By Rev. Yamil Acevedo
In the historical-fiction novel, Number the Stars, the author Lois Lowry builds a strong argument on the non-negotiable responsibility and intrinsic dignity we all have as humans. In the novel, after the Nazi occupation, the Danish king—King Christian—continued to ride his horse around Copenhagen without any escorts or guards to protect him. Why would he do that? Because he knew that all the Danish people were willing to give their lives to protect him. Skillfully, Lowry develops this idea throughout the story by placing a minoritized and discriminated ethnic group at the center, the Jews. “Friends will take care of them. That’s what friends do.”—Mrs. Johansen affirmed. And just like that, the immigrants were regarded with the same dignity as King Christian.
What Does God Require?
There is a Hebrew word for people who were considered immigrants among the people of Israel. It’s the word גֵּר —ger and it is often translated to English as “alien, stranger, sojourner, or foreigner.” If we take a careful look at the places this word is used in the Old Testament, we will recurrently notice two things: (1) God’s caring love for the foreigner, and (2) people’s apprehension towards “them.” In multiple instances, God calls Israel to treat the foreigner among them with fairness and equality in every social dimension (Ex 22:21, 23:1-9; Dt 24:14-22). God insisted that Israel must allow outsiders to voluntarily participate in their religious life, such as Passover (Ex. 12:48), making offerings and sacrifices (Lv. 22:17-19), and observing the Sabbath (Ex. 20:8-11). Failure to comply with God’s commands regarding strangers had severe implications for Israel. In Jeremiah 7:5-7, the prophet says:
“If you really change your ways and your actions and deal with each other justly, if you do not oppress the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow and do not shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not follow other gods to your own harm, then I will let you live in this place, in the land I gave your ancestors for ever and ever.”
The nation of Judah was judged based on their love for God and for the ger—the foreigners. Because they had not been just and hospitable to the immigrants among them, they were stripped from the land into exile. God allowed Israel to become the ger in Babylon—a minority of “them.”
Them Is Us
How does our perception of the “them” influence our own understanding, not only as Christians but also as humans? Worth, dignity, rights, responsibilities, and what it means to be human are matters that undoubtedly should be at the center of our conversations and prayers within the church. Our perception of “the other” must be beyond the object of our evangelistic endeavors, or charity; forgetting this is mostly neglecting our identity as the people of God. As Christine Pohl pointedly observes: “[the] experience of the people of God as aliens or exiles on earth . . . is normatively central to Christian identity.”1 Could it be that to be a ger is more of an expectation for all of us than a label ascribed to “them”?
I invite you to meditate, pray, and write songs about God’s acceptance of the immigrant, the foreigner, the exiled, and the “other” among us. Perhaps then we could find the missing ger in ‘we.’