Immigration and the Way of the Heart

Ellis Island Immigrants, Public Domain

Ellis Island Immigrants, Public Domain via Wikimedia

Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves “the circumcision” (which is done in the body by human hands)— remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ. –Ephesians 2:11-13, NIV

“This is what the Lord Almighty said: ‘Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor. Do not plot evil against each other.’” Zechariah 7:9-10

When you saw the word “immigration,” did your blood pressure go up? This is one of those issues it is not polite to discuss during social occasions at the risk of tempers flaring. In what follows I don’t want to get into policy or current controversies, and I hope you won’t try to debate them here. Likewise, I should warn that this is a bit of “inside baseball” primarily written for those who share my Christian commitments. I hope others will read to see how at least one Christian might think through such things.

The impetus for this post has been reflection over the last couple weeks on a sermon preached by one of our pastors on Zechariah 7, which includes the second biblical quote above. It made me think particularly about what our heart attitudes are toward the immigrant, and others on the margins of our society. These often are most vulnerable to oppression. They can be exploited, abused, feared, hated, excluded. Instead God commands justice, mercy, and compassion.

My thoughts went to the first passage and others like it, that give a very simple reason why. If in no other way, spiritually, we were once in the same place–strangers and aliens, fatherless, and hopeless; and through the cross of Christ, we have been adopted as God’s children, welcomed into God’s family, and included in God’s people–citizens of the kingdom rather than aliens.

It is hard for me to fathom as I reflect on God’s unfathomable love how our hearts can be gladdened and warmed and filled with joy because of the reality of God’s extravagant welcome; and hardened toward the immigrant and the refugee. It seems to me akin to being extravagantly forgiven and unwilling to forgive. Someone has observed about Jesus teaching about forgiveness that we need to choose which universe we will live in–a forgiveness universe or a judgment universe. I would suggest that likewise, we cannot live in a universe of extravagant welcome and simultaneously a universe of fear, resentment, hate, and exclusion. Choosing the latter in each case robs us of the joy and freedom of being God’s forgiven and included children.

None of this is to say what our immigration policies should be. Clearly they need to change, which is perhaps the only thing both political parties agree upon. What I want to raise is what orientation of the heart, what habits of the heart shape how we approach these discussions. Do we begin with fear or suspicion or even hatred of the other? Or do we begin with compassion, with welcome, and with justice. Many refugees are actually desperate. A number are actually fellow believers. In many cases they would face prison or death in returning to their country. Most people don’t leave home without good reason.

Many would say there are good reasons to be fearful or suspicious because some immigrants, documented or not, have committed crimes in our country.  Sure, but if we were to exclude every class of people in which some member has committed a crime, who of us would be left? Certainly prudence is called for by those who guard our borders. But this doesn’t need to conflict with a generous, welcoming spirit on the part of our people. The real question is what will be our fundamental posture, at least among those of us who say we follow Christ, toward the immigrant and the refugee? Will it be fear and suspicion, or will it be one of generous welcome that flows from how Christ has welcomed us? Might we experience in new ways the joy of welcoming Jesus in welcoming these people, the Jesus who began his earthly life as a refugee, along with Joseph and Mary?

2 thoughts on “Immigration and the Way of the Heart

  1. I particularly appreciate this phrase of yours: “we cannot live in a universe of extravagant welcome and simultaneously a universe of fear, resentment, hate, and exclusion.”- this has meaning in our attitudes toward ourselves, our families, our communities, and the larger world.

    • That is what saddens me when I see those who call themselves Christians, yet their lives are full of fear and suspicion. It tells me of how little they know of the extravagant love, mercy, and welcome of God.

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