Van Ens: Bible opens the door to immigrants; Trump administration slams it shut (column)

Jack Van Ens
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Jack Van Ens

One of the Bible’s central teachings is: Welcome strangers, exiles, aliens, sojourners — biblical synonyms for “immigrants.”

Contrast this scriptural nonnegotiable with President Donald Trump’s administration seven-week program of separating nearly 2,000 immigrant children from their families.

Hospitality toward immigrants dominates the Old Testament. Lutheran pastor Peter W. Marty, publisher of Christian Century magazine, notes that most Christians and Jews read the Old Testament and the Torah, peering through the lens of welcoming immigrants.

“Only once does the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) contain the command to love thy neighbor (Leviticus 19:18),” Marty observes. “More than 35 times, though, these same scriptures command one to love the stranger. Why the emphasis on stranger? ‘Our neighbor is one we love because he is like ourselves,’ says rabbi Jonathan Sacks. ‘The stranger is one we are taught to love precisely because he is not like ourselves’” (Christian Century magazine, “World without strangers,” May 9, 2018, p. 3).

The New Testament reinforces Judaism’s insistence on caring for immigrants. When we are hospitable to strangers, Jesus’ spirit gets under our skin, he taught (Matthew 25:31-46). The New Testament repeatedly invites us to make strangers into our neighbors (Luke 14:12-14; I Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:8; I Peter 4:9; Galatians 6:10).

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What edited version of scripture has attorney general Jeff Sessions been reading that requires him to separate children from parents who illegally cross our country’s southern border? Sessions ripped from context a portion of Romans 13 to justify his tough stance, “to obey the laws of government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order.” Sarah Huckabee Sanders later gave another erroneous warrant to the border crackdown, saying, “It’s very biblical to enforce the law.”

Aren’t they aware this Romans passage is set between clear teaching to “extend hospitality to strangers” (Romans 12:9-11) and “love does no wrong to a neighbor?” (Romans 13:9-10).

On Monday, May 7, Sessions announced “zero tolerance” toward prosecuting illegal aliens. Speaking in Scottsdale, Arizona, and San Diego, the attorney general revealed the real reason for ripping children from parents. “If you’re smuggling a child, then we’re going to prosecute you, and that child will be separated from you probably,” threatened Sessions, “as required by law.”

A devout Methodist, Sessions replaces biblical hospitality toward strangers with “law and order.”

History reveals how “law and order” advocates squelched dissent. In the early 1950s, Republican Sen. Joseph McCarthy spewed hatred toward “communists in government and Hollywood.” He vowed to restore law and order.

A decade later, racist George Wallace was inaugurated Alabama’s governor on Jan. 14, 1963. On TV, he snarled, “… segregation now … segregation tomorrow … segregation forever.” Such law-and-order tactics restrained civil rights marches.

A few years later, collegians of my generation protested the Vietnam War. GOP President Richard Nixon castigated these shaggy-haired misfits. His remedy to stamp out unpatriotic agitation? Law and order.

In each case, “devout Christian politicians” replaced a welcoming spirit with law-and-order threats as a cure-all for our nation’s ills.

Then a mild-mannered ordained Presbyterian minister Fred Rogers appeared on TV. He coached children to be gentle, humble and handle fear with gracious strength. Rogers came out of retirement after 9/11 to do TV spots for frightened children. He recited a Hebrew phrase, insisting, “We all are called to be tikkun olam,” those who repair a tattered world. Rogers reminded us to be civil, decent and helpful to people different from us.

Welcome them. It’s the biblical thing to do.

The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth Ministries (, which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.

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