We arrived in Israel after a fairly long trip. Pittsburgh to Clearfield to Philadelphia to Frankfurt Germany to Tel Aviv. We have already heard the common Hebrew greeting, many times: “Shalom, Shalom.” The word means "peace", but so much of our arrival was a reminder that this land has long been anything but peaceful. It was interesting to travel to Israel with a connecting flight in Germany, as the attempted German genocide had such a role in leading to the restoration of Israel after the second World War.
I was warned that Israeli security is extremely careful, and it certainly is. After being screened at the airport in America, we went through another screening when we transferred flights in Germany. The process was more detailed than any I had ever seen. Every person was given a full body search. And after arriving in Israel certain people were pulled aside for further examination before being given approval for entry into the country. After flipping through my passport, the immigration agent called special security and I was relocated to the side room – presumably for suspicious people. Of all the travelers in our group, I was the only one who fit a profile alarming enough to warrant further investigation. So, there I sat – on the naughty bench with other suspected terrorists. There was no word, about what to expect. Would it take 5 minutes or 5 hours?
Fortunately, it was 5-10 mins later that a border control agent came back with my passport and told me that I could go through. There was no explanation. The other suspects had not moved in that time. I am guessing that an American passport carries a fair amount of weight here. My fellow suspects were not so lucky. Mom thinks I was profiled because of my beard, but I think that it was because my passport showed a prior trip to Iraq (7 years ago.) So as I see it, my passport got me into trouble and it also got me out of trouble.
We had flown into Ben Gurion airport and drove through Tel Aviv on the way to our hotel on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. Our tour guide told us that the center of Israel is by far the most populated – in part because the regions further to the north are within range of missiles from the Golan Heights. Another reminder of the conflict in this region. Construction cranes spot the skyline as the sprawling urban center stretches across the land. Jewish immigrants, like our tour guide, come from across the world to the relative safety of their ancestral homeland.
We had a short wait until dinner and used the time to catch the sun setting over the sea. On the way home we sighted a statue commemorating one of our favorite musicals. The fiddler on the roof is apparently as popular in Israel as it is the States. Just last summer, Mom and I watched a community Theater production of the play in Ocean City. In the closing scene, the Jewish inhabitants of the small Russian village of Anatevka are fleeing to America to escape the persecution of the Tsar. In the musical, the fiddler accompanies them on their pilgrimage, symbolizing the continuation of their traditions. Now, he is here to great us and welcome us to this contested land. “Shalom.”
I will be flying to Israel tomorrow for a seven day educational trip. The journey will begin tonight when I pick up my mom and head out to Philadelphia where we will met other team members for this tour of the Holy Lands. I am really looking forward to time with my mom. And I am really looking forward to a break. But I have to admit that I am a little ambivalent about traveling to the "Holy Land." Is it a pilgrimage? Should we think of a particular land as being more holy?
The idea of a pilgrimage to a holy land is woven into the fabric of many world religions. It reminds me of the Middle English classic, the Canterbury Tales. Geoffrey Chaucer's imaginative tale about religious pilgrims in 14th century England is required reading for many students. It begins:
Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote, The droghte of March hath perced to the roote...
And specially from every shires ende, Of Engelond, to Caunterbury they wende,
(When April with its showers sweet, The drought of March has pierced to the root...
And, especially, from every shire's end, Of England, to Canterbury they wend,)
Chaucer's pilgrims were journeying to see the shrine of the martyr Thomas Becket. They believed that his bones would make the place holy and give them special access to God's power. As Chaucer wrote, "the blessed martyr helped them when they were sick." But Protestants have always been cautious about the idea of calling a certain location "holy." In the Old Testament God's Spirit was present in the temple in a particular way, especially in the Holy of Holies. However, at death of Jesus the veil of this inner sanctum was torn in two and 50 days later the Holy Spirit was poured out on the church at Pentecost. Instead of emphasizing the presence of God in a physical building, the New Testament speaks of the people of God as being a new "living temple." (I Peter 2:5, Eph 2:22) God's Spirit is tied not to a geographic location, but to people who call on him through faith in Christ. Jesus promised that his Spirit would be present when two of more of his followers gather in his name. (Matt 18:20)
I can remember, years ago, a former pastor saying about his trip to Israel, "I would rather be where Jesus is than be where Jesus was." Since Jesus dwells in his church, it is appropriate to remember that we are best able to draw near to God ... not by traveling to a historic location, but by drawing near to Christian fellowship.
