Tuesday, March 14, 2017

How Can Old Testament Israel Inform Christian Thought About Illegal Aliens In The United States?

Among the many unintended consequences of the ascension of Donald Trump to the throne of the God-Emperor the Presidency has been political progressives magically discovering concepts like limited government, constraint of the executive branch, checks and balances and Federalism. Suddenly those terrible dead White men who owned slaves we call the Founding Fathers have a lot of important stuff to say. Of course it is also true that a bunch of conservatives have taken a sudden liking to executive orders and using "Federal funds" as a stick to punish bad behavior. Likewise religious progressives have rediscovered the Old Testament, or at least parts of it. I have seen a lot of people referencing the Old Covenant laws regarding the treatment of strangers and sojourners in the land of Israel in response to President Trump deciding to enforce U.S. immigration laws, like this passage:
"When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. 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 19:33-34
Progressives who often speak of Jesus as if you can know Him apart from the recorded revelation of the Bible suddenly quoting Leviticus! It is an almost miraculous event!

Kidding aside, I do understand why progressives and even people who would qualify as conservative are turning to passages like that to inform our understanding as Christians regarding illegal aliens. It is a pretty good rationale. Scripture reveals a lot of things to us, most particularly the Good News of the Gospel and the Kingdom of God. It also, as part of that redemptive history, exposes us to the reality of the nature of God and of man. While I think the proper hermeneutic practice is to use the New to inform and interpret the Old, that doesn't negate the Old Testament as a way of understanding God. In fact I think it is almost impossible to understand Jesus and the entirety of the New Testament without a solid foundation of the Old Testament. The understanding of the nature of God the Father that the audience of Jesus and the apostolic writers would have had came primarily from the Old Testament, so we as Christians should spend time in the OT to better understand the Father and thereby to understand the Son.

Now, having said that we need to be cautious and sober. Context always matters when interpreting Scripture and especially when trying to apply Scripture in a completely different setting thousands of years distant from the original setting.

First, a reminder of what Israel was and was (or is) not.

The nation of Israel in the Middle-East over 2000 years ago is not the United States. Having Christians living in the United States does not make it Israel. Nothing in the New Testament would imply that God intended to create a unique nation-state to replicate national Israel, in fact all of the evidence points to the contrary. This is a reminder that a lot of people across the political and theological spectrum apparently need, from progressive social justice warrior types who try to use Caesar to carry out the mission of the church to theonomists and others who think America should be run using obsolete Old Covenant laws. 

Israel of the Old Testament was a unique and never replicated national situation. It was a nation formed out of a specific act for a specific people by God under a now obsolete covenantal agreement for specific purpose as a type and shadow. It was created by God to fulfill a promise and as part of a series of promissory arrangements ("if you....I will"). God Himself led the Israelites out of Egypt after cursing the land of Egypt with plagues including the extermination of every first born male, curses that resulted because God Himself hardened the heart of pharaoh. He led His people in the wilderness before eventually acting to utterly destroy the pagan inhabitants of the land. He established the laws and the patterns of worship for His people in this land and one of the most critical laws was that they not intermix with other people. When Israel went whoring after other nations they invariably adopted the pagan worship of those other nations and this led to all manner of severe chastening for the Israelites, to the point of them eventually being conquered and exiled. God created the civic laws of Israel, many quite severe in our eyes like the death sentence for adultery, because the people of Israel were often hard-hearted, in other words the nation was a mixed nation of godly people and not godly people, and because adultery was an affront to God's created order. That is generally why laws exist, because people are not good in general. James Madison famously said that if all men were angels, no laws would be necessary but since men are not angels, we need laws. So the laws of Israel both reflected God's character (His hatred of sin, like with the death penalty for adultery, and His mercy, shown in the command to care for the stranger) as well as the reality of human nature and our tendency to sin. 

Another point that needs to be made is that while "God's heart" cares very deeply for the stranger and sojourner in the land, God is also a God of law. A great deal of the Bible is taken up with detailed civil laws for the nation of Israel and the penalties for breaking those laws. The penalties for law-breaking in Israel were harsh, almost brutal by our standards. None of us know how often those harsh penalties were applied but the fact remains that they were ordained by God as the response to law-breaking. Here is where I think that drawing even an indirect equivalency between the commands regarding stranger and sojourners in OT Israel and illegal aliens in the United States completely falls apart:

The strangers in the land spoken of in Leviticus 19:33-34 and elsewhere in the Old Testament were not willfully and knowingly breaking the law of Israel. Illegal aliens in the United States are willfully and knowingly breaking the law of the U.S..
There is an enormous difference between strangers and sojourners who are in a land and criminals who have willfully broken the law of the land they are in. Despite the word games a lot of people like to play ("undocumented immigrant" or just "immigrant") the fact is that people who are here "without documentation" are in this country illegally. You might not like the laws or think they are just but they are the laws. I know them, you know them and they know them. Regardless of the motivation of those here illegally, the simple fact remains that they are breaking the law, they know they are breaking the law, and they continue to do so.

That doesn't negate the obligation of the church to show mercy and compassion to everyone, especially fellow Christians (Galatians 6:10) but it does mean that we need to use a little more discernment than woodenly comparing theological apples and oranges.

I am of the opinion that for a host of reasons, it is prudent and just for a nation to have meaningful borders and immigration laws. Every civilized nation in the world does. We have ports of entry, passports, visas, etc. not to mention birth certificates, social security numbers, etc. that help to maintain order regarding who is a citizen, who is a legal visitor, who can come here and who can stay. Again, just like every other civilized nation. There is nothing inherently sinful or wrong for a nation to have meaningful borders and likewise there is nothing contrary to the Gospel or the teachings of the Kingdom for Christians to recognize, obey and even support such laws. A follower of Christ who encounters someone here illegally in need to mercy should extend to them what mercy and compassion they can and then should earnestly encourage them to return to their home country and seek admission to the United States via legal methods. On the other hand, a Christian who is engaged in aiding and abetting someone breaking the laws of the United States by harboring them or other means is also a law-breaker and is really not any different than someone who offers the use of their garage for car thieves to store vehicles they have stolen until they can dispose of them. That may sound harsh (They are human beings, not cars!) but willfully breaking the law is breaking the law, whether you are illegally in this country or evading taxes or stealing cars. 

By all means we should study the Old Testament to gain a better understand of God and His nature, which by the way includes His absolute abhorrence of and hatred toward sin, and that understanding should help to inform our relations with fellow image bearers. We should do so with the understanding that Israel was unique and has been gone for millennia and that proper hermeneutics and application requires us to understand where situations in the Bible are similar to contemporary events but also where they are dissimilar to contemporary events and prayerfully seek wisdom to discern the distinction. 

God cares for the stranger and sojourner. He also is a God of law. We need to keep both in mind when we seek His face and His will in these confusing and contentious times.

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