Wednesday morning I listened to a House Judiciary Committee hearing on "The Ethical Imperative for Reform of Our Immigration System." The hearing highlighted three conservative Christian leaders speaking on immigration, including: Rev. Richard Land, Ph.D. (President, Ethics and Religious Liberty Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention), Bishop Gerald Kicanas (Archdiocese of Tucson, Arizona, and Vice President of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops), and Mathew Staver, J.D. (Dean of Liberty University's School of Law).
The hearing began with introductory remarks by Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas and Rep. Steve King of Iowa on the committee who pre-empted the Christian leaders' statements by using scripture out of its intended context in relation to immigration. I have to assume this was done unintentionally, as these Members were speaking to religious leaders who have spent their entire lives engaged in biblical scholarship and theological exploration. Although the religious leaders made their presentation in a civil and congenial manner, I wondered if this auspicious start to the hearing caught their attention as it did mine?
Instead of giving a holistic picture of biblical teaching regarding immigration, the Congressional leaders cherry-picked words and verses to serve their own political position. Rep. Smith referenced the Hebrew word for "sojourn" from the Old Testament and said this term was best translated as "temporary stay," implying that the Bible does not call for an earned path to citizenship. This reference to "sojourn" failed to take account of the various interpretations and uses of the word found throughout the Old Testament. The word "sojourn" comes from the Hebrew verb "gur." Depending on the context, this verb can mean "to sojourn" (interpreted as foreigners who stay for a considerable time in another country or those who reside in a land as aliens), to quarrel, to gather together, and fear. Rep. Smith's appeal to one interpretation of one Hebrew word as a biblical counter-argument to the leader's theological stance on immigration failed to acknowledge the depth of their theology on immigration and the biblical breadth they draw from to articulate a Christian response to the immigration problem.
Religious leaders who testify before the U.S. Congress have not based their theology of immigration on one Hebrew word, but instead have cultivated their theology over years of interaction with scripture and in the practical context of working with undocumented immigrants. Their description of a theology of immigration takes into account a comprehensive look at the nature of God depicted in the Old and New Testament.
Although the word "sojourners" is used to show how non-immigrant Christians can relate to the immigrant experience, it is only one piece of the picture. The full picture of a Christian response to immigration includes not only the specific stories of how different biblical figures welcomed the stranger and Jesus' teachings on treatment of "the least of these," but also an understanding of humanity's creation in the image of God and what that means for our treatment of one another. So, Rep. Smith's dismissal of biblical foundations for just and compassionate treatment of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. based on his interpretation of one Hebrew word did not reflect an understanding of a theological response to immigration.
Next, Rep. King quoted the passage "render to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's" from Matthew 22:15-22 to suggest that kindness to the strangers among us should only be done on a personal level, while Christians should allow the government to control the law of the land regarding immigrants. Rep. King's use of this scripture to suggest that Christians should not be involved in the political immigration debate did not recognize the differing historical traditions of how Christians relate to the state.
The passage from Matthew has been interpreted as meaning that the church should be the church and stand at a distance witnessing to the state while letting the state be the state. It has also been interpreted as saying although a complete separation of church and state is the ideal way for the world to work, it does not take into account the forces of power and greed that often over take the state's ability to act justly, which is when the church must step in. Furthermore, the passage is often used to discourage the co-mingling of an official religion with the government of a land. This does not speak to the individual Christian's role and participation in the affairs of the state. Any reference to this passage from Matthew must also take into account scriptural accounts of Jesus' political actions, including turning over the money changing tables in the temple.
Unless they are former clergy, I do not expect members of Congress to have a grasp of the theology of every political issue that comes their way, nor do I expect our elected officials to all be Christian. But, they should stick to their own areas of expertise--public policy--and let their invited panelists speak to individual areas, like biblical scholarship. As a Christian, I expect respect for biblical teaching and scholarship and was appalled to see the scriptures used in a defensive and flippant way in an official Congressional hearing.
Allie Bullard is a policy and outreach fellow for Sojourners. She is graduate of Duke Divinity School (M.T.S.) and a rising third year at the University of South Carolina School of Law.