The Biblical patriarchs Abraham, Jacob, and Joseph were compelled to live, sometimes uncomfortably, as immigrants in Egypt, as their descendants, the Israelites, would also. Is the Bible telling us that welcoming immigrants is a moral priority? The question, obviously, is highly relevant with the Senate resuming debate on immigration in the wake of President Bush’s Monday-night address.
While the Left typically resists applying Biblical insights to modern political problems, liberals have seemed to make an exception for the immigrant issue. Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton invoked the authority of Jesus himself to oppose a Republican-sponsored House resolution aimed at cracking down on those who aid and abet the smuggling of aliens across the Mexican border. “It is certainly not in keeping with my understanding of the Scripture because this bill would literally criminalize the Good Samaritan and probably Jesus himself,” Mrs. Clinton claimed.
The New York Times, not normally thought of as a Christian publication, attacked the same harsh-sounding legislation in an editorial, “The Gospel vs. H.R. 4437,” that noted approvingly the sentiments of Roger Cardinal Mahony of Los Angeles. The latter has made this issue his own, citing the New Testament in an article supporting the granting of legal status to current illegal immigrants: “It is our Gospel mandate, in which Christ instructs us to clothe the naked, feed the poor and welcome the stranger.”
He had in mind a passage in Matthew 25 describing the Great Judgment when the “Son of man” will blast wrongdoers with the charge that they failed to attend to the needs of society’s most vulnerable: “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.”
There is a problem, of course, with selective cherry-picking of Biblical verses to support the political cause of your choice. This, in fact, has become a favored tactic among advocates of “spiritual activism” (as they’re called on the Left). One of the more amusing is religious-Left celebrity spokesperson and pseudo-rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun magazine, whose new book is called The Left Hand of God: Taking Our Country Back from the Religious Right.
The cute ambiguity in his title alludes to an aspect of God’s personality, as it appears in Scripture, that’s full of compassion, love, and warm-fuzzies. Lerner opposes it to God’s “Right Hand” which, in his treatment, is all about fear, justice, and judgment. In political terms, Lerner would have us amputate the “Right Hand” and embrace the “Left Hand” alone. The problem with this rhetorical strategy is that it leaves us with an artificially lopsided, one-handed God, when it’s clear from the Bible that the Lord has both His limbs intact.
If we want to take the Bible as a guide to crafting wise policies, that means trying our best to see Scripture as an organic whole with a unitary message. After all, if the Bible is only a treasure trove of beautiful and serious-sounding quotations from which we’re free to choose according to our predilections–much as a writer of articles or speeches might make use of pungent quotations from Shakespeare’s plays, while never bothering to wonder what Shakespeare personally would think of the issue at hand–then on what grounds do we regard Scripture as an ultimate authority, stamped with God’s own wisdom? We don’t, after all, view Shakespeare that way.
If the Bible isn’t an ultimate authority, a source of the deepest wisdom available, then what business do we have, in the manner of Mrs. Clinton or the New York Times editorial writers, using it to whack political foes anymore than we’d use Shakespeare’s personal opinion (if that could be reliably discovered) to do the same thing? Imagine an editorial entitled “The Tempest vs. H.R. 4437.” Doesn’t have quite the same resonance, does it?
When Cardinal Mahony and Senator Clinton thump their Bibles in the name of liberalizing immigration laws, I hear no mention of setting strict standards for the new Americans we would thereby create. “What the church supports,” writes Mahony, “is an overhaul of the immigration system so that legal status and legal channels for migration replace illegal status and illegal immigration.” Is that the Bible’s way?
No, señor, it isn’t. The Five Books of Moses, unlike the Gospels, are a highly political text, very much concerned with worldly questions of law and policy, including the treatment of citizens and non-citizens by a sovereign government comprising an executive branch (the king and his officers) and a judicial one (a council of elders). When the Bible is at its most political, two key lessons are imparted.
In an illuminating recent essay in the journal Azure, “Locusts, Giraffes, and the Meaning of Kashrut,” Rabbi Meir Soloveichik reflected on the relationship between the Torah’s dietary code (kashrut) and nationalism. While scholars have debated the reasons for this institution restricting Jewish diners from enjoying certain classes of admittedly tasty animals, Soloveichik points out that what seems to be God’s own rationale for kosher food is given plainly in the Torah’s text itself. Immediately after summarizing the command to distinguish between animals that may be eaten and those that may not, God says: “You shall be holy for Me, for I the Lord am holy; and I have separated you from the peoples to be Mine” (Leviticus 20:26).
According to Soloveichik, the main purpose of the kosher laws is to remind us to make distinctions between classes–of animals and of nations. This doesn’t mean there’s anything unwholesome about a horse (non-kosher) as compared with a cow (kosher), but rather that we must always bear in mind that God created peoples and animals separate, with their differences, for reasons of His own.
The colors of the rainbow create a beautiful visual array. When the same colors are mixed together haphazardly, on the other hand, their beauty is marred and muddied.
Just so, God destroyed the Tower of Babel, that famous experiment in world government, and scrambled the languages of mankind, creating a “babble” of tongues, specifically to head off any future efforts to merge nations haphazardly.
True, in Mosaic law, there is such a thing as a convert, a ger, typified by the Biblical Ruth (whose story, incidentally, is chanted in synagogues at the Jewish festival of Shavuot next month, June 2-3). A convert becomes, in almost every practical respect, like any other Israelite: “For the congregation–the same decree shall be for you and for the proselyte who sojourns, an eternal decree for your generation; like you like the proselyte shall it be before the Lord. One teaching and one judgment shall be for you and for the proselyte who sojourns among you” (Numbers 15:15-16).
Notice the key point about “one teaching and one judgment.” It is possible to change nationalities, but highly demanding, just as conversion to Judaism is in Jewish law down to modern times. One thing you notice in the speeches of Mrs. Clinton and the writings of Cardinal Mahony is the absence of any such emphasis on requirements for citizenship.
To become a Jew wasn’t, and isn’t, easy. Any attempt to translate Biblical values into American policy prescriptions will go seriously astray if it is for the sake of throwing open American citizenship to all comers without imposing serious, challenging, and difficult preconditions.
David Klinghoffer is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute and the author, most recently, of Why the Jews Rejected Jesus: The Turning Point in Western History.