The Bible and Immigration

The Bible and Immigration

The Bible and Immigration Reform
Lourdino A. Yuzon
19th National Convocation
Pacific Islander and Asian American Ministries, UCC
August 2010


Immigration is the act of entering and settling in a country or region to which one is not native (Wikipedia).

Emigration “is the act of leaving one’s native country or region to settle in another. It is the same as immigration but from the perspective of the country of origin.” (Wikipedia).

Migration is human movement within one state.

There are many reasons (1) why people might choose to emigrate. Some are for reasons of religious, political or economic freedom or escape. Others have personal reasons such as marriage. Some people living in rich nations with cold climates choose to move to warmer climates when they re-tire (Wikipedia).

“Even though definitions may be vague and vary somewhat, emigration/immigration should not be confused with the phenomenon of involuntary migration, such as instances of population transfer or ethnic cleansing” (Wikipedia).

Text and Context

There are two approaches to deciding on the subject of a sermon or a bible study. One way is to start with a text or texts in the Bible. We first describe, interpret or expound on them. Then we relate it/them to a historical context — social, economic, political, moral, etc. Another approach is to start with a significant historical context, describe and interpret it from various, inter-related perspectives — legal, cultural, moral, religious — and then chose scripture text(s) that is/are relevant to it. Whichever is our starting point, we should see to it that text and context interact in dynamic and meaningful ways — both shedding light on one another. The text should not be used as a pretext to ignore the context, or the other way around.

I take it that in choosing the topic for our reflection, Rev. Dan Romero started with a historical context. He thought that we should focus on the urgent need for immigration re-form. He then chose scripture texts that are relevant to that situation. It is our responsibility to make them to talk to one another. It is our hope that in the interaction of text and context, we will be able to discern and understand fresh insights into the topic under consideration from some relevant biblical perspectives.

Towards a Biblical View

Immigration in the United States has already been described, analyzed, interpreted and debated quite extensively by knowledgeable people from a variety of perspectives: eco-nomic, legal, social, political and cultural. Nonetheless, we dare to
venture into the discussion arena because we believe that relevant texts from the Bible and our Christian faith have insightful and enlightening things to say on this important but some-times contentious issue.

The following scripture passages may shed some light on the way we should deal with aliens in our midst, and why: (a) Aliens considered as citizens: Leviticus 19:33-34; Ezekiel 47:22; (b) On having one law for citizens and aliens: Leviticus 24:22; Deuteronomy 1:16; Numbers 9:14, 15:15-16.

Leviticus 19:33-34 calls on the people (the Israelites), to treat the stranger in their midst as one of their own, to love him and respect his rights as a fellow human being seeking a place where he could feel at home, accepted and safe from harm; “because Israel herself were once strangers in Egypt.” It calls on the people to always be humbled by the memory of their own history as enslaved strangers in a foreign land before, as a people who were once oppressed and treated as a non-people with no rights of their own. Having experienced the liberating power of their own God, without having to deserve it, all by God’s graciousness and love, Israel is to pass on this graciousness of God to the strangers who come to dwell also with them, to share the land with them. This means that as non-people in Egypt who became God’s people by God’s gracious and liberating action, the Israelites were prohibited from harassing aliens in their midst. The mandate was more moral and religious rather than legal.

Noordtij calculates that the Old Testament warns “no fewer than thirty-six times of Israel’s obli-gation to aliens, widows, and orphans. Most important here, Israel’s obligation is to be motivated by the memory that they had been aliens in Egypt. Since God delivered Israel, they are to see this as a moral motive for just treatment of aliens.” (2)

This passage seems to suggest what God must have said to the Israelites: “You, too, were aliens in Egypt. You know what it feels to be like a stranger in a foreign land. Now, try putting yourself in the place of strangers in your midst. This is your moral and religious obli-gation. I am the Lord your God.” The poet and philosopher, George Santayana once said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” That is, if Israel forgot their sojourn in Egypt where, at one time, they were made to feel that they were unwanted aliens, they were bound to commit the same mistake, the next time, in a reversal of fortunes. That is, they would now become like their former cruel, exploitative and dominating Egyp-tian masters. That was not what God intended them to be when God liberated them from bondage in Egypt. If they did that, they would lose their identity as God’s people for as op-pressors, they would become less human than those they would oppress.

In another passage, Ezekiel 47:22-23, the aliens or strangers living with Israel in the land must be given their own equal share of the land, their own inheritance or “nachalah,” and they are to be given their own rights as fellow citizens of Israel. All because this is what the Lord God had always intended — for all people to dwell together in peace, wherever they come from, whatever their identity or nationality, all in accordance with the divine will for the renewal and transformation of God’s creation, from the old world, which was full of boundaries and divisions, filled with hostility and conflict-breeding distinctions, to a new world where all peoples from all nations will feel being welcomed and accepted in whatever place they may want to dwell as fellow children of one God and creator of all.

