Thanksgiving, Christian Hospitality, and Immigrants

Growing up, my parents sought to instill in my sister and me an appreciation for our Native American heritage.  Now that my husband and I have started a family of our own, I am continuing the tradition.  Thanksgiving seems to be an especially appropriate time to celebrate our heritage: What better way to recall the feast of 1621, when the Pilgrims celebrated their first successful harvest after being taught how to not die of starvation by the Wampanoag Indians, than to extend hospitality to my in-laws in the form of Indian-inspired fare?

Had it not been for the hospitality of the Wampanoag toward these sickly, strange looking, and inept foreigners who landed on their shores, there would have been no “first Thanksgiving” to celebrate.  Darwinism was thwarted and the Pilgrims were enabled to persevere in their pursuit of a better, freer life.

And so Thanksgiving is an opportune time for all of us to reflect on our origins and the people without whose care and hospitality we might not be where we are today.  As Christians, though, it is not enough merely to reflect and verbally express thanks for what we have received, but we must also extend to others the same hospitality which we have be shown by God through Jesus Christ.

As John Piper explains, Christian hospitality is offered to those who wouldn’t normally be its recipients, to those outside our normal circle of friends and family.  The reason Christians must be always practicing hospitality is because we received God’s hospitality through the death of Christ  “while we were still sinners” and doing so reflects God’s glory and serves to further extend his hospitality through us.

Piper writes:

Grace is the hospitality of God to welcome sinners not because of their goodness but because of his glory. If God chose not to magnify the glory of his own self-sufficiency, and instead to enrich himself by looking for talented and virtuous housemates, there would be no grace in the world, and no hospitality, and no salvation. We owe our eternal life to grace, and grace is God’s disposition to glorify his freedom and power and wealth by showing hospitality to sinners.

I’ll be honest: I’m not good at hospitality.  It’s not one of my gifts.  I am extremely introverted and while I like people, I like keeping them at a distance.  However, I am not going to use my “nature” as an excuse.  An unregenerate, cynical me might say, “I don’t like people because they can’t be trusted, so I’m not letting anyone in.”  But now that I know Christ’s mercy and have an idea of what is expected of me, I recognize that this is my “nature” because I am sinful, and it is something I must work and pray to overcome.

Without an outlet for God’s hospitality, we become like the Dead Sea.  It is not something we can keep for ourselves.  Only by freely giving it away will it continue to flow to us and through us.  It must necessarily be offered toward outsiders, toward strangers and foreigners, and toward the poor in spirit.  This is why we serve the poor and the homeless, why we go on missions trips, and why we also must extend this hospitality toward immigrants with no concern for their legal status.

This is why Christians cannot be nationalists.  If your primary identity is with Christ, then you cannot call for the indiscriminate deportation of all “illegal” immigrants.

Remember Where You Came From

Scripture is full of instructions on how the people of God are to treat foreigners. The Hebrew Bible contains several reminders that the Israelites were once foreigners in Egypt and would be still, were it not for God’s grace.  Now, God tells them, true justice requires extending hospitality toward immigrants.

For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe,  who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing.  You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. (Deuteronomy 10:17-19, NRSV)

This is what the Lord Almighty said: ‘Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another.  Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor. Do not plot evil against each other.’ (Zechariah 7:9-10, NIV)

There are many more examples from the Hebrew Bible besides the two I have provided.  In the New Testament, Christians are similarly reminded that they were once strangers to God, utterly sinful (lawbreakers!) and undeserving of his hospitality.  We didn’t first get a green card and take the Heavenly Kingdom citizenship test before God extended his hospitality toward us.

Gentiles especially must remember that they were also once “aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.”

But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.  For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.  He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it.  So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near;  for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father.  So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God,  built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone.  In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God. (Ephesians 2:11-22, NRSV)

Although we are now no longer strangers to God, we have become strangers to the world.  We are pilgrims in this world in search of our heavenly homeland, which has become ours through God’s generous gift of hospitality (Hebrews 11:13-16).  And so we are instructed that we, too, must extend hospitality to strangers (Matthew 25: 34-46; Hebrews 13:2; Romans 12:13).

