I have to wonder what Bible President Trump’s close evangelical advisors are reading. Pastor Jeffress of First Baptist Church of Dallas Texas in a recent NPR interview justified Trump’s build-a-wall solution to immigration by cherry-picking certain biblical texts and misconstruing them. As a seminary professor once told me, a text without a context is a pretext.
Religious supporters of compassionate immigration laws often cite the hundreds of verses of Christian and Jewish scripture that command us to welcome the alien and stranger in the land. In a vain attempt to sidestep these verses, Jeffress claimed that the Israelites were welcomed only because Jacob came at the invitation of Pharaoh, not illegally. According to Jeffress, God “said to Israel because you were once aliens and foreigners in Egypt. And that’s the key…. Israel came to Egypt as welcomed guests, not as illegal immigrants.”
This is a profound misunderstanding of foundational texts. Pharaoh did not have a guest worker program. This was before the modern nation state with its passports, immigration laws and border bureaucracy. There would have been no backlogged immigration systems, no laws and procedures. Just nomads wandering and hoping to find a place to settle down. Jeffress’ assertion is anachronistic.
More importantly, Jeffress overlooks the part about slavery, a predictable shortcoming of white Evangelicalism. These verses — and there are many — tell the Israelites to remember they were once not welcome. Not welcomed one bit. Jacob’s people migrated and flourished, but his descendents were enslaved, brutalized and murdered.Moses barely escaped genocide thanks to brave women who rebelled against the laws of the land and floated Moses across a river on a makeshift raft. Had there been a wall I’m sure they would have scaled it to save their baby boy.
Moses grew up and led a rebellion against Pharoah’s oppression. In public rallies with his miracle-working staff he warned Pharaoh that his lack of compassion would doom his nation. Pharaoh remained stiff-necked and arrogant, even after God sent plagues to make him stop the brutality. That did not end well.
There are around hundred “remembrance” verses throughout the the Bible that tell the Israelites to remember their suffering at the hands of a tyrant. All of them have to do with remembering they were once aliens, foreigners and, yes, slaves. Verses like this one: “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the soul of the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Ex.23:9). The experience of oppression, of being unwelcome, demands that God’s people build a government with laws based in empathy for those suffering in the same way.
Jeffress concludes that God created government to maintain order and protect its people. Who are its people? The law of Moses and the prophets make it clear: the oppressed, those who come from outside. Let’s read scripture more carefully. More importantly, let’s live it.
If your faith is important to you and you want to join a movement for immigration justice, please join the organization I lead, Faith in Public Life, as we strive to hold government accountable to protect the oppressed.