But. That is not all. While it certainly more important to be where Jesus is, there is significance to the geographic locations where Jesus was. Once I get over my initial cynicism about pilgrimages, there is a great deal that is exciting and helpful about a trip to Israel. I am reminded that Christian faith is centered around the idea of Incarnation. God came near and revealed himself through the person of Jesus Christ. And Jesus was a particular person who lived in a particular place. This is what some theologians have called the "scandal of the incarnation." That is, Jesus did not live everywhere. He lived in a specific place -mostly Galilee, and died in a specific place - outside of Jerusalem. He spoke a particular language - Aramaic. He was Jewish. He traveled (and walked) on particular waters - the sea of Galilee. He told stories to people embedded in the first century middle eastern world of fishermen, farmers and scoundrels.
I am growing increasingly excited about seeing those places. I am thankful for the incredible privilege I have to make this trip. I plan to share pictures and reflections during my time there. If you are interested in following along, keep an eye on this blog over the next week or so.
By Rev. Matt Koerber
As we continue to develop this discussion, we are turning to a different topic. Admittedly, there are many aspects of immigration policy that we have not directly addressed. Topics such as “amnesty”, “deportation”, “sanctuary cities”, “services for undocumented immigrants” and “assimilation” have only been given cursory attention – if they have been referenced at all. As we said from the outset, there is more in this subject than we could possibly hope to cover in six weeks. It is not our intent to be exhaustive and it is not our goal to resolve every issue. Instead we want to explore a breadth of topics related to immigration and try to forge a dialogue that is balanced and biblical. There is room for Christians to draw different conclusions on these matters.
This week we will discuss “Refugees.” It is important to note from the very beginning that refugees are different from other types of immigrants. While immigrants choose to relocate – usually for educational or economic reasons; refugees are forced from their homeland – usually from fear of violence or famine. This important distinction should have an impact on our policy considerations. Refugees are people who are in need and have little choice in the matter.
Many readers of this blog may know that last summer, I spent two months with my family working with refugees in Athens Greece. Some of the people that we spent time with were from Afghanistan, but most were from the Middle East – especifically Syria, where a long civil war has driven millions out of their own country. Through our experience, we had a window into a huge worldwide problem. The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) estimates that there are 21.3 million refugees worldwide, over half of whom are under the age of 18. The largest numbers come from Somalia (1.1m), Afghanistan (2.7m), and Syria (4.9m). While Greece receives a great deal of visibility for their refugee care, they only host about 60,000, while Turkey has more than 2.5 million refugees (see statistics here).
It has been challenging for many countries to know how to respond. Germany and France has wrestled with these issues publicly, and this past winter, the presidential travel ban put the US refugee resettlement program on hold. (The halt to the refugee program has since been delayed in the courts.) How should Christians think about this difficult issue?
By Rev. Matt Koerber
This is the final post of this blog. Throughout this week we have tried to both summarize the prior five weeks of the blog and also think about how we can apply the lessons moving forward. Thus far, we have not focused a great deal on the policy issues that surround our immigration debates. We have not spent a lot of time considering the details of questions about immigration policy, but have instead focused on the people involved. This seems like the necessary foundation for moving to policy. But perhaps it has seemed like there is an elephant in the room. The things that people are arguing about often relate to policy proposals. For example: Should we have amnesty for undocumented immigrants already in the country, should we seek to deport them, or something in between? We might also ask: How do we enforce border security? Or: How many refugees should we invite into our country?
