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Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Immigration and the Bible (4)

In the last post we looked in detail at the primary rationale for ancient Israel to love immigrants among them as themselves and treat them with equality: "Because you were immigrants in Egypt.  I am the LORD your God" (Lev. 19:34).  You may have missed it—many have—but in the New Testament we have the very same basis for action.
So as you come to [Jesus], a living stone rejected by men but chosen and priceless in God's sight, you yourselves, as living stones, are built up as a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood and to offer spiritual sacrifices that are acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. . . . But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of his own, so that you may proclaim the virtues of the one who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.  You once were not a people, but now you are God's people.  You were shown no mercy, but now you have received mercy.  Dear friends I urge you as immigrants and exiles to keep away from fleshly desires that do battle against the soul, and maintain good conduct among the non-Christians, so that though they now malign you as wrongdoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God when he appears [1 Pet. 2:4-5, 9-12].
Some technical notes before proceeding on.  First, Peter quotes the Old Testament extensively (and the Lord Jesus once) in this passage (including the verses I omitted).  Click any of the links above to see where he is quoting from.  Second, the word I rendered "immigrants" (NET, "foreigners") is the plural of the Greek word pároikos, a word that generically meant "neighbor" but was also used as a technical term for a long-term resident foreigner.  Pároikos was the preferred word employed to translate gēr in the Septuagint, the ancient Greek version of the Old Testament.  I rendered it "immigrants" here for the sake of consistency with the Old Testament Scriptures I've been quoting in recent posts.

In case you missed that, Peter calls his readers immigrants—people who dwell long-term outside their native land in a foreign culture with strange customs and laws.  Of course they weren't immigrants in the ordinary sense.  But Peter calls them "those temporarily residing abroad (in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, the province of Asia, and Bithynia)" because they were "chosen according to the foreknowledge of our God and Father by being set apart by the Spirit for obedience and for sprinkling with Christ's blood" (1 Pet. 1:1-2).  When the Triune God saved them through the choice of the Father, the cleansing of the Son, and the sanctification of the Holy Spirit, God gave them a new identity as citizens of a different place—heaven under the kingdom of God.  As Paul says likewise, "But our citizenship is in heaven—and we also await a savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ" (Phil. 3:20)—"savior" and "lord" being titles frequently applied to the Roman emperor but applied to our real emperor instead.

Peter uses the metaphor of the immigrant experience to explain to his readers why they are suffering so much persecution at the hands of the dominant culture.  He says, God has called us individuals who had nothing to do with each other and made us into one people, his people, for his purpose.  Jesus is the King of our home country, and we are his subjects.  Jesus was maligned, mistreated, and rejected by the people of this country we live in even though God had chosen him.  Naturally the people around us will do the same to us.  Nevertheless, we are required while we live here in a foreign land, this sinful world, to make our true country our highest joy.  We must give our first allegiance to the King of our true country even as we seek the peace of this country in which we live.  We must live according to the laws and culture and values of our own people even as we live among these people who live entirely differently.  We must never fall into the temptation to assimilate into their society, because we must keep ourselves ready to return to our homeland when, in Jesus' second coming, our homeland returns to us.

At Sinai God told Israel, "You must not oppress an immigrant, since you know the life of an immigrant, because you were immigrants in the land of Egypt" (Ex. 23:9).  We know the life of an immigrant too, because we also live in a land that is not our own as foreigners who don't belong here, people from an entirely different culture, values, and set of allegiances (and even language).  We can naturally sympathize with the immigrant to America, because we are immigrants here too.

Or can we?

The Christians to whom Peter wrote would not recognize the life we Christians are privileged to live in America in 2010.  They lived in a society in which acts of honor to false gods were so routine, ordinary, and pervasive that the only way to avoid them was to retreat from common social life altogether.  Many Christians did just that, and those who did not still kept as much distance from these offensive practices as they could.  The surrounding culture saw the Christians as strange and anti-social—they must hate people!  And their refusal to placate the gods with ritual worship made them atheists who didn't care if the gods sent famine or disaster or plague on civilization.  And worshiping a man who was crucified just a few years ago as if he was a god? . . . The list goes on and on.  The Christians really were a separate group.  (Perhaps we could compare them to Amish communities and Hasidic Jewish enclaves in America today, both groups being people among us but seemingly not really of us, living according to their own "strange" values and culture.)

By contrast, American Christians live in the country that was probably more shaped by biblical Christianity in its social and cultural substructure than any other nation in history.  We share many values, priorities, and assumptions with totally secular fellow citizens without even noticing because those values stem from our Christian-influenced heritage.  We really are at home here.  So the fact that we don't feel like strangers in a strange land, the fact that we feel like regular Americans, is partly a good thing, the result of the goodness and mercy of God upon our land.

And yet, does it concern you as much as it concerns me how at home we are?  When Christians look at immigrants as intruders, doesn't that suggest that we are far too comfortable in the land of our exile, that we actually think this land is our land?  Maybe we don't sympathize with the foreigner because we have little to no consciousness of being foreigners ourselves.  And frighteningly, maybe we aren't.  Maybe Christians' lack of sympathy toward immigrants in the flesh isn't just an indictment of our lovelessness but of our worldliness.

Now, even writing the word "worldliness," I recoil inside.  Because there is a rich tradition in the Church for 2,000 years of interpreting the concept of worldliness to apply to specific actions in a specific cultural setting (for example, dancing), and then that interpretation becomes a Thing Unto Itself, a law that is used as a measure of whether or not someone is appropriately holy.  The law then becomes a human tradition which is confused with and eventually trumps the word of God.  I hate that approach to worldliness, and Jesus hates it more (and is not tempted to do it, unlike me).

But I can't deny that the Bible talks extensively about worldliness.  "Adulterers, do you not know that friendship with the world means hostility toward God?  So whoever decides to be the world's friend makes himself God's enemy" (Jas. 4:4).  But don't we fit in so easily, so often, so well?  Here's a little example that gets me.  On occasion I'll be reading my Bible or some sort of Christian literature in the evening, and then I'll walk into a room where the TV is on, and I'll be a bit sickened and turned off by the nature of what is presented as funny, because it treats sinfulness with such flippancy.  But that's not the part that bothers me.  What bothers me is that most of the time that I walk by the TV, I haven't just been reading Christian material, and the content doesn't turn me off at all.  I'm so acclimated to it, I don't even notice it.

But what if I was suddenly entirely de-acclimated to it—like jumping from a sauna into an icy fjord?  How would I respond?  It would probably be like extreme vertigo or a brutal psychological assault like brainwashing.  I would probably be sickened beyond imagining, and I would want to get away from it as far as possible.  I might sit on a rock in the desert or found a monastery.  But then if God touched my heart, I might feel compassion for those still in the nauseating mess and reestablish contact to save them even if what I have to smell in their presence is repulsive.

But if I did all those things, what would other people think of me?  Probably a holier-than-thou, goody-two-shoes, stick-up-his-you-know-what before the words got a lot nastier.  I'd be a freak to them, a wacko, a deviant, an alien, a total misfit, someone who doesn't belong in this culture, who isn't one of us.  People would mock me and wouldn't want to get too close to me, even good, patronizing people who are trying to be understanding.  And then, maybe then, I might have an idea what it's like to be an unassimilated immigrant in a foreign land.  And then I might have compassion on that kind of immigrant too and love him as myself.  And then I might be honoring to the God who chose me to come out of Babylon and be separate.

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