Editor’s note: This series is intended to be a public conversation among teaching theologians of the ELCA on various themes of our faith and the challenging issues of our day. It invites readers to engage in dialogue by posting comments online at the end of each article at www.thelutheran.org.
The series is edited by Michael Cooper-White, president of the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg (Pa.), on behalf of the presidents of the eight ELCA seminaries.
In the October 2014 issue of The Lutheran, ELCA missionary Stephen Deal wrote an article reflecting on the current experience of the Salvadoran Lutheran Church, raising awareness of the motives and dangers triggering the exponential increase in the number of unaccompanied children entering the U.S. from Central America. The article represents one of the latest dimensions of the continuing challenge faced by the U.S. given its defective immigration system.
This important witness of our Lutheran brothers and sisters in El Salvador retrieves a vital teaching of the Christian faith and our Lutheran legacy that is worth highlighting in our conversations on the topic of immigration, as well as for the coming celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in 2017.
For some theologians, the notion of migration is a common and constant fact in what Christians call the biblical narrative of salvation history. One can even claim that the Bible’s initial confession of faith starts with a narrative of pilgrimage and migration: “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien …” (Deuteronomy 26:5).
Thus, the topic of hospitality to strangers is present from the beginning of the formation of the Hebrew people. The earliest Christians considered themselves sojourners in the world, frequently moving from one place to another in voluntary or violent migrations, often forced by powerful empires, scarcity or famine.
In different cultures we find migration stories prior to the formation of identity as a people. The history of the Aztecs begins with the story of a migration from Aztlan to Tenochtitlan, the latter being the city they established.
The Exodus, that is, the flight of the Hebrew people from Egypt, is considered the foundational element in the formation of the people of Israel. The point of departure of the exodus was the oppression, exploitation and ill treatment to which the Egyptian government submitted the Hebrews. The sacred Hebrew history recounts the people’s mournful outcries and how God listened and liberated them by way of the struggle led by Moses (Exodus 1-15) through a long and dangerous migration to a promised land.
This narrative of slavery, migration and liberation became so important for the people of Israel in developing an annual ritual of remembrance and gratitude, the Passover. This yearly liturgical remembrance shaped the compassion of the Hebrew people for strangers and aliens, leading to the care for foreigners residing within Israel.
Caring for the stranger became a key element of the Torah (Leviticus 19:33 ff.), a crucial emphasis by the prophets (Ezekiel 22:7; Jeremiah 22:3, 5), and the substance of an ethics of hospitality (Job 31:32).
Foundational for theology
Later on the Israelites’ sensitivity regarding the strangers, the aliens and foreigners became foundational for Christian theology. Not only does the Gospel of Matthew provide us with an episode in Jesus’ early life of compulsory migration, but the core of our Lord’s teachings can be described as a radical retrieval of this Hebrew perspective on the stranger, alien and foreigner (John 4:7-30, Luke 17:11-19, Matthew 25:31-46).
Jesus’ teachings became the cornerstone for his followers. In the letter to the Romans, Paul insists on the attitude of hospitality toward the stranger (Romans 12:13). In Ephesians 2:19, the author breaks down the common discriminatory distinction established between citizens and aliens.
Emphasis on hospitality
Throughout the centuries, Christians have continued to reflect the spirit of the Hebrew people and Jesus’ emphasis on hospitality to strangers and sojourners. In the aftermath of World War II, which created millions of displaced people, Lutherans founded what eventually became Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, which has assisted congregations in resettling tens of thousands of refugees fleeing wars and disasters on every continent. Given its expertise in this work of compassion, LIRS is often sought out to advise government officials in the ongoing quest to improve our nation’s immigration policies.
In more recent decades, themes related to migration and hospitality to strangers have been central in the writings of many so-called “theologians of liberation” whose works have emerged particularly from settings throughout Latin America. (See some recommended authors in the author bio.)
On Nov. 14, 2009, the ELCA Church Council approved a social policy resolution regarding immigration, “Toward Compassionate, Just, and Wise Immigration Reform” (search for this title at www.elca.org). The text reflects the rich legacy of the Lutheran church’s concern for the neighbor, particularly the uprooted, the alien and the stranger.
The biblical and theological foundations for the resolution lie in core commitments based on hospitality for the displaced as a means to practice the gospel’s call to love our neighbor in response to God’s love in Christ. An open invitation to respond to the social policy draft resolution received additional feedback on Lutheran theological principles to strengthen the appeal for a deeper engagement with one of today’s most serious moral and theological challenges.
Among the main theological principles raised by several Lutheran teaching theologians was one reflecting on the power of the redemptive act of our Triune God in the cross and resurrection events.
Following President Barack Obama’s address to the nation on immigration in November 2014, many church leaders weighed in with encouragement that we not simply react emotionally but ponder theologically matters related to human beings who choose or are forced to cross borders. The ELCA Conference of Bishops stated: “As people of faith and leaders of the church, we support public policy that protects children, reunites families, and cares for the most vulnerable, regardless of their place of birth.”
The prophetic words of Bishop Wayne Miller of the Metropolitan Chicago Synod captured in a significant way the relevance of solid theological foundations for addressing the challenge of immigration reform today from a Lutheran theological perspective:
“I believe the time has come, perhaps in a special way for us as Lutheran Christians, to reassert the fact that our attitudes toward the stranger, and toward all who are vulnerable or marginalized, are a matter of primary confessional theology rather than being a question of elective etiquette.
“So we begin where all Christian conversation should begin, with the power of the cross — the cross upon which Jesus died for the redemption of the whole creation ….
“For us as Lutheran Christians, there is another element of confessional urgency. … In a growing number of states, anti-immigration legislation … and the way [laws] are being enforced, have created a condition of persecution. In the tradition of Article X of the Formula of Concord, unjust persecutory legislation pushes beyond ‘adiaphora’ (debatable, spiritually neutral). These laws now represent a denial of the Cross and the gospel of universal freedom for vocation, and, thereby, drive the issue, for Lutherans, toward Status Confessionis (be in a state of confession),meaning that silence, compliance and indifference become apostasy.”