In My View: Arizona and the Vanishing Bible

By Bruce Chilton
Bernard Iddings Bell Professor of Religion
Bard College
June 2010

Controversy over social issues in the United States during the past forty years has often involved recourse to the Bible. Abortion, the rights of homosexuals, and stem cell research, for example, feature prominently on the agenda of the Christian Coalition of America, even though the relationship between any of those questions and specific teachings from Scripture is tenuous.

But the current contention concerning immigrants -- spurred by the law in Arizona requiring them to carry their alien registration documents and giving the police power to detain those they suspect of illegal entry into the country -- has not prompted anything like the same concern for a biblical orientation. Perhaps that is because the Bible moves in a different ethical direction from that of the Arizona law and its proponents.

Deep within the major streams of the Bible, the just treatment of the stranger (the ger, also translatable as sojourner) is expressed as a core mandate. In the Book of Exodus, the stranger is held up as a call for God’s people to remember who they are and where they came from: “You shall not trouble or oppress a stranger, because you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 22:21). In the Hebrew language, a distinction can be made between “you” as a singular and “you” as a plural. In this instance, the first part of the teaching is in the singular, and the second in the plural. That is, the extension of justice to the stranger is a matter of both an individual and a collective obligation that also extends (in the following verse) to the treatment of orphans and widows.

The bond between individual and collective identity is also reflected in the Book of Psalms, “Israel also came into Egypt, and Jacob became a stranger in the land of Ham” (Psalm 105:23). Jacob was a person, and the name given him by an angel, Israel (meaning “Strives-with-God,” Genesis 32:28) designates an entire people who know themselves as having been strangers or sojourners. Because they do, they show concern for strangers with other relatively powerless people, such as orphans and widows, and take on the responsibility to extend justice to them. This concern becomes especially trenchant in the formulation of Deuteronomy “Cursed be he that perverts the judgment of the stranger, orphan, and widow; and all the people say, Amen” (Deuteronomy 27:19).

Of course, not all the regulations of Exodus and Deuteronomy represent laws that were universally accepted or implemented. To some extent, those biblical books are expressions of ideals rather than realities. (A famous example of an ideal is the requirement that all male Israelites make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem during the harvest seasons of Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles [Exodus 23:14-17; 34:22-23; Deuteronomy 16:16], which would have resulted in agricultural disaster, were the law kept universally.) But when rendering justice to strangers is involved, the practical emphasis is unmistakable.

The same theme is expressed by the prophets, particularly Zechariah, with the familiar association of the stranger with the orphan and the widow, but now also with the poor: “Judge true judgment, perform mercy and compassion, a man with his brother, and do not oppress widow or orphan, stranger or poor man, and do not devise evil in your heart, a man against his brother” (7:9-10). Zechariah here provides a prophetic precedent for Jesus’ teaching of the Golden Rule (Matthew 7:12: Luke 6:31), and Zechariah was clearly central to Jesus’ thinking. When he intervened in the Temple against commercial arrangements, he was enacting Zechariah’s prophecy (14:21) of a time when there would no longer be a merchant in the Temple.

When Jesus taught how God’s angelic agent, the Son of Man, would finally judge people, he pictured the Son of Man as a shepherd separating sheep from goats (Matthew 25:31-46). The Son of Man praises the just for aiding him when he was helpless, and blames the others for failing him. “I was a stranger, and you brought me in,” he says to the sheep (25:35); or you did not, the goats are told (25:43). Both groups are puzzled, since they had no previous contact with the Son of Man that they know of, but Jesus’ explanation is trenchant: “As much as you did to the least of these my brothers, you did also to me” (Matthew 25:40, cf. v. 45).

Jesus’ teaching in this teaching couples strangers with other forms of helpless people: the hungry, the thirsty, the ill clothed, the sick, and prisoners. He moves further along the lines of Zechariah’s extension of a principle already in the Torah. Jesus also, in speaking of the direct solidarity between the Son of Man and the weak among his brothers, develops the principle in the Torah that Israel as a people needed to remember and act upon their communal identity.

These examples do not by any means exhaust biblical teaching in regard to strangers, but they do clearly show that there is a deeply ethical principle that runs through major components of the Bible. It is no wonder that the Epistle to the Hebrews, coming to the close of a comprehensive treatment of biblical examples, insists, “Do not forget love of strangers, because through it some have inadvertently welcomed angels” (Hebrews 13:2). From the story of Abraham’s hospitality at Mamre (Genesis 18) to Jesus’ teaching about the sheep and goats, that is a profoundly biblical theme.

“Love of strangers” philoxenia in Greek, the opposite of xenophobia) is literally what the Epistle to the Hebrews calls for, although English translations in the tradition of the King James Version speak of not neglecting to “entertain” strangers or “hospitality” (which echoes the Latin Vulgate). While these translations are not wrong, they are not as forceful as philoxenia, and miss the deep principle that Hebrews seeks to emphasize.

However translated, however, this principle has strangely vanished from public debate concerning the new law in Arizona (and similar strictures in other states). Many religious groups have spoken out against the measure. In an echo of the biblical principle that people should remember where they have come from, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society observed that the measure "betrays the proud history of a nation built by immigrants." Such criticism needs to be tempered by an awareness that the pursuit of justice for any group should not be confused with neglect, preference, indulgence, or amnesty. The just judgment of any person might well result in vindication, or in correction and even punishment.

At any rate, the ethical principle at stake is not a matter for specifically religious groups alone. The underlying insistence of the biblical tradition in many of its strands is that the treatment of strangers must be just for a society as a whole to have any claim to justice. A profound dishonesty has afflicted the polarized opposition of “Right” and “Left” in the United States, and the vanishing of the Bible from public debate regarding immigration is symptomatic of that. A self-righteous Right refuses to countenance the obvious correction which a deeply biblical principle calls for, while a self-centered Left fearful of religion mumbles about diversity and fails to call attention to a Scriptural imperative that offers a moral foundation for immigration reform.

For about as long as debates regarding abortion and homosexuality have raged, parodies have circulated about the application of biblical law. They frequently take the form of questions such as, Do we really have to stone a betrothed virgin for having sex with another man (Deuteronomy 22:23-4), or an ox for goring someone (Exodus 21:28) or a son for being disobedient (Deuteronomy 21:18-21)? Today, electronic sites will give you tours of the odd combinations of theoretical statues and episodic case law that is included in the Bible.

But no one who has ever attended a court, or listened to a confirmation hearing for a judge, should be surprised that laws can become bizarre in their theories as well as in their precedents. (In a local traffic court, I once observed charges of speeding reduced to “parking on the pavement” in case after case when residents were involved. It made me wonder how visitors would be treated.) Sorting out genuinely grounding principles from the mix of rulings is often a challenge. But there can be no doubt but that the principle of justice for strangers is foundational within the Bible, extending through a cumulative ethical tradition. Telling the difference between a principle and an episode is basic to the reading of any religious text that took shape over the course of centuries, just as it is crucial in guiding a society through the thickets of fear and self-interest into the light of justice.

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