As educators, we know the importance of taking advantage of “teachable moments,” those valuable, yet often unexpected, instances in which student interest and eagerness conspire to create a context in which learning a particular idea becomes most accessible or possible. Although I know I have seized some such moments in my classrooms, several have undoubtedly escaped me. There is great satisfaction in capitalizing on such unanticipated moments, especially those that prove instructive for professors as well. This week I was happy to have stumbled into a teachable moment that, beyond facilitating student learning, also served as an important reminder to me of the responsibility we bear as Christian educators in our use of literal and figurative language in the classroom.
Like in most language courses, we often read cultural observations that allow students to explore the target culture and reflect on their home culture in my second semester French course. Over the last several years, I have tried to integrate a biblical perspective in this course—especially as it relates to the topic of migration—as a way of triangulating the students’ study of culture. As students begin learning the vocabulary and structures to express their (and their family’s) past travel and movement, we also consider the overarching theme of migration in the Bible. We focus on a number of Biblical passages, including some from the Old Testament,1 which cast God’s people as migrants2 and consequently bids them in turn to treat the immigrant justly—and even to love them as oneself.
This week, after having read a passage presenting the gleaning law, which spells out the obligation God gives his people to provide the poor and the immigrants with access to provisions from the earth (Leviticus 19:9-10), I had the class read a cultural note describing some of the challenges that recent immigration has posed in France. Notably, the reading points out the marginalization of immigrants in French society, particularly emphasizing the lack of economic opportunities and social marginalization of African migrants.
After reading the cultural note, I gave the class time to answer some comprehension and discussion questions in small groups. When we turned to a whole-class discussion, the conversation was going well and students seemed engaged. As a point of integration, some of my discussion questions asked the students to decide if they thought that, in our own culture, we (Christians in the U.S.) observe the gleaning law, especially as it pertains to the immigrant. A number of students gave their opinions and we agreed that, generally speaking, American Christians do not follow the gleaning law in the U.S.
This was when the teachable moment emerged. One of the students shared an observation that was particularly insightful. As she thought critically through the issue, she reflected on how we speak about immigration at Christian universities. She contextualized the situation by noting that, in some Christian university contexts, there is often a politically conservative bias. She then proceeded to point out that although the immigrant or sojourner metaphor as it applies to Christians in secular society is often presented positively, the tone and message usually changes when the conversation deals with real immigrants.
It is interesting that the teaching moment allowed for students to reflect on their own experiences at the university, while at the same time it served as a reminder to us as instructors to be aware of our use of language when interacting with students. It is almost a cliché of the Christian undergraduate experience to hear professors or administrators use the trope of the sojourner as a way to remind them that their experience as Christians in this world is only temporary, and that our minds and hearts should really be on our eternal home (and of course not on this world). Undoubtedly, there is truth to that sentiment. As my own lesson planning above suggests, a number of important biblical figures (Abraham and Sarah, Moses, even Jesus and the Apostles) are represented, literally or figuratively, as immigrants or sojourners. Moreover, the Bible provides a number of passages that use this language to exhort us to live godly lives in a non-Christian world (1 Peter 2: 11; Philippians 3:18-21) or to inspire hope and faith as we wait for the fulfilment of God’s promises (Hebrews 11:13-16). However, as my student noted, in conservative circles there often exists a disconnect between the figure and the reality the figure points to.
