COMMENTARY: Trump, the PCUSA and false teaching on immigration

by Dr. Gregory Tomlin |

(REUTERS/Yannis Behrakis)Syrian refugees, mostly men of military age, try to hold onto an overcrowded dinghy after arriving on the Greek island of Lesbos, after crossing a part of the Aegean Sea from Turkey to Lesbos, Sept. 25, 2015.

FORT WORTH, Texas (Christian Examiner) – Before I am accused of fawning over Donald J. Trump, I shall state from the outset of this piece that I am not on the stump for Trump. I am not a Trumpite. Or is it a "Trumpet?"

I have no personal affinity for him or his campaign. I do not care if he washes out by January. I do not care how many billions of dollars he will return to when he does (he's very rich, in case you haven't heard).

It just so happens that Mr. Trump's name and an issue I care deeply about have intersected at this point in time – the issue of how Christians interpret the Bible.

I believe strongly in defending the word of God against its use as a tool for liberal, progressive policies that only make crises worse while making people of faith feel as if they're saying or doing something good.

Last week, when Mr. Trump again spoke about the refugee crisis plaguing the world, he indicated he would send Syrian refugees back to their country if he is elected president. This, coupled with his past statements about illegal immigration and forcing Mexico to build a wall, just about caused progressive heads to explode.

In fact, his statement prompted a response from the stated clerk of the Presbyterian Church (USA), an admitted progressive, who issued a missive aimed squarely at the New York billionaire.

In it, Rev. Gradye Parsons hinted that Trump isn't familiar with how things work in the PCUSA. Parsons felt a need to remind Trump that he was baptized in the Presbyterian Church, that they worship Jesus there, and that Jesus was once a refugee to Egypt.

The denomination, he said, has a policy on the matter.

Because the baby Jesus was once spirited away to Egypt to avoid an evil ruler and was, therefore, an "alien" at the direction of the God of heaven, we apparently should assume all illegal immigrants, everywhere, at every time, have been given their marching orders by God, Mr. Trump.

That is the policy of the PCUSA, or as Parson Parsons called it when he announced his impending retirement last month, the church's stance on this particular "theological issue."

As they say in New Orleans, reverend, "true dat." It is a theological issue like a host of theological issues, but if it is not seen primarily as a biblical issue first, the theological answers derived from the text will be far from what is best for the supposed immigrants coming ashore, or over the meadow and through the woods.

Because Christians are citizens of two kingdoms, and expected to be good citizens in both, it is my hope that Christians will approach the subject of immigration (even illegal immigration) biblically.

This approach will not be accomplished by assuming language that applies only to Christians in the New Testament (such as being an "alien" in this world) and employing that spiritualized language in political debate. It also cannot be accomplished by drawing a direct connection between what happened to Jesus and what is happening in the Middle East where Jesus's followers generally are put to the sword.

I think the things that concern Mr. Trump about immigration concern us all. What do we do with illegal immigrants (or legal refugees) when they arrive here?

The Old Testament says much about immigrants, but nothing directly about illegal immigration. What we find there can be applied toward ethical solutions to the immigration crisis today; it can also bolster the case for the compassionate treatment of immigrants and, simultaneously, promote fidelity to existing law.

COMPASSION FOR THE ALIEN AMONG US

The word for "alien," "foreigner," "stranger" or "sojourner" appears more than 90 times in the Old Testament. In all cases, the word refers to an individual temporarily dwelling among the people of Israel, and not to someone who has been inducted into the covenant community through circumcision, ritual cleansing and adherence to the Law.

The alien in Israel was someone "passing through," much the way Abraham described himself in Gen. 23:4. Unlike some ancient Near Eastern societies, sojourners in Israel were treated well and, though they had no rights by inheritance, sojourners had certain rights granted to them.

First and foremost, sojourners in Israel could expect to be free from oppression. In Ex. 22:21, long before Israel entered into the Promised Land, God impressed upon the Israelites the importance of recognizing the humanity of foreigners among them. This respect for the value of foreigners, Israel was told in Ex. 23:9, should be a natural outgrowth of their own experiences in Egypt, "for you know the heart of a stranger."

Consequently, because the subjugation of Israel in Egypt was so defining on the Israelite ethos, any alien in the land could well expect to receive fair treatment judicially and a real, recognized equality in society (see Lev. 19:33-34; Deut. 27:19; Zech. 7:10; Mal. 3:5).

