What Should We Think About Immigration Amnesty? Let’s Ask A Biblicist!

What Should We Think About Immigration Amnesty? Let’s Ask A Biblicist! November 23, 2014

Today is the Solemnity of Christus Rex, Christ the King. On this day, Christians are called to reflect upon the Kingship of Christ–Kingship over their lives, but also Kingship over the social order. What would it look like if His will was done on Earth as it is in Heaven?

Today’s Gospel reading, Matthew 25:31-46, gives us a hint:

And when the Son of man shall come in his majesty, and all the angels with him, then shall he sit upon the seat of his majesty. And all nations shall be gathered together before him, and he shall separate them one from another, as the shepherd separateth the sheep from the goats: And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on his left. Then shall the king say to them that shall be on his right hand: Come, ye blessed of my Father, possess you the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry, and you gave me to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave me to drink; I was a stranger, and you took me in: Naked, and you covered me: sick, and you visited me: I was in prison, and you came to me. Then shall the just answer him, saying: Lord, when did we see thee hungry, and fed thee; thirsty, and gave thee drink? And when did we see thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and covered thee? Or when did we see thee sick or in prison, and came to thee? And the king answering, shall say to them: Amen I say to you, as long as you did it to one of these my least brethren, you did it to me. Then he shall say to them also that shall be on his left hand: Depart from me, you cursed, into everlasting fire which was prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry, and you gave me not to eat: I was thirsty, and you gave me not to drink. I was a stranger, and you took me not in: naked, and you covered me not: sick and in prison, and you did not visit me. Then they also shall answer him, saying: Lord, when did we see thee hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister to thee? Then he shall answer them, saying: Amen I say to you, as long as you did it not to one of these least, neither did you do it to me. And these shall go into everlasting punishment: but the just, into life everlasting.

I should say at the outset that I don’t think it is mandatory for Catholics or Christians to support comprehensive immigration reform or amnesty. There are many valid prudential concerns about such policies. The New York Times’ Ross Douthat has made a very robust argument that legalizing millions of illegal immigrants would further victimize the existing working class, already buffeted by the forces of globalization and social liberalism, and has warned of the Constitutional crisis that could follow from unilateral executive amnesty. The Washington Examiner‘s Tim Carney has amply documented the role of special interests, particularly big labor unions and big corporations, in drafting the various immigration bills Congress has considered, and how these bills align at least as much with special interests as with the common good. Finally, certainly, it should be extremely possible to criticize the way in which the President is contemplating granting amnesty, through an unprecedented exercise of executive fiat. So this is not what this is about.

But at the online political magazine The Federalist, there is a piece on the Scriptural support (or lack thereof) for amnesty which is so stunning in both intellectual and moral decrepitude that I have to hold it up as an example of how not to think.

Let us start with the Scriptural exegesis, such as it is. The piece is a critique of President Obama’s quotation of the well-known verse of Exodus 23:9: “Thou shalt not molest a stranger, for you know the hearts of strangers: for you also were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Now, I have no problem believing that neither President Obama nor probably anyone on his staff is a great Scripture scholar. So, it is very amenable to critique.

So, what have we got? Here is how it starts:

So what of this verse, “Do not oppress a stranger”? Let’s take a closer look at it. The Hebrew word for “oppress” in this context is lachats (law-khats’). It means to afflict, squeeze, press, force, hold shut, oppress. The word connotes–

[Record scratching sound.]

Right off the bat, who can tell me what’s wrong?

Well, there is no mention of context, that’s true.

But, even worse, there is no mention of…Christ. (Literally: the words “Christ” or “Jesus” appear nowhere in the article. Always such a good sign!)

This is the first and cardinal principle of all Christian Biblical exegesis. “Search the scriptures, for you think in them to have life everlasting; and the same are they that give testimony of me,” our Lord tells us (Jn 5:39). All of the Old Testament was written to testify of Christ, and all of the Old Testament points to Christ. Old Testament exegesis that does not–following our Lord’s instructions–read those texts in light of Christ is not, well, properly Christian. This is why we find most of Paul’s Biblical exegesis under the rubric of Christological typology, interpreting, for example, Adam as a type of Jesus (Rom 5, 1 Cor 15). As Origen notes, in Rev 5, it is only the sacrificial Lamb who can open “the Scrolls”, the Hebrew Scriptures; Christians must read all the Scriptures from the standpoint of the Cross. This is (in part) what it means to say that “Scripture interprets Scripture.”

This is not a nice add-on, or an optional step (at least if Jesus and Paul are to be trusted), but rather the one that frames everything else. If the Old Testament was intended by its divine author to testify to Christ, then, by definition, we cannot be limited to its literal meaning (the one intended by the author), which only points to the deeper spiritual meaning. The literal meaning is still important, because it points to the deeper spiritual meaning.

