Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Immigrant in Hebrew

[I do not know Hebrew, and I am not a Scripture scholar.  But I know a little …]

Last night (8/18/14), I was dragged into a debate about immigration.  (Dragged?  A friend of a friend said that liberal arguments for immigration reform are empty-headed nonsense, and he enjoyed exposing them.  I found that nigh on irresistible.) The host to the brawl was Tom Furtado, a good friend from decades ago.  Tom and I were arrested and jailed together.  And when I wrote my first book about eugenics (Roots of Racism and Abortion, once again available through Amazon or Kindle) Tom got me to write it as a textbook for a one-semester class for high school students.  Tom’s a great friend, with a big gentle heart, a beautiful wife, and a million kids.

In the debate last night, I argued that current immigration restrictions are unjust, incompatible with the teaching of the Catholic Church (my opponent was a Catholic), and completely incompatible with the forceful teaching of the Bible.  And I noted that the readings this past Sunday (8/17/14) were (in part) about immigrants.

But – today’s readings (8/19/14) at Mass are also about “strangers.”  Anyone who followed the debate last night may want a little remedial Hebrew, because the reading today makes “strangers” look awful.

There are four Hebrew words that are translated into English as “stranger.”  One does not cause any confusion: TOSHAB or TOWSHAV is generally translated “sojourner,” and it usually appears alongside another word (GER).  The other three are GER (a noun – the verb  to be a GER is GUWR, and the place where a GER GUWRs is a MAGUR), NEKAR (associated adjective: NOKRI), and ZAR (associated verb: ZUWR).  These three words do not have exact English equivalents; they have their own meanings and histories and connotations.  But approximately, very roughly, just to clarify the point: GER means foreigner/stranger/guest/immigrant, NEKAR means foreigner/stranger/outsider/weirdo, and ZAR means foreigner/stranger/enemy/invader.  The words in Hebrew are clear and not confusing.  But translations into English are a mess.  The Hebrew words for “guest” and “weirdo” and “invader” are – all three – translated as “stranger” or “foreigner.”  So the English is confusing, in ways that the Hebrew is not.

The readings on Sunday were about GER – guests/immigrants/strangers.  The readings today were about ZAR – enemies/invaders/strangers.

The Biblical teaching about GER is clear and forceful.  A GER is – first and most simply – whatever the Hebrews were when they were in Egypt.  That is, a GER is someone who comes from another land and settles in your land for a time.  The Lord demands repeatedly that such strangers must be treated with protective respect.

There is zero confusion (zero honest confusion) between GER and ZAR.  The latter attacks your country, to ruin and despoil.  The fact that both exist does not justify a restrictive border policy, sorting out the wanted and the unwanted arbitrarily.  The existence of ZARs does justify (actually demands) a border policy that identifies and excludes criminals.  But re-labeling a GER as a ZAR simply because a GER enters the country without documentation is sloppy and unjust.  Dealing with a GER in such an arbitrary and inhospitable way is specifically and forcefully condemned throughout the Bible, with shocking vehemence.  The crimes that the Lord swore to avenge himself include crimes against widows and orphans and day laborers – and immigrants.

In his description of the Last Judgment, Jesus talks about care for the hungry, the thirsty, and the naked.  And he urges that we be pro-active about hospitality, visiting the sick and the imprisoned .  In this short list, with just six items, he includes welcoming strangers.  To the ear of a modern American, that sounds a little strange, as so we usually skip over that detail, or change it to helping the homeless.  But the words in the Gospel are about people from another land who come into your land – strangers or foreigners or immigrants.  Why put strangers in that short list?  It seems odd, arbitrary.  Jesus put strangers in his list partly because he was a good Jew, following Moses.  The Biblical teaching about welcoming strangers begins in Genesis, and it is extraordinarily eloquent and forceful right through; if we have overlooked it, that’s our problem.  Americans change the verse in the Gospel because our society is drifting away from the society Jesus described.  Actually, he demanded it; eternal rewards and punishments apply.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Immigrant among the Transfigured

August 6, 2014. Anniversary of Hiroshima, and the Feast of the Transfiguration

Today Christians recall the incident in which Jesus invited three friends up a mountain, where they saw him changed (Greek: metamorphosed; Latin: transfigured).  His appearance changed: specifically, his face shone and his clothes turned white.  They saw him at home among friends focused on the Law and the Prophets -- that is, in conversation with Moses and Elijah -- although the account does not specify how the Peter&James&John recognized two men they had never met in person.  Peter offered to capture the moment, by setting up tents for everyone to hang around for awhile.  Then God spoke up, and the three were scared into silence.  Jesus told them to get up (to “rise”), and they looked around (“raised their eyes”), and found things returned to apparent familiarity.  Jesus told them not to talk about what they had seen until they had a context for the event (until he “rose” from the dead).

I noticed the rise/raise matter.  I thought it was interesting that Jesus spoke of rising from fear, then of rising from the dead; and their response was not to rise from the dead (of course), nor even to stand up, but just to lift their eyes a little.  It’s only an issue in English; the Greek words are not similar.  Jesus speaks of rising twice, and the phrases are worth pondering; but the word for raise is completely different.

The Greek does have an interesting layer, though.  Peter offers to erect “skeinei”: tents, or tabernacles (if you’re Jewish with a memory of the Ark in a tent), or some kind of semi-permanent dwellings.  In his Gospel, John uses the same word, and says that the Son of God became one of us, and came to live among us -- and he erected his tent (skeinei) among us.  So Peter’s offer to erect three tents seems a little silly until you realize that it was precisely right -- just redundant -- because Jesus had already done it.

The transfiguration knocks me silent.  When I was trying to figure out what Scripture says about immigration, I learned to admire and trust and enjoy Moses, as well as Jesus.  Good company.  Still, I have next to no idea what that meeting on the mountain was all about.  But …

I am not worried about meeting Jesus.  Maybe I should be, because I’m a mess; but I’m not.  What Jesus said over and over is that when we care for people in need -- hungry, thirsty, immigrant, badly clothed, sick or jailed, in particular -- we care for him.  I don’t mean to be arrogant, but I hope that some screwed-over folks (dumpster babies, Bengali survivors, semi-shadowed Latinos) vouch for me when it matters, when I’m judged.  I’m sober, but not afraid.  Not much, anyway.

Mother Teresa said she saw the face of Jesus in the poor and dying.  People react to that as if she were some kind of plaster saint, making an investment in the future: serveth now, getteth paid later.  Crown of thorns now, pretend to like these disgusting people, and then get the crown of gold later.  I don’t think that’s it.  I think she meant what she said: she saw and recognized the face of Jesus.  So when she died, she saw it again, more clearly; and she recognized it again, with delight, familiar but amplified.

I do worry about some friends and former colleagues who have whole categories of people, over a billion of them, whom they feel called upon to despise wholeheartedly -- nothing personal, you understand, just get outta here before I blow your goddam brains out with my Second Amendment Special -- especially “illegals” (about 12 million human faces, with some admittedly nasty ones that you can focus on, laser-sharp, if you’re a bigot) and Muslims (over a billion human faces, with some admittedly nasty ones that you can focus on, laser-sharp, if you’re a bigot).  I mean, if you don’t recognize Him, you don’t recognize Him.

When we show up, passing over (or “trespassing”) into the land of the mysterious Transfiguration, we are all undocumented immigrants, in need of welcome and hospitality, hoping for amnesty.