After the conclusion of the government shutdown, President Obama announced his intention to pivot to the vitally important issue of immigration. For people of faith, support for comprehensive immigration reform should be a no-brainer. For the three Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity and Islam), hospitality to the stranger and alien among us is embedded deep in our DNA. In the Middle East, birthplace of all three religions which claim Abraham as their common ancestor, hospitality to the stranger was not just a social nicety. It often meant the difference between life and death in a harsh and threatening climate which often required the offer of hospitality for survival.
Vestiges of this ancient moral code exist today. When traveling in the Sinai desert some years ago, coming upon small groupings of Bedouins in the desert, I was struck by their insistent offer of hospitality. Stumbling upon these modern day nomads, nothing would have it but we sit down and have tea and water with our “hosts” to refresh us during our journey across the desert. This was true even though those offering hospitality had very little in the way of material possessions. What they could offer – the gift of water and tea in a climate that literally sucks the moisture from one’s body – was offered with grace and genuine compassion for the traveling stranger, no questions asked. What I quickly learned was that to decline such hospitality, even in light of their meager circumstances, was an offensive affront to this ancient moral code.
Embedded in the psyche of Jewish culture and history is this ancient directive from Yahweh:
When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord and your God. Leviticus 19:33-34
Jews were constantly reminded by their God that they too were once strangers in a strange land, and showing hospitality to strangers was a way of reminding themselves that they too had once been vulnerable and had been shown mercy and hospitality by God. In turn, and in thanksgiving for God’s deliverance, they were to show the same hospitality to aliens in their own land.
The current debate over immigration reform is a contentious one. Oddly enough, opponents who use faith-based arguments to justify their opposition to immigration reform which includes a pathway to citizenship may themselves espouse Jewish, Christian or Muslim faith. It is hard to square such opposition with the ancient principles of hospitality and welcome inherent in those expressions of faith.
Christians, of course, know of Jesus’ insistence that, when considering our treatment of the most vulnerable in our midst, we must reach out in love, compassion and welcome:
“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, 36I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”37Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” 40And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Matthew 25:35-40
For Muslims, a similar ethic of hospitality applies:
The Qur’an teaches that believers should “serve God…and do good to…orphans, those in need, neighbors who are near, neighbors who are strangers, the companion by your side, the wayfarer that you meet, [and those who have nothing]. 4:36
Comprehensive immigration reform, at least for people of Abrahamic faith, should be a no-brainer. While the working out of a pathway to citizenship is a complicated matter, with several possible solutions and timelines, there should be no question in the minds and hearts of those who claim Abrahamic religious convictions that such a welcoming of the stranger should be part of the solution. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “We may have all come on different ships, but we’re in the same boat now.” At the end of the day, we Americans are all immigrants or descendants of immigrants who, at some point in the past, were welcomed to these shores and given citizenship. People of faith, above all, should know that we owe nothing less than such a welcome to today’s immigrants, refugees and undocumented workers.
Image courtesy of Korean Resource Center.