neighbors lane

On Friday morning, I spoke in the chapel service at Bethel University, as part of the campus’ G92 event.  Let me fill you in on a little secret: usually, when I’m asked to give a talk at a chapel, or at a conference, or at a church, I basically just give the same talk over and over again.  I survey what the Bible says on immigration, debunk a few persistent myths, tell a story or two to try to humanize the complex issue of immigration (if I’m not able to have someone share a personal testimony, which is far more effective), and then point to some practical responses.  Since I seldom talk to the same group twice (this, it occurs to me, might say more about the quality of my talks than anything), I tend to get away with this duplication. 

At Bethel, though, they are working through the Book of James in their chapel services, and they actually assigned me a particular text to teach on: James 2:1-12.  That’s not one of the passages I usually reference. In fact…it doesn’t mention immigration at all. 

As I began to study the passage, though, a number of relevant themes jumped out at me.  The basic point of the passage is that there’s no room for favoritism within the Church.  The natural tendency of our society, and probably just of human nature, is to privilege those who are already privileged, particularly those with wealth and influence.  We tend to think about relationships with others in a rather utilitarian way—how can this person help me?—rather than recognizing that a person’s worth is not defined by the property or the influence they possess, but by the inherent dignity that each human being has—in equal measure—because we are made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27).  I certainly fall into this trap. I sometimes ignore phone calls from my neighbors, who might be looking for a ride or for help understanding a letter from their kid’s school, but I almost always answer the phone when a reporter calls, or a congressperson’s office, or a pastor of a big church whose influence could be crucial in persuading a legislator to support immigration reform. 

I fear that this attitude makes its way into our churches, too.  I’ve repeatedly heard stories from immigrant friends who have visited mostly-white, non-immigrant churches, but no one talked to them.  They weren’t treated badly, per se, but they felt ignored.  Perhaps people were unsure of how to interact with someone with limited English language comprehension, or they didn’t imagine they would have anything in common with someone who clearly came from a different background.  Or maybe they just never even noticed them.  But I’m pretty sure that if a celebrity or a politician came into most of our churches, they would be noticed. 

The antidote to this sort of natural but un-biblical favoritism is to “keep the royal law found in Scripture, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’” (James 2:8).  That law goes back to the Old Testament—we first find it in Leviticus 19:18.  And, as if anticipating the question of whether we should treat all our neighbors with love, or if certain categories of people were exempted from this mandate, just a few verses later God clarifies “The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself” (Leviticus 19:34).  Jesus reiterates the same point when he cites this command as the second part of his response when a lawyer asks him which commandment is the greatest (Luke 10:27).  His response—which we know of as the Parable of the Good Samaritan—does not tell us a lot about the identity of the man beaten and left for dead on the side of the Road to Jericho, whom a Priest and a Levite walk by without helping, but whom a Samaritan sees and stops to help, modeling neighborly love.  The implication is that we don’t need to know much about the person on the side of the road—not his ethnicity, his religion, his legal status, or what he was doing on that part of the road at that time of the evening—beyond that he is in need.  We are called to respond with compassion to all, without favoritism.  That includes extending compassion to those who may not have legal status. As Rick Warren notes, “A good Samaritan doesn’t stop and ask the injured person, ‘Are you legal or illegal?’”  If we fail to love our neighbors, rationing our love and withholding it from those who are poor, or who have broken an immigration law, we “become judges with evil thoughts” (James 2:4) and we ourselves “are convicted by the law as lawbreakers” (James 2:5). 

The last verse of this passage gives us two ways to practically respond to this command to love indiscriminately: “Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom” (James 2:12).  Before we can speak, we probably need to do some listening, both to the witness of Scripture and to the stories of the immigrants in our communities.  But once we have listened, we have to speak up, joining our voices to those of our immigrant brothers and sisters.  One way that Christian students all across the country are doing that is through the “Speak Up Initiative,” which is beginning today, as campus groups compete to see which can generate the most calls to their elected officials.  As Congress begins what promises to be a vigorous debate over immigration policy changes—we expect a bipartisan bill to be introduced in the Senate as soon as tomorrow—anyone can speak up by calling 1-866-877-5552 and being connected to one of their Senators.

Beyond speaking, though, we also must act, extending love in tangible ways to our neighbors, with special attention to those groups, such as the poor and the immigrant, to whom our society might be the most likely to withhold love.  That can be as simple as a generous tip and an encouraging word to a waitress or a busboy or the person mowing our lawn.  Ministries like World Relief offer more formal ways to connect, serving as an English language tutor or picking a newly arrived refugee family up at the airport.   There are thousands of actions to express love.  What’s important is that we do respond—speaking up, and acting—so as to reflect Christ’s love to our neighbors. 

Matthew Soerens is the co-author of Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion & Truth in the Immigration Debate (InterVarsity Press, 2009) and the US Church Training Specialist at World Relief.  His blogs appear here on Mondays. 


Please note that the views expressed do not necessarily represent those of everyone associated with G92, or any institutions with which the blogger may be affiliated. 


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