As the current U.S. immigration policy clash--what to do about illegal aliens and insecure borders--heats up, many Americans have turned to scripture for guidance. Jewish scripture, for example, speaks repeatedly of the kindness due to the “stranger” and reminds us that the people of the Bible--the Hebrews--were once despised foreigners in an alien land, Egypt.

Yet the Bible's message isn't simply to welcome everyone and not ask anything of them in return. Instead, the scripture teaches a middle way that asks us to welcome "strangers"--but also requires these guests to take on moral and civic responsibility in their adopted land.

President Bush, who addressed the nation on Monday night in a televised speech, also favors a middle ground between the extreme positions of expelling the 11 million or so illegals (if that were even possible, which of course it’s not), on one hand, and opening the border without restriction, on the other. He would increase U.S.-Mexican border security with National Guard troops while offering some immigrants “guest-worker” status. This position has offended some both on the right and on the left.

A Christian might bring forward the strong teaching of Paul, especially in Ephesians 2:11-21, that after the advent of Jesus Christ the distinction between native and foreigner, Jew and Gentile, has been transcended: “So then you are no longer strangers and sojourners but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.”

In the Hebrew Bible, many verses seem to advocate a wide-armed welcome for immigrants and foreigners. Here are a couple of examples from Leviticus: “When a stranger dwells among you in your land, do not taunt him. The stranger who dwells with you shall be like a native among you, and you shall love him like yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt—I am the Lord, your God” (19:33-34). “If your brother becomes impoverished and his means falter in your proximity, you shall strengthen him—stranger or resident—so that he can live with you” (25:35).

That last verse appears to teach that a “stranger” (in Hebrew, a ger) not only should be welcomed and accepted but supported and uplifted from poverty. Not so fast, amigo.

Let’s try to take scripture seriously while applying its wisdom to the immigration question. That doesn’t mean denying that the Bible on your bookshelf speaks in different voices. First off, we need to make a distinction between the Old and the New Testaments.

For we are talking here about a classically political issue. Paul and Jesus both thought the world as we know it was about to end, so the idea that they were laying out a philosophy of governance for the ages would have puzzled them.

Not so the writers of the Hebrew Bible, a document that is very much concerned with the design of a just and merciful commonwealth. Hebrew scripture insists on the continuing, indeed eternal relevance of national identity. Even in the times of the Messiah, “Israel will be the third party with Egypt and with Assyria, a blessing in the midst of the land, for the Lord, Master of Legions, will bless them, saying, ‘Blessed is My people, Egypt; and the work of my hands, Assyria; and My heritage, Israel’” (see Isaiah 19:19-25).

As scripture relates, the nations of Earth once sought to create a world state without borders–the story of the Tower of Babel–and we know the Bible doesn’t look kindly on that attempt.

Point two, however, is that the Bible sets up a demanding standard by which if a person wishes, he may shed one national identity and embrace another.

The classic instance is Ruth, the Moabite. She had a Jewish mother-in-law, Naomi, whom she met when Naomi’s family fled the land of Israel and moved to neighboring Moab to escape a famine. When Ruth’s husband, Naomi’s son, died, along with Naomi’s husband and her other son, Ruth decided to return with the older woman to Israel. Said Ruth, “For where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people are my people, and your God is my God; where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. Thus may the Lord do to me, and so may He do more, if anything but death separates me from you” (Ruth 1:16-17).

Notice that the main thrust of her speech is the passionate joining of her own fate with Naomi’s, and thus with Israel’s. To this day, that remains the primary criterion by which potential coverts to Judaism are evaluated. Ruth thus became, according to Jewish tradition, history’s most beloved “proselyte” or “convert” to Judaism—a status celebrated at the Jewish festival of Shavuot (June 2-3 this year), when her story is chanted in synagogues.

The subject of conversion isn’t quite so simple, however. For there are actually two sub-classes grouped under the category of the “ger.” There is the ger, the convert, like Ruth–a full member of Israel. But there is another, the ger toshav, or resident alien.

The latter occupies a middle ground between Jew and foreigner. It is this individual whom Jews are, in the verse we saw earlier, commanded to provide for: “If your brother becomes impoverished and his means falter in your proximity, you shall strengthen him—stranger or resident (ger v’toshav)—so that he can live with you” (Leviticus 25:35).

This resident alien too must fulfill criteria to join his new society, agreeing to certain basic moral propositions, including forswearing idolatry, murder, and sexual immorality. He is called a “resident alien” because it is only having satisfied this condition that a non-Israelite who doesn’t formally convert may live in the Holy Land. While inviting us to admire and love a person who would give up his citizenship in a foreign country to join our own, the Bible also commands us to give material aid, whatever is needed, to any immigrant—if he agrees to abide by an unwavering moral law.

Here is where the Bible may be hard for a modern reader to accept, for scriptural tradition expects that any immigrant, any ger, will meet demanding moral criteria. It is not an undiscrimating welcome. The idea that a sojourner would be allowed to live in the land without having accepted one of the two sets of conditions is unthinkable: “They shall not dwell in your land lest they cause you to sin against Me, that you will worship their gods, for it will be a trap for you” (Exodus 23:33).

The emphasis on moral choices brings us to the third and really key point about the Bible’s perspective on the immigration issue. The most important word in Hebrew scripture is mitzvah, commandment, given by God primarily to an individual.

The Bible makes the assumption, a controversial one today, that individuals can handle the charge to choose right over wrong. We are morally responsible. In line with this view, it asks would-be immigrants to make a choice: either zealous citizenship, or a streamlined moral system.

To expell immigrants, or to open borders without discrimination, would be to reject scripture’s assumption of moral responsibility. Expulsion would be a statement that we cannot realistically ask foreign-born men and women to choose our way of life. Conversely, to fling wide open the doors of welcome to all would deny that we can set high standards and stick to them.

Scripture creates a middle way between extremes, a way that is challenging nevertheless. President Bush may have something like this in mind when he advocates a guest-worker program, a quasi-citizenship like the Bible’s ger toshav, and when he promises that what he has in mind is not simply to offer a blanket amnesty to illegals that would make no distinction between the worthy and the unworthy. Let’s hope that the President is as serious as the Bible is on these vital questions.

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