Jeremiah has been on my mind lately (primarily because I’ve been busy with my next book, Christians in Exile, which draws lessons from Hebrew prophets for us 21st-century, North American Christians). This week’s Old Testament lectionary scripture includes some prophetic counsel for his countrymen who had been sent into exile to Babylon with the first deportation in 597 BCE (later groups would leave in 587 and 582 BCE):
These are the words of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the remaining elders among the exiles, and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon. This was after King Jeconiah, and the queen mother, the court officials, the leaders of Judah and Jerusalem, the artisans, and the smiths had departed from Jerusalem.
The letter was sent by the hand of Elasah son of Shaphan and Gemariah son of Hilkiah, whom King Zedekiah of Judah sent to Babylon to King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. It said: Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.
To say the people of Judah were dispirited, dejected, and bitter probably doesn’t begin to describe their shocked state. Just about everything Jeremiah had warned would happen had indeed come to pass. It was at this point that Jeremiah’s words began to shift from condemnation to messages of hope. Still the second half of this passage (boldfaced above) represent such an about-face that it jars the sensibilities even today.
Where once the people of Judah comprised a proud and independent nation, now they had become immigrants in a strange and foreign land. Furthermore, instead of longing for what once was, the people were counseled to “look to the welfare of the city where I [God] have sent you into exile.” Their new immigrant status was due to God’s direct act, not merely because another nation’s army had defeated their own. But now to look to the welfare of Babylon, of all places, how can the mind process such a thing?
Yet that is the message. They were to live in a strange land, for what turned out to be about 70 years (several generations worth of time), but not simply to bide their time until God brought them home, where they no doubt felt they really belonged. God was saying essentially, that they belonged in Babylon. There they should establish homes, bear and rear children, and seek to make their “new home” a better place.
This was a radical transformation for the people of Judah, certainly, but also represented a dramatic change in the ancient world, as well. We don’t know much about how Babylonians treated these new immigrants, although we do know that some of them made fun of the Israelites sitting by the river crying because they could no longer sing the songs of Zion. Of course, this little group was not the only defeated nationality to be brought back to Babylon as a result of that nation’s considerable military adventures.
Yet this experience has the potential to spark some honest examination for 21st-century Americans (as well as Canadians, Europeans, and others, too) about how we “welcome” immigrants in our midst. Millions of people who had been born in countries other than the USA now reside in this country. A considerable number of those born in the USA see immigrants as an enormous problem; others see this situation as an opportunity. In truth, it’s probably both.
The irony for many of those who see this as a problem, of course, is that their own ancestors just a few generations back were themselves immigrants. Each group that came to the shores of North America–whether it be the Irish, the Germans, the Italians, the Poles, the Jews, etc.–were often met by hostility and prejudice. A cynical eye today sees that process as inevitable, and perhaps it’s even worse because, some complain, these newer immigrants aren’t assimilating as quickly or thoroughly as previous groups. That’s probably worth debating, just not here right now.
I have to offer full disclosure at this point: I was four years old when my family emigrated from Canada to the state of Missouri in the USA. I’m a citizen of both countries, although thoroughly committed to living in the USA for the rest of my life. Granted, riding in the back seat of a car driving across the Ambassador Bridge from Windsor, Ontario, to Detroit, Michigan, isn’t quite the same as swimming across the Rio Grande at night or sneaking across a desert in New Mexico. But I can’t escape the basic fact that my “immigrant family” has been blessed enormously in this country; others should have that same opportunity.
Some of today’s immigrants will never have the opportunity to become US citizens or even, perhaps, to enjoy legal status as residents. And while I realize immigration laws weren’t nearly so complicated six centuries before the time of Christ, Jeremiah’s words still speak plainly today: Look to the welfare of the city (and nation), establish households and homes, bear and rear children, improve the quality of life for all who live here, regardless of where and when they came. At least to me, this is the Christian perspective, for Jesus was clear that his own preference was always for the poor and the marginalized. Apostle Paul’s counsel that because of Christ there is no longer Jew or Gentile, male or female, slave or free, but all are one in the Lord bears noting, too.
Here’s a link to some worthwhile, recommended reading on current immigration issues.
My book, What Was Paul Thinking? (Isaacs’ Press, 2010) is now discounted at both Amazon.com and Barnes& Noble.com in print ($10) and e-book ($5.99) editions. If you’ve ever wondered just what Apostle Paul was getting at (and let’s face it, Paul can be hard to understand and appreciate at times) this is a good place to start.