We are strangers and foreigners

I have struggled over the last months to find my voice as a pastor and theologian. So much of my fear, anxiety, and anger at our current situation is connected to my identity as an American citizen that it’s been difficult for me to separate out my commitment to following Jesus Christ and my calling as a minister of the Gospel from my concerns as an American. Last week brought an end to that struggle and provided clarity of vision as I live out my calling as a Christian and an Episcopal priest. I am to follow Jesus and to preach the Gospel.

The immigration and refugee ban is profoundly evil, a repudiation of Christian and Hebrew Scriptures and the very words of Jesus Christ. Throughout scripture, there is a consistent and powerful command to offer hospitality to strangers, to welcome the foreigner, and to treat foreigners and strangers as one would treat one’s own family.

One of the great biblical stories is of Abraham’s welcome of three strangers at Mamre. In the course of that encounter, it becomes clear that those strangers are messengers from God (Genesis 18). Two of them go on to Sodom, where Lot’s nephew welcomes them into his home and protects them from other Sodom residents who wanted to rape them (Genesis 19:1-9). The sin of Sodom was the failure to extend hospitality to strangers (Ezekiel 16:49).

In the law of Moses, there is a consistent and strong insistence that the Israelites treat strangers and aliens as if they were their own:

When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God. (Leviticus 19:33-34)

Jesus was himself a refugee. After his birth, his parents fled with him from Bethlehem. Herod had all of the children under two years of age in and around Bethlehem executed in his rage (Matthew 2:13-18).

Jesus commanded us to love our neighbors and our enemies. He broke bread with foreigners and told stories about reviled foreigners who helped Jews (Luke 10:30-37). Jesus commanded his followers to welcome the stranger, telling us that in helping strangers, we are helping Jesus, that in the face of the stranger we encounter Christ:

For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me. (Matthew 25:35-36)

Hospitality toward the stranger and the foreigner is emphasized in different ways throughout the New Testament, most eloquently perhaps by the author of the Letter to the Hebrews, who wrote: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it” (Hebrews 13:2, in a reference back to the story of Abraham’s encounter with God at Mamre)

That same author went a step further, reaching back to the key value expressed in the Mosaic law that linked Israel’s treatment of foreigners to their own experience of being foreigners in Egypt to assert that we followers of Jesus are strangers and foreigners here, that our allegiance is to God, not to the country in which we live:

They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. (Hebrews 11:13-16)

To think of ourselves as strangers and foreigners requires an act of the imagination that challenges us to imagine ourselves in contexts outside of our control, experience, and comfort zone. But that is the gospel imperative.

The Christian tradition bears witness to the struggles of Christians to live out the words of Jesus and the values of scripture in vastly different and changing contexts but throughout Christian history one can detect an effort to embody those values. In St. Augustine of Hippo’s City of God, for example, the great theologian argues that Christians’ primary and true citizenship is to the city of God that includes people from every nation, the living as well as the dead.

Ironically, the very word “refugee” bears witness to both the cruelty and the magnanimity of Christians. It comes from the French word “refugie” which was first used in reference to French Huguenots, French Protestants, who were expelled from France after King Louis XIV revoked their religious rights. The Huguenots found refuge in many Protestant territories across Europe and in North America.

Refugees fleeing religious persecution or war need our assistance. Whatever their nationality, religious commitment, or ethnicity, they are, like us, human beings created in the image of God, whose lives are in danger. They have the right to food, shelter, and the opportunity to flourish. The faces of refugees are the faces of Jesus Christ. In our encounters with them, we meet Him face to face.

But there is another, deeper issue in the debate over refugees. Our fear of refugees is tied up with nationalism. The United States has a constitution that promises freedom of religion and the separation of church and state. Yet most American Christians live a religion quite different from that articulated in the letter to the Hebrews or by Augustine in City of God. Most American Christians live a religion that has more to do with devotion to the United States than following Jesus. We view the United States as the greatest country in the history of the world. Our wars are always just; our democracy above reproach. We can do no wrong and those who criticize the US for its policies, its actions, or the continued injustice and oppression that occurs within its borders or in its names are heretics and traitors.

Such a view of the United States is idolatrous. As Christians whose allegiance is to Jesus Christ, we are called to name the sin of idolatry when we see it and repent of it when we commit it. As citizens of another country, “resident aliens” as Will Willimon and Stanley Hauerwas named us, we Christians know that our values and our lives are shaped by the cross and resurrection, not by political expediency or the idolatry of nationalism.