Just as it is important for us as Christians to remember our past as foreigners to God and his kingdom when considering how we ought to treat foreigners among us, it is also important to remember our ethnic heritage and past in this country.  Every caucasian in this country is the descendant of people who chose to leave their homeland in search of a better life.  And when you consider the ruthless acquisition of land and all 500+ broken treaties with the Native Americans, America itself is a nation of “illegal immigrants.”  Simply because the lawbreaking, unjust agent happens to be the government doesn’t magically make those acts legal and just, even if it absolves itself of any wrongdoing.  If you’re a Christian, you should be able to recognize that there is a higher law to which even the United States government ought to submit.

Add to that irony the Indian Removal Act of 1830, which led to the deportation of the Indians living in the southeast to west of the Mississippi River.  And so the original inhabitants were “legally” forced to leave their own homes and travel hundreds of miles in what became known as the “Trail of Tears,” killing many thousands along the way.  Claiming the moral highground in order to expel people deemed to be inferior is nothing new.  Your government might legalize its own actions, and yet they remain fully “illegal” in the eyes of God.

Natural Rights

As Christians, we must never make the assumption based on Romans 13 that the laws of the land are just laws in God’s sight.  We must strive to understand the will of God so that we may make proper judgments of the laws of men.  Included in this understanding is the concept of natural law and natural rights.  These natural rights are mentioned in The United States Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.

Your ancestors may have been able to twist their own law by determining that Africans and Indians were less human and therefore weren’t endowed with the same inalienable rights from their Creator as the “civilized” Europeans, but you won’t have much luck with that argument today.  In all likelihood, you’ve given your intellectual assent to the notion that all human beings are created equally and possess equal rights.  Otherwise, your pro-life arguments wouldn’t have a leg to stand on.

And yet somehow you haven’t yet come to realize that illegal immigrants also, having been made in the image and likeness of God, possess the same natural and inalienable rights as you.  It makes no difference that you have a constitution that was written to protect these rights.  Each of us, from the greatest to the least, no matter where we live or where we’ve come from, have been granted the same rights by our Creator.

Subsumed under these rights are other natural rights, including the right to move to pursue a better life or to flee persecution.  It is behind the migration of Abram and the family of Israel, behind their escape from Egypt and their relocation to the land God had promised them.  It is behind the voyages of the English separatists,behind the journeys of my own European and Native American ancestors, and even behind my own grandparents’ immigration from Canada to the United States.

It is because of this natural right that, as John Cobin writes, Christians are instructed “to ‘flee’ persecution (Matthew 10:23; 24:16; Mark 13:14; Luke 21:21), as Joseph and Mary did (Matthew 2:13)—along with countless other believers throughout history.”  He continues:

Such obedient fleeing might entail a Christian having to enter another country, perhaps violating the country’s immigration policies. But so what? Christians are remiss if they make the well-being of their country the primary focal point for deciding the veracity of immigration policy rather than the well-being of God’s beloved people.

Human beings all also possess a natural right to their own person, which includes the fruits of our labor.  When we expend our own time and bodily energy to earn money to buy goods or make them ourselves, those things become extensions of our person, just as our own family members are.  And so when you talk about deporting illegal immigrants, you must consider what you are doing to their natural rights over their own person.

Much like the Native Americans who were forcibly removed from their own homes, many of the “illegal immigrants” whom you’re demanding to be deported have lived in the United States for decades as law-abiding, hardworking, college-attending, home-owning members of society.  Their whole lives are here.  Oftentimes, they came here as children and barely remember where they came from.  In many families, the children are citizens who were born here, and you believe it is just to break apart their families to send their illegal parents back where they came from.

To force them to leave their homes and their families where they’ve built their lives might be in line with the laws of this country, but it is a gross violation of the laws of God.  As Joshua told the Israelites, you must choose whom you will serve, and you cannot serve two masters (Joshua 24:15; Matthew 6:24).  If you forsake the laws of God for the laws of your country, you have created an idol for yourself.  Do not think you can conflate the two based on Romans 13; one must always take precedence.

So this Thanksgiving as you gather with your families to express your gratitude for all of your many blessings, remember the hospitality that was shown your ancestors as they left their countries for a new land, without which they might not have survived.  Even more than that, remember the hospitality that you received from God through the death of Jesus Christ, through which you, a citizen of the land of sin and death, were granted citizenship in the kingdom of life.  Then, after you have remembered where you’ve come from and what God asks of you, be the light of the world that you were meant to be and bring glory to God by not letting his hospitality stop with you, but by letting it flow through you to become a blessing for others.