can fix, provided we do it with love.

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