Vol. 29 No. 9 (October 2019) pp. 96-104

GOD AND THE ILLEGAL ALIEN: U.S. IMMIGRATION LAW AND A THEOLOGY OF POLITICS, by Robert Heimburger. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018. Paper $24.99. ISBN: 9781316629833.

Reviewed by John S.W. Park, Department of Asian American Studies, University of California, Santa Barbara. Email: jswpark@asamst.ucsb.edu.

Robert Heimburger presents the main point of his book, GOD AND THE ILLEGAL ALIEN: U.S. IMMIGRATION LAW AND A THEOLOGY OF POLITICS, by noting: “this work deals with specific questions about civil law and authority as they concern the migrant. Along the way, the book seeks to remind the church of its purpose and to remind civil authorities of their purpose, each given by God. The aim is to submit human guarding of communities and lands to the guarding of God. Much of the book pares back over-confident assertions of political authority over immigration, pointing to Christ as judge” (p. 19). Heimburger is a fierce critic of Americans and their civil authorities, especially in their treatment of undocumented persons from Mexico. Indeed, one might read his book as a stirring moral rebuke of how Americans in general have been among the most un-Christian and unholy toward their neighbors to the south.

In many places, his book reads like a sermon, the kind that warns its audience of dispossession and divine retribution, maybe even hell fire. The portion of his subtitle that includes “U.S. immigration law” puts this review of his book in a venue like this one, but Heimburger mostly relies on other legal scholars for historical background, interpretations of federal immigration law, and descriptions of their demographic consequences in the United States. This work is thus not an original piece of scholarship in legal history, nor does it offer novel analyses of immigration law and policy; rather, at its heart, this is a book written by a devout Christian for the sake of other believers. Heimburger offers to his Christian audience a history of immigration law that the professional scholars in that field will already find familiar.

To sketch important aspects of the history of immigration law, Heimburger cites some of the best people in the field. In his discussion on the origins of the federal immigration law, Heimburger relies on other important works by Roger Daniels, Daniel Tichenor, Aristide Zolberg, and Mae Ngai, among others. To reach back further into the origins of “aliens” and “citizens,” Heimburger turns to analyses of the leading Chinese exclusion cases of the late 19th century. Justices Stephen Field and Horace Gray were fond of citing medieval theorists, including Emer de Vattel, Hugo Grotius, Samuel Pufendorf, and Thomas Hobbes, all of whom offered full-throated versions of national sovereignty. Heimburger noted that to justify the power to exclude, Justice Stephen Field had once promoted a near unlimited right for his nation to deter unwanted migrants. But Field came to question the doctrine of national sovereignty when his colleagues, including Justice Gray, extended the power to deportation without robust due process protections. Field later repented.

By then, though, the damage was done: “The intellectual lineage from Justice Field and Gray through Vattel and Hobbes casts the sovereign nation as fundamentally committed to its own life, to preserving itself and defending itself from threat” (p. 94). American immigration law divided the world into “us and them,” and “the assumption that the most important thing about law is how it binds a political community together, causing the law to apply first to those within a political community and only in a limited way to those outside” (p. 43). The United States proceeded to act solely in its narrow self-interests, by excluding “immoral” persons and persons likely to become a public charge, including prostitutes, people with loathsome and contagious diseases, and paupers; [*97] the United States also excluded Asians repeatedly from 1882 through 1965. Heimburger suggests that a selfishness was baked into immigration jurisprudence dating since at least the late 19th century.

Heimburger considers such developments a grave misfortune for the United States, one that pushed the nation away from more universal Christian values: “attention to the world that God loves and to the community that is Christ’s body will point to a more salutary way of living. This way does not produce aliens to be distrusted. Instead, it draws near to those far away out of fellow humanity and love” (p. 44). Heimburger argues for a Christianity that is directed outward and seeks fellowship everywhere, such that “someone who hears the Word of God is freed to name, view, and treat those nearby and those far away as neighbors. They may be near or they may be far, but they are near neighbors or distant neighbors” (p. 52). To a Christian who truly believes that God made everyone, “the laws that human beings live by do not have to include aliens, and the world they live in does not have to include aliens” (p. 38).

