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The Bible tells us so: Concern for immigrants is at the heart of faith

Migrants recieve bananas, soup, bread and tea before crossing the Austrian-German border in Achleiten, Austria, across from Passau, Germany, on Oct. 29, 2015. Photo courtesy of Reuters/Michaela Rehle *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-KARBAN-OPED, originally transmitted on March 23, 2017.

(RNS) Concern for the well-being of resident aliens has always been front and center of the Christian faith, and that should be no surprise given Christianity’s Jewish roots.

Centuries before Jesus reminded his followers to welcome strangers as they welcome him (Matthew 25:35), “undocumented immigrants” were on one of the most oft-repeated lists in the Hebrew Scriptures: Three groups of people that Yahweh constantly singled out for special care were, in fact, orphans, widows and resident aliens.

Of all people, Jews had a unique reason to treat such people with special kindness. “You shall not oppress or wrong a resident alien, for you were once aliens in the land of Egypt,” as God says in Exodus. Yahweh is simply reminding the Chosen People of their own salvation history, a history that included a stay of more than 400 years in someone else’s country.

Our ancestors in the faith always worried about people who had no “clout,” individuals who couldn’t defend themselves when push came to shove. Widows — women without a man to support them, as was the custom of the day — clearly fit this category, as did orphans.

Resident aliens were in the same boat. They were foreigners, inhabitants in a strange land. Then, as now in many countries, all three could easily be taken advantage of.

The late Scripture scholar Hans Walter Wolff frequently reminded us that the Israelite monarchy was a unique institution in the ancient world. Monarchical governments normally came into existence to protect the interests of the wealthy and influential. Jewish kings, on the contrary, were put in power to protect the rights of the poor and downtrodden.

During the biblical period, it was presumed everyone had a “go’el” (often translated as “redeemer”), a person who would “get you out of hock” when problems arose. Usually this was a close relative – a father, brother or son. Or, in some situations, a distant relative, as was the case with Boaz in the book of Ruth. The king was expected to fulfill this role for orphans, widows and resident aliens. He was supposed to personally step in and defend their rights. His door was to be open to them 24/7.

As any serious reader of Scripture knows, it didn’t take long for many of King David’s successors to put their go’el obligation on a back burner. Imitating the behavior of their neighboring, pagan kings, they became notorious for being more concerned for their own needs than for the needs of their people. They, not the helpless, benefited from their power. It was left to Yahweh’s prophets to force the issue.

We find a classic case of such a king-prophet confrontation in I Kings 21. Influenced and aided by his pagan queen, Jezebel, King Ahab not only steals his neighbor Naboth’s vineyard, but the conniving couple eventually has him stoned to death. Except for the prophet Elijah, no one seems to have made a public issue of the atrocity. The narrative of his stinging encounter with Ahab in the stolen vineyard is one of Scripture’s most powerful passages.

From the days of Deutero-Isaiah, the biblical problem for those who would persecute an undocumented immigrant is no longer just a case of looking over their shoulder, fearing an encounter with a government entity. Now they have to worry about God righting the wrong they’ve inflicted on these powerless individuals.

One of the last of the scriptural prophets — Malachi — couldn’t be clearer: “I (Yahweh) will be swift to bear witness … against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien, and do not fear me, says Yahweh of hosts” (3:5).

This carries a special obligation for those who would later claim to be “other Christs,” those who have chosen to carry on the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. Perhaps many of us don’t understand that obligation because we don’t understand the meaning of what Jesus says when he “purifies” the Jerusalem temple in Mark 11:15-17.

In referring to the temple as a “den of thieves,” Jesus is in fact harking back to Jeremiah 7, a passage in which the prophet accuses people of replacing concern for the helpless with liturgical worship.

The temple cleansing completely dovetails with Jesus’ constant concern that his followers be committed to caring for others, especially those with no clout.

“Christ Cleansing the Temple” by artist Bernardino Mei, circa 1655. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons

As I mentioned at the top of this article, Matthew 25:31-46 presents us with Jesus’ well-known Last Judgment narrative. In each instance, he warns his disciples that they’ll be judged only on what they did to assist the helpless around them … including the strangers they encounter.

Scholars of early Christianity tell us that practicing hospitality toward strangers was one of the practices most frequently employed by first- and second-century disciples of the risen Jesus as they sought to imitate the Savior in their daily lives.

They didn’t have far to go to find occasions when that could be accomplished. Though I can’t remember the author or the publication, I recall once reading an article in my doctoral program with a title that summed up the original Christian message: “Saved by Practicing Faith, Hope, Love and Hospitality.”

