History and the Alabama Exiles
If Jesus had come to the world 1,500 years later, he might well have found himself in the hull of a boat from Barcelona among the exiles of his people, desperately looking for a new start and a bit of compassion.
In our own minds, 1492 might well be ancient history. But today, the political leadership in Alabama has passed a law putting so much pressure and fear on immigrants and their families that soon history will be able to speak about the exiles from Alabama.
Never mind that the vast majority of the people who live among us without documentation are hard-working and productive members of our communities. Never mind that the farmers and the police departments and the school administrators and so many others have begged our legislators and governor not to enact this law because it will bring real hardship to many in our state. Never mind that many of the people living here are raising families, sending their children to school, attending churches and providing their labor to assist us in making our lives better and easier. Never mind that many of these people braved horrible conditions and real peril to embrace the American dream.
They are just like my grandparents who were able to arrive penniless in America moments before it slammed its doors shut in 1924. Never mind that the state is pulling prisoners out of the prisons to pick tomatoes and cucumbers and melons, to rescue a remnant of the crops planted around Alabama. Never mind that people have to take a day off from work to register their cars at the county courthouse. And never mind that the people we want to get rid of live in our communities, rent apartments or own homes, send their students to our schools, buy food and socks and underwear and gasoline in our grocery stores, shops and service stations; and that they are tended to by our physicians and that their children play with our children.
Never mind that their absence will dramatically impact the landlords, the school systems, the merchants and the professionals who make their living serving these soon-to-go-missing people. And never mind that another generation of children will grow up ashamed once again that we raised them in an Alabama that knows perfectly well how to divide people and not unite them. We are demanding that people who have risked their lives to get here and whose labor helps us live better leave.
Alabama may be a state where religion is strong, but the commitment to the values that underpin our faith is quite shallow. The Bible tells us to take care of the stranger. The Bible tells us there should be one law for the Israelite and the stranger alike. The Bible tells us the stranger, too, stands within the covenant of Israel.
The Bible tells us to be kind to the people who pick our fields. Ruth the Moabite accompanied Naomi, her mother-in-law, to Bethlehem. She came to glean the fallen grain in the fields with the poor who had suffered famine. Never was Ruth jeered, or set apart, or told she was not wanted by the Judeans, and that she had no place with the poor in Bethlehem. Instead, she was told to stay here. Ruth was shown kindness. And the kindness showed to her by her fellow Judeans paved the way for David, the king of Israel, to be born in Bethlehem three generations later. Ruth the Moabite was David’s great grandmother, the glory of Israel.
Jesus tells us our true brothers are not the mighty priests or the proud Levites, but the lowly foreigners, the strangers — the Samaritans. We are judged by how we treat the Samaritan, the one who shows us kindness without asking for anything in return.
Of course, there are real problems in our state. Our borders need to be better protected. The undocumented people live in our society’s shadows. They are preyed upon and they live in fear, from us. We need to make better sense out of our immigration policy. But punishing people who already live in our community will only damage us. We will create the exiles from Alabama.
If Jesus came to Alabama today, he would be packing his bags to move to Michigan.
This piece was originally published in The Birmingham News on October 16.
Jonathan Miller is rabbi at Temple Emanu-El, a URJ congregation in Birmingham, Alabama. Photo courtesy of Temple Emanu-El’s website.