During his speech on immigration, President Obama referenced the Bible, and in doing so, he sounded like someone stammering through a foreign language with which he was only rudimentarily familiar. Always beware speeches that reference the King James text unless you are in a fundamentalist Baptist church. Speechwriters go for eloquence, and the KJV offers that in a Shakespearean sort of way, but it also gives away that the speaker is not familiar enough with the text to either paraphrase or use a modern version.
The verse the President cited was Exodus 23:9. He said, “Scripture tells us, we ‘shall not oppress a stranger, for [we] know the heart of a stranger.’ We were strangers once, too.” He paraphrased that last part. The text actually says, “…you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” In other words, the Jewish text reminds Israel to show empathy based on their own history; it does not articulate the underpinning of a public policy on immigration.
Just because a verse references something similar to what is at issue does not mean the text is meant to address that modern issue. In fact, it is far more likely that the text has nothing to do with the modern issue, as the Pentateuch, of which Exodus is a part, was likely finalized in the 6th century BCE. Even if that time frame is incorrect, theological conservatives argue that it was finalized much earlier, as if having a text written in the Bronze Age rather than the Iron Age makes it somehow more reliable for modern discussions of ethics and policy.
Briefly, the larger issue is why anyone needs to apply the Biblical text to political discussions in America today, since it can offer almost nothing substantive based on our current politics and context. It was written for different times and cultures, and however much conservatives may wish to believe it is timeless in its application, the text was not meant to apply to political issues in a 21st century democracy (of sorts). The issue of immigration needs to be resolved by a rational discussion of economics, human rights, and, as Obama mentioned in his speech, pragmatics.
Appeals to the Biblical text to solve this dispute are most often made by progressives, especially Jim Wallis of the evangelical-but-moderate organization Sojourners. The error, when made from the just left of center, is just as theoretically wrong-headed as when it is made from the far right of center. Absent a god who can be troubled to show up and tell us what He really thinks, we only take theists at their word about “thus sayeth the Lord”.
In fact, political conservatives likely want god out of this discussion, because most of the New Testament ethos is going to militate against the conservative position. It militates against almost all conservative positions, but conservatives only need Jesus to save them, not tell them how to live. They will likely cite Romans 13 about obeying the “law of the land,” but we should remember that they have supported deposing autocrats, torture, rendition, assassination, segregation, and the separation of families in the name of law and order, and in the case of wars, in direct violation of the laws of other lands we have invaded. Law, it seems, is more contextual than conservatives wish to admit.
In the case of immigration, they are ignoring Paul, who is normally the darling of the Right. I have no idea if Paul was the first to propound this idea, but his version is the best known: the spirit of the law matters far more than the letter of the law. It is possible to obey or enforce the letter of the law and miss the intent behind the law. Immigration provides a rich opportunity for conservatives to insist their more base emotions are really just respect for the law. They are not subtle (or overt) racists; they are law-abiding citizens. They are not xenophobes; they are Americans who want to protect the American way of life (whatever the hell that means). They are not beneficiaries of white privilege; they are champions of justice in the form of “get in line,” as if they ever stood in a seven, fifteen, or twenty-five year line.
More than anything else in this discussion, the ignorance of all sides about the causes of this crisis is distressing. Illegal immigration has not always been a problem on this scale. The Pew Center reported that illegal immigration was at about 130,000 per year throughout the 80′s, increasing to nearly half a million per year in the early 90s, and finally stabilizing at three-quarters of a million to one million per year following 1995. The North American Free Trade Agreement was signed in 1994, but that is surely just a coincidence. The crazy little Texan Ross Perot warned Americans that NAFTA would be bad for manufacturing, but nobody told Mexico and Latin America that, following decades of intentional destabilization by the U.S. (CIA, drug interdiction, support for fascists, assassinations, etc.), their countries’ economies would be eviscerated and their assets made available to greedy multinational corporations. That was just another unhappy side effect, and one that accelerated the rate of illegal immigration, or if you lived in those countries, necessary emigration in order to survive. I will be expanding into this failed immigration policy in a future post.
Americans, especially conservatives, wash their hands of the whole affair–and isn’t it odd how they increasingly take on the guise of all the Bible’s villains–and think the brown people just want to come to the “greatest country on earth.” I have often lamented the loss of Mr. Vonnegut. Were he here today, he could surely make of this a wonderful story line. After all, it’s rare that life parodies itself quite so effortlessly. Immigration reveals that all American politics has the form of satire, but the redemption normally provided by satire is absent, as is the self-awareness offered by the mirror held aloft by the humorist.
Co-published with Literati Press.