I have struggled over the last months to find my voice as a pastor and theologian. So much of my fear, anxiety, and anger at our current situation is connected to my identity as an American citizen that it’s been difficult for me to separate out my commitment to following Jesus Christ and my calling as a minister of the Gospel from my concerns as an American. Last week brought an end to that struggle and provided clarity of vision as I live out my calling as a Christian and an Episcopal priest. I am to follow Jesus and to preach the Gospel.
The immigration and refugee ban is profoundly evil, a repudiation of Christian and Hebrew Scriptures and the very words of Jesus Christ. Throughout scripture, there is a consistent and powerful command to offer hospitality to strangers, to welcome the foreigner, and to treat foreigners and strangers as one would treat one’s own family.
One of the great biblical stories is of Abraham’s welcome of three strangers at Mamre. In the course of that encounter, it becomes clear that those strangers are messengers from God (Genesis 18). Two of them go on to Sodom, where Lot’s nephew welcomes them into his home and protects them from other Sodom residents who wanted to rape them (Genesis 19:1-9). The sin of Sodom was the failure to extend hospitality to strangers (Ezekiel 16:49).
In the law of Moses, there is a consistent and strong insistence that the Israelites treat strangers and aliens as if they were their own:
When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God. (Leviticus 19:33-34)
Jesus was himself a refugee. After his birth, his parents fled with him from Bethlehem. Herod had all of the children under two years of age in and around Bethlehem executed in his rage (Matthew 2:13-18).
Jesus commanded us to love our neighbors and our enemies. He broke bread with foreigners and told stories about reviled foreigners who helped Jews (Luke 10:30-37). Jesus commanded his followers to welcome the stranger, telling us that in helping strangers, we are helping Jesus, that in the face of the stranger we encounter Christ:
For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me. (Matthew 25:35-36)
Hospitality toward the stranger and the foreigner is emphasized in different ways throughout the New Testament, most eloquently perhaps by the author of the Letter to the Hebrews, who wrote: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it” (Hebrews 13:2, in a reference back to the story of Abraham’s encounter with God at Mamre)
That same author went a step further, reaching back to the key value expressed in the Mosaic law that linked Israel’s treatment of foreigners to their own experience of being foreigners in Egypt to assert that we followers of Jesus are strangers and foreigners here, that our allegiance is to God, not to the country in which we live:
They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. (Hebrews 11:13-16)
To think of ourselves as strangers and foreigners requires an act of the imagination that challenges us to imagine ourselves in contexts outside of our control, experience, and comfort zone. But that is the gospel imperative.
The Christian tradition bears witness to the struggles of Christians to live out the words of Jesus and the values of scripture in vastly different and changing contexts but throughout Christian history one can detect an effort to embody those values. In St. Augustine of Hippo’s City of God, for example, the great theologian argues that Christians’ primary and true citizenship is to the city of God that includes people from every nation, the living as well as the dead.
Ironically, the very word “refugee” bears witness to both the cruelty and the magnanimity of Christians. It comes from the French word “refugie” which was first used in reference to French Huguenots, French Protestants, who were expelled from France after King Louis XIV revoked their religious rights. The Huguenots found refuge in many Protestant territories across Europe and in North America.
Refugees fleeing religious persecution or war need our assistance. Whatever their nationality, religious commitment, or ethnicity, they are, like us, human beings created in the image of God, whose lives are in danger. They have the right to food, shelter, and the opportunity to flourish. The faces of refugees are the faces of Jesus Christ. In our encounters with them, we meet Him face to face.
But there is another, deeper issue in the debate over refugees. Our fear of refugees is tied up with nationalism. The United States has a constitution that promises freedom of religion and the separation of church and state. Yet most American Christians live a religion quite different from that articulated in the letter to the Hebrews or by Augustine in City of God. Most American Christians live a religion that has more to do with devotion to the United States than following Jesus. We view the United States as the greatest country in the history of the world. Our wars are always just; our democracy above reproach. We can do no wrong and those who criticize the US for its policies, its actions, or the continued injustice and oppression that occurs within its borders or in its names are heretics and traitors.
Such a view of the United States is idolatrous. As Christians whose allegiance is to Jesus Christ, we are called to name the sin of idolatry when we see it and repent of it when we commit it. As citizens of another country, “resident aliens” as Will Willimon and Stanley Hauerwas named us, we Christians know that our values and our lives are shaped by the cross and resurrection, not by political expediency or the idolatry of nationalism.
The future remains uncertain. One thing is clear. As the Christian martyrs of the Roman Empire showed us, we must refuse to worship at the altar of empire. We must show in our words and actions our allegiance to Jesus Christ, embodying in ourselves our love of our enemies, our love and care for those who are rejected and discarded by the nation in which we live, our embrace of the foreigner, the widow and orphan. We must make the love of Christ apparent to everyone we meet, following the example of Jesus Christ, who in his love for the whole world, gave his life. Our faithfulness to Jesus Christ and to his vision for the coming reign of God will fill us with hope, nourish us for the journey ahead, and transform the world and nation in which we live.
In the name of Christ, the stranger.