July 10, 2011
Series: “I Can’t Believe That’s in the Bible”
In the 19th chapter of Leviticus, God gives a code of conduct to the people of Israel. “You are to be holy, as I am holy,” says the Lord. In that context, the Lord our God declares these words:
33When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. 34The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.
One of the bright lights of the church is Rodger Nishioka, professor of Christian education at a seminary near Atlanta. He is sharp and winsome, full of vitality and insight. Rodger is extremely well read, and can translate his learning into helpful and practical assistance. He is the kind of speaker who is frequently asked to keynote at conferences across the ecumenical church.
But there is one topic that brings tears to his eyes. Ask him what happened to his mother and his grandparents in 1942.
It was shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. After some attempt to stay neutral, the United States entered World War 2. About three months after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. This authorized the Secretary of War to designate certain areas as military zones. More to the point, it allowed the government to forcibly remove people of Japanese ancestry from the western third of the United States. They were sent to internment camps, temporary settlements of tar paper shacks surrounded by barbed wire.
Rodger Nishioka's mother was ten years old at the time. She was living with her younger brother and her mom and dad on a farm they owned in Bakersfield, California. All of them were legally born US citizens. In April, a notice was posted telling all Japanese Americans that they had three days to sell everything they had. Rodger’s grandparents lost their farm. His grandfather was “relocated” by the FBI to an internment camp, along with the local Buddhist priest, the principal of the Japanese-American school, and a United Methodist pastor of Japanese descent. The family did not know where they were taken or what would be done with them.
Rodger’s mother, uncle, and grandmother were left behind. They were soon summoned to downtown Bakersfield to the bus station. They had been sent away from their home, their livestock had been taken from them, and they were told to take only what they could carry on their backs. The three of them were loaded on buses along with over 100,000 other Japanese Americans, and taken to an undisclosed location. Their new home was one of ten different camps in the desert, where they were sorted on the basis of the color of their skin and the name of their parents.
It is one of the embarrassing moments in American history. Forty years later, a government panel determined that the relocation camps were a huge mistake. To quote the report, initiated by President Carter and signed by President Reagan, the incarceration was caused by “race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.”
I bring up this story as a way into our text. In the Jewish law code of Leviticus, in a section that gives instruction for a holy and moral life, God decrees, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (19:18). Most of the chapter is a legal commentary on the Ten Commandments: don’t lie about one another in the courtroom, don’t steal or defraud your neighbor, and don’t hoard the wages of the people you employ.
Sprinkled through the chapter are further instructions on the same theme: do not curse the deaf person nor cause the blind to trip and fall, don’t plunder the servants who are designated for your neighbor, and don’t over-pick the produce from your fields so that your poor neighbors can also get something to eat. Don’t hate anybody. Don’t nurse a grudge or extract revenge, for the Lord is your God – and their God.
And then, there are these words, addressed for the benefit of those who are not your kin: “When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you. You shall love the alien as yourself.” (19:33-34)
Now, the word “alien” does not mean somebody from Mars. It’s the Hebrew word “ger,” translated as “foreigner,” stranger,” “sojourner,” or “alien.” It is somebody who lives among you who does not come from around here. It’s a different word than “nekar,” which means “enemy.” The “ger” – the stranger – does not oppose you; he or she is somebody different from you who lives in the same town.
In ancient times, the borders of a nation were usually imprecise and full of holes. People from other places passed through regularly. They came and went. Any border that ran through a desert was no more than a line in the sand, and the first big wind storm redrew the boundary. But you could tell these people were different: Perhaps their skin was a different tone or they celebrated different holidays. They ate different foods and spoke in different languages.
Because the Middle East was in the middle of the traffic pattern, and people were always coming and going, there was great virtue given to hospitality. You welcomed the stranger as a matter of course, and you remembered when others first welcomed you.
The Bible comes to us from a mindset of welcome. Abram and Sarai, the grandparents of Israel, were immigrants from the land of Ur. Originally they were traveling to the land of Canaan, but decided to settle down in Haran. And when Abram was seventy-five years old, God spoke and said, “Pack up, I’m going to take you somewhere.” Abram said, “Where?” and God said, “I’ll tell you when we get there.” God led him to the land of Canaan, and then they just kept going.
The Jewish statement of faith begins with the words, “A wandering Aramean was my father . . .” It was a way of saying, “Our daddy was always on the move.” Some of us live that story. My mother told us she lived in sixteen houses by the time of her sixteenth birthday; my grandfather was a wandering salesman. A Scot, not an Aramean.
Much of the Bible is the story of a people on the move. After our first parents got the boot from the Garden of Eden, they kept traveling. There was a lot to see. There were boat trips to take, deserts to traverse, mountains to climb, and seas to pass through. The people of faith are a traveling people, led by a God who says, “I will show you when we get there.”
“Remember this,” says scripture. And after Jesus makes his appearance, the early church started welcoming the Italian and the Irish, long before the city of Scranton took them in. There were no national limits to church membership – even those smelly Samaritans were allowed in. “Remember this,” says the writer of Ephesians. “Remember how it was before Jesus, when you were aliens in Israel, when you were strangers to God’s covenant. Remember how Jesus in his death broke down the walls of hostility, and made all of you citizens with the saints, members of God’s household (Ephesians 2:19).” There is one people - God’s people. There is one house – God’s house.
