I stopped listening so much to the political noise around contemporary issues and started doing three key things that I want to tell you about in this article. They are as simple as they are largely unpracticed. Ready for them?
First, I started listening to people at the heart of the “issue.” I’ll focus on immigration. When I started listening to immigrants, my views changed to a more collective understanding of what’s happening not to me but to us—humans all made in the image of God.
Gabriel is Hispanic and from New Mexico, and I’m Anglo-Cherokee from Oklahoma. When Gabriel first moved to Oklahoma to escape a life of drug addiction, he experienced a lot of racial tension, both subtle and clearly intended.
“The higher paying jobs aren’t available to me in some companies, because people look at my skin and expect me only to be a laborer,” Gabriel said.
Gabriel is correct historically: when the United States abolished slavery, immigrant labor began with Chinese to build railways and Latino/a to do hard labor in farms.
I sat down one day with Gabriel to read the Bible and share Scriptures about how God commanded love for immigrants as much as people of Israel. He wanted to know where those Scriptures were.
So I opened the Bible and showed him two particular passages:
Exod 23:9: “You shall not oppress a resident alien; you know the heart of an alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.”
Lev 19:33-34: “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.”
My response to these is that the Bible tends to undo our fantasies of what we’d like to think about the world.
Want to know Gabriel’s response? He said, “I didn’t know the Bible said that. I don’t think people know the Bible says that, at least they don’t act like they know. I try to love all people and reach out to people who have received hate (like Muslims in our country) and find ways to love them and share good news with them.”
Another person I’ve been listening to is Jordan Mazariegos, who was brought to the United States by his parents by no choice of his own. Now he faces deportation if Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) is not renewed or another alternative put forward. Jordan said at a DACA rally I attended in 2017, “We will not let one person divide us. We will fight with the knowledge and all our skills with peace and love to conquer hate. So today you will hear from different speakers, across many communities, many races, to show unity. DACA is not a Latino issue. DACA is not a Democrat issue. DACA is not a Republican issues. It’s not a political party issue, it’s an issue that affects human lives, and it should be treated as such.”
The second thing I’ve been trying is to view contemporary issues like immigration through the lens of Scripture first, rather than through the lens of rhetoric on social media, popular culture, politics, and religion. What does the Bible really say about this contemporary issue? In this case, the Bible actually says a lot about immigration, how to love and treat immigrants, aliens among you, strangers in the land, sojourners who may be working nearby or for you.
Exod 12 says foreigners can participate with Israel in the Passover feasts and gives them steps to be included.
Exod 23:9 says not to oppress foreigners living among you, and Lev 19:33-34 says to love foreigners “as yourself.” That’s the same wording at Lev 19:18 that Jesus quotes when he says, “love your neighbor as yourself.”
What is repeated many times in these texts is an important reason for treating foreigners with love and allowing them to harvest the edges of fields (Lev 23:22). The reason given over and over, the “why” of treating foreigners with love is this: you were once immigrants yourselves.
When I started reading the Bible for what it has to say about issues such as immigration, here’s what I found.
Our faith ancestors were immigrants. Start with Abraham; remember Hagar and how God saw her in the wilderness, a runaway slave who was the first in the Hebrew Bible to name God; then move on to Joseph moving to Egypt; then the Exodus and wilderness; then to the exile in Babylon, Assyria, Persia and the return of the exiles to Jerusalem. What about Jesus? He immigrated into our world, then was taken with Joseph and Mary as they ran for their lives in political asylum back to Egypt, then began an itinerant ministry with fishermen who followed the fish. His disciples were told they would spread the gospel from Jerusalem to Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth—and missionary apostles like Paul did just that. The gospel has spread through migration throughout the earth.
Immigration is not just restorative, but it is generative of God’s purposes. In other words, God uses immigration to achieve his purposes, and has since the beginning of time when Adam and Eve moved out of Eden, and when Cain wandered the earth with the equivalent of travel documents in some mark that prevented him from being harmed wherever he roamed. He was a criminal, and God protected Cain.
Now, there are some standard objections people raise about immigration that are not altogether politically motivated but could also be considered biblical. Doesn’t Paul say in Rom 13 to obey the laws of the land? Didn’t Jesus say, “The poor you will always have with you?” Both of these objections are often raised to justify inaction. In no way does Paul suggest by this that we ought to follow unjust laws that go against God’s laws, justice, mercy, and love. And in no way is Jesus suggesting we have a blithe attitude toward the poor. In fact, he claimed his very presence would be seen in the presence of the poor he came to tell good news, and the captives he came to free (Luke 4, Matt 25). People may also raise objections about the legality of someone’s immigration status. However, there is no biblical category for legal or illegal human being, even when across borders. This is a modern construction of nation states, and as humans—as Christians—we should not buy into the notion of a class of people who are “illegal” simply because of their presence across an arbitrary border that humans decided to make in God’s world. We ought to be careful about how this label leads us to marginalize people in today’s world.
Finally, in lieu of listening to the rhetoric, I’ve started to take some small but immediate and clear action toward loving my neighbor, immigrants. Dennis Ngwanah works at the Tulsa bus plant, and his wife Emma is getting her teaching certificate from NSU. Three of their four children attend Creekwood Elementary in Broken Arrow. One day my wife Jill, our daughter Ashley, and I visited, and the Ngwanah family fed us Jollof rice, and we laughed and told stories. We were all glad to make new friends. When you feel disturbed about what’s happening in our country, do something locally in your neighborhood or city. Share this and do something the Spirit of God leads you to do in your world. We visited a new family who emigrated to the U.S. and moved into our neighborhood. Our visit included a simple “hello, I’m your neighbor,” cookies, and assurance someone nearby loves them, and this love and empathy is more powerful than hatred and injustice.
What about you? What’s your next step? Listen. Read. Act.