Heimburger insists that a Christian should embrace the entirety of the world, understanding all of it as God’s creation: “Human beings rightly exercise their place within their people when they are not content to let those far away remain alien, when they seek fellowship and partnership with those far away. Indeed, every human wears pilgrim’s clothes. Migrants are not fundamentally different or alien to those who are more settled among a people; all travel on the pilgrim’s way” (p. 53). Of course, Christians will meet many non-Christians along the way, but when they encounter strangers, pulling a sword is not an option: “The command of God moves its hearers to use speech rightly, to seek to communicate not only with those who speak the same dialect or national language, but to seek fellowship with those who speak foreign languages” (p. 51). Heimburger recommends Karl Barth, the postwar German theologian, for these insights; I was reminded of Christians like John Eliot and Horace Underwood, among the first Americans to translate the Holy Bible into Algonquin and Korean, respectively. Like the Apostle Paul, they spread Christianity by becoming more like the foreigners whom they sought to convert, going out to their world and entering into communities of strangers to seek Christian fellowship with them.

An American Christian who doesn’t get out, who hates foreigners and “aliens,” who builds walls and fences—this is not the kind of Christian that Heimburger recommends, and yet he notes that many American Christians have supported harsh immigration rules for most of their history and into the present day. All good Christians abhor hypocrisy, and so does Heimburger; when the Americans needed laborers from Mexico, as they did during World War II, they imported Mexican workers and encouraged their migration by the thousands, but when the Americans reformed the immigration law again in 1965, they treated Mexico like any other country, limiting migration from there in ways that the nation had never done before. The Immigration Act of 1965 abolished the national origins system, but “a solution to one problem created another problem. Bringing an end to racist, protectionist immigration laws led the United States Congress to disregard neighboring Mexico, enabling a settled, servile underclass of undocumented workers to grow” (p. 177).

Many serious scholars would doubt that the United States was ever really a good neighbor to Mexico, but, nevertheless, Heimburger points out that the United States abandoned its formal policy to be a “good neighbor” and to consult with its neighbors for economic and foreign affairs. In 1965, however, the United States imposed restrictions against Mexico and other countries in the Western Hemisphere without such consultation. “The caps on Mexican immigration that went into place from the sixties did not stop Mexican immigration; they merely pushed it underground” (p. 189). The Americans still benefitted from laborers who were not free and not slaves, but something in between—they were “illegal aliens” now subject to horrible and degrading conditions for the sake of American consumers. Their labor benefited Americans even as the laborers themselves suffered: “With the current size of the undocumented population, with its close [*98] involvement in a variety of industries, Americans with legal status are implicated in the lives of those who butcher their chickens, pick their tomatoes, and live down the road” (p. 177). In these arguments, Heimburger relies heavily on the work of leading social scientists, especially Douglas Massey, Jorge Durand, and Nolan Malone. Their studies were among the first to show how the federal immigration law had changed without accounting for the thick and existing economic and labor connections between Mexico and the United States. In their accounts, American law and American employers who had ignored the law unwittingly and together “produced” thousands and then millions of “illegal aliens.”

Returning to his theological response to this problem, Heimburger argues that for undocumented workers who have continued to come to the United States in light of on-going demands for their labor, the United States has been a most terrible and un-Christian neighbor. Heimburger deplores how immigration authorities have been prone to treating all migrants as hardened criminals, not as persons whose wrongs are minor and understandable in light of their reasons for migrating. Heimburger insists that their “wrong” arises because of an ill-informed and unrealistic positive law; crossing a border is not like murder, it isn’t malum in se or “evil in itself,” a phrase familiar to most Christians and to all first-year law students. According to Heimburger, American immigration law over-reacts: “those who establish a home and build ties to a community, who do not commit crimes that are mala in se, deserve to be left in place. A government that displaces settled people who do not commit serious crimes is a government that goes beyond its remit, holding an excess of power over the persons in its lands” (p. 145). Heimburger obviously deplores the policies of mass deportation that became a common feature of American public law since the 1980s.

