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Failing The 'Religious Test': Ancient Christianity's Opposition To Trump's Proposal To Prefer Christian Refugees

31/01/2017 12:11

Among the many reasons people across the world have been expressing outrage at the executive order on immigration signed by President Donald Trump, one of the lesser noted has been its advocacy of a "religious test" for migrants.

In an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network's show The Brody File, Trump said that persecuted Christians will be given priority when it comes to applying for refugee status in the United States. "They've been horribly treated," Trump claimed, "so we are going to help them."

One presumes this policy position would be based, at least in part, on the Bible, the primary source for Christian doctrine. Yet, in its ancient context--the determinative one for Christians who support Trump like Jerry Falwell Jr--the Bible supports precisely the opposite policy.

It is important to recognize that the authors of the Bible--both the Old and New Testaments--were religious minorities themselves. It is only some 200 years after the final texts in the Bible were composed that Christianity became a mainstream and powerful religion, which occurred when the Roman Emperor Constantine endorsed Christianity. If one wants to understand the Bible in its earliest context, one must bear in mind that it speaks from the margins of society and expresses the views of a minority group with little to no influence. In other words, it resembles the perspective of Syrian Christians, a minority in their country, far more than it does Christians in the United States of America.

Many, many things about the Old Testament resemble the broader cultures of ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Persia, which dominated the world when they were being written. Nevertheless, one of the places where the Old Testament actually does depart markedly from them is in its strong statements demanding equal treatment for both its citizens and foreigners. For instance, the Laws of King Hammurabi of Babylon--the most widely known legal text in the ancient world--remain absolutely silent on the treatment of non-Babylonians. Hammurabi is merely one example that can stand for the whole tradition: foreigners had no rights in others lands, with only their economic resources or political connections offering hope of being treated well.

Ancient Israel was different. Over and over again, the legal texts of ancient Israel demand care for the wandering foreigner and reject any rationale for oppressing them. In the book of Exodus, the command is "you shall not wrong or oppress a foreigner living in your midst, for you were foreigners living in the midst of Egypt" (Exodus 22: 21). Deuteronomy instructs the people that they shall "not deprive a foreigner living in your midst or an orphan of justice" and that they should intentionally leave part of their harvest for "the foreigner living in your midst, the orphan, and the widow, so that the LORD your God may bless you in all your undertakings" (Deuteronomy 24: 17, 19). The most ardent support for the foreigner comes in the little known book of Leviticus. There, one finds several variations on the injunction that "you shall have one law for the outsider and for the citizen" (Leviticus 24:22). A bit radical by modern standards, this was revolutionary in the ancient world.

Leviticus is central to Christianity too, though this is often overlooked. When Jesus calls people to love their neighbor as themselves, he is quoting Leviticus 19:18. Thus, Christianity's version of the "golden rule" comes from the very same book that demands one law for citizen and foreigner.

Elsewhere, the parable of the "Good Samaritan" depicts a foreign person despised by its audience as the model exemplifying love for a person in need (Luke 10:25-37). Historically speaking, the Samaritans were an ethnic group of mixed Jewish and non-Jewish ancestry, viewed by the Jewish community to whom Jesus preached around Jerusalem as dangerous outsiders. The Good Samaritan of Jesus' parable, albeit fictional, presents an astonishing ideal. Not only would it have been hard to imagine that a Samaritan man would have taken an injured Jerusalemite to safety at an inn (Luke 10.34-35), but the Jerusalemites there likely would have concluded that the Samaritan caused the injuries. The Samaritan would be putting his safety in real danger to care for this injured man. Perhaps the central parable of the New Testament advocates that one should love foreigners even to the point of potentially endangering oneself. This is hardly a Christian majority pursuing a policy that preferences their compatriots who find themselves living as a persecuted minority.

No doubt the events of the past few years mean the world needs a thoughtful debate on migration policy. In particular, Trump's actions reflect a desire to re-evaluate how to deal with the proliferation of people seeking asylum from war, political persecution, and violence. Yet, any effort to find a precedent to prefer Middle Eastern Christians because they are a religious minority will have to seek support somewhere other than the Bible.

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