Another unknown author — the writer of the letter to the Hebrews — also reminded his readers of what was at stake: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by this some have entertained angels without knowing it.”

We presently live in an environment in which — for political reasons — fear of undocumented immigrants is frequently stressed. Though coming into contact with strangers always provokes some anxiety in our hearts, Jesus assures us that when we encounter such individuals we are really encountering Jesus.

It’s possible that worrying about the consequences of coming face-to-face with resident aliens has stopped many of us from experiencing the risen Jesus in our daily lives, something our ancestors in the faith believed was an essential element of that faith — no matter in what country they lived or from what country the aliens came.

As other Christs, they assumed an obligation to be their go’el. We believers can do no less today.

(The Rev. Roger Vermalen Karban, a Catholic priest in the Diocese of Belleville, Ill., is a Scripture scholar and widely published writer)

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Roger Vermalen Karban


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  • Angels disguised as Muslim refugees? What a mean trick for God to play on his Christians!


    Wake up to the real world please.

    I asked one of the chaplains on my staff what he thought about all this from a biblical standpoint. He pointed me to this passage. Romans 4:13-14

    the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do
    wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They
    are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the
    wrongdoer. 5 Therefore,
    it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of
    possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.

    I think he is conveying his take on the bible is that the government has as its number one role to protect people from those who would hurt others.

    Rev Karban you don’t understand the middle east, you don’t understand power in the middle east, you don’t understand the threat or potential cost of wholesale importation of people from this tribal areas known to generate radicalization. And after talking to my chaplain I’m not sure you understand your own scripture.

    Rev. Karban you would gamble with the lives of Americans.

    So are you willing to sacrifice the life of even one American other than your own to bring crowds of migrants in from these areas? Are you willing to sacrifice someone’s husband/father/son? Maybe someone’s wife/mother/daughter? Perhaps even someone’s child and grandchild? Who are you willing to sacrifice Rev. Karban so that you can bring the people into our nation’s borders?

  • Europe is open to migrants from tribal Islamic errors known to spawn radicalism.

    How many Europeans have died because of this? How many more people have to die before we wake up and realize the truth and support our government’s efforts to protect us.

    Legal immigration exists for a reason. Limitations on immigration exist for a reason. This goes beyond what language we speak and what cultures we celebrate. Today these issues are a matter of life and death.

    I support my Commander in Chief’s efforts to safeguard the American people and am thankful that we finally have one who has some spine and a dose of reality. I am not willing to sacrifice one American life so that we risk bringing potentially dangerous immigrants into our borders.

    And for those of you who will hop on your white unicorn to proclaim no single migrant from Islamic areas have killed Americans in the US, first there have been several attempts that we have stopped with skill and no small degree of luck. And second, look at Europe. Look at London. Once again innocents grieving the loss of family because of leaders and people who want to live in fantasy land.

    Individual values are informed by culture and these cultures have a track record of generating radicalized Islamic militants and terrorists.

    Wake up and support your government’s efforts for legal immigration and realistic vetting processes, and security mechanisms driven by the real world and not fantasy land and emotion.

  • That’s the same tactic Trump and his allies in the conservative media (Fox) are using. Because some illegal Hispanic immigrants commit heinous crimes in our country we should drive them all out and prevent any of them from coming in in the future because of what might happen. Thus, “Is it worth the risk?”. One could apply that to any immigrant – German, Spanish, Japanese, etc. But we won’t unless we despise the group enough.

  • Europeans don’t know how to do immigration. Most have no real naturalization policies and create multi generational slums of unenfranchised native born people. A perfect recipe for radicalization. They make it easy for terrorists to operate. The squander the most useful resource for fighting terrorists. People who have a,stake in keeping the he country functioning.

    Legal immigration exists for a reason. Many of its rules lack coherence or are subject to contradictory purposes. Worse still is the lack of administrative support needed to keep things functioning sanely. People like you always refer to legal immigration but they never bother to understand how it works or where it doesn’t. Making your opinion on such matters less than useless.

    Your whole argument relies on completely unsubstantiated fears, bigoted generalizations and a boneheaded take on risk management. In the grand scheme of things saving tens of thousands of lives is far more important than worrying about infinitesimally remote phantom worries. Take your “I’m worried for Americans” nonsense excuse and shove it somewhere painful. It’s phony. You are just looking for excuses to demonize people. Worse still, your attitudes enable terrorists, not combat them.