Numbers 9:14, 15:15-16; Deuteronomy 1:16. It is not easy for many immigrants to understand and adjust to a new situation where one finds considerable differences in lan-guage, food, religion, legal and social system, values, etc. Sometimes many immigrants find it difficult, if not impossible, to build bridges to the culture of the country of destination, that they always feel as if they are aliens in a strange land. Some of them resort to defensive measures such as “(preserving) their original culture, traditions and language, sometimes transmitting them to their children” (Wikipedia).

The ancient Israelites recognized the rights of aliens among them to decide whether or not they wanted to be integrated into Israelite society. If resident aliens wished to, the same civil and cultic laws that applied to the Israelite would also apply to them. The cultic laws were known as holiness laws. By observing them, a resident alien could acquire the marks of holiness before the holy God of Israel, enjoying a unique status that distinguished the Israel-ites from other nations around them. (This is quite similar to our experience of being con-ferred the rights as provided for in the U.S. constitution once we become naturalized Ameri-can citizens.)

It must have been quite a challenge for resident aliens to comply with requirements of civil law and cultic practices of their Israelite hosts. That was because they had to observe a host of ritualistic practices. For example,

the resident must avoid leaven during the observance of unleavened bread (Exodus12:19), must not work on the Day of Atonement (Lev. 18:26), must refrain from eating blood (Lev. 1:10-12) must abide by Israelite sexual practices (Lev. 18:26), must not sacrifice to Molech (Lev. 20:2), and must undergo purification if defiled by a corpse (Num. 19:10). They must have access to cit-ies of refuge (Num. 35:15). Furthermore, resident aliens may observe the cultic rites like Passover if they undergo circumcision (Exod. 12:48-49; Num. 9:14) and other sacrificial rituals (Lev. 17:8; 22:18-20; Num. 15:26). (3)

The important thing to bear in mind is that resident aliens were not denied the privi-lege of receiving the rights enjoyed by full-fledged Israelite citizens because the Israelites thought that being resident aliens in a land that God owned (Lev. 25:23) was a key aspect of their self-identity. Related to this was the mandate that the interpretation and implementation of civil laws and cultic practices should be carried out in a fair and just manner, devoid of unjust practices such as discriminating against resident aliens on the basis of their different ethnic, linguistic and cultural origins.

Moral Dilemmas

The presence of illegal aliens in this country is indeed a critical issue. Many people cannot accept the fact that of late, there are more illegal aliens than legal immigrants in the United States. They came from many countries around the world, but I think that in the Southern border states, the bulk of them could have come from Mexico. They have no legal right to live and work in this country. Their presence creates economic problems for they take away jobs from holders of permanent resident visas and full-fledged American citizens be-cause they accept lower wages/salaries. Most of them could not afford decent housing facili-ties, so they live in makeshift houses oftentimes in slum areas. Their presence in our midst has created “social contrasts, generally resulting in an uncomfortable situation” (Wikipedia). Some, if not many of them, are stereotyped as people who tend to behave in rough and anti-social ways and so are perceived to pose a threat to public peace and order. In some cases, “natives” demand strong and decisive measures such as strong police action to identify illegal and undesirable aliens, detain them without the benefit of arrest warrants and eventually de-port them to countries from whence they came. Living a life-style that is besieged at every turn, many of them must have felt as though they have become less human.

As Christians, what ought we to do? How can we relate the very humane provisions of Leviticus to the situation where a great number of aliens have no legal right to be here?

Allow me state in a very preliminary way, some thoughts on this matter.

First of all, as Christians, we could affirm the mandates set forth in passages such as Leviticus 19:33-34; Ezekiel 47:22; Leviticus 24:22; Deuteronomy 1:16; and Numbers 9:14, 15:15-16, as a kind of “higher moral law” (higher than enacted laws of the state) that is bind-ing on us because of their moral and spiritual dimensions. Or to state it in a rather simplistic way, we may say, “This is God’s law. It was not fashioned by human hands; therefore this commands my utmost respect and highest loyalty. It is my responsibility as a Christian to see to it that they exert a normative impact on human-made laws.”
But in saying that we recognize a “higher moral law” as more binding on us, we are more likely to face serious dilemmas. For instance, what are we to do when this “higher moral law” is in conflict with enacted or human-made laws? One could say, “We obey this “higher moral law” above all else and do what St. Peter said before the Sanhedrin: “We can-not keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:20). If some Chris-tians happen to have a “prophetic” orientation, they are more likely to take this course of ac-tion. Given the guaranteed freedom of choice in our historical context, they may do just that. A hypothetical case could be that of Christians who shelter an illegal immigrant (decidedly an illegal act) who, under adverse circumstances, has lost his humanity. But at the same time, they must be prepared to face and accept the consequences of their decisions and actions. They will have to face and suffer adverse consequences of actions that they know are “ille-gal.” In obeying a “higher moral law” and so subvert immigration laws of the land, these Christians could pay a high price for their courageous actions which, to some, may seem foolhardy. They could be arrested, charged for alleged civil and criminal offenses and, if found guilty, fined or be imprisoned, or both. That was the fate of modern-day Christian prophets like Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, and of Old Testament prophets like Amos and, indeed, of Jesus Christ.       