Deporting everyone defined as an “illegal,” not caring about their families and their attachments—these are so un-Christian. And Heimburger warns that God is watching: “It is not the people that bestow authority to some person or assembly, but it is God who first bestows that authority. The God who sets in place offices of authority continues to judge those who hold office. Those in power must answer to the God who preserves and sustains human communities and life on earth” (p. 109). We wonder if Donald Trump trembles before God. Heimburger also warns those who voted for the wall guy to consider more broadly the fate of their nation in the eyes of a just God: “The hallmark of God’s just judgment, his governance, is justice for the one from far away and love for the migrant... It looks like the United States of America might rightly allow a noncitizen to enter or to turn them away. Still, the U.S. government risks losing control of its lands if it does not treat noncitizens with justice” (p. 123). The immigration law should be tempered, proportionate, and merciful, or else. Heimburger points to the Old Testament to warn Americans of the error of their ways. “The message of Deuteronomy 2-3 for this modern nation is double-edged: Possess this land and enjoy it, but another nation will soon displace you if you fail to follow God’s ways and practice God’s justice” (p. 124). In passages like these, one hears in Heimburger’s voice a prophet remonstrating the king, although we wonder if our own dim and morally challenged executive is capable of listening. Alas, narcissism doesn’t tend toward moral self-reflection.

Nation-states, boundaries, national sovereignty—Heimburger imagines a world that is ultimately without these things, and he invites his fellow Christians to do the same. “Viewing nationhood within a broad biblical narrative, it became clear that to understand those far away as alien is not a truthful way of describing them as a fatherly God watches over the world and as the good news of the Lord Jesus goes out in the power of the Spirit” (p. 61). He writes further, “To be authentically within a people is to reach out to those from afar, a movement fulfilled as the Holy Spirit draws together those nearby and those far off within the one people of God” (p. 61). And “final belonging lies not in this nation now but in that gathering of every nation and tongue to worship the true Sovereign” (p. 62). Heimburger insists that the miracle of [*99] Christianity requires all followers to do justice to all of God’s creation, to the lowest and to the most vulnerable, including to the orphan and to the widow, and so if “a nation is to continue possessing its land, it cannot practice injustice toward migrants” (p. 121). Quite simply, the United States must repent, and Americans should see the migrants in their midst as fellow beings who belong to the same God, their arrival a part of His design.

Heimburger concludes his book with an extended mediation on Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan, as it comes to us from the Gospel of Luke. It is Luke, Chapter 10, verses 25 to 37, and I would recommend reading the story before continuing this review. It is a lovely parable and one of my favorites. Heimburger tells us that “the parable invites those in the United States to set their sights close by, beginning with those they run into. The story invites those with and without legal status to recognize one another as neighbors…. The Parable of the Good Samaritan lets the hated stranger set the example for being a neighbor” (p. 198). In Jesus’s story, the foreigner saves a member of another community, after the victim’s own fellow members do nothing for him; the Good Samaritan becomes the victim’s neighbor by his own actions. For Americans, Heimburger says, “those from Mexico should not be used and exploited, but they should be received as neighbors” (p. 205). And “the real business of becoming neighbors lies with ordinary Mexicans, Americans, and Mexican Americans. As they receive mercy and extend mercy, they must keep in mind the promise that the neighbor represents the face of Christ. They should take courage that becoming a neighbor is the way to eternal life; it is already a taste of the life that goes on forever” (p. 207). I would agree wholly.

* * * * *

I enjoyed this book very much, and I would recommend it to my fellow Americans, especially the Christians who voted for the wall guy (although it’s still a mystery to me how so many fundamentalist Christians contributed to the success and political survival of this pu**y-grabbing person). I must confess, though, that I am not a professional theologian, and I am a rather wayward Christian, and so I felt hesitant about engaging the work of this professional theologian. I consider myself a recovering Catholic, and my late mother took to calling me a “lump of devil,” which sounds funnier in the Korean. If I hadn’t seen “illegal alien” in the title of Robert Heimburger’s book, I likely never would have read it. Still, having been raised Roman Catholic, I’m surprised by how often I’ve picked up the Bible in my middle age and then revisited those stories that are still so compelling, familiar, and moving.