Freedom and Principle
I want to begin by repeating what we have often said throughout the blog: these issues are very complex and there is freedom for Christians to disagree on many things. At the same time, there are biblical principles in play that we have to consider. On one hand, we should remember that many specific policies do not have a biblical proof text. For example, there is no bible passage that we can point to that will tell us exactly how to enforce border security. On the other hand, there are a large number of passages that speak to the way in which we treat refugees and immigrants in our midst. In fact, the category for “sojourner” becomes a biblical test case in the Old Testament for how we give justice to the marginalized. These are not a few isolated passages, but they are a substantial thread through the concept of societal justice in the Bible. A partial list of references includes: Ex. 22:21, 23:9; Lev. 19:10, 23:22, 24:22, 25:6; Num 9:14, 15:15; Dt. 10:19, 14:29, 24:19-22, 27:19; Jer. 7:5-7; Ez. 22:7,29; Zec. 7:10, Mal 3:5. Drawing out one of these texts, we can observe the seriousness with which God takes this issue:
"You shall not pervert the justice due to the sojourner or to the fatherless, or take a widow's garment in pledge, but you shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt and the LORD your God redeemed you from there; therefore I command you to do this.” (Deuteronomy 24:17-18)
Remembering the Big Story
The passage above grounds the social ethic in the corporate experience of God’s people as former “sojourners”. Their people had been dependent and mistreated. Therefore, it was inexcusable for them to do the same. The same could be said of America. We are a nation of immigrants and we should be expected to keep that perspective when we think about this issue. But it is even more the case for Christians. We are called to think of ourselves as an exiled people (I Pet. 1:1, Heb. 13:12-14.) Therefore, we should be particularly aware of the challenges faced by immigrants and refugees.
But most importantly, we need to ground all of our considerations in a reminder of the big story. Throughout the Bible, God is calling people to himself from every tongue, tribe, and nation. It is easy to see the way in which God is using the unprecedented people movements of the early 21st century as a means of achieving this goal. This does not resolve the challenging policy issues, but it should guide our hopes and dreams. I am not arguing for a policy of open borders, but I do believe that we can only think properly about this issue if we keep our eyes fixed on the big story. As people relocate around the world, God has a purpose. This purpose is found in many parts of the bible, but the grand vision of Isaiah expresses it very well:
“It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the LORD shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be lifted up above the hills; and all the nations shall flow to it, and many peoples shall come, and say: "Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths." For out of Zion shall go the law, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.” (Isaiah 2:2-3)
This is not a verse about people coming to America. It is a verse about people coming to faith in Christ and finding a common unity in their savior. It also shapes the way we think about people movements. God is shaking the nations and people are moving. We never fully know his purposes, but we do know that he is drawing people from every nation to himself through faith in Jesus Christ. You may have noticed that the themes of spiritual journeys were often interwoven into the physical journeys of immigrants and refugees in our blog posts. This is not an accident. This is what God is doing. We are mere witnesses.
A Broken System
One of the things that really stood out to me over the course of these last six weeks are the problems present in our current immigration situation. This should not be a surprise. There have been many legislative attempts at fixing this issue in the last two decades. All have ended in gridlock and as a result the broken system continues. Let me give a brief summary of what I see.
Over the last couple of decades a large number of immigrants have entered the United States across the Mexican-American border. Again, this is not really a surprise. History is full of these sorts of movements, and they are often quite messy. It is estimated that there are as many as 11 million undocumented immigrants living in our country, many from Hispanic backgrounds. There are millions more that are living and working here as citizens or without proper documentation. Some people have entered the country legally but have overstayed their visa. Most immigrants are motivated by better economic opportunities. Many are willing to work for a lower wage. The influx of works has a downward effect of workers’ wages in many fields. Remember the interview with construction workers in North Carolina: immigrants are willing to work for less and they have displaced American workers in some fields.
However, because immigrants are not able to compete in all occupations, the effect of this is not felt in all career fields. Manual labor and parts of the service industry are the hardest hit. “Loving our neighbor” requires that we show concern for the sojourner in our midst. But it also requires that we show concern for American workers who experience the suppression of wages associated with mass immigration. It can be easy for Americans who work in fields not affected by mass immigration to dismiss this to quickly.
