By Mathew Schmalz
On Friday, Jan. 27, President Donald Trump signed an executive order that placed a stay on refugees from seven Muslim majority countries. Entrance of refugees from Syria, however, will be banned for the next 120 days. Two days prior to that, he committed the United States to building a wall on its border with Mexico. Soon after the order, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto cancelled an upcoming trip to the United States.
President Trump has also proposed that Mexican goods be taxed at the rate of 20 percent to provide funds for building the wall. This would fulfil his campaign promise that Mexico would actually pay for the wall’s construction, in spite of America’s southern neighbour’s protests.
For Christians, the questions about building the border wall or permitting immigrants and refugees into the United States involve a host of associated considerations not just about the specifics of immigration law, the economics of cheap labor coming across the border or potential terrorist threats.
At issue are both broader and deeper questions about what it means to welcome the stranger.
As a Roman Catholic scholar who lived in South Asia for a total of four years, I know what it is like to be initially considered a “stranger” but be quickly welcomed with open arms. And I, like all Christians, look to the Bible for guidance when asking about how to best welcome the stranger.
So, what does the Bible actually say?
We will all be strangers, sometime
The Bible affirms—strongly and unequivocally—the obligation to treat strangers with dignity and hospitality.
In “Love the Stranger,” an article written for the annual meeting of the College Theological Society in 1991, biblical scholar Alice Laffey stated that in the Hebrew Bible, the words “gûr” and “gēr” are the ones most often glossed as referring to the “stranger,” though they are also translated as “newcomer” and “alien” or “resident alien,” respectively.
In the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, the word “gēr” appears almost 50 times, and the fifth book, Deuteronomy, delineates a number of specific provisions for treating “the stranger” not just with courtesy but also with active support and provision.
For example, the book of Deuteronomy sets out the requirement that a portion of produce be set aside by farmers every third year for strangers, widows and orphans. In the “temple sermon” attributed to the prophet Jeremiah, the Jewish people are exhorted to “not oppress the sojourner.”
Within the Hebrew Bible the requirements of hospitality are sometimes affirmed in very striking ways, as in the story from the book of Judges in which a host offers his own daughter to ruffians in order to safeguard his guest.
Of course, the Israelites themselves were “strangers” during their enslavement in Egypt and captivity in Babylon. The Hebrew Bible recognizes that every one of us can be a stranger and, for that very reason, we need to overcome our fear of those who live among us whom we do not know.
The Stranger Is Jesus in Disguise
Within the New Testament, which Christians read in continuity with the Hebrew Bible or “The Old Testament,” the most often cited passage dealing with welcoming the stranger is from Matthew 25: 31-40.
This section speaks of the Final Judgment, when the righteous will be granted paradise and unrepentant sinners will be consigned to eternal fire. Christ says to those at his right hand that they are “blessed” because, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” The righteous then ask, “When did we see you, a stranger, and welcome you?” Christ replies,” ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’”
As Matthew 25 makes clear, the Christians should see everyone as “Christ” in the flesh. Indeed, scholars argue that in the New Testament, “stranger” and “neighbour” are in fact synonymous. Thus the Golden Rule, “love your neighbour as yourself,” refers not just to people whom you know—your “neighbours” in a conventional sense—but also to people whom you do not know.
Beyond this, in the letters written by Paul of Tarsus (one of the most notable of early Christian missionaries), often known as the Pauline “Epistles,” it is made clear that in Christ, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave[g] nor free, there is no male and female.”
From this perspective, being “one in Christ” should be taken literally as acknowledging no fundamental differences in kind among human beings.
Bible Is Unambiguous In Its Message
Of course, in Christianity the strong admonitions toward treating the stranger with dignity have coexisted with actions that would seem to indicate an opposite attitude: pogroms against Jews, slavery, imperialism and colonialism have been sanctioned by Christians who nonetheless would have affirmed biblical principles regarding caring for those who seem “other” or “alien.”
Indeed, when it comes to the specific questions concerning building a wall on America’s border with Mexico or welcoming immigrants and refugees, some Christians would argue that doing so does not violate any biblical precepts concerning hospitality to the stranger, since the issue is one of legality and, of course, a good number of Christians did indeed support Donald Trump’s candidacy for the presidency.
Other Christians have taken a diametrically different position, and have called for cities and educational institutions to be set apart as “safe zones” for undocumented immigrants.
It is true that the application of biblical principles to contemporary matters of policy is less than clear to the many Christians who have taken opposing sides regarding how the United States should deal with immigrants, undocumented workers and refugees.
However, in my reading of the Bible, the principles regarding welcoming the stranger are broad-reaching and unambiguous.
Mathew Schmalz is Associate Professor of Religion, College of the Holy Cross