Biblical Politics

The latest in a long tradition of US Presidents citing Jewish or Christian scripture in political rhetoric was included in President Obama's address to the nation on Thu Nov 20. He said:
ABC News photo
"Scripture tells us that we shall not oppress a stranger, for we know the heart of a stranger -- we were strangers once, too. My fellow Ameicans, we are and always will be a nation of immigrants. We were strangers once, too."
Various commentators were critical. (The following four were cited in a Huffington Post article HERE):
"So there, the president of the United States last night in the Cross Hall at the White House invoking scriptures which I believe had to do with feeding the poor and the hungry and nothing to do with visas." (Steve Doocy of Fox & Friends)

"It's repugnant, for this guy specifically, the president who spent his career defending late-term abortion, among other things, lecturing us on Christian faith? That's too much. That is too much. This is the Christian left at work, and it's repugnant. To quote scripture? That is totally out of bounds" (Tucker Carlson)

"To guilt someone into [supporting immigration reform], that's not what the scholars behind the Bible would interpret as proper use." (Elisabeth Hasselbeck)

"I always thought that Scripture was eternal and unchanging, but apparently, now that Obama is President, Scripture gets rewritten more often than Bill Cosby's Wikipedia entry." (Former Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee)
The President, however, was not "re-writing" scripture. He cited it accurately and in context: that is, if moral principles from the Ancient Near East 3,000 years ever have relevance to situations today, then this one pretty directly applies.

There is, in fact, a long and deep theological grounding for for the kind of action our President announced on Nov 20. The Bible doesn't address the extent of presidential authority for executive orders allowed by the US Constitution. Nor, in this post, will I. The Bible is, however, pretty clear about an obligation to justice for immigrants. It's a point made, in fact, repeatedly:
“You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 22:21)

“You shall not oppress a resident alien; you know the heart of an alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 23:9)

“When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.” (Leviticus 19:33)
(From the NRSV. The term translated here as "alien" is variously rendered in other translations as "foreigner," "sojourner," "stranger," and "foreign resident.")

The theological basis of this commandment is crucial. The land belongs to God, not to the Israelites whom God allows to settle and use it. God tells them:
“The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants.” (Leviticus 25:23)
The authors, Hebrews writing under the conditions of the Babylonian captivity, were making the point that there is no true ownership of land – the land and the trees and the water under it and flowing over it – belong to the earth, belong to all life, not to me or you. We're all just aliens and tenants here.

If the spiritual is whatever lifts us out of “I, me, mine,” lifts us out of protective fear into a spacious perception of abundance -- lifts us out of any “we, us, ours” that doesn’t include all sentient beings, then recognizing that all of the Earth belongs to all of life is a spiritual act. I believe that’s what the Hebrew people were really saying, in their own way. The moral and emotional truth of “the land is mine, saith the Lord, with me you are but aliens and tenants,” is that the Earth is not truly ours.

You may have deed and title to your house and a plot of land, and the law may say that you own it – but this is a legal fiction. For the squirrels, finches, juncos, and various other assorted wildlife who pass through your yard, that land is as much theirs as yours. The spiritual truth, articulated in the second and third books of the Bible, is that all of the Earth belongs to all of life, a.k.a. God.

There is a fear and a hatred in the land. As people of faith, we are called to stand against it, to stand on the side of love, to know and to renounce our unjust privilege in the name of the much greater rewards of connection and solidarity and siblinghood. Our national heart is closing against itself, but the scriptural resources of our Jewish and Christian heritage enjoin us to hospitality.

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