“We’re Christians, we’re Americans, we’re patriots. We have compassion for these migrants. We love people but we just want to make sure our children are safe.” These were the words of a protestor against migrants being housed in a former Catholic school in Staten Island as quoted on ABC’s Eyewitness News on Saturday, August 26, 2023. The three sentences link to several connected ideas in America today: Christian identity as being important; American identity and patriotism as being somehow intricately linked to it, almost subsuming it; and the idea that compassion for migrants, even when acknowledged as it is here, must give place to the goal of “protecting” our borders, our children, our nation from the “threat” at the border.
It is no surprise that many people, including many who call themselves Christian, have bought into the idea that immigrants are to be equated with “danger.” This perception has been reinforced by conservative politicians’ and right-wing media’s incessant referencing of migrants as “illegals,” calling them a threat against which we need to build a massive wall and construct bulwarks in the Rio Grande to deter. If repeated often enough, such words and connections can make a person, even someone like the protestor in Staten Island who identifies as a Christian and says she has compassion for immigrants, speak out against giving them shelter out of a sense of fear for “our children.”
However, is it true that migrants are more likely to commit crimes, or are more dangerous than native-born Americans? On the contrary. In a December 2020 article in Scientific American, Melinda Wenner Moyer notes that “a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA . . . reports that between 2012 and 2018, compared with their U.S.-born neighbors, undocumented immigrants in Texas were less than half as likely to be arrested for violent crimes or drug offenses and less than a quarter as likely to be arrested for property crimes.”
Moyer goes on to quote a co-author of the study, Michael Light, who teaches sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison: “Simply put, we found that undocumented immigrants have lower felony arrest rates than both legal immigrants and, especially, native-born U.S. citizens.” Therefore, fear, as an excuse for lack of compassion for immigrants, is not a legitimate explanation. In fact, a theological exploration beginning with Scripture is an important beginning for a re-examination of these attitudes.
First of all, fear of immigrants is nothing new. The book of Exodus explains how Pharoah’s draconian rules, first of forcing the Hebrews to be slaves and then ordering that the Hebrew baby boys be thrown into the Nile, were based on fear: “Then a new king, to whom Joseph meant nothing, came to power in Egypt. ‘Look,’ he said to his people, ‘the Israelites have become far too numerous for us. Come, we must deal shrewdly with them, or they will become even more numerous and, if war breaks out, will join our enemies, fight against us and leave the country’” (Exod 1:8-11). It was an unjust and unwarranted fear. The Hebrews had done nothing to threaten the Egyptians, but like many political leaders today, Pharoah was creating a narrative to justify what he wanted to do.
This backstory is why, once they were freed, the Israelites were enjoined by God to have compassion on the stranger among them. In fact, the command is given twice in the Lord’s series of injunctions to his people, even before they enter the land of Canaan (Israel): “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt,” in Exodus 22:21, and “You shall not oppress a stranger, since you yourselves know the feelings of a stranger, for you also were strangers in the land of Egypt,” in Exodus 23:9. In Leviticus, the Lord goes even further and commands love for the alien: “The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God” (Lev 19:33-34).
This idea of welcoming the alien is echoed throughout the Bible. The book of Ruth is a story of refugees being welcomed: first Elimelech, Naomi, and their family are welcomed in Moab, and then Ruth, the Moabite, accompanying her mother-in-law back to Israel, is welcomed by Boaz, who ultimately marries her. In several places, the care for the alien is linked to a similar concern Israel was to show to the poor as well as orphans and widows. Ruth’s gathering the gleanings in the field of Boaz is an example of an alien and a widow (both of which she was) benefiting from these compassionate laws: “When you reap your harvest in your field and have forgotten a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it; it shall be for the alien, for the orphan, and for the widow, in order that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands” (Deut 24:19). In fact, harm to aliens (along with other marginalized groups—again, the orphans and widows) is not only forbidden but shown to lead to God’s curse. In a series of warnings to be given by the Levites to the people, we hear: “Cursed is he who distorts the justice due an alien, orphan, and widow” (Deut 27:19).
Not only are these stipulations given in the Law, but the Prophets also extend the concept of compassion to the alien. In Jeremiah, we are told: “Thus says the Lord, ‘Do justice and righteousness, and deliver the one who has been robbed from the power of his oppressor. Also do not mistreat or do violence to the stranger, the orphan, or the widow; and do not shed innocent blood in this place’” (Jer 22:3). The compassionate treatment of the stranger, the sojourner, is again part of a general atmosphere of righteousness linked to how Israel is to treat all the marginalized. Similarly, the prophet Zechariah says, “Do not oppress the widow or the orphan, the stranger or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another” (Zech 7:10). Truly, the message of how to treat the alien is throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. Therefore, it should not come as a surprise when Jesus, the incarnation of the God speaking these things to his people, reinforces them in his own teachings.