Regardless of outcome or anything else, any scriptural exegesis which neglects this primordial step simply fails as Christian exegesis, in much the same way that if I were to write this post in French it would fail at being a piece of English-language writing. It might be very interesting what the word lachats means in this verse, but, by itself, what it tells us as Christians (as opposed to, say, as historians, or curious citizens, or philosophers, or what-have-you) is, strictly speaking, nothing.

All of this is particularly true of all the passages in the Hebrew Scriptures that concern (what Christians call) the Old Covenant Law. After all, Christians, it seems to me, are supposed to believe that they belong to a New Covenant, instituted in Christ, and it is this New Covenant which is binding on us. What is the relationship between Old Covenant law and New Covenant law?

Well, reading the Bible alone, it’s not quite clear, is it? I mean, on the one hand, Jesus pretty clearly says that he is here to “fulfill” the law, and not to change it. On the other hand, the earliest Christians, as Scripture itself attests, and (almost) all Christians since did not think that they were bound to the Old Covenant laws on circumcision, food, and so on. So, it’s pretty clear, to state the matter as vaguely as possible, that there is some relationship between Old Covenant law and New Covenant law, with continuity in some respects and (at least, on the surface) discontinuity in others. And most importantly, in his preaching, Christ puts his “fulfillment” of the law in terms of “You have heard it said . . . but I say to you . . .” (Matt 5, a pretty important passage, I’m told), so it at least seems likely that that Christians are commanded to put what they “heard said” about Old Covenant law in the context of what Christ said.

And, so, given all this, how are Christians, as members of the New Covenant, to understand, and apply, the provisions of the Old Covenant? What is it that belongs, and what is it that doesn’t?

Well, if you are a Roman Catholic, that is to say, a member of the Church that, as a historical matter, produced the Bible as we know it today for its own liturgical use, there are very clear guidelines. The good sacrae theologiae doctor Martin Luther basically copied this scheme, so Lutherans are covered too. For most other Protestants, as best as I can tell, there is no firm guideline. Old Testament verses are thrown around and picked apart, without any recontextualization, either Christological or covenantal. The nagging sense that, after all, this might not be the best way to proceed, because of all this New Covenant stuff, only occasionally rears its head, only to be shoved back out of consciousness with as much despatch as possible. Apparent conflicts between the two Testaments are treated with immense, almost palpable awkwardness. Oh, to be sure, there are many schemes to choose from, and occasionally an earnest effort to bring an overall logic, rather than ad hoc tap-danding, to the endeavor is made, but since these schemes are always only at the level of theologoumenon and not doctrine, they remain tentative and muddled.

But whatever the case–the point is that this example of exegesis doesn’t even attempt to do any of that. There is absolutely no notion that there might be some difference between the Old Covenant and the New Covenant, even if only to say “In this case, Christian should take the verse as it exists as binding.” (Now, in the case of something like “Love your God”, all of this can me implicitly taken for granted; but, here, that is not the case at all.) Again, the failure is at the level of meeting the basic requirements for something even qualifying as, properly speaking, Christian exegesis.  After all, it wasn’t my ancestors according to the flesh that Israel’s God broke out of Egypt, and the only reason I have a more than historical interest in the Revelation given to Moses is because of, and through, Christ.

So, what is it that the verse is telling us, according to our exegete?

The Hebrew word for “oppress” in this context is lachats (law-khats’). It means to afflict, squeeze, press, force, hold shut, oppress. The word connotes more than “we need to show hospitality” or even caring for the poor. It’s a strong word, implying disdain and hostility toward the stranger, not caring for his needs at all, not showing him dignity as a human being.

The passage makes a comparison to the Jews in Egypt. Egyptian oppression wasn’t just that the Jews weren’t taken care of. They were oppressed, pressed down, enslaved. They had to make bricks from straw, and they were beaten. Is this what American citizens are doing to illegal immigrants? Are we oppressing them?

So, basically, as long as you’re not literally (or, quasi-literally) enslaving the immigrant, you’re good. Basically, if the immigrant isn’t like the Jew in Germany circa 1938, you’ve met all the demands of Christian charity.


Anybody else get the nagging sense that there just might be something more going on, here?

As any rock-ribbed Calvinist will be glad to point out, this verse (certainly when seen from the light of Easter) is primarily about divine grace. As the Exodus narrative makes clear, the Jews did not deserve to be freed from Egypt, just as they did not deserve election. Instead, it was graciously imparted to them by the God who made the Heavens and the Earth, the “I AM” God who is the fullness of Being itself, pure act without unfulfilled potentiality. YHWH does not promise the Israelites salvation from Egypt as a reward for keeping his commands; instead he graciously saves them, and then asks them to keep his commands out of gratitude, and because they will make them a holy, priestly nation, and thereby fulfill his promise to Abraham that the world will be blessed through his seed.

The point that is being made, here, then, has very little to do with how much it sucks or doesn’t suck to have to make bricks from straw, and quite a lot to do with how the Israelites should understand themselves, as a people saved by sheer divine grace, and who therefore should see the stranger not as a morally corrupt inferior, but as a brother, and behave graciously toward them, as YHWH was gracious to his beloved people Israel.

