Christians who watched President Obama’s speech on immigration last week may recall his concluding statement invoking the Bible: “Scripture tells us we shall not oppress a stranger, for we know the heart of a stranger. We were once strangers too.” That statement has since received backlash from Christians charging Obama of mishandling Scripture to advance his political agenda.
Over a year ago, Kelly Kullberg of Evangelicals for Biblical Immigration highlighted the important distinction between sojourners and foreigners in the Bible—a distinction not acknowledged in Obama’s speech:
Old Testament scholar James Hoffmeier states that the Hebrew word “ger”, translated “alien” or “sojourner” refers to “a person who entered Israel and followed legal procedures to obtain recognized standing as a resident alien.” This lawful sojourner (“ger”) was not necessarily given all the rights and privileges as the Hebrew citizen, but was treated kindly, indeed much more kindly than was customary among tribes and nations of the ancient world. God commanded Israel to be kind to the sojourner. In other words, Hoffmeier continues, “…verses about sojourners refer to legal immigrants into the country. But other people who did not have this recognized standing were simply termed foreigners …and did not have the same benefits or privileges that sojourners did.” (James Hoffmeier, Immigration Crisis: Immigrants, Aliens, and the Bible, Crossway)
While the Bible teaches us to be kind to the sojourner or “resident alien,” it also teaches that kindness to the sojourner ought not to be injustice to local citizens and their unique culture. To steward and cultivate, whether a garden or a nation, involves wisdom and discernment. We want to nurture a nation that would welcome our children as well as the well-intended sojourner. That would mean making distinctions.
We are to make distinctions between the foreigner (the zar, or nekhar or goyim in Hebrew) who does not come according to the host nation’s faith, values and laws, and the ‘resident alien’ or ‘sojourner’ (the ger in Hebrew) who is something like a convert and does come and live according to the nation’s essential faith, values and laws.
God loves the “sojourner.” No question. God also loves the citizen. He is a God of love and of order, peace, freedom from debt, wise boundaries, and of nations. In some contexts Scripture teaches us to welcome. In other contexts it teaches us to be distinct, set apart, and, at times, to build walls.
(See more by Kelly Kullberg at Evangelicals for Biblical Immigration.)
Your turn: What do you think about Obama's use of Scripture to promote immigration amnesty? How would (or would not) the granting of amnesty oppress U.S. citizens?
Alex Crain is the editor of Christianity.com. You can follow him on Twitter @alex_crain.