In writing this review, I could have quibbled with Heimburger’s take on American immigration history, or with his handling of the 18th and 19th century American law of immigration, naturalization, and citizenship, but I think that that would be beside the point. The references to American history and American immigration law are simply illustrative and informative for people less familiar with those topics, and to a community of believers, Heimburger argues in favor of positions that are fundamentally spiritual and scriptural, and not so much legal and political. It’s best to engage his work on that level. The overall argument is quite simple: in choosing between a harsh law and the merciful and welcoming ways of God, Christians should choose God. Such a book is not for everyone, though. A stone-cold atheist will not read this book, for Heimburger assumes a common ground of faith that a true lump of devil would not concede. His work is for people of the Christian tradition—it’s Catholic, in the traditional sense of universal, or at least aspiring toward the universal, in a world whose origins the true members of the faith will always believe arose from God, not from a bang, no matter how big. His book will also be off-putting to a devout Buddhist or a Hindu—Heimburger prays for the final communion “of every nation and tongue to worship the true Sovereign,” and it’s obvious that this Sovereign is not Buddha or Krishna. It’s maybe arrogant, and some will take it as condescending, when Heimburger suggests that all of those non-Christians will eventually come around. [*100]

But even on his own terms, Heimburger will have a hard sell among the Christian faithful. Christianity is so plural and diverse, and the holy scriptures tell many different stories about the personality of God and his covenants with people on Earth. Many of the passages are simply troubling to the modern reader: Heimburger referenced the early chapters of Deuteronomy to show how God gives and takes away lands, and in those passages, Moses records how his people “smote” and “captured” the cities of Heshbon and Bashan (p. 120). Moses sounds like Genghis Khan, only he is supported by the Hebrew God: “And the Lord our God delivered [Sihon] before us, and we smote him and his sons, and all his people. And we took all his cities at that time, and utterly destroyed the men, and the women, and the little ones, of every city, we left none to remain; only the cattle we took for a prey unto ourselves” (Deuteronomy, 2: 33-35). In short, the people of Israel killed everyone and then they grilled steaks. Other portions of the Old Testament show God’s people going out into their world and killing batches of other people, including, presumably, their “little ones.” The slaughter of innocent children is a recurring theme in the Bible, and much of the slaughter is by the hand of God Himself. When, at the tender age of eleven, I learned of the Passover, I imagined an angel of God visiting all of the Egyptian kids and killing them, while skipping over all of the Hebrew kids. It’s a terrifying story of what God can do to little people who aren’t His people.

When he cited Deuteronomy, Heimburger also reminded me of Richard Slotkin and Cotton Mather. In Slotkin’s masterful studies of colonial New England, the early Americans become the murderous, genocidal killers of Native Americans, these people whom the Christians both pity and wish to destroy. According to Professor Slotkin, Cotton Mather, the Christian prodigy, drew from the same chapters in Deuteronomy to suggest parallels between his people and the people allied with King Philip, the Pequot leader who made war against the Christians in 1676. Reverend Mather used a language that dehumanized all Native Americans—they were like serpents, “red men,” children of the devil, like the followers of “Og, the Amorite King of Bashan,” whom the people of God and God Himself slew in Deuteronomy. Having encroached on their lands, having watched their numbers wither by disease, the good Reverend Mather said still that their catastrophes were within the designs of God Himself—God was clearing the wilderness in New England, sweeping away these “children of Satan,” these people native to America, “the men, and the women, and the little ones.” Just as God cleared the land for Israel, God would make space for the Christians and for their “city upon a hill.”

Cotton Mather preached that King Philip and his “red men” were a scourge brought by God to punish the wayward Christians in New England, and yet the Reverend Mather and his followers assured one another that their God would ultimately secure their triumph, and that He wanted them to have this land as theirs alone. Another historian, Jill Lepore, has pointed to King Philip’s War and the Christians’ conduct during that war as a dark beginning, starting many decades of righteous warfare against the “savage.” Before King Philip’s War, Native Americans and European Christians lived amongst one another, moving back and forth into each other’s communities; after the War, whites expelled all Native Americans from their communities, even the “Praying Indians” who had converted to Christianity with John Eliot, and the Christians drew boundaries around themselves against this native “other.” Heimburger uses the stories in Deuteronomy to remonstrate Christians in the here and now, but, generations ago, American religious leaders had once used those same passages to justify the murder and dispossession of Native Americans.