Recently, I heard a podcast in which a number of Christian professors argue that, from a biblical perspective, we are not actually expected to love and care for all immigrants. The argument was based on the language used in Leviticus 19:33, and suggested that the Hebrew word used for immigrants or foreigners there, “גֵּ֖ר” or “gēr,” specifically referred to those migrants who settle in the land and are integrated into that society. These migrants, they claim, differ from those who do not assimilate into the dominant culture of the land, whom God’s people are not scripturally obligated to care for or love as themselves. The contrast with the use of the figure of the Christian-sojourner was striking. There seemed to be a complete disidentification with the immigrant which seemed to cast them as “other” and potentially dangerous.3 4
Although there are conflicting opinions regarding to whom the term “gēr” refers,5 the above interpretation becomes problematic when we note that same term is used with reference to the people of Israel during their exile in Egypt (e.g. Exod 22:20; 23:9; Lev 19:34; Deut 10:19; 23:8). Even within the context of the verse that was being discussed, the author of Leviticus reminds us that one of the primary reasons for the laws is the identification of Israel themselves as “gēr”: “You must love them as yourself, because you were immigrants [gēr] in the land of Egypt” (Lev. 19:34).6 Indeed, as one critic suggests, it is important to recognize that Israel is to consider itself as gēr in relation to God: “But even more important was that Israel should consider themselves as strangers before God, having the status of a stranger (גֵּ֖ר )! David prays: “We are foreigners ( גֵרִ֨ים) and strangers (וְתוֹשָׁבִ֖ים ) in your sight, as were all our ancestors” (1Chr 29:15 NIV).”7 In other words, these passages serve as a clear reminder that the people of God ought to look at and treat the immigrant as they would like to be treated themselves. That is in line with other passages in the New Testament regarding how Christians should treat their neighbors (Mark 12:31; 1 John 4:10-11) and strangers (Heb. 13:2).
What is more, Jesus himself expands our understanding of “neighbor” beyond its typical definition.8 Indeed, Christians are not only asked to love the “πλησίον,” “plésion,” or neighbor, but also the “ἐχθρόν,” “echthron,” or “enemy” (Matt. 5:44). If we are called to be reflections of the God who loved us first and sent His own son to die for our sins—while we were his enemies9—perhaps it is not farfetched to think we should love the immigrant, not only with spiritual rhetoric but also in action and truth.
- A number of biblical passages can be used for this. I emphasize the narrative arch by signaling the first Great Commission to fill the earth (Gen. 1: 28) as a command for humans to migrate, as well as Abram’s calling (Gen. 12: 1-3), and linking these Old Testament passages to the New Testament Great Commission to go and make disciples of all nations (Matt. 28: 19). Additionally, we read some Levitical laws that pertain to immigrants (Lev. 19). A more exhaustive list of scriptures and other resources to integrate a biblical perspective on immigration are available through The Evangelical Immigration Table website: https://evangelicalimmigrationtable.com/about/.
- It is interesting to note that a number of terms can be used here “immigrant,” “foreigner,” “stranger,” and “sojourner,” among others. Part of the complexity, as will be noted below, is the difficulty in translating the original Biblical terms that correspond to these English words.
- Part of the discussion mentioned the potential negative political implications of welcoming Muslim immigrants in Europe.
- Sean McDowell, Scott Rae, and Markus Zehnder. “The Bible and Immigration with Markus Zehnder.” Think Biblically,Conversations on Faith and Culture. Recorded June 14, 2018. Podcast, 28:14. Retrieved from https://www.biola.edu/blogs/think-biblically/2018/the-bible-and-immigration
- For an introductory bibliographical overview of the issue, see the article on the term, “Sojourner”. In obo in Biblical Studies, https://www.oxfordbibliographies.com/view/document/obo-9780195393361/obo-9780195393361-0266.xml (accessed 24 Feb. 2022).
- English translation from the Common English Bible Nashville: The Common English Bible, 2011.
- See Hans-Georg Wuench. “The stranger in God’s Land – Foreigner, Stranger, Guest: What Can We Learn from Israel’s Attitude Towards Strangers? Old Testament Essays [online]. 2014, vol.27, n.3, pp.1129-1154. Available from: <http://www.scielo.org.za/scielo.php?script=sci_arttext&pid=S1010-99192014000300019&lng=en&nrm=iso>. ISSN 2312-3621 p. 1148.
- The parable of the good Samaritan and the Sermon on the Mount are key to this redefinition (Luke 10: 25-37; Matthew 5: 43-48).
- Romans 5: 8-10.