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Relating to the Samaritan: Some Theological Perspectives on Immigration

July 19, 2010

By Hal Thomas

Ethnocentrism and the stereotyping of persons and social groups unlike ourselves are human characteristics.  We are organisms formed within the potentials, tendencies, and boundaries of human genetics.  We are infants and children who bond to our mothers and the families who give us life and the care necessary for our survival.  We are family, extended family, tribe, and ethnic networks formed within the perceptions, values and cultural expressions of the social group we become a part of.  And most naturally we judge other social realities from the perspectives of our own social formation.  The ethnic diversity that results from multiple social groups threatens us.  It also has the potential to enrich us.

We are also mystery.  We understand ourselves to be persons created by God.  We are also persons in our social groups that the Creator loves and calls to reconciliation.  Beyond this, as followers of Jesus, we are called to partner in God´s missional purposes in this diverse and ethnocentric world.

Ethnocentrism and stereotyping are key components of the Hispanic immigration issue.  Here I reflect as a concerned US citizen who loves his country and who has spent a life time as the foreigner in Latin America.  We North Americans tend either to unrealistically idealize or stereotypically dehumanize these people and their cultural systems.  The inherent violence of job and home raids, the brutal separation of families, the double standards of profiling, the legal duplicity of refusing to recognize birth certificates without passports to question and deny nationality to children, the nearly impossible obstacle course and uncertainty of legal process, the shaming and criminal procedures of arrest, imprisonment and deportation, and the blindness to our own national responsibility for intentionally bringing in cheap and often exploited labor all evidence degrees of our own ethnocentrism, stereotyping, and destructive self interest.  I recognize that these activities evidence frustration with ineffective enforcement of immigration policies. I also know how they terrorize our Hispanic populations, including both legitimate US citizens as well as those who have come to work among us without understanding or completing legal processes.  At this time, apart from deportation, many persons and families are returning to their countries to avoid the tensions here.  And some Latin American countries are feeling the pressure at the national level of no longer receiving the benefit of the income sent to families from those working in the US.

As a Christian I bring these issues to the light of Jesus’ teaching.  To the young man asking him to clarify who his neighbor was, Jesus turned accustomed Jewish perspectives on end in relation to God’s command to love God and neighbor.  He reframed the mission entrusted to Israel, placing it within the context of the Jewish people of his time who despised the Samaritans.  Historically the Samaritans came from the mixed ethnic origins and syncretistic worship that resulted from the Assyrian conquest and repopulation of Samaria.  But the purpose for a different Jewish response was the mandate to be God’s people among the nations of the earth.  The motivation for this response was to be gratefulness and compassion.  In the story Jesus told in order to answer the young man’s question, the respected Jewish leaders, who were responsible for the ethical formation and worship of their nation, ignored their fellow countryman who had been assaulted and was lying wounded in the road.  The negatively stereotyped Samaritan compassionately went out of his way to help him, and then continued to care for him with his own limited resources, a foreigner fulfilling Jewish responsibility as God’s people.  And Jesus posed the question, “Which of the three proved to be a neighbor” to the wounded Jewish man–his own fellow countrymen, or the foreigner?

What is the mandate for Christian response to the issues of the foreigner among us?  Are we to be shamed and judged by the compassion of the foreigner whom we excluded and stereotyped?  Or can we intentionally and responsibly as God’s people show mercy and compassion to the widow, the orphan, and the stranger?  Can we step through the barriers of our natural ethnocentrism and self interest to affirm the value of the immigrant?  Perhaps we too will find that the foreigner among us may be the one who compassionately ministers to us and calls us to return to God.

Hal Thomas is a Quaker pastor, missionary, educator, and Andean ethnologist.  With his wife Nancy he has served eighteen years among Aymara Friends in La Paz and ten years in Santa Cruz developing the Center for Intercultural Studies of the Bolivian Evangelical University.  At the present time both are working with the PRODOLA doctoral level leadership training program in theology associated with the University of the Americas in Costa Rica.

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