On the other hand, people could obey enacted or human-legislated laws to the letter and conveniently ignore the claims on them of the “higher moral law” that calls on them to value others, including illegal immigrants, aliens, strangers, for they, too, are created in God’s image. A goodly number of Christians have taken this route. Their reasoning is straightforward and could be convincing. That is, they say that Christian norms, values and teachings apply only to the personal, not social life, and to spiritual, not material, aspects of life. They should be applied to life within the church, but not to the wider community. Or as the popular saying puts it, “Religion and politics cannot, and should not, be mixed.” They are like oil and water in a
tumbler, co-existing but not blending. Or to use another imagery, they are like two lines of a railroad track that are parallel to, but independent of, one another. Isn’t it true that the King-dom (Realm) of God is not of this world and is separated from earthly kingdoms? As is obvi-ous to you and me, such a Christian view is schizophrenic. It is an example of what has come to be known as a “split-level” kind of Christianity.

Towards Some Theological/Ethical Guidelines

How, then, are we to put our “higher moral law” to practice in real life situations?

Let us take a look at Jesus’ love commandment which, to us Christians, is the highest Christian ethical norm. We feel obligated to obey it. However, experience shows that there are conditions which make it difficult, if not impossible, for us to obey it, especially Jesus’ injunction that we ought to love even our enemies. Hence, one is not far off the mark in say-ing that the love commandment is too abstract, far too high a moral ideal for imperfect beings like us to live up to. It is for this reason that some sincere Christians would argue that we ap-ply the law of love selectively. They say that it is not only possible but also sensible to love the lovable and hate those who hate us, that we practice love in one-to-one relationship, but not in our community life, that in a fiercely competitive world, one should throw love out of the window and base our attitude, decision action on the ethic of an all-conquering and domi-nating power.

I would like to put forward a claim that a “higher moral law” such as love is applica-ble to real life situations. But how? We can do that by formulating and implementing what I would call intermediate moral principles (middle axioms) and ethical guidelines that would bridge those “higher moral laws” to specific historical contexts. Through middle principles, the mandate of the love commandment can be brought to bear on such issues as the presence of illegal aliens in our midst. Let me illustrate.

It has been said that justice is love in action in person-to-person relationship and in community life. If we work for justice, we are showing our obedience to the love command-ment, for love expresses itself through justice. Justice is the minimum demand of love, and love the maximum demand of justice. But what is justice? On one level, it means a system of rewards and punishment. In the biblical sense, justice means wholeness or the well-being of individuals, of community life and indeed of the world of animals and inanimate things.

In the case of illegal immigrants, we may say that we certainly support the state in its attempts to come up with legal solutions to the problem of illegal aliens. But in doing that, we add a qualifier, namely, that reform laws should embody the spirit of biblical passages on how to treat aliens in our midst. And a valid qualifier could possibly be this: that in the spirit of such passages as Leviticus 19:33-34, reform laws should be humane and humanizing be-cause illegal aliens are also humans like us, created in God’s image. Furthermore, it is our task to spell out in more specific and relevant terms principles and guidelines that embody the biblical mandate of treating our fellow humans with deep respect. Towards that end, we do not have to start from scratch. Already, the United Church of Christ’s Immigration Coordina-tion Committee has spelled out specific guidelines and principles (see below) that we could use in our task aimed at a comprehensive reform of the immigration laws of our land based on the biblical value of respect for every person be he/she a native or an immigrant.

I submit that it is our responsibility and bounden duty to read, reflect and understand this set of guidelines and do our level best to communicate each of these effectively and effi-ciently by word, deed and example, such that our lawmakers will know, understand and be guided by them. If we do that, then we will have expressed our loving concern for the least of our fellow humans in our midst not only on a person-to-person level, but also on the level of our social and institutional life. In significant ways, we will also emulate the ancient Israelites who were mandated to treat aliens in their midst humanely precisely because they, too, were once strangers in a foreign land.

In the ultimate sense, aren’t we all transients on earth and citizens of God’s Realm (Kingdom) that is both present and coming, and is a gift of divine grace as well as a work of human hands?


(1) Motives to migrate can be either incentives attracting people away, known as push factors such as lack of employment or business opportunities, shortage of farmlands, lack of political or religious rights, oppressive political and legal systems, famine, drought, civil war, etc., or pull factors such better opportunities for acquiring farms, cheap purchase of farmland, more job opportunities, get-rich-quick opportunities or circumstances, better pay, cultural opportunities, better welfare programs, joining relatives and friends, better schools, prepaid travel (by relatives), political freedom, etc.  (Abstracted from Wikipedia.)
(2) Walter C. Kaiser, Jr. “The Book of Leviticus: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections,” in New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. I (Nashville: Abingdon Press. 1994), p. 1135.
(3) Thomas B. Dozeman, “Commentary: The Book of Numbers,” in New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. II (Nashville: Abingdon Press. 1994), p. 127.