Is there any way to apply the scriptural principle of hospitality to the current conversation about immigration?
It’s easy enough to lift select verses from here and there and apply them to various arguments. For example, one might quote Leviticus 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.” And then from that one might extrapolate a position on immigration that might call for amnesty for all, for example. Just sayin'.
The problem with that is that it takes two verses out of context in order to “prove” one’s point of view. Simply put, the socio-political context in which Leviticus was written is so different from ours today, it is impossible to do a simple apples-to-apples comparison. I try really hard not to do that with any of the “hot button” social issues of our day – homosexuality, war, health care, whatever it might be.
It’s called “proof texting” – coming in with a preconceived notion and then doing a quick concordance search to find a handful of verses that reinforce your belief, and citing them to back yourself up. Proof texting is surface level, bad theology, and does very little to facilitate respectful, grace-filled dialogue about matters of faith.
So, getting back to immigration and the idea of the “resident alien” in Leviticus (and Exodus, too, btw); there is nothing in scripture nor in anything I’ve read about the historical context of the ancient near east that would lead me to believe this passage is about people who have entered a foreign country illegally. Correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems that national boundaries really didn’t work the same way then as now. In fact, I don’t think the scriptures have much to say at all specifically about the issue as it exists today. The world is just a vastly different place now than it was then.
And so I turn to the underlying themes that unify the entire scriptural library. One of those themes is hospitality. I don’t mean greeters at the church door hospitality, I mean hospitality as God intends, as Jesus lived, and the Holy Spirit empowers the church to embody. Bishop Schnase calls it “a quality of spiritual initiative, the practice of an active and genuine love, a graciousness unaffected by self-interest, an opening of ourselves and our faith community to receive others” (5 Practices, p. 20).
This is the hospitality Jesus lived as he traveled around teaching and healing and feeding. It is the hospitality he is trying to illuminate for us when he says in a parable, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me” (Matthew 25:35). An “active and genuine love” would be the love that “desires and seeks their happiness as sincerely and steadily as your own,” as John Wesley put it in his sermon 139, “On Love.”
If hospitality, the “practice of an active and genuine love” is a scriptural touchstone for a life of faith, how might it apply to the conversation about immigration? I believe that God’s desires transcend national laws, and it seems to me that there is something about loving one another in the way God wants us to that would tend to preclude checking one another’s papers to determine citizenship status. Wouldn’t our unity as children of God seem to make such distinctions meaningless? …or if not meaningless, then at least insignificant by comparison?
Immigration is a very complicated issue. It is nowhere near as simple as “break a law = suffer the consequences” nor “complete amnesty for all right now.” I have been in ministry with enough immigrants to know that the system is inconceivably complex and difficult to wade through. I know that there are people who abuse this complexity, preying on immigrants by promising to help, for a price, of course, and then taking their money, leaving them broke and alone and “illegal” with no options. I know that there are people who do exactly what they are told to do in order to immigrate into the U.S. legally, but either get bad info or fill out the wrong form or call the wrong office or whatever, and still get into trouble anyway. The system needs to be fixed.
But as our society works together to fix it, the question of how to treat one another remains. Must we construct walls and check papers? Or can people of faith manage to muster a bit of hospitality? Or maybe: as walls are constructed and papers checked, can people of faith manage to muster a bit of hospitality?
(I’m hopeful that there will be some conversation here, and I ask that it be offered with love and grace. I have written before about immigration – here and here and here – and the comment threads have been very good, clearly and respectfully pointing out places of disagreement. So I am hopeful that reader comments here will also display "graciousness unaffected by self-interest.")