How shall we respond to the stranger knocking at our door? What should our answer be to the plight of the refugee desperate for a safe haven or to the immigrant seeking refuge among us, fleeing violence and poverty in their home country. How shall we respond when we know that we are not totally innocent from the causes that have created the humanitarian crises consuming the Middle East, Central America, and so many African countries. And what shall we do when the stranger knocking at the door is viewed with suspicion and fear by many among our own?
As people of faith who believe that the Spirit of God continues to speak to us through the Sacred Scriptures, we turn first of all to the word of God and pray for divine wisdom and guidance as we struggle to find ways to respond to these urgent issues in ways that are congruent with the gospel and true to the values that we seek to embody daily in our life of discipleship.
In the first article of this issue of the JLE, New Testament scholar, David Balch, guides us through an in-depth study of how one of the earliest documents in the New Testament deals with the question of the stranger knocking at the door, especially a stranger that is viewed with suspicion and prejudice by the predominant culture. Balch argues that Paul’s letter to the Galatians (but also Luke’s Acts of the Apostles) implies a radical openness to the other in his or her otherness, as can be seen in affirmations like the following one: “in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:26-28, NRSV). However, Balch explains that in order to really understand how radical those words are one must become aware of who they were being addressed to. Who were the gauls? Balch guides us through a tour of how the gauls were depicted by the romans in public art, and what it meant for Paul to say that there was no different between them, Romans, and Jews. The conclusion is as much surprising as it is powerful.
In the second article, theologian and pastor Eliseo Perez asks the question: who are these strangers, immigrants, or refugees knocking at our door and how did they become such? He offers us a new glossary of sorts and a password to unlock the meanings in the semantics being deployed in the public debate about immigration and refugees. With his usual kierkegaardian irony he calls us to remember our own history and the ways in which we are profoundly implicated in creating the conditions from which the immigrants or refugees are fleeing today, and how we benefit from those conditions. By analyzing the issue from a historical perspective he is able to remind us that vis-a-vis the original peoples of the Americas the miss-called “Americans” (i.e., U.S. citizens) are in fact the immigrants and the miss-called immigrants are, in fact, the ones with actual ancestral and legal claim to these lands. Even though his argument might be seen as provocative, Perez sees himself as simply being faithful to Luther’s method of doing theology from the perspective of cross whereby the theologian of the cross calls the thing what it is.
Finally, in the third and fourth articles of this issue, pastor and activist, Alexia Salvatierra, lays out a practical method for addressing the concrete needs of the stranger in our midst. In fact, her method is not only addressed to those who would like to find ways to help the stranger knocking at the door but it is addressed to them as well. Writing in English and in Spanish, Slavatierra explains the need for churches to go beyond the practice of mercy, as important as that is, to engage in the search for more just social structures for all. Alluding to the popular saying, she explains that even if you teach a person how to catch fish it won’t do them any good if someone has built a wall keeping them out of the pond where all the fish are. To act faithfully and lovingly, in such an unfair situation, is to advocate for the removal of the wall. However, she feels that the typical approaches to community organizing and advocacy are inadequate for those seeking to seek justice from a Christian perspective because it falls into the trap of easy simplifications whereby the world is divided into the good (us) and the bad (them). She advocates for a faith-rooted method of organizing, a method that teaches Christians to be innocent as doves but also astute as serpents. In following that approach one will keep in mind that those in power, are complex human beings, like us, and are simultaneously moved by low ambitions and by loft ideals sometimes even religious ideals. The idea is to help them act from their values rather than from their fears or low ambitions.
As nations and churches continue the public conversation on how to respond to the strangers knocking at the door, and to those already in our midst, I hope that this issue of the JLE will be a helpful resource for those who wish to understand the issue from a Lutheran perspective, and for those who wish to do something about it.
I pray that in the end our response will be one that we can be proud of when our children and grandchildren read about it in their history books, and when we are called, on the other side of eternity, to give an account for how we responded to the Lord when he came to us and knocked at our door.
In Christ’s hope,
Journal of Lutheran Ethics