Caring for the aliens within our gates
One of the intriguing aspects of the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament) is the call to care for “the alien who is within your gates.” This phrase or another like it occurs over fifty times just in the first five books of the Bible, which is a remarkable fact indeed. Along with this goes concern and care for the widow and the orphan. These three go together. What’s remarkable about caring for the alien within your gates, however, is that this concept occurs nowhere else in the law codes or injunctions in the Ancient Near East. Not among the Egyptians, not among the Babylonians, not among the Hittites; only in Israel do we find this concern for the alien.
Furthermore, these resident aliens were treated equally by law with those who were ongoing or natural residents. They had the same rights and privileges as those who were naturally within the borders of the nation.
I can hear voices immediately objecting, “What about the bloodthirsty battles that are recorded in the book of Joshua?” What about this notion of a “holy war,” with the spoils destroyed as “devoted to God.” There is no bypassing this aspect of the Bible. These texts have been used in the past to justify apartheid in South Africa and “manifest destiny” in our own United States, with grave consequences for native tribes on this soil. Many scholars today think these notes are an example of hubris and hyperbole, but there is no denying the tragic outcome of taking them literally as a justification for contemporary behavior.
They have to be read in context, however: war was indeed bloodthirsty in that ancient period (is it no longer that way today?), but if you look further, you discover that rape and pillage were not part of the Israelite war code. In fact, the land was not to be burned; there was no “scorched earth policy” in ancient Israel. If an attacked city was willing to make peace, the city would not be burned to the ground – as virtually happened when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem in 70 CE.
To return to the initial point, however, whence do we derive our concern for the aliens within our gates? Ultimately it comes from these Biblical passages and nowhere else. It didn’t come from Babylon, nor can we ascribe it to the Egyptians or Babylonians. It was to be part of Israel’s way of life and faith which, in turn, became part of the faith and life of the Christian movement, since everyone in that movement initially was Jewish.
So then, what should be our position? Should we not show compassion toward those resident aliens who are within our gates? Can we not do something other than condemn those who are “illegal aliens”? Is there no way to declare a form of amnesty that will allow those who are here “illegally” to enter a path leading to nationalized citizenship? These are the questions that haunt many of us today, and we refer back to those Old Testament passages for guidance.
Christians, in particular, should be able to relate to being aliens. We are called that in the first Letter of Peter: we are strangers and pilgrims in whatever land we inhabit. We are always called to live “in, but not of” the world, while at the same time observing the laws of whatever land we occupy. We are never totally at home, which should give us a sense of compassion and welcoming toward those who are literally not “at home” within our borders.
We can rise to that calling in this day and age.