Failure to follow God's commands with respect to foreigners led not to blessings, but to curses.

WORKFARE

A second ethical principle which can be seen in the Old Testament is that Israelite society was expected to provide a means for foreigners (as well as widows and orphans) to obtain food for survival.

Importantly, however, this sustenance was not offered free from the labor required to obtain it. There was only workfare in ancient Israel, rather than welfare as it is understood in American society.

Sojourners were expected to work for their food, but to those passing through the harvesting laws of the Old Testament must have been an unexpected blessing. In the Law, God instructed the Israelites in Lev. 19:9 to avoid harvesting all the way to the edge of a field and to only harvest from the boughs of olive trees and grapevines once. What remained in all of these cases could be obtained by the sojourner in the land (also see Deut. 24:20-21). The account of Ruth 2 illustrates just how the practice worked, as a foreigner and widow (the Moabite, Ruth) worked to gather what was left in the field of Boaz.

ONE LAW FOR ALL

A final ethical principle we can glean from the Old Testament and apply to the current immigration crisis in the United States is the one most difficult to apply. In ancient Israel, the force of law governed the life of both the Israelite and the sojourner. There was one law for the Jew and the stranger in the land.

In Num. 15:13-16 and 15:29, the Lord declared in religious ceremony and in the judicial system, Israelites and aliens were equal under the law and both expected to fulfill the obligations of it. The same formula for co-existence of the citizen and immigrant appears again in Lev. 24:22, followed by the emphatic phrase, "I am the Lord your God." To paraphrase, "you will do this, this way as I command, because I am God."

From these general principles in the Old Testament, we can devise an approach to the crisis of illegal immigration in our country. The foundation of this approach must be the notion that, whatever policy is suggested or whatever action is taken by politicians, law and civil order must prevail.

Israel existed as a theocracy and the people were bound in a covenant relationship with God and one another. The laws were both religious and civil, but even in the civil code, or the second table of the Law, the ultimate authority in that theocratic framework was God himself.

This is not so with the United States. Ideally, we would say we are a democratic republic, but these days we find ourselves somewhere between a pure democracy and a judicial oligarchy. In either case, we are still far from a theocracy. Unlike ancient Israel where the covenant was expressed in biblical law and fidelity to God, our civil society is bound in the covenant of the Constitution and fidelity to the rule of law created by the people.

To put it more succinctly, in Israel God was Sovereign. In the United States, as the Supreme Court ruled in Chisholm v. Georgia in 1793, "the people are sovereign" (lower case "s").  

The people have decided that the law applies to all. Adherence to the law must be the same for all parties involved because this is what our governing authority, the Constitution, demands. Nothing in our system of immigration, as it stands now, is in anyway inhumane. Quite to the contrary, they are fed, housed and clothed during the disposition of their cases.

We may also deduce that current citizens have responsibilities. We are to ensure justice, avoid oppression, and make a means of honest work available to the aliens among us. This we are already doing by ensuring aliens' rights in the judicial system, and providing the legal framework for work permits, as prescribed by the people's laws.

THE RESPONSIBILITY OF IMMIGRANTS

Likewise, aliens have responsibilities in this ethical model drawn from the Old Testament. They are expected to obey the law as any citizen would in order to participate fully in civil society. That means plodding through long and sometimes arduous political and legal processes to obtain legal status.

Crossing the sovereign border of the United States illegally, falsifying records, or refusing to pay taxes would land any citizen in jail – the law should be applied equally to those who desire to sojourn among us. Lastly, those who enter the United States as aliens should expect to earn their living in the open market, rather than from perpetual government handouts.

Most often when people talk about how Christians should approach immigration, they spiritualize the issue and make it one solely of compassion and grace. Christians can and should exhibit these qualities. However, that is not how governments work.

Compassion is a moral requirement for the citizen, certainly. Looking the other way as law is defied is not, for the citizen or for the government. Whatever happens, the people's authority demands fidelity to the Constitution and the body of law originating from it.

That is why Mr. Trump is right and Rev. Parsons is wrong. His theology of immigration is wholly without biblical warrant.

Dr. Gregory Tomlin covers the intersection of politics, culture and religion for Christian Examiner. He is also Assistant Professor of Church History and a faculty instructional mentor for Liberty University Divinity School. Tomlin earned his Ph.D. at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and also studied at Baylor University and Boston University's summer Institute on Culture, Religion and World Affairs.

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