How else can we explain what happened in this room last week? Thirty people from the Republic of Cameroon were among us to testify to God’s healing power and to break into song. They were here, along with people originally from Taiwan and Peckville. Everybody is from somewhere, but in God’s house there are no strangers.
That is the great vision of Ephesians. That is the ethical imperative of Leviticus: “You shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God.”
So listen, I mention this under the heading of “The Bible and Immigration.” I bring this up because fifty-one percent of the children now born in America are born to families that do not have white skin. The census bureau projected that the majority of Americans would be persons of color by the year 2040. According to the most recent census, however, that date has been moved up to 2020. Our nation is growing, and 83% of the growth is driven by non-Anglo population groups. Those statistics are not going to change.
I bring this up because, in the eighteenth century, a few Scots Presbyterians imported an intimidating ritual of burning crosses and they never apologized for it. I bring this up because our national General Assembly just considered down a theological statement from South Africa that denounces racism, and our presbyteries voted it down.
I bring this up because some people want to pass laws like the new laws in Alabama. The police can stop anyone they have a “reasonable suspicion” may be here illegally, like if they speak Spanish. If you are arrested for illegally living in Alabama, you are denied bail. If you associate with someone who is here illegally, if you invite them to home or church or give them a ride, you are breaking the law.
Now, I know these are anxious times. Just like 1942. The economy is tough, and there are more people looking for jobs than finding them. Each municipality is stretched to pay for fire and police protection, health care, and education – especially for those who did not enter our country through the front door. The debates are going to continue for a while, and there is no evidence that immigration reform will happen through cool and reasonable thinking.
This is a topic that deserves more than a twenty minute sermon. I hope we can dig in more deeply, and study the matter in a series of adult education classes. We are working on those dates this week, so watch for the announcements for the fall.
All I want to do today is remind us of a few things the Bible says on the matter. "When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God." This is what the Bible says, believe it or not. The obligation for us is to keep working through what this might mean.
I don't have any quick answers. But I do have a story. It's the rest of the story that Rodger Nishioka tells.
Remember, in 1942, how his grandfather was taken away? How his mother, uncle, and grandmother were sent to a internment camp in the desert? Rodger’s mother often told him how brave his grandmother was during the whole ordeal. She held it together – until a moment in the bus station. The three of them were waiting for the bus to take them to the camp, and the boy, Rodger’s uncle, asked if he could have something to eat. It was then that his grandmother realized she had not packed any food. In the pressure to pack and move, she had forgotten about packing food. She began to weep and said, “I am a terrible mother for not thinking ahead.”
Rodger’s mother saw this, and the ten-year-old tried to console her. “I will look for some food,” she said. She asked friends and others at the bus station, but there was nothing. At one point, the crowd parted, and a lovely white woman in a dress came forward with a tray of food and said, “Hello. Are you hungry?”
“Yes, I am.”
So the lady gave her a sandwich, a piece of fruit, and a cup of juice. The little girl took this back to her family, and her mother asked where she found it. The girl said, “From a white woman.” Her mother frowned. “We don’t know any white people. Take it back.”
So she did. But the white woman insisted the little girl take the food. She gave her another sandwich and more fruit and juice. But upon returning, her mother insisted once more, “Take it back.”
The ten-year-old went back and forth a number of times. She even tried to pay the white lady, but payment was not accepted, and she gave the girl even more food. The mother finally asked her daughter, “Who is she?”
So she went back to the woman and asked, “Who are you?” The lady smiled and said, “I’m a Christian friend.” The girl went back to share this information. Her mother said, “Christian friend? We are Buddhist. We don’t know any Christians or white people. Tell her she is mistaken.”
The girl did as she was told but the lady said, “I am a Quaker. Here, let me talk with your mother.” And she brought even more food.
Rodger's grandmother remembered this. Grandpa was eventually reunited with his family and they went to an internment camp in the desert for three years. Afterward they were released to a town in Idaho, outside of the jurisdiction of the executive order. They lived among other Japanese Americans who had settled there. Rodger's mother grew up there, went to school, and became good friends with a white girl who happened to be a Christian.
One day her new friend asked if she could come for a sleepover and spend the night. So she asked her mother. "Sleep over? Why would you do that if you have a bed at home? No, I don't think so."
"But mom, I think white people do this." "No. You have family here. There is no need for this. Stay here."
"But mom, she's a Christian friend." “A what?"
"A Christian friend." "Oh, OK. Then you should go to her house."
Rodger's mother started attending her friend's church and became a Christian. Her brother did, too. After the war, the family moved back to California and started going to church. Rodger's grandparents also converted to Christianity and were baptized. His mother married a seminary student who would go on to preach for thirty-two years. They had four sons: an air traffic controller, an optometrist's assistant, a pastor in Seattle, and a professor of Christian Education at Columbia Theological Seminary.
Rodger says his fondest memory of his grandmother was going to the grocery store. They would find the cereal aisle and walk down it. She would stop, point at a container of Quaker Oats, and say in broken English, "Rodger, Christian friends. Good people."
Can you remember what the Bible says about how to treat our neighbors?
(c) William G. Carter
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