Mather is but one figure, but in the American Christian tradition, there has always been a zealous aversion toward the other, followed by this righteous, murderous tendency manifested in genocide, slavery, exclusion, and dispossession. American Christians have always been hostile toward the foreigner, especially the not-Protestant and the non-Christian. Americans have practiced antisemitism in all of its virulent strains, in every generation. Even the Christians treated one another horribly, long before they [*101] formed their nation: white Christian Americans had decided, in the 17th century, that they could enslave Christians of African descent, that conversion into Christianity made no one free. Moreover, if a white Christian man fathered a child with his slave, the child remained his property to sell as he pleased. The United States constitution envisioned and protected this form of “property” in multiple provisions. During a time when white folks were moving South and West, Andrew Jackson was, by his own admission, prone to wickedness, but he swore to God that he was a Christian, and he referred to Him in his public speeches, even as he was murdering and removing as many Native Americans as he could, all for the sake of his fellow (white) citizens. Like Cotton Mather, President Jackson insisted that their God wanted them to have this land. Well before the immigration law of the late 19th century, Americans thus conceived themselves a chosen people, and they clearly didn’t behave as though people of color were part of their fellowship.

After slavery, white supremacist Christians remained ascendant in American law and politics. The Knights of the Ku Klux Klan insisted that they were, above all, a Christian organization—their very symbol was of a cross on fire. The Christian members of the Klan became Senators, Representatives, Presidents, and members of the Supreme Court well into the 20th century. In the late 19th century, anti-Asian exclusionists based many of their arguments on the fact that Asians weren’t Christians, but, again, when Asian Christians came to America, the racist white Christians opposed them anyway. American Christians also opposed desegregation, and most recently, the newest suit-and-tie white supremacists, including many devout Christians, openly embraced the wall guy—these were the Trumpier Christians. If Heimburger means to sway these folks, to warn them of the error of their ways, he should brace himself for disappointment.

Of course, I myself would prefer a nation of Heimburger Christians, but the grabby ones seem as though they’re reading from a different scripture and praying to a different God, and they seem to be in no hurry to encounter the foreigner in ways that are gracious or loving. To an observer outside of their circle, these folks appear to be voting and behaving to protect themselves against Muslims, Mexicans, “murderers and rapists,” and many other “others”—they are thus behaving well within those nativist, racist, and xenophobic traditions popular in America since at least Cotton Mather, one of the nation’s earliest and most influential Christians. These folks have always been like this. I do hope that many Christians will read Heimburger and that they will heed his advice, but among American Christians who have preferred Mather-like responses to the “other,” his arguments will likely fall upon deaf ears, as they have for many centuries now. Some Christians seem to have no problems locking up children from Central America or from Mexico, perhaps because they don’t regard these children as their children, and even when these children are fellow Christians.

* * * * *

I looked for Ruth in Robert Heimburger’s book, but I didn’t find her anywhere. The Book of Ruth is one of my favorite books in the Bible, and I thought that I would certainly find the story again in this book about migration and the stranger. But Ruth is missing. Her story is so compelling and relevant, though, and the story illustrates many of the central themes and arguments in Heimburger’s work. So, please, bear with me. If you wish to read it yourself, it’s before the first book of Samuel, and if you’d prefer another commentary about Ruth, I would highly recommend the one by Bonnie Honig in her book about democracy and the foreigner, as well the scholarly commentary by Robert Alter in his beautiful translation of the story.

Ruth’s story is very simple, although it doesn’t begin with her at all. Because of “famine in the land,” a Judean family from Bethlehem-Judah “went to sojourn in the country of Moab.” There, the patriarch Elimelech passed away, but his two sons married women from Moab, and the men stayed with their wives and mother in Moab for ten years, until both men passed away as well. Naomi, their long-suffering mother, decided to return to Judah, having heard that [*102] the famine had ended there, and she suggested to her surviving daughters-in-law that they return to the homes of their mothers and thus remain in Moab, “for it grieveth me much for your sakes that the hand of the Lord is gone out against me.” They both protested at first, weeping, but Orpah eventually decided to return as Naomi had advised. The other daughter-in-law, Ruth, replied to Naomi, “Entreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee: for whither thou [*102] goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God. Where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried: the LORD do so to me, and more also, if ought but death part thee and me.”  “Ruth cleaved unto Naomi,” in the King James version; “Ruth clung to Naomi,” in Alter’s recent translation. Together, they both returned to Judah, where Ruth supported them in poverty, by gleaning in the fields, by collecting the grains of wheat and barley, one by one, left behind by the reapers. Naomi’s first words in Judah are telling: she describes herself as “empty,” as in “I went out full and the Lord hath brought me home again empty,” even though Ruth is with her.