However, we can’t end our analysis there. Extricating ourselves from a difficult situation is not easy. We should remember that many other parties have been involved in this process and the benefits have also been felt unevenly. American employers save costs and underbid their competitors by hiring lower cost immigrant workers. American consumers also benefit because they pay less for services done by immigrants. Undocumented Immigrants gain economic opportunities, but also suffer. They are not afforded the full protection of the law and are often vulnerable to being taken advantage of. Although the system is broken, there are winners and losers. The following chart lays this out:
The reason that the system remains broken is because the solutions are hard and our country is deeply polarized. But American employers and consumers are willing to tolerate the system mainly because we are not the ones who pay the costs. American workers and undocumented immigrants continue to bear the cost.
I am more convinced than ever that immigration reform is necessary. Allowing the current system to continue only perpetuates a bad situation. Undocumented immigrants are vulnerable. But while they are undocumented they are less able to bargain for competitive wages. This is turn contributes to suppression of wages and harms many types of American workers.
Most attempts at immigration reform have three components. First, they attempt to deal with the millions of undocumented workers that are already here. Second, they deal with immigration controls going forward – such as border security. Third, they deal with enforcement in the work sector – pressuring employers to hire only documented workers. I will make a few brief comments on each section.
i. Eleven million undocumented immigrants
This is a very challenging issue and many of the previous attempts to “fix” the immigration issue floundered here. What do you do with the millions of people who already live in our country, but not currently documented? There is no answer that is simple and good. One simplistic, but extreme solution is to deport everyone who does not have documentation of legal entry into the country. However, like most simple solutions, it runs into many roadblocks. Deporting 11 million people is a massive operation and would seem unjust to many Americans. It is not a realistic solution.
Beyond being unreasonable, I believe that it would be unjust. Consider the following. Even if we were to think of illegal immigration as a crime, nearly all crimes have a statute of limitations. Crimes also need to have intentional activity. Think through the challenges of these questions:
It seems to me that a just process of immigration reform would need to provide pathways to citizenship for immigrants who have lived in this country for a significant amount of time. That is not to suggest that this is a normal course, but a necessary corrective as we re-calibrate a system that has been out of whack for a long time.
ii. Border Security
Just as there are simplistic answers for dealing with undocumented workers currently here, there are also simplistic answers for border security. The president’s proposal to build a wall is often viewed as being unrealistic and overly harsh. It seems to me that the opposition is primarily to the symbolism of the action. (This is not to minimize the impact of symbolic actions, which can greatly impact the way policy is enforced and shape public opinion.) All walls have doors in them and even a wall on the entire border between the United States and Mexico would have places of entry and egress. In my view, border security is necessary as long as we have reasonable access to and from the country, whether there is an actual physical wall or not.
On the other extreme, some people would profess that an “open border policy” would solve our immigration dilemma. But, insistence on open borders fails to offer any protection for American workers and fails to recognize real threats to national security. In his letter to the Romans, the apostle Paul reminds us that God’s purpose for the government of any nation is to protect its citizens (Rom. 13:4). There are real threats in the world and pretending that they don’t exist does not make our neighbors across this nation any safer. Given the turmoil in the world, it would seem to me that concern for border security is not only realistic but necessary.
iii. Enforcement of employment laws
Enforcing employment laws would create a more just work force for both American workers and immigrants. Currently, American consumers and employers have benefited from the services of undocumented workers. Justice requires that we hold employers accountable for who they hire. In the current system, there are large disincentives for doing this. Employers in certain fields (like construction and agriculture) cannot compete without hiring immigrants. Lack of enforcement in this area creates an uneven playing field. It penalizes American workers and documented immigrants. It also creates an environment in which undocumented workers exist outside of legal structures. They are not afforded the protections of the law and have reduced bargaining power. This situation is clearly viewed in the Bible as being unjust. Consider this biblical command:
“For the assembly, there shall be one statute for you and for the stranger who sojourns with you, a statute forever throughout your generations. You and the sojourner shall be alike before the LORD.” (Numbers 15:15)
Perpetuating our current system would have some benefits for employers and consumers, but it is not good for American workers and immigrants. It is clearly the type of system that the Bible would call “unjust.” It would seem to me that justice requires enforcing immigration laws in the market place.