The Christological sense of the verse, then, is immediately obvious: by the utterly gracious Death and Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, we have been freed from our bondage in the Egypt of sin and death; we, then, are to behave with the same supererogatory graciousness and generosity that it pleased him to shower upon us. The divine Word of God was the ultimate stranger to us wretches, and yet, he did not regard his equality with God as a thing to be cherished, but rather emptied himself, taking the form of a slave… (At this point, I am sure, you share my bafflement as to how a Christian could discuss this verse without automatically mentioning, say, the Parable of the Good Samaritan, or the story of the Woman at the Well.)

We were all strangers in the land of Egypt. I was dead and now I have been found alive. I dwell in the house of the Father, free, with his joy in me (Jn 15:11). I died and was born again in the waters of the Red Sea, and now it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives within me (Gal 2:20). Therefore, I must behave as a bearer of the Image of God, who understands that the true Image of God is Christ the Lord, and so I must behave with the same reckless generosity as that which he has shown me. (This is the moral sense.)

And now, we are still strangers in thrall to a broken world in active rebellion against the Lord of Hosts, a creation groaning in expectation for its complete liberation of the chains of the powers and principalities, chains which will be shattered by the Final Judgement, the Final Exodus–a Judgement during which we will discover that Publicans and tax collectors enter the Kingdom before us because, like the Exodus, God’s salvation is by sheer grace. (This is the anagogical sense.)

Or maybe not. But this, at least, is a sketch of an exegesis that at least counts as Christian exegesis, taking seriously the whole of the Bible as well as the four senses of Scripture, and reading the Old Testament, as the last book of the Bible enjoins us, from the standpoint of the Cross. And look, Ma, I didn’t even need a Bible dictionary to do it.

Once done with its “exegesis”, the article leaves the realm of theological ineptitude to sink even further in the realm of moral ineptitude, as surely as night follows day. Americans, we are told, “lavish” care on illegal immigrants.

For example:

Persons who cannot pay or have no insurance (regardless of immigration status) can be treated for emergency conditions at public hospitals free of charge

Get that? When illegal immigrants get sick, we don’t let them die in the gutter. Clearly, all the demands of Christian brotherly love are met.

I want to pause here, just to let that sink in.

I don’t know what is more revolting: that a Christian could say this, or that they would argue it from Scripture. I generally try to discourage “brood of vipers” language, but here, as it were, it invites itself.

What does that Gospel say, again?

Then he shall say to them also that shall be on his left hand: Depart from me, you cursed, into everlasting fire which was prepared for the devil and his angels. For . . . I was a stranger, and you took me not in . . . Amen I say to you, as long as you did it not to one of these least, neither did you do it to me. And these shall go into everlasting punishment.

I guess then they also shall answer him, saying: Lord, did we did not give you free emergency room care?

Here’s the deal: I have spent all my life as a citizen of the country where I was born and lived, a country with republican governance and (reasonably) strong rule of law, a country where I did not have to fear knocks in the night, a country where I never had to go hungry, where I never had to fight someone to the death, all thanks to the lives my ancestors led. I have been a stranger in Egypt, and yet the Lord saved me: these benefits I have, I did not earn, they were given to me by divine Providence.

I cannot, truly, imagine what it is like to spend one’s life looking over one’s shoulder, often separated from one’s family, often working difficult jobs for low wages, in complete legal insecurity, a stranger in a strange land. But I have known people for whom this is the life they led, and lead. And it was never imaginable to me that because I pay taxes that fund free emergency room care for them my Christian duty to them has been fulfilled.

Circling back to this Old Covenant/New Covenant thing, it seems abundantly clear from the Scriptures that one of the crucial (pun intended) points of Jesus’ ministry was to take the demands of Old Testament morality and intensify them, and intensify them in one specific direction: that of softening the “hardness of heart” of sinful humanity. (As is the case for divorce, for example, although there too, many Christians find ways to ignore the Bible.) The God revealed in Christ cuts out our hearts of stone and replaces them with hearts of flesh. Even if it is true that the literal meaning of Exodus 23:9 is merely that Israel should not enslave the immigrant, surely this cannot be the end of the discussion for Christians–at least if we take the Bible seriously.

Taking the Bible seriously requires a certain level of both spiritual and moral maturity, which is quite the opposite of what we can see here. It is an almost perfect example of how not to be a Christian.

Now, again–nations have a part in the plan of divine providence, and so it is licit for them to take measures to preserve their identity, including adopting rules to control immigration, and there are perfectly reasonable prudential concerns that Christians can have with regard to the amnesty of immigrants; and, certainly, Obama’s decision seems unacceptably damaging to the rule of law. By all means, make those arguments. But, please, not like this.

In the meantime, I pray that the true Kingship of Christ will be more realized every day, in our fleshly bodies and in our social bodies.


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