The future remains uncertain. One thing is clear. As the Christian martyrs of the Roman Empire showed us, we must refuse to worship at the altar of empire. We must show in our words and actions our allegiance to Jesus Christ, embodying in ourselves our love of our enemies, our love and care for those who are rejected and discarded by the nation in which we live, our embrace of the foreigner, the widow and orphan. We must make the love of Christ apparent to everyone we meet, following the example of Jesus Christ, who in his love for the whole world, gave his life. Our faithfulness to Jesus Christ and to his vision for the coming reign of God will fill us with hope, nourish us for the journey ahead, and transform the world and nation in which we live.

In the name of Christ, the stranger.



By the rivers of Babylon–Lectionary Reflections on Proper 22, Year C

This week’s readings are here.

The lesson from Lamentations and the Psalm this week are both responses to what was perhaps the most traumatic event in the history of God’s chosen people up to that point. In 596 BCE, after hundreds of years of survival against unbelievable odds, the kingdom of Judah was defeated by the Babylonian empire. A decade or so later, after an unwise rebellion, the armies of Babylon came in and finished the job. They destroyed the temple of Solomon, the city of Jerusalem, and carried off all of the most important people into exile in Babylon. Decades later, after Babylon was conquered by Persia, the exiles were permitted to return home and to rebuild their lives, their city, and their temple.

It was then, amidst the scars of that destruction, that both the Psalm and the lamentation we heard were composed. The reading from Lamentations describes Jerusalem as it stands after destruction. It lies empty, lonely, no one comes up to the annual festivals. Her priests groan, her young girls grieve. But the author places blame for Jerusalem’s fate squarely on God. God has caused this suffering because of Jerusalem’s many sins. So the punishment is just.

The Psalm gives voice to the suffering and grief of refugees. “By the rivers of Babylon we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion.” The words of the psalm evoke deep feelings of regret and sadness at living in exile. In a far away land, they were expected to build new lives and also to entertain their captors. Without hope of return, and perhaps even doubting whether their God would ever hear their cries and respond to their situation, they mourned the loss of their homeland and also, probably, the loss of their faith.

On one level, we can enter into and empathize with their situation. That deep, universal human feeling of homelessness and desire to return is what has made the opening verses of Psalm 137 so appealing to poets and musicians over the years. But all of a sudden, the tone changed dramatically. Instead of words of grief and anguish, suddenly the Psalmist begins to express anger, hatred, and violence:

Happy shall he be who takes your little ones, *
and dashes them against the rock!

Harsh and offensive language, isn’t it? Language, and sentiments, that we hardly like to acknowledge. Indeed, the liturgist’s first impulse is to leave those two verses out of our worship. Even John Wesley is reported to have said that the words of the last verses of Psalm 137 should never be on the lips of any congregation. Yet there they are; and they are as much a part of that Psalm as the words we like. Moreover, they are the product of the same experience, most likely, the words of a single author.

We live in a world in which the plight of the refugee has become commonplace. In the 1990s we became accustomed to seeing images of people in the former Yugoslavia being forced out of their homes—Bosnian Muslims, Croatian Serbs, Kosovars. Millions have been displaced by the conflict in the Congo. 2 million have fled the fighting in Syria in the last two years.  And there are the Palestinians—forced from their homes and land sixty years ago, millions live in refugee camps.

Human rights groups estimate that there at least 14 million people who have left their countries because of war or natural disaster. Iraq alone counts for some 2 million. In addition, there are more than 20 million people who have been forced from their homes but are living somewhere else in their nation.

This psalm, written by a refugee, reminds us of the scars and pain caused by conflict. The last verses remind us as well that overcoming conflict, and healing that pain can be almost impossible. Yet to deny refugees the full depth of their pain is to deny the reality of their experience. Most important of all, perhaps, we can see in the emergence of the Jewish people out of that experience of exile, a new, deeper understanding of who they were, and who their God was.

We can’t expect today’s refugees to understand themselves and their experience in the ways the Jewish people did during the exile. The reality is that for most humans to be driven from one’s country and one’s land is a deep and lasting wound. Most refugees would echo the sentiments of those last few verses and would continue to search for ways to make that vision a reality through the use of violence.

Perhaps that is why the lasting conflicts in our world seem to go on forever. Old wounds never heal; and ethnic and national groups may continue to seek vengeance for crimes committed decades, or even centuries ago. So for us to speak the words of Ps. 137 is to enter into the lives and experiences of people whom we don’t know, but whose suffering is profound and real. We may not understand or be able to plumb the depths of their pain, but the words of the Psalm and of Lamentation are a powerful reminder of their lives and suffering.

We may find such experiences unfathomable, even though we are familiar with the images on TV. We have no idea how we might respond if we were faced with such a situation. And too, when we wonder how we might help those in need, we can do little more than wring our hands or write a check. Indeed, like the psalmist who wrote the words of Psalm 137, we too have no idea how to respond when faced with such suffering.