I first heard about James K. Hoffmeier’s book The Immigration Crisis: Immigrants, Aliens and the Bible when a friend of mine, who knows my interest in issues surrounding immigration, emailed a brief review of the book that appeared in an April 30th edition of Publishers Weekly. I knew I had to read to book after the final sentences of the review made me laugh:
The book offers little in the way of sociological, political or economic insight into the circumstances surrounding modern-day illegal immigration, beyond advocating for a law-and-order approach. Missing from this analysis is an understanding of the Bible as a prophetic document more concerned with larger issues of justice. Still, Christians looking for a biblical justification for strict federal enforcement of immigration laws may find much to like.
First, let me say what I like about The Immigration Crisis. It’s short, easy to read, and intelligently written. While I remain steadfastly unconvinced by his arguments, Hoffmeier is a first-rate biblical scholar who has articulated a cogent challenge to the assumption that the God revealed in Jewish and Christian scriptures has a special place in the Divine Heart for immigrants, even if they cross international borders without proper documentation.
Yet, as well informed as Hoffmeier clearly is, his argument rests on a limited interpretation of what it meant to be an “alien” or “sojourner” in the Biblical world. Hoffmeier correctly notes that the Hebrew word usually translated in English as “alien” or “sojourner” refers to someone from one country who resides within the territory of another country, while the word often translated as “foreigner” is someone who is just passing through. Hoffmeier also demonstrates correctly that the Bible—particularly in the Jewish scriptures of the Christian Old Testament—contains numerous passages that require protection for aliens or sojourners residing in Israel. For example, Exodus 22:21 reads
“You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt,” and Leviticus 19:33-34 reads, “when an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.”
Hoffmeier is on shakier ground, however, when he asserts that the Hebrew word that English Bibles translate as “alien” or sojourner” refers strictly to legal immigrants. He bases his assertion on the fact that many of the Bible’s sojourners obtain permission from proper authorities before settling down in a foreign land as resident aliens; from this observation Hoffmeier dismisses the practice of providing sanctuary and other forms of help to undocumented migrants as “twisting biblical principles and subverting federal law.” (p. 84)
Hoffmeier contends that Christians wishing to form a Biblically-based, moral response to the immigration crisis should be guided not by Old Testament injunctions to treat sojourners with kindness and justice but rather by New Testament admonitions to follow the law of the land, such as those written by St. Peter in his general epistle, and by St. Paul in his Letter to the Romans, chapter 13:1-4:
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer.
In his analysis Hoffmeier overlooks the fact that the Bible never actually distinguishes between those who reside in a place with permission and those who do not. It is true that many of the Bible’s sojourners live as resident aliens in foreign lands with permission equivalent to a modern American green card, but it’s also true that the Bible is silent on the issue of illegal migration. To read this silence as divine permission to deny justice to undocumented migrants—as Hoffmeier evidently does—is a stretch at best.
Nor does Hoffmeier address the fact that, within the context of ancient Israel, the Hebrew word we translate as “alien” seems to have referred to anyone who lived in Israel without ties to the Hebrew tribal system, including the descendents of the original inhabitants of the land. (See the Interpreters’ Dictionary of the Bible article on “sojourner”.) They were not immigrants but because they were not connected to Israel’s tribal system they therefore would have been designated as aliens. This leads to deeper questions we must ask about immigration in the United States, particularly as it relates to migrants who come north from Mexico: who is the immigrant? and, who resides legally in the land we now call the United States?
Most Americans do not question the moral validity of the border that separates the United States of America from the United States of Mexico, and few Christians express doubt that the border was—in some way—established by God, perhaps in confirmation of the old American notion of a Manifest Destiny through which the United States would be established as a single country from sea to shining sea.
Yet to say that the US/Mexico border was authored by God or even established according to generally-accepted moral standards is to say something remarkable about the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which set the international boundaries at the end of the Mexican-American war. Abraham Lincoln who, as a congressman from Illinois, pointed out that the first American blood shed in the war was spilled on Mexican territory, questioned the morality of this military campaign of conquest. Ulysses S. Grant said of the Mexican-American War that it was “the most unjust [war] ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation.” Robert E. Lee (who was seldom known to agree with Ulysses S. Grant) shared this sentiment. (Hubert Herring, A History of Latin America, third edition. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1968. pp. 312-313)
It can be argued that an immigrant from Mexico entering territory taken from his or her homeland in a morally reprehensible war has a legitimate right to sojourn in the American southwest. Adding to this claim is the fact that most Mexicans are descended—at least in part—from the original inhabitants of North America who were crossing the bit of land we now call a border thousands of years before the first Europeans set foot in the Americas. By contrast, my people (most of them anyway) came from the British Isles by way of Minnesota and Iowa. It’s not an heritage that would seem to give me an inherent right to own property on stolen land in California. This is not to suggest that the United States should give the American southwest back to Mexico, or even that we should open the border to anyone with a desire to cross, but the knowledge of how half of Mexico came to be part of the United States should inspire a certain amount of humility among those who, like Hoffmeier, are proponents of a “law and order” approach to the immigration crisis.
After all, if one is to believe that international borders are divinely established or, at the very least, are protected by a morality that respects national sovereignty, then how can a citizen of the United States possibly reside legally and morally within territory that once belonged to another country? Who among us is willing to say that the invasion of a foreign land by a nation drunk with power and consumed with imperial lust is both legal and moral while crossing a desert in search of menial employment and a better future for one’s family is neither?
But even if it can be argued that the United States properly exercises dominion over the land that once belonged to Mexico, Hoffmeier misses the fact that immigrants from Mexico—legal and otherwise—are not newcomers from a far away place who are analogous to foreigners from distant lands who took up residence in ancient Israel. They are like the Canaanites, a people almost certainly protected as “aliens” under biblical standards of justice, who resided (and, indeed still reside) in the land of Israel before Joshua led the conquest of the Promised Land, and who remained in the land after the establishment of Israel. The status of the Canaanites—and therefore immigrants from Mexico—is not addressed by James Hoffmeier in The Immigration Crisis: Immigrants, Aliens and the Bible. It is the book’s greatest weakness, a flaw which, for all of the intelligence of Hoffmeier’s argument, renders the book nearly irrelevant in the current immigration debate.