Ruth’s presence nevertheless propels the story. Boaz, a prominent man in Judah, invites Ruth to glean in his fields, even though the practice of gleaning—to support the poorest in Judah—did not envision foreign beneficiaries like Ruth. Glean in my fields, he tells her, and drink from my well when you are thirsty. Ruth is amazed and surprised by Boaz’s kindness: “Why have I found grace in thine eyes, that thou shouldest take knowledge of me, seeing I am a stranger?” Boaz replies that her devotion to Naomi has impressed many people in Judah—they all know about her. Moreover, Boaz tells his young men to drop “some of the handfuls of purpose for her, and leave them, that she may glean them, and rebuke her not.” In time, Boaz tells Ruth that “all the city of my people doth know that thou art a virtuous woman.” Being a kinsman to Ruth’s late father-in-law, Boaz then sought to redeem Naomi and Ruth into his own family; before the elders of his town, Boaz announces his intentions to marry Ruth and by doing so, to care for Naomi as well.

Boaz and Ruth have a child, and all rejoice. The women of Judah are pleased for Naomi, praying to the Lord that the boy born of this unconventional marriage “may be famous in Israel,” and they say that for Naomi, Ruth has been “better to thee than seven sons.” In a more touching way, there is just the sheer joy of becoming a grandmother, even though Naomi is not related by blood to the baby at all: “Naomi took the child, and laid it in her bosom, and became nurse to it.” Thanks to Ruth, Naomi is no longer “empty.” Ruth’s child is Obed, who will become the father of Jesse, who will become the father of King David. And thus, through many generations of kings, and then through generations of bitter exile and conquest, the descendants of Ruth will include Joseph and a young girl named Mary, who will herself become, by a divine miracle, the earthly mother of Jesus. She gives birth in a manger in the town of Bethlehem, because Mary was forced upon an urgent journey when she was pregnant.

Between the laws of Moses and the days of Jesus, there was this story of Ruth and Naomi, and we should wonder even now about the significance of the foreigner in the life of Israel, in the life of Christians, and in the very being of Christ. The Book of Ruth is so short that one can miss it, and yet the devotion of Ruth and the graciousness of Boaz, as well as the love between Ruth and Naomi—they still all remain remarkable, and not just for those of us who have studied migration, rootlessness, strangers, and the sometimes meandering pathways to belonging. The story itself is a literary masterpiece. To Naomi, Ruth becomes not a “daughter-in-law” but simply a “daughter,” a woman who is as dear to her as her own child. Ruth treats Naomi as her own mother, and her experience resonates for many of us married so long as to regard our own in-laws simply as our own. Ruth is Naomi’s daughter, just as Obed is Naomi’s grandson.

The story is all the more remarkable because of its many perspectives: Ruth sees the care and kindness of Naomi, when Naomi releases her of her obligations and advises her to return to her Moabite family; Naomi then sees the constant devotion Ruth expresses for her, “whither thou goest, I will go,” even though Naomi, in her emptiness, does not always regard Ruth; Boaz sees and admires Ruth’s steadfast devotion to Naomi, as did many others in Judah; Naomi and Ruth see the generosity of Boaz; and Boaz sees Ruth as a singular and virtuous woman, the only woman for him. Even though he knows that Ruth has nothing, Boaz still sees a way to make this woman his beloved wife. The people of Judah see Naomi, Ruth, and Boaz, and they feel joy for all of them. The narrator offers us a glimpse of Ruth’s descendants, and we see why she is so important. In all of these perspectives, the results are the same—the stranger ceases to be so strange, and instead, the foreigner becomes the familiar. The stranger is the familiar, Ruth is the beloved wife and daughter. She is so familiar that she is easy to mistake as a woman of Judah, even though her foreignness was the very reason that her story was so compelling and moving.

