Spiritual Ancestry: Regarding Immigrants and Refugees With Compassion

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The following post, written by The Rev. Robert A. Franek, is a part of Politicus Policy Discussion, in which writers draw connections between real lives and public policy.

Long before the 2016 presidential campaigns began reforms in our immigration system have been needed. But in this election season attention on this issue is heightened. So also for welcoming refugees into our country, whether minors fleeing from dangers in Central America or the millions trying to escape war torn Syria and other countries in violent conflict.

Too often the complexities surrounding the policies regarding the 11 million undocumented immigrants in this country, DREAMers, and Syrian refugees get reduced to overly simplistic talking points.  Additionally, all these and more with their hopes and dreams, fears and struggles, talents and resilience, are objectified and dehumanized in rhetoric of hate and fear along with outdated policies and practices. Consider the treatment of immigrants in private detention centers.

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However, for those guided by the Old and New Testaments it seems the least we can do is have compassion for their plight and justice in our laws, remembering that our ancestors were foreigners in the land of Egypt.  Exodus 23:9 counsels, “You shall not oppress a resident alien; you know the heart of an alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt” (NRSV).

And more strongly we are commanded not only not to oppress but to love. “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 19:34).

This love is made known in practices that provide food and wages for labor. As written in Leviticus 23:22, “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and for the alien: I am the LORD your God.” While this ancient farming practice may no longer apply functionally, certainly the need to provide food for the poor and foreigners in the land in a structural and systemic fashion still does.

And as made clear in Deuteronomy 24:14, our love and compassion for the poor and needy has an economic implication as well, an implication that does not discriminate between native and foreigner. “You shall not withhold the wages of poor and needy laborers, whether other Israelites or aliens who reside in your land in one of your towns.”

And from the law of Deuteronomy to the prophet Ezekiel scripture testifies to consequences of failing to show compassion and justice to the oppressed, poor and needy, and foreigners in the land. In Deuteronomy 27.19 we read, “Cursed be anyone who deprives the alien, the orphan, and the widow of justice. All the people shall say, “Amen!”” Can I get an Amen? And Ezekiel tells of the failure of economic justice in 22:29, “The people of the land have practiced extortion and committed robbery; they have oppressed the poor and needy, and have extorted from the alien without redress.” No one was found to stand in this breach and repair the damage so all suffered the indignation of God.

It is also imperative to know that according to the Gospel of Matthew Jesus, Mary, and Joseph were refugees (without documentation) in the land of Egypt. Interestingly, the place of ancient slavery has become the country of refuge. The holy family had to flee because of an edict from Herod, who sent and killed all the children two years old and under in and around Bethlehem. His violent insecurity on display after being tricked by the wise men and the threat of a new infant king.

These ancient stories sound remarkably contemporary. With attentive interpretive grace we can hear the message in them for today. These living words echo through the ages with a continued call to compassion, love, and justice. As they tell of our own spiritual ancestry, they call us to remember our history and God’s liberating love from captivity in an oppressive regime of tyrannical productivity. And in Jesus we see God’s own identification with those fleeing for life and safety.

Nevertheless, the biblical witness notwithstanding, the call to regard immigrants and refugees with compassion is also grounded in our shared humanity and the basic respect and dignity all people deserve. Oversimplification and sound bites make this too easy to forget as people become pawns in political punditry.

For stories and information on immigrant and refugee issues in this country including policy advocacy please check out Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service.