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Throughout history, the biblical story of Exodus has inspired people around the world fleeing persecution.
Migrants fleeing persecution and violence in their homes and seeking refuge is a narrative often repeated in the troubled history of humankind. As Jews and Christians, we celebrate the biblical story of an entire people taken from slavery to journey toward the Promised Land.
Like the Central Americans fleeing violence as well as economic and political instability in their home countries, the Israelites also found themselves unwelcome as they wandered through the wilderness.
Yet, over time, the story of the Exodus has served as an inspiration for many groups, including non-Jewish people, fleeing persecution. In the Muslim tradition, the Hijra, the migration of the Prophet Muhammad and his followers from Mecca to Medina, reflects this same transition.
But while comparisons to these ancient events are compelling, they are also complicated. What is critical is realizing that all of us continually seek greater safety for ourselves and our families. And we believe that when called on by our faith traditions to provide that same safety and comfort to strangers, we are obligated to answer that call.
Tragically, Christianity is part of the reason for a migration. Christian supremacy, a close cousin of White supremacy, is a source of oppression that forces the movement of populations. It is also a condition of imprisonment—although rarely named and understood as such—preventing people from participating in a more inclusive understanding of what it means to be human.
It may be that almost all of the immigrants massing at our southern border are, in fact, Christian. But they are also, for the most part, Brown-skinned Hispanics. The role played by cultural Christianity in this particular migration is one that creates a fear of “other”—the one different from Christian White people. The need to feel that Christianity (and being White) is superior, reflects an extremely deep need to feel valued.
As a pastor, I believe the lack of self-esteem, coupled with the cultural conviction that Christianity is superior to all other spiritual paths, constitutes the driver for both the oppressive and imprisoning nature of the behavior of those who claim Christianity as a spiritual path.
From a spiritual point of view, the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth would suggest that we welcome the migrants. We need them. They need us. And from a spiritual point of view, we must also recognize the ways we in the United States help to create a climate of need in other parts of the world.
Free trade is not the same as fair trade. The standard of living in the United States is much higher than it is in Central and South America. The support of repressive political regimes in other parts of the world helps to sustain the needs of the United States at the expense of the needs of other nations.
All these things are rooted in the conviction that America (like Christianity and like being White) is, in fact, divinely ordained to be superior and entitled to the best of everything. None of these things is consistent with the unconditional love and essential inclusivity of Jesus’ teachings. The “us against them,” driven by fear of the other, has eclipsed the substance of Christianity’s teachings. Were we to recover that substance, the need for migration would be lessened and we would be able to grow toward a greater inclusivity and hospitality.
The migrant caravan raises spiritual questions. How should we treat those who are in dire need, especially when they offer us no immediate advantage, and we have problems of our own?
For Muslims, the answer lies in a chapter of the Quran titled, “He Frowned.” Surrounded by powerful enemies who sought to destroy his embryonic community, the Prophet Muhammad sought treaties with local tribes. During negotiations with a powerful chieftain, an old blind man interrupted with questions about the Quran. The Prophet frowned, and, according to the Quran, received a revelation that night: “And the one who regards himself as self-sufficient you pay attention…but as for the one who came eagerly to you and with an inner awe you disregarded.”
The message here is that we need to give priority to the dispossessed migrants who are traveling “with an inner awe” for the safety and opportunity of our blessed land. When we do what is just and compassionate, we are, in good time, rewarded by the spirit in ways we cannot imagine.
Another question is how can we deal with those whose hearts are opposed to helping them? Influenced by a president who recklessly makes unsubstantiated claims that within the caravan lurk rapists, drug dealers, and terrorists, some Americans agree the response should be to build a wall and deploy the military to the border. Some hearts have become blind to the humanity of these desperate people.
How do we open blinded hearts? If our own hearts are open, these vibrations will open other hearts. We are unimaginably interconnected, as the prophet experienced when he fled to Medina from Mecca in 622 CE. Having escaped death in Mecca, he requested the inhabitants of Medina to open their hearts and homes to the exiles from Mecca. Those who opened their hearts had a cumulative effect on those whose hearts were clenched. This laid the groundwork for an Islamic civilization to flourish from that nascent community in Medina.
The question to ask ourselves then is: Am I ready to house or share my resources in another way, no matter how small, with at least one of the migrants? If enough of us are ready to make the sacrifice, the spiritual mystery of the invisible realms will take care of any problems. If we are unwilling to open our hearts, we are simply spouting beautiful verses from the Quran and shrugging the blame onto others.
The commandment to care for the stranger, to welcome and to support the “other,” appears at least 36 times in the Torah—more often than any other commandment. Again and again it is stressed: “You shall not wrong nor oppress the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 22:20).
Furthermore, these “others” must be accepted as a full citizens: “The strangers who reside with you shall be to you as your citizens… for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 19:34).
The “other” must be treated with justice, be given the rights of all citizens, and, ultimately, must be loved: “For the Eternal your God…upholds the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the stranger… so you too must love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 10:18-19).
But why is the injunction to care for, to welcome, to treat justly, and to love the stranger the most often repeated in the Torah? And why has this basic principle been so easy to ignore?
The answer is a matter of who we consider ourselves to be. As long as we identify solely with our separate ego-selves, we are doomed to racism, injustice, economic disparity, and environmental degradation. Our ego identities convince us that we are separate from others and separate from all other living beings on this planet. From this limited identity, we use animals, and even other people, to serve our own needs. We form ourselves into groups defining ourselves against “others.” This is our natural response to the insecurities resulting from wholly defining ourselves as separate and disconnected beings in this material world.
Only by recognizing both the value and the limits of this identity can we transcend our natural tendencies toward polarization and the demonization of others. Without opening to our more inclusive identity, without realizing our interconnectedness with all life, we cannot avoid causing pain stimulated by our belief in our separateness.
The work of spiritual teachers of all faiths and non-faiths must be to support our awakening to our more inclusive identity. This is the way toward true welcoming, authentic justice, and love.
For centuries, both Jewish and Christian communities have repeated this central teaching: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). Yet we will not be able to love until we see ourselves in the face of the other.
First published in YES! Magazine. Included in Vox Populi with permission.