Refugees are Different
As we have frequently said, the issues are complex. One area of complexity is the distinction between immigrants and refugees. Immigrants enter the country by choice, while refugees are driven from their homeland because of famine or violence. (When we were in Greece, this distinction was readily acknowledged by everyone in the society.) As a result, it is not reasonable to run the same cost-benefit analysis for refugees. Refugees may assume a measure of risk for a host country. Yet, we do this because we are called to be merciful to those in need. Many of the biblical commands about caring for sojourners assume this sort of situation. When we think of the story that Jesus told about the good Samaritan (Luke 10:29-37), we are reminded that stopping to care for a wounded stranger on the Jericho road would place the Samaritan at risk. It was also a financially costly endeavor for the Samaritan. But according to Jesus, it is the definitive expression of neighborly love. We ignore this to our own peril.
Furthermore, it is helpful to distinguish the immigration system from the refugee system. Unlike the former, the refugee system is not broken. Refugees are thoroughly vetted before entering this country.
This process is not nearly as thorough in other countries. In most cases it is a two year process to enter the United States. As was stated in an earlier article, there has never been a violent terrorist attack by someone who entered the United States through the refugee system in the four decades of its existence. That is not to say that there is no risk in welcoming refugees, but it does tell us that the risk is pretty negligible. We already have “extreme vetting” in our current refugee system.
There are violent people in the world and we need systems that screen them out. But an indiscriminate halt to the refugee program punishes those that are fleeing violence. We cannot love our neighbor without assuming risk, but we want to be certain that our fears do not prevent us from extending refuge to those who are in need.
More Discussions to Come
If you are still reading this post… there are ways in which you can participate in the discussion. We are planning to have a Monday evening Agora Forum discussion which will focus on the topic of immigration policy. We are currently planning to do this on Monday, June 26, 7:00-9:00 pm at City Reformed’s office. If you want to contribute or push back to any of these ideas, please feel free to come and talk with me in person. I will present some of the things listed here and others will present proposals that may differ. We want to foster a place for reasonable discussion.
I will conclude with special thanks to Kevin and Evelyn for their partnership in the blog. Even if I could have pulled this off alone (not likely) it would have been an impoverished product without your many insights. I am deeply thankful for your participation.
I would like to thank the many contributors who really made this blog special. By my rough estimate we have had over two dozen contributors during the course of this blog. What an amazing wealth of perspectives and insights! Many were from our congregation, but others from throughout the country and across the world.
I am also thankful for my wife, who sacrificed time from our already busy schedule to let me write.
Finally, I want to thank our many readers. Your comments and questions helped to stimulate the endeavor. Your “likes” and “reposts” spread the news. Your encouragements kept us going.
Above all, we thank the living God. He is calling people from every place to himself. The nations are streaming to the temple of the Lord through faith in Christ Jesus, and we are all invited to “learn his ways” and to “walk in his paths!”
In the last days the mountain of the LORD's temple will be established as chief among the mountains; it will be raised above the hills, and all nations will stream to it. Many peoples will come and say, "Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob. He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths." (Isaiah 2:2–3)
I love solitude and the outdoors. There’s no place I’d rather be than hiking a lesser-known trail up a mountain in a National Park, with no more than two companions with me. I try to avoid easier and more accessible trails that tend to be swarming with people who don’t respect silence and solitude – people unlike me and those I accept as my companions. I mentally give them two choices: learn to respect my way of hiking, or get off the trail.
Don’t we all have preferences for the people we would like to share fellowship with? Don’t we find people with certain backgrounds/origins/beliefs easier to be in communion with? Don’t we wish they were less ___ and more ___?