In Matthew 25, as Jesus tells the story of the sheep and the goats, representing the good and the evil nations in the final judgment, he includes how they treat the “stranger” as one of the criteria on which they will be judged. “I was a stranger, and you welcomed me” (Matt 25:35), he says to the sheep on his right hand, but to the goats on his left, “I was a stranger, and you did not welcome me” (Matt 25:43). As in the Hebrew Scriptures, Jesus also connects the treatment of the stranger with how one treats the hungry, the naked, the homeless, the imprisoned. And the message could not be clearer: “Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of mine, even the least of them, you did it to me” (Matt 25:40). Chillingly, to those on his left, he says, “Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me,” warning further, “These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life” (Matt 25:45-46).
It would seem that Jesus’s acknowledgement of “the other” was not easily accepted by people in his time any more than such ideas find acceptance among many religious people today. In the synagogue in Nazareth, Jesus is being praised for his teaching by his former townspeople; in fact, “all were speaking well of Him, and wondering at the gracious words which were falling from His lips” (Luke 4:22), but they turn on him when he brings up some biblical examples of the Lord favoring certain individuals who were not of Israel: Elijah visiting the widow of Zaraphath and Elisha healing Naaman the Syrian, suggesting a more inclusive vision than they were ready to accept. In fact, they were “filled with rage as they heard these things; and they got up and drove Him out of the city, and led Him to the brow of the hill on which their city had been built, in order to throw Him down the cliff” (Luke 4:28).
Contemporary Christians have reacted similarly when challenged by teachings of Christ that conflict with their way of looking at the world. In an article in Newsweek, Aila Slisco refers to an interview on NPR with Russell Moore, former head of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) and current editor-in-chief of Christianity Today, where he recounts: “Multiple pastors tell me, essentially, the same story about quoting the Sermon on the Mount, parenthetically, in their preaching—‘turn the other cheek’—[and] to have someone come up after to say, ‘Where did you get those liberal talking points?’” Telling the interlocutor that the quote is literally from Jesus himself does not assuage the challenge, according to Moore; instead, he says, “The response would be, ‘Yes, but that doesn’t work anymore. That’s weak’ . . . When we get to the point where the teachings of Jesus himself are seen as subversive to us, then we’re in a crisis.” Like the people in the synagogue in Nazareth, these churchgoers do not want to be challenged in their worldview, even by the words of Jesus himself.
So, where does that leave us? We must go back to the Scriptures, to the teachings in both the Old and New Testament, and use them to inform our thinking, our actions, and our policies about immigration. Going further, they must inform our thinking, our actions, and our policies about the poor, the marginalized, all those on the peripheries, as Pope Francis has said multiple times. In fact, Pope Francis’s prayer intention for this month speaks to these concerns: “We pray for those persons living on the margins of society, in inhumane life conditions; may they not be overlooked by institutions and never considered of lesser importance.” Migrants, particularly refugees, are among those most definitely “living on the margins.”
The attitude of a city, a state, even a nation towards its marginalized, particularly the strangers among them, can be definitive of its identity. We see this illustrated in the story in the book of Genesis about Sodom. Many of those most concerned about our borders would also be quick to identify what the guilt of this city was. However, a more in-depth look at the biblical texts that speak about Sodom suggest that the city’s attitude toward aliens and the marginalized had much to do with its destruction. When the men of the city seek to attack the angelic visitors to Lot and he begs them to desist, even offering his daughters in exchange for the men, they reply, “This one came in as an alien, and already he is acting like a judge; now we will treat you worse than them” (Gen. 19:9). Lot was marginalized by the people of Sodom because he was “an alien.” Even the potential attack on the angels is suggestive not only of sexual license but a deep affront against the ancient and sacred codes of hospitality to strangers. And it is, apparently, linked to a general lack of concern for the poor in this doomed city.
This sin is spelled out clearly by the prophet Ezekiel, who quotes the Lord speaking to Israel in warning, “Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had arrogance, abundant food and careless ease, but she did not help the poor and needy. Thus they were haughty and committed abominations before me. Therefore I removed them when I saw it” (Ezek 16:49-50). Pride, selfishness, and lack of concern for those in need, especially the aliens and others most marginalized, are grave sins in the eyes of God. What we must fear is not the suffering migrants coming to our cities, but the lack of compassion that is dangerously being cultivated on a daily basis even in the hearts of those who claim to know Christ. ♦
Nancy Enright holds a Ph.D. from Drew University. She is a full professor of English at Seton Hall University and the Director of the University Core. She is the author of two books: an anthology, Community: A Reader for Writers (Oxford University Press, 2015), and Catholic Literature and Film (Lexington Press, 2016) and articles on a variety of subjects, including the works of Dante, Augustine, J. R. R. Tolkien, and C. S. Lewis. Her articles have appeared in Logos, Commonweal, National Catholic Reporter, Christianity Today, and other venues.