Return of the Pharisees

By James R. Edwards, Jr. on February 28, 2012

Self-proclaimed religious experts on immigration policy browbeat the good, law-abiding, Christian citizens of Alabama again. At a conference last week, modern-day Pharisees took Alabama's civil authorities to task over the state law designed to restore the rule of law against illegal aliens who have overrun the state.

The Birmingham venue of a Baptist college was chosen deliberately. The event's title was based on a biblical Hebrew term for stranger or sojourner: "ger". The sponsors extrapolated far beyond the meaning of this clearly defined term, in an effort to rationalize mass amnesty and chastise the public officials (and the majority of Bible-belt citizens) who have tried to do their God-given duty to protect their citizens.

One of the speakers on the Samford University campus, a Hispanic minister from New York, exposed his ignorance, both of biblical principles that might apply to policy issues such as immigration and of immigration policy itself. The National Latino Evangelical Coalition's Rev. Gabriel Salguero told conferees, "Hospitality is not at the margins of scripture. Jesus wasn't kidding around when he said, 'I was a stranger and you welcomed me.'"

Salguero's solution? "Because I'm a Christian, I believe in comprehensive, common-sense, humane immigration policy."

I'm not sure which is more offensive, the arrogant presumption that they actually know what they're talking about or the air of moral superiority over those fellow Christians who hold opposing views on immigration.

Biblical teachings in both the Old and New Testaments relating to hospitality don't translate into open borders or mass amnesty. Jesus's call for hospitality to strangers is directed to individuals, not states. It is dangerous, even pharisaic, to purposely confuse the object of such important teachings.

There's also the fact – conveniently overlooked by religious busybodies – that the United States stands second to none for hospitality. Our nation admits more legal immigrants for permanent settlement than all other nations combined. We take in tens of thousands of asylum seekers and refugees each year, outpacing the rest of the world for resettlement. Thus, amnesty proponents in religious clothing should come clean about their true motives: amnesty. They have no ground to stand on to lecture their neighbors for insisting foreigners obey our laws or else suffer the consequences.

In the Bible, civic boundaries have meaning and, in fact, have God's ordination. Professor James Hoffmeier, Professor of Old Testament and Near Eastern Archaeology at Trinity International University Divinity School, whose archeological explorations have discovered relevant findings, notes:

Nations small and large had clearly recognizable borders, typically demarcated by natural features such as rivers, valleys, and mountain ranges, much as they are today. Warring Egyptian Pharaohs often claimed that they went on campaigns to widen or extend Egypt's borders. Wars were fought over where boundary lines would be drawn, and forts were strategically placed on frontiers to defend the territory and to monitor movements of pastoralists. Permits akin to the modern visa were issued to people entering another land. In the tomb of Khnumhotep, governor of central Egypt (from ca. 1865 B.C.), a band of foreign travelers are shown before the governor. An official presents him with a permit or visa, which spells out that there were 37 people from Syria-Canaan.

Professor Hoffmeier explains the differences in biblical terms translated as "stranger". These terms have real, specific meanings and aren't available for today's "teachers of the law" to use and abuse.

[W]hat about the "stranger" or "alien"? The Bible is not "a living breathing document" that can mean whatever you want it to say. This question must be answered contextually and based on what the key words meant when they were written before we apply what that might mean in our own times. The most significant Hebrew word for our discussion is ger, translated variously in English versions, which creates some confusion, as "stranger" (KJV, NASB, JB), "sojourner" (RSV, ESV), "alien" (NEB, NIV, NJB, NRSV), and "foreigner" (TNIV, NLT). It occurs more than 80 times as a noun and an equal number as a verb (gwr), which typically means "to sojourn" or "live as an alien." The problem with more recent English translations (e.g. TNIV and NLT) is that they use "foreigner" for ger, which is imprecise and misleading because there are other Hebrew terms for "foreigner," namely nekhar and zar. The distinction between these two terms and ger is that while all three are foreigners who might enter another country, the ger had obtained legal status.

Hoffmeier concludes, "It is wrong, therefore, to confuse these two categories of foreigners and then to use passages regarding the ger as if they were relevant to illegal immigrants of today."

In other words, only today's lawfully admitted permanent immigrants come closest to the biblical ger. Illegal aliens come closer to the suspect kinds of foreigners.

It would represent a step forward if the people who speak at the kinds of talkathons staged in Alabama displayed intellectual honesty or perhaps intellectual rigor in their biblical study and proclamations. The Pharisees meeting recently in Birmingham came up short.

It would also be productive if these sorts of people stuck with their calling instead of sticking their religious noses under the public policy tent, at least in those areas in which Scripture leaves the lawmaking to prudential judgment. As it is, these people are out of their element – embarrassingly so. Doesn't such public display of ignorance and manipulation dishonor the Lord?

The famed Christian educator C.S. Lewis made the point aptly:

People say, "The Church ought to give us a lead." ... And when they say that the Church should give us a lead, they ought to mean that some Christians – those who happen to have the right talents – should be economists and statesmen, and that all economists and statesmen should be Christians, and that their whole efforts in politics and economics should be directed to putting "Do as you would be done by" into action. If that happened, and if we others were really ready to take it, then we should find the Christian solution for our social problems pretty quickly. But, of course, when they ask for a lead from the Church most people mean they want the clergy to put out a political programme. That is silly. The clergy are those particular people within the whole Church who have been specially trained and set aside to look after what concerns us as creatures who are going to live forever: and we are asking them to do a quite different job for which they have not been trained. The job is really on us, on the laymen. The application of Christian principles, say, to trade unionism or education, must come from Christian trade unionists and Christian schoolmasters: just as Christian literature comes from Christian novelists and dramatists – not from the bench of bishops getting together and trying to write plays and novels in their spare time.

Can I get an amen?



Topics: Religion