A Feature Review of
Jesus, King of Strangers: What the Bible Really Says About Immigration
Reviewed by Ryan Meek[printfriendly] With a growing population of migrants housed in deplorable conditions at our southern border, Mark Hamilton offers the church a little “emergency scholarship” on immigration in the Bible. Jesus, King of Strangers: What the Bible Really Says About Immigration is a survey of the theological implication migration has upon identity within Scripture. Hamilton provides an invaluable tool, not only for church leaders but for anyone who would like to move past a defensive posture towards the stranger. The tone is set by this statement, “The lack of empathy for vulnerable people outside our sphere of family and friends threatens the identity of our churches as explicitly Christian communities” (3).
A reimagining of Abraham and Sarah’s trio of migration stories, as told by the Book of Genesis, begins the theological quest for the identity of the patriarchs, Israelites, and future migrants. The juxtaposition of these stories, along with the three stories of God covenanting with Abraham, is deeply ingrained in the memory of Abraham’s people and their descendants. Some scholars would say that these three stories are simply retellings to emphasize their importance. Hamilton says Abraham, as the only mouthpiece for God at this point in the story, must embody “the justice [righteousness] that he seeks…through collaboration with others” (24). In other words, the identity (read righteousness) of Abraham’s descendants will be tied to their relationship with God and neighboring peoples, regardless of their role as migrant or host of migrants. This dual nature is further captured and deepened in the stories of exodus, exile, and the prophetic voices surrounding those events.
The meat of this book is spent discussing the effects of exile and how the Israelites view the Exodus through the lens of being carried off into exile. Hamilton makes it clear humans strive to make sense of our world by looking at the weighty events of the past. Just think of slogans that pepper the history of our relatively young republic such as, “Don’t tread on me,” or “Give me liberty or give me death.” These slogans help give us a sense of identity surrounding the perceived values of the American Revolution. Likewise, the dispersed nation of Israel looked to their forefathers to make sense of the oppression they experienced while in exile. A small sampling will relay some of Hamilton’s main points.
Amos, the Judahite prophet whose writings probably saw the opening stages of destruction of the Northern Kingdom, points out the irony of “forgetfulness in the service of self-justification” (51). In the opening lines, Amos reminds the Israelites of other nearby nations that were punished by God for transgressions they were now guilty of themselves.
Overall, Amos leaves more to his audiences’ imagination and memory which leads the modern reader to several unspecified moral arguments: “(1) Since Yahweh saved Israel from oppression, Israel should not play themselves off against each other; (2) oppression of the vulnerable should be ‘foreign’ to Israel; (3) the displacement of the Amorites shows the ultimate end of oppressive people; (4) Yahweh’s willingness to dislocate peoples depends on their behavior, not some preexisting relationship since election does not give Israel a free pass” (50). Because Amos is not explicit, we can at least be confident that Israel has forgotten the implications of the exodus. We can move to other texts that seek to cure Israel of their collective forgetfulness; the poetry found in Psalms.
Throughout Psalms we find poems that point worshiping Israelites back to the same repeated story: God rescues Israel from oppression and Israel responds with a callousness to the suffering of others and idolatry. Hamilton directs us to Psalm 78 specifically, in which Yahweh’s goodness is contrasted with Israel’s repeated ingratitude. “Psalm 78 provides the linkage missing in Amos by asserting that the contrast between divine mercy and human intransigence goes back to the beginning of Israel’s history” (53). Yet, the psalm points to a future hope that Israel, Yahweh’s chosen people, may still find rest with their Creator.
Rest is understood by the prophet Jeremiah to be a peaceful frame of mind known as shalom. Regardless of their geographic location or distance from the Temple, Jeremiah calls upon the nation of Israel to find this peaceful place. The concept of shalom taught the Israelites several lessons about their relationship to God and others. First, “Israel’s experience of exile taught it the possibilities of God’s presence everywhere” (107). Second, “A theological understanding of diaspora that brought about the nature of communal identity to the fore” (107). Third, “No one should accept unquestioningly the state’s definition of the value of the person” (107).
Again, Hamilton is emphasizing the importance of identity as related to God and other people. Now, he is adding how a group of people should relate to the state by saying the state cannot and should not be allowed to place value on people or a group of people. Throughout history, when the powerful begin to raise defenses against the vulnerable, we see the devaluation of God’s people. Taken further, those vulnerable to the state’s whims will experience oppression.
We are then reminded of the context of first-century Roman Palestine, the very setting of the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. At this point in history, we see a “multicultural state based on military power” (125). This is the setting of the earliest Christian communities. Many of these communities have heard the Gospel of Jesus through the movement of information within the diaspora; they were Jewish Christians.
Jesus’s teachings often harken back to the exodus, exile, and the prophets. He certainly did not possess the privileges of Roman citizenship nor was he treated as an insider by the powerful religious figures of the Temple. “Jesus inverts the relationship between strength and weakness, calling his disciples to do the same” (132). This inversion shows his disciples and future disciples that we should not fear worldly political power or allow that power to “define his or her stance on the world” (132).
It is within this context that the Apostle Paul, a Jewish man, tells the church at Philippi that their “citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ” (Philippians 3:20, NRSV). Again, we are being taught that human value in this world does not come from the state but God. In other words, Jesus’s work on the cross has united people, regardless of ethnicity, and reconciled them to God.
So what now, knowing what we know about the Hebrew Scriptures and the teaching of Jesus and Paul? We have an ongoing immigration crisis at our southern border which happens to reveal an identity crisis within the Christian church. Do we allow the state to determine the value of vulnerable people in need and use rhetoric that stokes fear? Or, do we follow Jesus and the prophets to allow our God-given identity to see the God-given identity in the vulnerable?
I will leave you with Hamilton’s own words that reveal the lesson. “We celebrate a rule of law that deals realistically, not punitively with the needs of immigrants and their employers and social networks in both countries of origin and host nations. And we use our resources to aid refugees as they find new homes” (144).
Ryan Meek is active in his church in Greenwood, Indiana, teaching Bible studies and blended family courses with his wife, Heather. He holds a bachelor's in Biblical Studies and currently attends Wesley Seminary at Indiana Wesleyan University.