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Embracing the Stranger: Toward an Adventist Theology of Migration

In the fall of 2007 I was invited to read a paper at the Summer 2008 Oxford Round Table. The stated purpose of the Oxford Round Table, is “to promote education, art, science, religion, and charity by means of academic conferences and publication of [peer-reviewed] scholarly papers.” As a non-profit educational and charitable organization founded by Oxford University professors and administrators along with invited international guests from government and education, the Round Table holds conferences in the summer and spring of every year. These conferences deal with relevant topics impacting social, political, economic, and religious life around the world and are by invitation only. Participants have included ministers of education, legislators, educators and educational administrators from around the globe.

The round table topic for which I read a paper was “Human Migrations and National Interests” and the paper was titled “Embracing the Stranger: Hispanics, American Christianity, and Immigration.” The paper reflected my growing concern about the increasingly acrimonious tone of the conversation in the U.S. surrounding immigration over the U.S./Mexico border, the growing number of U.S.-based hate groups focusing their violence on Latinos, and vigilantism on the border. As a Christian, I was deeply disturbed by political and social leaders claiming to be Christian speaking not only disparagingly and uncharitably but even hatefully about this most recent stranger in our midst, often making outright false attributions ranging from economic subterfuge to immigrant-created health threats. Conscious that the current immigration laws are no longer serving either the American people or Hispanic border immigrants, I set out to read about what American Christians were saying about this particular immigration. What I found was that both Catholics and Protestant Christians were, indeed, speaking out against media and political voices that were attempting to speak for American Christians in ways that did not reflect biblical injunctions surrounding the “stranger” nor the most fundamental Christian concepts of love and compassion and justice at the heart of any Christian religion. While honoring the role of “Caesar” and one’s Christian duty to law, order, and the common good, these Christians voices were unafraid to place biblical injunction above what they perceived to be unjust laws. It struck me that, although the Adventist Christian church does speak out against many social injustices, such as violence against women and children, for example, there is no formal statement reflecting the church’s position on the treatment of the immigrant.

The paper begins with a definition of a “theology of migration” which derives largely from Catholic Liberation theology applied to the immigrant and refugee as the biblical “poor” or “outcast.” However, there are mainstream Protestant churches, such as the United Church of Christ, and evangelical groups, such as Sojourners, active in speaking and acting for the immigrant. What all these Christian groups have in common is the biblical precedent regarding the treatment of the stranger (I use the meaning of the Old Testament Hebrew gêr or gêyr when referring to the “stranger,” that is, the foreigner living among Israelites (the Hebrew zûwr and nokrîy, often translated as “alien,” carry negative connotations and usually refer to hostile foreigners). The moral imperative behind the compassionate treatment of the stranger arises from the fact that Israel was once an enslaved immigrant minority. Consequently, Israel was expected to treat the stranger living in their midst just as they would the native born (Lv.19:33-34). Naomi’s treatment of Ruth, a Moabite, is an example of the way all Israelites were to deal with foreigners living among them. In the New Testament the human rights of the stranger were embodied in the call to love one’s neighbor as oneself and even one’s enemies. The Golden Rule was meant to be applied to all, regardless of social status or ethnic provenance.

In the next part of my paper I discuss the Catholic model for a theology of migration, citing the statements issued by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and its Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc. Again the biblical passages referring to the sojourn and hospitality of Abraham and Sarah and the call to treat the stranger no differently than the native born serve as the basis for a strong position in favor of protecting and providing for the stranger. Papal encyclicals such as Pacem in Terris and Exsul Familia also underscore the dignity of all humans as the foundation for outreach to the most needy. The migration of the Holy Family to Egypt serves as an archetype for every migrant, alien, or refugee, no matter the motive for leaving their country of origin. Pope Pius XII in Exsul Familia goes so far as to suggest that emigration is a human right, given just reasons. In a more recent document issued by this body in 2000, Welcoming the Stranger Among Us: Unity in Diversity, the Catholic church has affirmed its historic stance regarding the immigrant: they are to be welcomed and helped to join American communities in ways that respect their cultures.

Other Protestant churches and interfaith groups are not only speaking for the immigrant, but acting through advocacy, training workshops, vigils, rallies, and lobbying for reforms. The United Methodist Church bishops, for example, support providing a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants currently living in the U.S. and want an immigration system that reunifies immigrant families separated due to workplace raids. Likewise, Christians for Comprehensive Immigration Reform, a coalition made up largely of evangelical churches, organizations, and leaders from across the theological and political spectrum, support the expansion of legal avenues for workers and families already in the U.S. to work in a safe and legal manner.

The absence of any specific statement on the Adventist church’s position on immigrants and immigration does not mean that there is no interest in this topic. Ellen White, for one, had much to say about how Adventists were to treat the “foreigner.” Christ died for the immigrant and church members were to be “rivers of living water” for these newcomers. Yes, they should be evangelized, but this was not to be the primary purpose of meeting their needs and seeking to incorporate them into the life of the church. She complains about an Adventist church caught up in its own “narrow interests” scarcely giving “a look of pity or a work of sympathy” to these strangers. Nor was she satisfied that Adventist should contribute monetary resources to meet the needs of the newcomer—they must visit them and learn to know them, personally. Her insistence that foreigners were to be included in Adventist “feasts” explains her opposition to churches and conferences separated by language and culture. In this sense, she envisioned a truly united and inclusive Adventism.

The paper ends with a suggested framework for an Adventist theology of migration based on selected fundamental Adventist beliefs, including the nature of the Trinity; the “imago dei” of every human being, regardless of social status or national origin; the Great Controversy and its global implications, the believer’s adoption as sons and daughters of God through Christ, placing all believers on equal footing; the Christian life as a sojourn; the church as inclusive community; humility in community and the Lord’s Supper/Footwashing Ceremony; the exercise of spiritual gifts and the breaking down of distinctions; the Sabbath rest as equalizer; the Ten Commandments and the practice of justice; stewardship of time and means toward the stranger; and the unique mission of the “remnant” church.


Professor Lourdes E. Morales-Gudmundsson, Ph.D., is chair of the World Languages Department at La Sierra University.

This is an abstract of a larger paper.

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