  • Those arguments are used against any large immigrant wave and refugee group. It has always been based on panic and prejudices. History has shown the critics were always wrong on the subject.

    If you want to see how it played put before, look up stories about the Mariel Boatlift. This caused actual mayhem, a huge spike in murder and organized criminal activity (a far more damaging result than random terror acts). If you see stories about it now, you see people remembering it fondly and talking about how the “Marielitos” have fully integrated into the society.

  • “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by this some have entertained angels without knowing it.”

    I agree with this admonition to show hospitality to the stranger,the same way that the Hebrew Scriptures admonish the Jewish people to do the same. To me that’s a beautiful picture of how God wishes to break down the walls between people and rule their hearts by love instead of the human default to suspicion and separation.

    However, during that time the religious world hadn’t even considered the possibility that “the stranger” might be a criminal who illegally the boundaries of a wealthier country continue to continue committing crimes because crime pays much more handsomely there than it does in the poor country from whence they came! Neither did religious leaders of that day have to worry that the stranger in their midst might be a terrorist, bent on killing as many people as possible out of allegiance to their twisted views of their god’s mandate “to kill the infidel!” Neither lightening-fast communication via the internet and social media, nor miniturized explosives that could be worn as a garment, had yet been invented!

    Today we’re indeed living in a much different world, in much different times! A nation’s concern for the security of its citizens now has to be paramount! Christ has come into the world to transform individuals by Grace, so the propagation of the Gospel message now forms the heart of the Christian faith, so our welcome of the stranger must be secondary. The Holy Spirit has also come into the world to guide our choices so we can discern which of the strangers in our midst should receive our loving welcome, versus the ones who would kill us because of their political and religious beliefs!

  • The problem with your concern is that statistics simply do not support the fear that in the American context that terrorists pose a threat from within the immigrant community. I refer you to documentation in sources like Foreign Affairs: We can balance concerns for safety with care for others, but only when we view the security issues in correct proportionality. I would also add, given your statement about “god’s mandate ‘to kill the infidel!'”, that scientific studies indicate that religion is not the causal factor in terrorist actions.

    So we should not allow fear to overcome our extension of hospitality for the other, and to shape our attitudes and emotions from love of neighbor to a dehumanizing stance where we care more for “our team” than the other.

    Finally, I am concerned when we Christians put so much emphasis on preaching the gospel and conversion that we lose sight of other *equally important* parts of the Christian life, such as welcoming the stranger and extending hospitality, practices that were central to the practice of the Christians in the first two centuries of the church. All should receive our love and care, as Jesus said we were to love neighbor *and* enemy.

  • We have to be right every time, but the terrorists only need to be right just once, in order to kill hundreds of people! In our relations with the stranger, Christ did not command us to be careless and stupid!

  • Your comments didn’t interact with the substance of what I said at all. Nowhere did I argue that we should be careless or that we should not find a balance between security concerns and care for the stranger. If you want to respond in the future and are interested in my interaction, please try to do so in ways that interact with rather than reacting to my comments.

  • Interesting article.
    I have a question for you. I.e., the author.
    Since you’re using the bible to promote the disregarding of laws, in support of immigration, have you actually read the entire set of laws in the bible on this issue?
    According to Exodus 12:49, Numbers 15:15-16, and Leviticus 24:22, immigrants are to adhere to the same laws as natural citizens.
    Then, according to Romans 13:1-7, as followers of Jesus, we’re to adhere to the laws of the nation wherein we live.
    According to the 8 U.S.C. s1182, the government is responsible for ensuring that certain people, who have criminal, terrorist, and other illegal ties be restricted from entering our nation.

    While I understand that you feel justified in ignoring the laws which you find unjust, or inconvenient, please look very closely at these.

    Furthermore, Ruth, was the daughter in law to an Hebrew woman, and had abandoned her culture, her laws, her family gods, and society, adhering to the laws of Israel. So, in all due consideration, she’s not a good example for your cause. You actually demonstrate the importance of the need for immigrants to do likewise.

    The issue is not that the immigrants coming here are undocumented.
    It’s that they are here illegally.
    Not one single believer I know is opposed to immigration into the United States of America.
    All my ancestors came here legally. They followed the laws set forth in our Constitution, and the u.s.code.
    Indeed, my liberty is entirely contingent on my adhering to the laws of the city, county, state, and United States of America, wherein I live.

    Such who wish to migrate here are more than welcome.
    Let them do so legally, just like millions of people before them.
    Do not dishonor yourself, or them by making it about documents.
    It’s about law.
    It always has been, and always will be.

