You might know the story. Once upon a time there was a king who, like kings of that time, had a harem of women to call upon at his pleasure. Among the harem was one woman of particular beauty, a woman who had won a place in his palace by being deemed most beautiful in all the land.
At the same time, the king had an ambitious, petty, power hungry administrator, who had a distaste for one Jew in particular but all Jews, it seems, in general, so much so that he convinced the king to decree their annihilation. The king, apparently, had very little actual knowledge of who the Jews were, what they believed, or what their offense was. He simply trusted his underling and signed the order.
Unbeknownst to the king, the aforementioned woman of his harem, the one of particular beauty, was a Jew. That woman, Esther, learned of the edict and courageously asked for permission to speak with the king. Permission granted, she plead for her people.
It seems to me that the king had a revelation. A law he had haphazardly enacted became clear in its monstrosity. What had once been a mere abstraction, a political category, a stereotype – “Jew” – became flesh and blood, a face, a voice, a story. What had previously been a term of derision and a rallying cry for a bigot became an altogether different reality once he could put a particular name alongside the word “Jew”.
The law was effectively nullified and the Hebrews were spared.
If you’ve not read the book of Esther lately, it is a remarkable story of Providence, of courage, of redemption.
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I am well acquainted with a fellow who owns some land in the county where I live. On weekends, there is a Mexican guy who helps him around his place, doing lots of heavy lifting, lots of sweaty, dirty, physically exhausting work. His work ethic, his punctuality, even the enthusiasm which he brings to every job are nothing less than stellar.
He has a social security card, of sorts.
When the Mexican guy started work for the white guy, he didn’t say much but he worked really hard. Over the course of a year, the two have become friends. The Mexican, by means of his broken English and the white guy’s broken Spanish and lots of sign language and drawings on bits of paper, has shared stories of sometimes being cheated and mistreated by employers. He knows that, in the eyes of some, he is unwelcome, persona non grata, pure alien, and easily taken advantage of, despite the fact that he and ones like him were implicitly encouraged, by Americans and ostensible American policy, to come here for work in years past.
The white guy often deliberately overpays the Mexican, has had him share meals with his family and friends, and knows now that his co-worker is a widower with children and grandchildren in Mexico. Each day, at some point in the day, the white guy’s mother will drive her ATV in search of the Mexican to give him something to drink, or freshly-made cookies, a snack or ice cream if it’s summer. He calls the sweet white-headed lady “Mama.” She bought him Christmas presents and work clothes. He brings her homemade tamales. When the white guy’s brother moved overseas to do missions work in a dangerous place, the Mexican cried when he told him goodbye.
Last week, the Mexican told the white guy that he’s heard that the State might enact a tough law against Mexican workers. He’s afraid.
I really do think that the whole illegal alien issue has to be addressed. And it might call for what, to some, will seem harsh, unfair, and inhospitable. The Mexican might have to go home. But in the course of whatever conversations that debate might entail, I hope that we might remember that, on both sides of the argument, there are people, souls, real flesh and blood. And that that remembrance might make us sane and civil and kind, even when we disagree.
The problem with immigrants and aliens is that, like the Jewish girl in the harem, they are not mere abstractions, but faces and voices and stories. The problem with immigrants is that, if you ever get to know one, especially if you get to know them over shared labor, you might grow to love them and want for them every good thing. It is the kind of problem that holds the potential to make us more human, more alive, more loving, more clearly the image bearers of Him “Who watches over the alien and sustains the fatherless and the widow.”