By Alan Cross, author of When Heaven and Earth Collide: Racism, Southern Evangelicals, and the Better Way of Jesus
“You shall not wrong a sojourner or oppress him, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.”—Exodus 22:21
“You shall not oppress a sojourner. You know the heart of a sojourner, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.”—Exodus 23:9
“You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.”—Leviticus 19:34
“Love the sojourner, therefore, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.”—Deuteronomy 10:19
The current social and political context in America has become difficult for immigrants and refugees—and those who minister to them. Amid shouts of “Build a wall!” and calls to limit immigration as well as fears of terrorism and foreigners taking jobs from Americans, the discussion around immigrants and refugees has sometimes taken a dark turn. Patriotic concern can easily slip into xenophobic anger as immigrants and refugees begin to be blamed for problems plaguing the average American. On the heels of racial division and unrest exposed in places like Ferguson and Baltimore, the rise of anti-immigrant rhetoric among some has helped to create a toxic environment of fear and anger toward those perceived as “other.”
Instead of giving in to this growing sentiment and playing along with people’s fears and reactions, Southern Baptists have an incredible opportunity to speak with gospel witness into this environment and “tell a better story.”
Over and over again in Scripture we see the commands to welcome the stranger, treat the immigrant/sojourner well, love him as yourself, and apply to him the same laws and protections that you have for your own native born. The Hebrew people are told that when foreign people in need come to them with a desire to live among them and contribute, then they are to be welcomed and cared for. This is a recurring command, one of the most prominent of the Torah. The United States is not Israel, but the Church is called to be salt and light in every culture and to witness to the biblical ideal of justice, mercy, and humility before God (Micah 6:8). How we treat the stranger among us says something profound about our view of God.
But the commands to care for the sojourner are more than just “rules.” They are a response to what God has done for us. That is why they often come with the reminder, “For you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.” In reminding Israel of their former slavery and oppression in Egypt, God was also reminding them of their deliverance. The Apostle Paul echoes this sentiment when he talks about the types of people who will not inherit the Kingdom of God and then says, “And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor. 6:9-11). The Christian life is a response to God’s amazing grace: “I once was lost but now I’m found, was blind but now I see.”
“For you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.” The message here is that how you treat those who are where you once were is directly proportional to how you have come to understand what God did for you. In Deuteronomy 26:5-13, when the treatment of the sojourner is tied directly to the tithe and worship, we see clearly that the Hebrew who does not treat the sojourner well fails to understand God’s grace and kindness toward him.
The Orthodox Jewish Rabbi Jonathan Sacks says,
“It is no coincidence that Judaism was born in two journeys away from the two greatest civilizations of the ancient world: Abraham’s from Mesopotamia, Moses’ and the Israelites’ from Pharaonic Egypt …To be a Jew is to be a stranger. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that this is why Abraham is commanded to leave land, home and father’s house; why, long before Joseph was born, Abraham was already told that his descendants would be ‘strangers in a land not their own;’; why Moses had to suffer personal exile before assuming leadership of the people; why the Israelites underwent persecution before inheriting their own land; and why the Torah is so insistent that this experience – the retelling of the story on Pesach [Passover], along with the never-forgotten taste of the bread of affliction and the bitter herbs of slavery – should become a permanent part of their collective memory.”
When we love, minister to, and advocate for the immigrant, the sojourner, the refugee, we are not just doing good works. We are not being “political,” at least not in a partisan sense. We are actually witnessing to the reality of the Kingdom of God, our own salvation in Christ, the nature of the Church, the final destination of nations around the throne of God, and God’s own character. In a world that seeks to protect, promote, and defend its own way of life over and above others, loving the immigrant is a significant way to give prophetic witness to the reality of the gospel and God’s character.
The Church is the embassy of Heaven, and when we minister to and advocate for immigrants who come to us from different cultures and lands, we are able to tell a better story in this culture – the gospel story. Sure, our government has questions it needs to answer about immigration. But we, the church, have divinely commissioned responsibilities: “Love your neighbor as yourself,” and “preach the gospel to all of creation.”
What if the current context of controversy and fear is exactly what God has allowed for Southern Baptists to love and minister to immigrants and refugees in ways that will cause us to shine like stars in a world full of fear and anger? What if the sojourner among us has been sent by God to draw out the love and mercy of the Church, so the world can see the heart of God and the sojourner himself can experience his kindness?
It’s worth considering.
across the Southeast with churches, ministries, and the Evangelical Immigration Table. He is the author of When Heaven and Earth Collide: Racism, Southern Evangelicals, and the Better Way of Jesus, he blogs at alancrosswrites.com, and can be followed on Twitter at @alanlcross.