For thus says the Lord:
Sing aloud with gladness for Jacob,
and raise shouts for the chief of the nations;
proclaim, give praise, and say,
‘Save, O Lord, your people,
the remnant of Israel.’
See, I am going to bring them from the land of the north,
and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth,
among them the blind and the lame,
those with child and those in labour, together;
a great company, they shall return here.
With weeping they shall come,
and with consolations I will lead them back,
I will let them walk by brooks of water,
in a straight path in which they shall not stumble;
for I have become a father to Israel,
and Ephraim is my firstborn.
Debates on immigration in the United States continue to move in the default direction of North/South. As such, the prominent debating points often direct public attention to the U.S./Mexico border fence and the Latina/o community. By sleight-of-hand, many in the mainstream media tend to recast a centuries-old U.S. immigration experience as a Latina/o problem.
Unlike the variety of migration stories in the Bible, the forces creating migration for many Latina/o families are closely tied to the issues of power and hyper-consumerism. Often as a last resort do immigrant families enter the northbound currents of low-wage laborers that, as Bishop Minerva Carcaño describes, feed “the economic machine in this country.”
Yet, ever present on their journey to “El Norte” (the North) are the faces of loved ones left behind and the hope of a joyous return.
Celebrating the Return Journey
Indeed, the lectionary text from Jeremiah 31:7-9 resonates profoundly with the immigrant theme of return from a northern country. Jeremiah revolves around the traumatic destruction of Jerusalem and the exile to Babylon which follows. In short, the book deals with faith in the wake of violence and migration. In 31:7, the prophet uses a series of commands that elaborate on the act of celebratory singing. For the Judean exiles, however, the destruction of Jerusalem had given way to lament and sorrow. As they expressed in Psalm 137:4, “How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” Only with the prospect of return in Jeremiah 31:6 (“Come, let us go up to Zion”) could their lament turn into a song of gladness (v.7). Jeremiah’s vision of return is teeming with hope.
Those U.S. immigrants here out of economic necessity would likely find great comfort in Jeremiah’s celebratory vision of return even though the anxiety, fear, and harassment endured by many undocumented immigrant families may render this vision unrealistic. Yet despite their everyday struggles, immigrant communities in the United States are able to sustain their joyous memories of homeland through songs, murals, names, and foods. These cultural expressions bring immigrants a sense of "home" in an unfamiliar land. They become mini-return moments in which they are transported to the sights and sounds of home.
The exiles’ journey home begins, as verse 8 states, “from the land of the north” and “from the farthest parts of the earth.” Rather than being a self-initiated return, it is God who coordinates the exiles’ return trip. This divinely planned return makes provisions for even the most vulnerable among the exiles to be included in the journey. From the blind and the lame to women and children, they are all “a great company.” Cherished as such, the Judean exiles are no longer captured laborers at risk of inhumane and violent treatment. Both weak and strong in the exilic community are given divine worth.
This approach to repatriation stands in stark contrast to current U.S. policy initiatives whereby undocumented immigrants are arrested, detained, and ultimately deported. Without any regard for the deportees’ U.S. familial ties, the current policy initiatives sever household relationships, which can stretch to a lifetime. As a result of losing loved ones, immigrant families suffer emotional, financial, and psychological trauma. Deportees return to their home countries in an unplanned and usually unwanted manner. Those dropped off at the border are vulnerable to increased cartel violence. Different from a divinely led return, the current policy initiatives make no provisions to ensure a safe and humane return of detained undocumented immigrants. Under current policy initiatives, undocumented immigrants are given little worth. Yet, the pathways for return in Jeremiah invite a contrary view.
Seemingly out of place in this passage are the words in verse 9, “with weeping they shall come.” The “weeping” described here refers to the sorrow felt after the loss of a loved one. With decades living in exile, many may not have lived long enough to return. The bones of their exiled ancestors were most likely left behind. Their sorrow, however, is not left unattended. God’s return plan is to lead the exiles back “with consolations.” Apart from God being attentive to their emotional state, God’s return plan also includes “brooks of water” and “a straight path in which they shall not stumble.” With the care of a parent, God's return plan is comprehensive, attending to the exiles’ emotional, physical, and psychological needs. They do not return home alone but rather in community.
In some States, laws have been passed that force undocumented immigrants to self-deport. There is nothing more contrary to the return plan of God in Jeremiah than the compound policy of “self” and “deportation.” Implied in this policy is the inhumane reality that immigrants are to return alone along winding pathways and with few provisions. The “self” part of this policy suggests minimal emotional and psychological support on the part of the state. The state sanctioned forces provoking their departure incite trauma rather than song.
It is the duty of all people of the Christian faith to welcome the stranger, in both practice and policy. The state may be powerful, but more importantly, God's people should act out of love for the neighbor that they see every day. The prophet Jeremiah spoke powerfully to a people uprooted from their homelands and in search of God’s help.
Today, immigrants continue to call out to this God and that God continues to promise to walk alongside the exile and the immigrant. Today also, the prophet’s words call us all to open the doors of welcome and not build new fences of division.
The Rev. Dr. Gregory Lee Cuéllar serves as Assistant Professor of Old Testament at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. His most recent book is Voices of Marginality: Exile and Return in Second Isaiah 40-55 and the Mexican Immigrant Experience. His forthcoming book is Archival Criticism: The Interrogation of Contexts and Texts in Early Modern Biblical Criticism. Cuéllar's ON Scripture post appears via the Odyssey Network, through a grant from the Lilly Foundation. Follow ON Scripture on Twitter @OnScripture.
Photo credit: Maria, 8, from Los Angeles May Day Immigration Protest Rally Against Arizona's New Law on May 1, 2010 in Los Angeles, California. Photo by Katrina Brown/Shutterstock.