“Do not oppress an alien; you yourselves know how it feels to be aliens, because you were aliens in Egypt.” Exodus 23.9 (NIV)
This week, I continue to continue my series on evangelical Bible abuse. I’ve decided to take a little break from talking about HK to complete this series. I’ve read a popular and famous American systematic theologian (I loosely apply that term to him because many consider him one) on his take on politics and the Bible. I’m going to deal with one issue he talks about in order to illustrate how tough it is to use the Bible to support your own agenda while opposing agenda of others.
To start with, I have a very simple question to ask. What if the Bible does not support my agenda? This author’s answer is simple. He can simply put in bold print “We have a very different situation today.” Now in principle, that is a good thing to do not with verses that do not agree with our conviction but to do that with every verse in the Bible. First we should examine the meaning of one verse he quotes. I would work with a few more verses simply because they often are read within the same corpus by Christians as part of the first books of the Bible, but I”m limited by space here.
Ex. 23.9 is a repeated idea from the injunction at Ex. 22.20. The contexts of two similar injunctions are different in that Ex. 22 talks about the individual Israelite while Ex. 23 talks about those who were judges over Israel. Thus, the different context shows the universality of this injunction both at the individual level and the judicial level. This injunction is about as absolute as they come within the Torah. Ex. 23.6-8 talk about bribes and lies and Ex. 23.10-11 talk about the needy. Thus, the injunction has the same weightiness as bearing false witnesses and oppressing the needy. This is not something we can just shrug off as being “for them.” The historical situation tells us that Israel had always had needy people, some Hebrew and some foreigners. This ongoing historical situation doesn’t just apply to the Exodus but ran all the way to the exile period. The major difference however is that the political system of that time was different than today.
As we have already seen, the situations are indeed very different today than those days. Those days, the Bible had theocracy. Even within theocracy however, the determining factor for theocracy is whether the alien was willing to live within the covenant religion of Israel. Due to the fact that religion was part of Israel’s law, it was a requirement. Is our law based on a covenant religion?
Even without the covenant religion of the ancient Israel, we can at least draw the conclusion that helping the foreigner ranks right up there with being truthful (which we surely can’t make situational) or helping the needy (which most of us can’t make situation with a clear conscience). The tension then is between what was particular and what was universal.
Consequences for Misunderstanding
Since this theologian speaks against any kind of help for illegal immigrants, he uses the least amount of scripture to support whatever cause he wants mainly because scripture does not support much of what he is saying. He tries to cite scholarly studies that support the closing of border in Israel’s history to prove that border was indeed God’s will. The trouble with that is whether anything from Israel’s politics back then could be applicable to today’s America. If he sincerely believes that we have a very different situation today (and he is right), why would he cite the border situation back from ancient Israel? The fact of border in Israel was due to the importance of keeping the Israelites together due to their ideally homogeneous faith. We have no such situation today in our multi-faith and pluralistic society (unless he still insists that we’re a Christian nation, which he seems to also insist and that we’re still a homogeneous society).
The theologian’s logic goes further off track when he insists that closing the border and insisting simulation is the perfect solution. Without a doubt, as an American, I believe we have to deport escaped criminals but we do that with all the other countries anyway. I understand some of my readers are going to object to what I say as naïve liberal nonsense, but from a moral point of view, the whole idea of closing border is problematic to US history. At one point, American land belonged to the Native Americans. Imagine if the Native Americans decided that it was a bad idea to help the colonists in Virginia Colony as well as the Plymouth Colony survive and just let them starve to death. Imagine worse. Imagine if they decided to “close the border” and just kill all white men as trespassers. IF they had a closed-border policy, America wouldn’t be what it is now. The original spirit of this nation versus the spirit represented by this theologian is at variance. No matter how he justifies himself, his stance is basically historically illogical. The immigration situation in the US today is less than best, but his solution is simply untenable from an ethical and biblical point of view.
Some of his other steps are probably helpful in terms of practical application: teaching children to learn English to help assimilate, helping illegal immigrants to gain legal status, a compassionate path to move from illegal to legal immigration. These are all practical steps, but some of his other steps simply cannot be ethically and historically sound even if they work (and I doubt that they do).
At the same time, there’re issues that these verses do not deal with either. The greater idea of justice needs to be dealt with as well. For example, when funding goes to helping illegal immigrants, many of our shrinking middle class are feeling the impact of cut government spending to help the locals that are in need. People like injured veterans and honest citizens who hold several jobs to make ends meet will have great need as well. How about the funding to schools that are underprivileged even if those who are affected are honest citizens working their hardest to make ends meet. In all this, where would the discussion about greedy rich who are cheating the system? True justice is fluid, nuanced, prioritized and even gradated. These and many other topics are all justice issues that can’t be solved simply by appealing to the text that seems to support us while distancing ourselves from texts that do not support us and shout, “We simply have a different situation today.” No, ALL biblical situations are different, not just the select few. If you appeal to history, you can’t have your historical cake and eat it too.
As I said before, the problem is not the biblical text. The problem is the interpreter.