The Book of Ruth is so important for the many narrative parallels that it offers, especially about refuge and asylum. In the first Book of Samuel, David, Ruth’s great grandson, is not yet king, but he is rather persecuted by the King. Saul had elevated David, but seeing him as a rival, King Saul wants David dead. Naomi’s family had once fled to Moab because of famine, but David himself, during this dangerous moment, took his father and mother to Moab for protection to seek asylum. Thus, long after Naomi and Ruth, Moab remains this place of refuge—it is a place for the people of Judah and Israel to escape horrible forms of death, even when that threat arose from one’s own king. In the other books of the Old Testament, prophets and judges warn the Hebrews away from Moab, describing it as a dangerous and hostile place. In the same way, in the Bible, Egypt is a foreign and hostile place, too, but it’s also a place of refuge: Egypt offers refuge to the Israelites at the end of the Book of Genesis, even as the Book of Exodus is all about the flight from Egypt. In the Gospel of Matthew, once again, Joseph and Mary flee to Egypt to escape the murderous King Herod, thereby saving Jesus from that king’s butchery. As the appointed King of Judah, Herod murders all of the boys under the age of two, in a vain attempt to rid himself of Jesus. There is such terrible poetry and symmetry to the Bible, and we see this in its places—Egypt, Judah, and Moab. So many of the Bible’s central characters take flight into the foreign, and so we must thank God always for those places of refuge.

Christians who believe in a tight wall or barrier between themselves and the other should recall these stories, for they are in fact some of the most instructive and important stories in their Holy Bible. They are hauntingly relevant—they illustrate Heimburger’s contentions of people going forth and coming into communities of strangers, encountering those strangers as neighbors, and then folding themselves together as beloved familiars. Love overcomes all difference. After so many centuries, there still remain, I think, important moral lessons from these stories that we can apply to our present. Under American immigration law, for example, Ruth would likely be excluded, either because her late husband made no attempt to naturalize her, or because, more obviously, she was quite “likely to become a public charge.” Naomi is “empty,” Ruth is a pauper. How sad, that if Naomi were an American, Ruth from Mexico, that our immigration rules would have rendered Ruth an illegal alien. Ruth’s commitment to Naomi would mean nothing under our current laws. The story still admonishes us. In Robert Alter’s study of the Book of Ruth, he observes that the story is quite singular—there are no “bad people” in the Book of Ruth, its setting is bucolic, and its message may have been subversive indeed, even for its own time, as the story was first told during a period when many in Israel were insisting upon hard lines between themselves and the “other.”

There are other disquieting lessons. Right now, the United States government has incarcerated children from abroad, many separated from their parents while others have no parents. In those jails, there is very likely a Ruth, and also a Good Samaritan, and many other hundreds of good people, all innocent, having done no moral wrong by crossing into a foreign land to seek refuge and shelter, just as Naomi had once done, and just like Joseph, Mary, and Jesus. We are like their Egypt, sometimes a cruel place [*104] and other times a refuge. In the “tender-age” shelters operated by the Department of Homeland Security, we imagine a baby, a child, in the custody of our government, and in light of Ruth, it’s quite possible, is it not, that that boy held in that way might still one day become a beloved son and a good husband? Is it not also possible that in our prisons there might reside people who might one day become the ancestors of some of our greatest Americans not yet born, and that their names may well be famous in America? In our own times, through these ancient stories, we can experience a sense of hope as well as feelings of anguish that are truly Biblical: when a child dies in our custody, how can we ever atone for such a grave sin? We sin against the child and the child’s family, but this feels also like a sin against ourselves, a careless murder of our own future.

In this Christian nation, the Bible and its stories have no legal force, and yet in this Christian nation, my wayward fellow Christians would do well to revisit these stories. They still teach us so much about how much we’ve failed, how we’ve allowed a certain kind of Christian to dictate the terms of our lives, to the detriment of others and to our own detriment. The oldest stories can suggest how we might be better than we are now. Perhaps that is the whole point of Christianity: we confess our wrongs, to ourselves and one another, and we pray for God’s help to be better in the aftermath of our most catastrophic failures. One need not be a devout Christian like Heimburger to perceive American immigration law as a moral and political failure, but we may need to take a biblical sensibility to measure its failure accurately, and to redeem ourselves from those failures, even if that will involve wresting the country back from the wrong kind of Christians.

© Copyright 2019 by author, John S.W. Park.