  • Are you claiming all laws are just, humane or involve penalties which are fair and proportional? That there is no duty to resist or change those laws which aren’t? Of course you would never do or say that, except when it comes to immigration. Ignorance makes for arrogance here.

    It is far easy to take an arrogant and harsh take on those laws than to look at the people affected by it. You just assume immigration laws are the same as criminal laws. They aren’t. I doubt you care in the remotest about the fundamental differences.

    Also more likely than not, your ancestors had far fewer barriers to entry as we do now. If we had the same immigration system as,back then, these people would not be illegal aliens.

    “The Law is the Law’ is only a sane and proper argument in dictatorships and Judge Dredd comics.

  • You are simply wrong.

    But I’m sure your self-important elitists values are a great comfort to the families who are once again grieving the loss of loved ones to a radicalized Islamic terrorist.

    Once again, my opinion is informed by years of empirical experience with Muslims of many flavors. The risk is far greater than you are willing to acknowledge because you are blinded by the way you want the world to be.

  • Recent history is full of repeated attacks with people hurt, maimed and killed in the west by radicalized Islamic terrorists.

    After we first heard the attack in London, do you think anyone was really surprised to hear it was a radicalized Muslim?

    How many American lives are you two willing to sacrifice for open reception of migrants from Islamic tribal areas known to spawn radicalization? One? Ten? A hundred? A thousand?

    Whose lives are you willing to risk? Your neighbors? Your friends? Your spouse? Your children? Or just someone else’s friend, spouse, or child?

    You are right in that it is unlikely you will ever be a victim of Islamic terror. So its OK with you as long as it is someone else?

  • Any stats on terrorist attacks by refugees? Of course not. You also assume every Muslim is somehow a terrorist as well.

    Whose lives are really at risk here? The refugees who are being turned back.

    Be honest here. Just advocate that we execute refugees at our borders. If you had a spine you would really say, “if we don’t kill these women and children now, we may perish!”
    It’s what you want to say.

    “How many American lives are you two willing to sacrifice for open reception of migrants from Islamic tribal areas known to spawn radicalization? One? Ten? A hundred? A thousand?”

    The same number we sacrificed to let in Vietnamese boat people, Iranians in ’79, Marielitos and Refusniks. We let in people coming from some of the most backward crapholes in the world. Sometimes even the people coming from prisons. Bigots like you make the same arguments with every refugee wave. History has always proven people like you wrong. Worse still people like you already have blood on your hands. The blood of people murdered when they are thrown back to the evil regimes they fled.

    You trade real lives for fictional concerns. You are reprehensible.

  • Three paragraphs of “nyuh-huh”.

    If you knew what you were talking about, then why is your argument based on campaign points made by the ignorant son of the president?
    You are simply looking for excuses to attack real people to allegedly protect hypothetical ones. Irrational ignorant garbage.

  • Consider the Cyrprian Christians and their actions during a devastating plague – the Romans were not terrorists, but they were people dying (or dead) from a highly virulent disease. From a personal safety/personal security perspective there was no difference.

  • Linda, Darlin’ you’re ‘way out in the weeks here! Nothingyou say here is relevant to the discussion of this article!

  • John W., how about this? How about not you ceasing to respond to any of my comments, and I’ll start ignoring your comments–starting right now!

    Ever since college, I’ve tended to put lots of distance between myself and individuals like you–pedantic folks with a big need to instruct others, and your very tiring need to always be RIGHT! Frankly, that’s really boring!

  • I can see you aren’t interested in directly addressing the issues or responding to any specifics. Plus you are disrespectful. So I’ll move on to other more productive conversations. Thanks for ignoring me from now on!

  • Slavery was legal. The Highland Clearances were legal. Jim Crow was legal. The Holocaust was legal. There is a moral duty to disobey unjust laws, as Socrates, Ghandi, and Martin Luther King (among others) have taught us.

  • Spuddle….

    What problem with the United States of America’s immigration laws are you having?
    From what I understand, they’re the best immigration laws on planet earth. Just about every other nation on earth either prevents immigrants, throws them out, or in jail, or just blows off their laws, and results in the chaos of Europe.
    Speaking with immigrants over the years, I’ve never once heard them complain about it. All of the ones I’ve heard from are ecstatic to become American citizens.
    In fact, before you tell me anything more. Find a new immigrant who became an American citizen, and talk with them at length. Ask them what it means to them.
    Afterwards, if you still have a problem, move to another nation. Become an immigrant there, and do it illegally.

