As Israel was about to enter the promised land God was emphatic that they were "to love those who are aliens" (Deut. 10:19). He also gave them a reason: "for you yourselves were aliens in Egypt."
Even a glance commends this statute as one which fits our American situation very well most of us are born of immigrant stock not more than three American-generations old. Stories of the struggles and trials of adaptation endured by our near ancestors ought to make Americans keenly sensitive to the plight of the newly arrived. Even Bob Dylan (third-generation American, a Minnesotan whose paternal grandfather had emigrated from Russia in the 20s) sang: "I pity the poor immigrant."
Looked at more closely in 1997, however, complying with God's statute means jumping hurdles. That you should care for immigrants because your grandparents were immigrants is a logic that eludes people today. Existential philosophy coupled with secular prosperity have encouraged an obsession with the "now" that makes it too easy to forget even our not-too-distant past. Our grandparents' pains are of little or no concern, if we've ever even thought of them at all.
Add to this our current intellectual and moral schizophrenia. In rejecting not just our personal past but our collective history, we have become a nation in search of meaning, in search of law and, perhaps soon, in search of life. We affirm or disavow our Christian heritage at will & whim. We think we can pick and choose our history, rip, revise or relegate according to suit. Our revisionism reveals that our default faith is certainly not in the God of our fathers, nor are we particularly interested in living by His laws, except insofar as they might happen to conform to our prejudices.
And that thing called multiculturalism has made unacceptable the concept of welcoming immigrants from all nations to this Christian nation.
Our public policies reveal the strains caused by the above elements: We are a de facto nation of immigrants; we continue to regard and advertise America as the haven for immigrants (and, incontestably, it is); but we no longer know who "we" are.
Who is it that ought to be welcoming the immigrants and in whose name? At one time this was a task of the church: to welcome people to America in the Name of Christ. But contemporary immigration policy, as in most other policies of our time, assumes that the "neutral" state is our point of common identity, our law maker (not administrator) and our savior.
Consequently, "we" no longer want, as a matter of policy, immigrants to be welcomed by Christians or Christian tithe-agencies, we certainly don't want them to be taught anything of our Christian history, and we don't want them to be indebted to God through His church. Rather, we invite multitudes of the world's inhabitants to come to America and become immediately reliant upon the state, our new god.
These public policy tensions, in turn, confuse genuine Christians about their obligations under God to the aliens among us. It is a very great temptation to go with the flow and simply accept the status quo of directing new arrivals to the Great American Breast (or is that Beast?), i.e., to the federal government with its vast array of socialist programs. It is tempting to simply kick back and passively believe that it is the feds' job to care for the immigrants.
Adding to the confusion in our thinking is the very real provocation brought about by some immigrants' use of "government" funds. While it must be borne in mind that, statistically, most immigrants do not go on welfare nor take other direct redistributions of wealth, there is certainly (and properly) a good deal of attention drawn to the great numbers who do. But beware: This very easily leads to an attitude, not of love, but of pure resentment toward the immigrant.
It is quite common in Brooklyn to see immigrants on line at the grocery store, decked out in fine clothing and expensive outerwear, paying in food stamps at the check-out counter, then wheeling their carts to a Mercedes-Benz or other fine car. We see many immigrants eating up a variety of the so-called "entitlements," we know of those collecting double checks through name-fraud schemes, we hear of some getting preferential treatment at schools and universities, buying houses with cash after 5 or 10 years in the States, and surpassing (because of statist "help") the standard of living of those who welcomed them here.
Even more offensive, we see those who glibly take every dollar they can from productive Americans while they themselves regard American ideals with virtual disdain. There is often no loyalty whatsoever. This should not surprise anyone, however, for as indulgent daddies and others have learned through sad experience, you cannot buy loyalty. Unlike the policies of a day when we feared not to think of ourselves as Christian, current policies encourage an immigrant population (generally speaking, now!) unwilling to fight or die for anything beyond their own stomachs.
And so we find that we're not quite sure how to or whether we even should apply the law of God. We begin by cutting off our past, then by thinking of "we" as the state. We encourage immigration, not to a Christian land, but to a land of subsidies and demeaning handouts. Then, when we are confronted by in-our-face "abuses" of our adopted socialist system (which are often just clever uses on the immigrants' part), we abound in reasons to resent the new arrivals, certainly not to love them.
As St. James said in another context, "My brothers, this should not be." It is the Lord who issued the obligation "to love those who are aliens," not the state. The state's abuse of power does not relieve us of this obligation, any more than Social (In)Security relieves us of our obligation to honor our parents.
So then, we Christians must love the newcomers. But we need to understand what God means when He tells us to love them. He does not mean to subsidize lazy, wicked, good-for-nothing bums. Not at all. In Psalm 146, the Lord says of Himself, "The LORD watches over the alien and sustains the fatherless and the widow, but he frustrates the ways of the wicked." Clearly, then, God is aligning Himself with the vulnerable righteous over against the exploitative wicked. Therefore, just as Paul could properly restrict distribution of funds to certain widows only, so also may we put a Biblical grid governing the outlay of funds aimed to help immigrants. Thus, for example, at Urban Nations we do not provide help learning English to those who refuse to have it taught to them using the Bible.
Secondly, we have to discipline ourselves to discriminate not against but between. We must discriminate between those who show themselves to be abusers of a merciful disposition and those who do not. We must not be so soft-headed as to take the wide road which resents all immigrants because of the sins of some.
Third, we have to bear in mind that it is a joy to fulfill God's commands. Helping immigrants in the Name of our Savior is a privilege and delight, as is the doing of all God's Word.
Fourth, this command from Deuteronomy 10:19 is a timely one to focus on, especially for those of us in larger cities. One-in-three New Yorkers is foreign-born. And dwell on this: New Yorkers who are either foreign-born or the children of foreign-born comprise 53% of this city's population.
We would love for the federal and other governments to get out of the way and let the church do her work in this sector. It would make our ministry infinitely easier. But we will not just rub our hands together and wait, nor sit idly by while this Providential window is opened so wide.
God has commanded us to reach the nations. He has commanded us to love the alien. Looks like we've got two mints in one.
2662 East 24th Street
Brooklyn, NY 11235
E-mail: [email protected]
- Steve M. Schlissel
Steve Schlissel has served as pastor of Messiah's Congregation in Brooklyn, New York, since 1979. Born and raised in New York City, Schlissel became a Christian by reading the Bible. He and Jeanne homeschooled their five children and also helped raise several foster children (mostly Vietnamese). In 2003, they adopted Anna (who was born in Hong Kong in 1988, but is now a U.S. citizen). They have eight foster grandchildren and fourteen "natural" grandchildren.