I did a special, ad hoc bible study on the topic of refugees at my parish last week, and, as I prepared, I became more and more convinced that we cannot talk about the scriptural narrative, redemption history, or even the Gospel itself without talking about refugees and hospitality. From the exile of first humans in Genesis 3–4, to the Exodus, to the Exile, to the life of Jesus Christ, to living the sojourn of faith, like Abraham, seeking a “city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God,” being an alien in a new land and seeking a home is at the core of our faith. Whether or not most of us would identify immigrants or refugees, from a scriptural perspective we are all refugees.
This week’s readings speak of refugees and our response to their presence among us. Leviticus 19:1–18 is grounded in the idea that God’s covenanted people are expected to reflect God’s own character: holiness. It has 21 laws, punctuated by seven pronouncements of “I am the LORD you God.” Verses 9–10 offer something that calls for our attention: “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the LORD your God.”
I would like to point out three things. First, the question of whether or not to welcome refugees into the land is a non-starter. Of course, we are to welcome refugees. The passage fails to consider the alternative. Second, the covenanted people of God are to take a portion of the land they are tasked with harvesting and to leave it for the poor and refugee to harvest. Third, God’s people must share their land and resources with the refugee because doing so is a reflection of God’s own character, exhibited in God’s love toward us when we were “aliens” to the covenants of hope. Throughout the Pentateuch, God tells Israel to welcome the refugee and alien because they were once refugees and aliens in Egypt. God cares deeply about refugees and so must we.
Our Leviticus reading ends with the words: “you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.” In the Gospel, Jesus riffs on the Leviticus passage: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.”
It is only when God’s people forget their own identity as sojourners or refugees that we can begin to imagine a world in which it is OK to turn refugees away, returning them to harm’s way. We are to love our neighbors as ourselves. Until we are ready to tell the truth about ourselves, our history, our identity, we are not in a position to love our neighbors as ourselves, because—the truth is—we don’t yet love ourselves truly. And until we are prepared to speak the truth about ourselves and the history of immigration and race in our country, and to love ourselves enough to admit that we are indeed also refugees and immigrants, we are not prepared to act as God’s covenanted people in our own day. Loving our neighbor as ourselves doesn’t mean much if we don’t really love ourselves for all that we truly are.
Almost all of us, with the exception of aboriginal Americans among us, were once refugees in a political sense here in this land. The parable of the Good Samaritan helps us reflect on the question: Who is our neighbor? (A: everyone). Perhaps the time is ripe to reflect on the question: Who is my enemy, really? And how do I love them?
If we view refugees as our enemies, or as Other, if we don’t welcome the refugee and offer our resources to refugees, then it is either the case that we (1) don’t love our neighbors as ourselves, or (2), and I think this is more likely, we are loving neighbors as ourselves, but we aren’t really willing to tell ourselves the truth about ourselves and then truly love ourselves enough not to need to create the Other. Because the truth is that while we were yet strangers and alien, God brought us near through Christ, who loved us and gave himself for us, an offering and sacrifice to God.