  • Great. Let’s go back to wwii nazi Germany and murder everyone who is on the legal to murder list.
    Jews, gays, disabled, and whoever else was on it.
    What’s your point ?
    If you really want to compare immigration laws to these other laws, please move to Europe and then explain to us how that’s working for you.

  • Am I having? It’s nothing personal at all. There are a ton of issues with it. There is a ton of deflection on your part towards understanding what they are and what problems there are with them. We do immigration best, but our system doesn’t work well at all. It is “kingdom of the blind” territory.

    Our work visa system enables and encourages exploitation of skilled labor and actually contributes towards about 20-25% of our illegal alien population unnecessarily.

    Proportionality and due process are lacking in them. Lack of proper administrative funding and staffing means visa backlog become horrific for people from some countries.

    “Find a new immigrant.” I know plenty of them. Some even are family. None of them can paint the rosy picture of the immigration system you can. They have seen it first hand. You not only haven’t, you seem to revel in your ignorance of it.

  • So you don’t want to address the problems of our immigration laws. As long as they are better than other countries they are perfect and beyond criticism. Ignorance personified

  • So far you haven’t shown me any problems with the immigration laws of the United States of America.
    You’ve only said the following.

    “Slavery was legal. The Highland Clearances were legal. Jim Crow was legal. The Holocaust was legal. There is a moral duty to disobey unjust laws, as Socrates, Ghandi, and Martin Luther King (among others) have taught us.”

    I don’t see any mention of the problems of immigration laws.
    So, how about you delineate them for me.
    Explain the problems with the immigration laws.
    Thank you.

  • One of the last of the scriptural prophets — Malachi — couldn’t be clearer: “I (Yahweh) will be swift to bear witness … against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien, and do not fear me, says Yahweh of hosts” (3:5). AMEN

  • “You’ve only said the following.”

    You replied to the wrong poster. I didn’t say that. Please revise your response.

  • Galatians 6:10 – English Standard Version

    So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.

  • That is a very naive view of the ancient world. It was certainly a risk then to show hospitality to “the stranger.” Why else would scripture need to admonish people to be sure and show it? You’d best go back and study some history.

  • There are many major differences between “the ancient world” and the world we now live in times. Back in history “the stranger” was highly unlikely to arrive at your place with bearing concealed weapons or explosives. To confront and slay anyone, required a face-to-face encounter with another who might be stronger and better armed. Today terrorists can kill via remote control,and blow up dozens of unsuspecting people at large gatherings.

    I don’t imagine that the ancient writers of the scriptures could even imagine the times we live in now. Offering hospitality to the stranger shouldn’t a suicide pact!

  • “This carries a special obligation for those who would later claim to be “other Christs,” those who have chosen to carry on the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. ” lol
    There is only one Christ – anyone following His ministry is a follower, not a “Christ.”
    This speaks of the Christ, and He is singular

    Isaiah 9:6 – New International Version

    For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”

    The author seems to have a difficult time with scripture.

  • Ann, please study what’s going on with ISIS and the number of deaths they’ve either committed or inspired in the US, France, Britain and Germany. I’ll bet that nothing you’ve EVER studied in history ever even hinted at the kind of carnage that today’s terrorists are capable of.

  • Wait……I thought the Bible was for all races. So why are white nations only taking in and caring for so called “refugees”? Is the bible then only for the white race? How come the Jews don’t demand China houses refugees in the “ghost cities”?

  • If you want to study statistics please tell us how many Syrian refugees have committed terrorist acts on behalf of ISIS?

    As for carnage, if you were going to compare numbers of deaths here, or in Europe, terrorism ranks very low in frequency and severity compared to organized crime (which is actually more plausibly and statistically closely attributable to refugee waves).

    All you have is panic, stereotype and deliberate distancing from the facts at hand to make your argument.

    We and other countries have a long and well documented history of being accessories to tens of thousands of murders by turning away refugees seeking help. But their lives don’t matter. Those are real people. Hypothetical people are more important.

  • Sorry, I see it stemming from the same call. Doing so carried a very real risk of death. There was no tolerance for Christians in Rome until almost a century later. (But of course there was no New Testament to quiblle about meaning either as to whether Christians should care for others who represented the enemy and possible death:) )

  • Fr. Karban did a stellar job in providing exegesis of the biblical texts associated with his theme regarding the expected treatment of some of the most vulnerable in our midst, including the “resident alien.” Based on the comments in response, many apparently did not like what they heard and the challenge presented. That is nothing new.