In last week’s blogging, I was proposing two solid starting points if we want to view illegal immigration from a Christian perspective. The first starting point was Genesis 1, from which we learn the unique dignity of each human being, who bears the image of God, and God’s intention for humankind to live fruitfully.
The second starting point was Jesus. His teaching on the kingdom of God points to a radically different way of living, one that turns upside down many of the assumptions we make about life. As God begins to reign on earth, the poor receive good news and the oppressed are set free. Those who suffer in this life will be blessed. Love will be the guiding ethic of people who live under the reign of God, love not just for our neighbors, but even for our enemies. When we care for those who are oppressed and in need, including the stranger in need of welcome, Jesus receives our love as if it were given to him. Moreover, in the teaching of Jesus, the alien becomes, not only someone to receive love in the name of Jesus, but also someone who models love for others.
The Actions of Jesus
When we consider the relevance of the actions of Jesus for the issue of illegal immigration, we must once again remember that Jesus did not encounter the same kinds of situations and challenges that we face today. Nevertheless, several of his actions bear witness to how Christians who seek to imitate Jesus might live in relationship with undocumented workers and their families.
It is worth nothing that Jesus was himself an immigrant during the first years of his life. Shortly after his birth, Jesus’ parents fled to Egypt in order to protect him from being murdered by soldiers of King Herod (Matt 2:13-18). When Herod died, Jesus and his parents returned to their hometown of Nazareth (Matt 2:19-23). About Jesus’ time in Egypt, we know very little, however.
When Jesus began preaching the good news of the kingdom of God, he demonstrated the presence of the kingdom in various ways. He healed the sick and cast out demons, showing that God’s power was indeed present. Jesus cared for the crowds, proclaiming the kingdom and healing the sick, because “he had compassion for them” (Matt 9:35-36; 14:14). His empathy for people in need led Jesus to minister, not just to souls, but also to bodies. (Photo: “Christ Healing the Paralytic by the Pool of Bethesda” by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo)
In one case, Jesus was approached by a leper who sought to be cleansed of his disease (Matt 8:1-2). Not only was this man stricken with a terrible physical condition, but also he was ostracized by his community because he was ceremonially unclean and a danger to the health of others. The fact that a leper was allowed to approach a holy man like Jesus is a testimony both to the leper’s desperation at to Jesus’ exceptional welcome of a person in need. When Jesus touched the man, thus allowing himself to become unclean, the man was cleansed of his leprosy (Matt 8:3). But this was not the end of what the kingdom of God meant to the former leper. Jesus sent him to the priest in his town, who would verify that the man had been cleansed and enable him to be restored into his community.
The fact that Jesus had intimate fellowship with a leper was scandalous, but, to make matters worse, Jesus often hung out with people judged to be unsavory and unacceptable. We read this in Matthew’s Gospel:
And as [Jesus] sat at dinner in the house, many tax collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” But when he heard this, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.” (9:10-13)
Jesus associated with people who were on the outs, those who were marginalized because of their behavior as well as their physical condition.
The activity of Jesus in demonstrating the presence of the kingdom may not tell us how the United States should deal with the issue of illegal immigration, but it surely guides Christians when it comes to how we relate to those who are in this country illegally, as well as to their families. Millions of undocumented workers live on the edge of poverty or on the downside of that edge. They are often victimized by people in power since they have relatively little legal protection. In the eyes of many Americans, illegal aliens are viewed rather like lepers, as outcasts who are not welcome in our communities, as people who threaten our way of life. Or they are seen more like “tax collectors and sinners,” people whose behavior excludes them from our fellowship, friendship, and compassion.
If we ask the classic question, “What would Jesus do?”, in reference to illegal immigration, we would no doubt hear different answers with respect to American legal and social policy. But it seems undeniable to me that Jesus would associate with and care for the tangible needs of undocumented workers and their families. He would seek their wholeness: spiritually, physically, relationally, socially. Those of us who follow Jesus are called to do the same.