Sunday, June 18, 2006

Hospitality to Strangers and Immigration, Part I

“Hospitality to Strangers” is a moral practice that pervades Scripture from Genesis to Revelation. This practice was vital to the survival of the wandering nomadic clans from which the various tribes of Habiru came that would come to be the “Hebrews” who settled in Canaan.

Genesis 15, famous for reassuring Abram of offspring and the faithfulness of God to the covenant, also gives the less than reassuring promise, “Know this for certain, that your offspring shall be aliens in a land that is not theirs, and shall be slaves there, and they shall be oppressed for many years, but I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with many possessions.” (15:13-14).

To be aliens in a land not yours—the lot of most refugees and immigrants around the world and through the centuries. Slavery and other forms of oppression follow naturally from that vulnerable refugee state—as any glance at migrant workers will tell you.

Genesis 19, the Sodom story, is not about “homosexuality,” but about the terrible crime of inhospitality to strangers—something considered grossly immoral throughout the Ancient Near East, not just in Hebrew tradition. The men of Sodom, all of them, not the few gay men who might live there, threaten the angelic strangers with gang rape—which then as now was the ultimate way that males humiliated other males or women. Lot’s offer of his virgin daughters (which would have made no sense if he was besieged by gay men), as horrible as it rightly sounds to us, was motivated by his determination to respect the rules of hospitality and do everything in his power to protect the strangers under his roof.

Later, in the giving of the Torah at Sinai, the Israelites are reminded to offer hospitality and justice to resident aliens “because you know the heart of the alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.” Even in the Christmas narratives of the Gospels we find that Mary and Joseph, forced by the whims of empire to travel late in her pregnancy, must seek hospitality as homeless strangers in an Innkeeper’s cave. In Matthew’s version, after the visit of the Magi, the Holy Family become refugees seeking hospitality in Egypt until it is safe to return to Nazareth.

When Jesus sends out his disciples two by two, they are to expect hospitality and the early church practiced hospitality to all strangers, but especially to itinerant missionaries. I could multiply these illustrations of a major biblical theme beyond count. Yet, when it comes to thinking about immigration today, those U.S. Christians who most want politicians to decide all questions based on the Bible appear to have forgotten the biblical practice of hospitality to strangers. I confess that this topic touches me personally because of my own family history.

On my father’s side we are from Ireland and, like so many others, we came to this country in the 1880s when Ireland was experiencing severe famine and U.S. expansionists were promising “free land.” (No one told us that the Native Americans would consider the land theirs and object to our living there! The bigwig politicos didn’t really care if the settlers were killed—they were only Irish—but the Irish were “white enough” to be an excuse then to send in the military to wipe out yet another Native American nation. Once again, we were pawns in others’ power plays.)

When my ancestor, Sean Bhain and his wife and five kids arrived, however, they were told that the Irish immigration quota was filled that year. The boat was sent to Halifax, Nova Scotia. But Sean and his family sneaked into the U.S. and then, to be certain they weren’t caught, changed their last name by translating the Irish “Bhain” to its English equivalent “White.” Yes, I am a descendant of illegal immigrants. (From a Native American viewpoint, nearly all of us are the descendants of illegal immigrants, although in the case of African Americans the Middle Passage abductions could hardly be called by such a voluntary-sounding term as “immigration.”)

We didn’t find much hospitality at Ellis Island, but once in the country, we were welcomed far more than immigrants from Eastern or Southern Europe, not to mention those from China who were arriving about the same time! Doubtless much of our ease in assimilation came from already knowing English (since bloody Brits had dominated us so thoroughly for so long). And, unlike most Irish immigrants, Sean Bhain (turned Sean White) didn’t attract the hostility of late 19th C. “Nativists” by being Catholic. My family were composed, even that far back, mostly of Methodists and Baptists. That was another reason than the famine to leave—whether the English-loving Anglican Loyalists were dominant or the Republican Catholics, dissenting Free Church folk were going to be marginalized.

But, in America, we would find it easier since Methodists and Baptists were the fastest-growing denominations of the day and, at that time, Catholics were a distinct minority who were seen as a threat to democracy and Protestant America. So, we not only survived, but largely prospered—and, like so many immigrants, became so thoroughly “American” that Ireland became only a place of old stories, a place we might wish to visit (but none of us has), a land with vague connections to us—but no longer home. America became home and the White family thrived.

But America benefited too. Of all the nations in the world, only Canada is as much an immigrant society as the U.S. Immigrants built this country, but each wave of immigration has been met with hostility and fear. America has greatly benefited from immigration, but has too seldom been grateful. Our current attitude is so very far from “hospitable” that we should change the inscription on Lady Liberty (herself a Frenchwoman, you know!) from “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest tossed, to me. I lift my lamp beside the golden door” to something like “No vacancies!” Shameful.

And it is all justified by the supposed burden that immigrants are supposed to be on the economy—a convenient scapegoat for incompetent government policies of rewarding the rich at the expense of the common good.

by Michael the Leveller, with yet more to come...


At 6/18/06, 11:21 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Enjoyed reading your "Hospitality to Strangers" post. Can't say I'm ever made feel welcome in the US even as a tourist. Cameras, finger printing, so-called secondary "random" searches where they dump your belongings open and make you put it all back together yourself. Went to the US the summer of 2004 to study and travel. I enjoyed the trip but immigration made me feel like a criminal. First impression not a good one. Is it so difficult to smile and say "Welcome to the US"? Singapore immigration can do it.

"An Irish guy in Singapore".

At 6/19/06, 5:53 AM, Blogger Michael Westmoreland-White said...

I hear you. Since 11 Sept. 2001, the process has gotten very nasty--even for many of us citizens who travel and return. Will the U.S. return to any kind of welcoming approach to visitors and immigrants in the near future? I don't know, but I hope so. Thanks for the comment. We Irish (and descendents) are sure spread out a long ways around the world from the Emerald Isle, no?

At 7/8/06, 10:31 AM, Blogger :: jane :: said...

thank you for this post, michael. i appreciate your research and thoughtful challenges.

my heart aches that many church leaders are failing to embrace the "strangers" that seek a better life among us.

the bride is behaving badly.


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