In terms of the current immigration debate, what do we Christians do?
I guess, it applies to Jews, too – with the fact that the model of our faith was an immigrant, and an undocumented one at that.
According to the Christian Scriptures, we live with it.
In Hebrews 11, the gold standard definition of faith itself is set forth right at the beginning: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”
And then the text advises the reader to look to the history of faith – “our ancestor” – to explain what that definition of faith means. By their example we, as their descendants, can understand what living by faith – this assurance and conviction in things hoped for but not visibly seen – entails.
It’s not every ancestor, of course, but the exemplary ones that the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews mentions – Abel, Enoch, Noah, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Gideon, Barak, Sampson, Jephthah, David, Samuel and the prophets. Each of them, the claim is, gives us clues as to what it means to live by faith.
But even among the gallery of exemplars, one stands out: Abraham, the earthly parent of the family of faith.
And what is it about Abraham that gives him such elevated standing in the family of faith?
It’s the story of his life being an undocumented immigrant in faithfulness to God’s promise of a homeland – a land that he could call home.
The text says he left where he was without knowing where he was going, that he stayed in the very land he was promised as a “foreigner,” that he lived in tents as he traveled from place to place, having children even in his old age as a migrant, and always looking forward to having descendants “as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore.”
Does at least some of that sound familiar? Does it sound like anyone we’ve heard or read about?
Or ponder this from the Hebrews passage: Abraham and the other models of faith “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.”
Does that sound like us, the very well-settled folks who believe this American earth is ours exclusively? Or does it sound like those immigrants, documented and undocumented, whom we’ve heard and read about?
The writer of Hebrews makes it clear that the heroes of the faith listed had the opportunity to return where they came from, “but as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one.”
“Aha,” you say, “don’t you recognize that this passage from Hebrews isn’t making a case for open borders or, more realistically, a reform our of nation’s immigration policies? Can’t you see that this passage is about our seeking a ‘heavenly home’ like Abraham and all the rest?”
Well, of course, I can see your point about the “heavenly kingdom” operating here in the text. But my point is that the writer uses the story of biblical heroes. They were real strangers and foreigners, genuine migrants and immigrants, seeking places where they could make a living to support a family and worship the God who had promised them a land of milk and honey and the other things that go along with having a fulfilled human existence. The writer was using these noble stories of those biblical heroes as a metaphor that could apply equally to their earthly and our spiritual quest for a homeland.
Certainly the metaphorical use of those stories for a spiritual purpose doesn’t disqualify the nobility or the applicability of their earthly referent, does it?
If that could be the case, then those of us who are so well settled and so sure that the land belongs only to us might need to be a little more attentive to the very real strangers and foreigners, the genuine migrants and immigrants in our midst. At least that would seem to apply, especially to those of us who are well-settled Christians.
And maybe just being “attentive” is quite enough. Possibly we are being called to move closer to empathy toward those strangers and foreigners, or to become associated and engaged with those migrants and immigrants, or even advocates on behalf of them, all as a part of living out our Christian faith.
That is, we are called by the God who “is not ashamed to be called the God” (Hebrews 11:16b) of these strangers and foreigners, these migrants and immigrants. We are called by that same God, whom we hope will not be ashamed to be called our God, to receive and embrace and care for those who are coming to the United States to seek a homeland.
This realization doesn’t answer the question of how we go about this. It doesn’t, that is, give us specific directions on how to be compassionate or hospitable or helpful in the most effective ways. Nor does it provide a specific guide on what kind of immigration policy for which we should advocate.
But it does demand that we start working, out of our self-conscious Christian faith and self-disciplined Christian life, on those interpersonal, those social, those political objectives.
In short, in terms of the current immigration debate, the God who is disclosed to us through those models of faith mentioned in the Letter to the Hebrews and most decisively revealed to us in Jesus Christ, that God is calling us to live with it – to Christianly live with it.
Larry Greenfield is executive minister for the American Baptist Churches of Metro Chicago. He also serves as editor and theologian-in-residence for The Common Good Network.
Larry Greenfield retired on Dec. 31, 2018 as the executive director of the Parliament of the World’s Religions. He served previously as executive minister of the American Baptist Churches of Metro Chicago, a regional judicatory of the American Baptist Churches U.S.A, and the theologian-in-residence for the Community Renewal Society.