I have found that my own perspective is woefully inadequate for detecting my own prejudices, even as it is incredibly sensitive to the prejudices of others. I am pleased with my ability to accept and love others; I silently proclaim, “See how welcoming and inclusive I am, unlike [insert enemy here] who judge and exclude others”. I see how my beliefs and practices display justice, while the ignorance of my enemies displays injustice. Especially in today’s polarized political climate, we are all prone to excluding our enemies.
God promises to teach his people how to transcend this bent to exclusion: by calling us to go up to God’s mountain together. Pentecost gives us a picture of what this looks like: a multitude of people of different tribes and tongues being brought into the same family.
In the buzz of Pentecost, God does several things by forcing us to walk alongside the other. First, he reveals to us our tendency to either exclude the other or try to shape them into our image (the two choices I give people on hiking with me). Second, he gives us the means of overcoming that tendency by forcing us into communion with the other.
Whether in our local church or the universal church, we worship alongside Christians with diverse experiences and backgrounds, resulting in diverse expressions of the same faith. Because my sister has gone through trials I know nothing of and was brought up in a culture that is foreign to me, her cares and fears will be different from mine.
This is a gift, and is the reason we have filled this blog with stories by Christians with diverse ethnic, cultural and historical experiences. These stories enable us to transcend our own perspective. I have my own way of viewing myself, others, and the world. On my own, my perspective is not large enough to encompass all that God has revealed to me.
We are called to practice what theologian Miroslav Volf calls double vision: seeing from the perspective of others, so that we might understand how they see us, themselves, and the world. He writes, “We use our imagination to see why their perspective about themselves, about us, and about our common history, can be so plausible to them whereas it is implausible, profoundly strange, or even offensive to us”.
Here are questions I ask myself. How are my words being understood by the other? Am I assuming things about them and their beliefs? How does someone manage to say such a thing if they care about justice? (This last question invites us to imagine other conceptions of justice and good that we may not immediately see). I don’t always have the answers, and when I don’t, I have to seek out the ‘other’ to understand her.
This is challenging and risky. If our perspectives are in conflict, must one be rejected? Can a compromise be found? Compromise may not be possible. But unless we are willing to see from the perspectives of others and let their perspectives stand next to ours – letting their voices, fears, and concerns resonate within us – we will not be able to properly reflect on whether one or the other is right, or more likely, where each is partly wrong and partly right.
But we may be surprised. In some cases, seeing from others’ perspectives might reveal the blindness in our own perspective and open us up to new worlds of wisdom, truth, and hope. In other cases, it may allow us to see a shared concern for justice where before we only saw enemies perpetrating injustice. In yet other cases, a willingness to listen and understand (rather than argue against) an enemy’s perspective may help disarm conflict and bring peace.
I have too often allowed myself to judge and form beliefs about others in isolation. Judgments need to be made (though probably way less often than we think), but they must be made against the backdrop of Pentecost: in communion with fellow believers who have different perspectives. It requires us to hear them speaking in “different tongues”, and still understand them. If they are fellow believers, I love them, and if I love them, I will want to hear their voice.
Perhaps this sounds too dramatic. Maybe you don’t consider anyone an enemy the way I do. But might there be others to whom you have become an enemy? Seeing from the perspectives of others will open our eyes to this.
Perhaps this sounds too unrealistic; maybe you feel that seeing from the perspectives of others merely opens us up to being controlled or manipulated by them, and tacitly gives legitimacy to wrong and unjust perspectives. Consider the example of Jesus, who suffered though he was innocent (1 Peter 2:21-25). Even though we were his enemies, he took on our perspective and sin in his body, that we might be reconciled to God and each other (2 Cor 5:18-21).
At Pentecost, this same Jesus gave his spirit, that the diverse believers would each speak and be understood in their own tongues – across cultural and linguistic barriers. Jesus gives us his same spirit today, enabling us to be heard and understood across barriers.
Against the backdrop of Pentecost, the cultural / national / ethnic / political ‘other’ is God’s means of saving us from our own prejudices. Without including their voices and perspectives in our own, the church will not reflect the fullness of God’s power at Pentecost. With them alongside us, we just might make it up to God’s mountain.