In the Old Testament, her testimony stands out as an example of great love, sacrifice, and redemption. But was Ruth the Moabite breaking the law?
Every once in a while I get an “aha” moment and I can’t turn my mind off, thus preventing me from a good night’s sleep. Last night’s “aha” moment came as I was reflecting on the issue of comprehensive immigration reform.
The tendency of faith leaders advocating for a compassionate approach to immigrants is to appeal to the numerous “be kind to strangers” texts in the Hebrew Scriptures. The problem with this approach is that it elicits a universal response from the other side, “Yes, but those were legal immigrants. I’m talking about illegal immigrants. Since illegal immigrants are lawbreakers, they shouldn’t have any rights. And if you think they should, you’re just another godless liberal seeking to undermine the moral fabric of America … etc., etc.” It occurred to me that one of the most famous and beloved women in the entire Bible was an “illegal” immigrant. Her name was Ruth.
I’m not making this up. Deuteronomy 23:3 is clear, “An Ammonite or Moabite shall not enter the assembly of the Lord; even to the tenth generation none of his descendants shall enter the assembly of the Lord forever.”
If you’re still not convinced that descendants of Moab were ordered to be excluded from the congregation of Israel, take a look at verse 6, which says, “You shall not seek their peace nor their prosperity all their days forever.” With this in mind, isn’t it strange that the hero in the story of Ruth is Boaz, a man that showed kindness to a Moabite woman? We look at the story today and know intuitively that Boaz was a hero, but we often forget that Boaz could have very well been considered a villain to the religious leaders of his day. After all, they might have said, the law forbids people like Ruth from being included in Israeli society — and they would have been right.
Kind of strange isn’t it? God writes a law and then commends people for breaking it? I can think of two other examples where this strange paradox occurs. One example is Joseph, the husband of Mary. Once Joseph discovered that his wife was pregnant with an illegitimate child, the Law of Moses said that Mary should have been stoned (Deuteronomy 22:20-21). Isn’t it a little odd then that the Holy Spirit, speaking through Matthew, calls Joseph a “just man” because he wanted to put her away secretly (Matthew 1:19)? Or how about when Jesus commended David for doing what was unlawful — his word, not mine — on the Sabbath because of a pressing human need (Mark 2:25-26)?
Yes, we’re supposed to respect the law, and I’m not saying that undocumented immigrants are right to break into the United States illegally (I happen to believe that nations do have a right to protect their borders); but there comes a time when we have to ask the question of how much should “respect for the law” determine a Christian’s response to those that suffer from economic forces beyond their control?
Let’s not forget that it was famine and death (read: economic hardship) that compelled Ruth to migrate with her mother-in-law Naomi. The same story could be told millions of times over today. If God commended people for breaking God’s own laws because of compassion for their fellow human beings, what might God think of people today that challenge human laws for reasons of compassion? Think about it.
Pat Robertson’s comments were offensive, but one cannot overlook Haiti’s legacy of voodoo and witchcraft. If Westerners really want to bring about social justice and spiritual transformation in Haiti, Africa, and other nations of African descent, then we need to take the implications of their religious worldviews more seriously.
When I was a student at Christ for the Nations School of Missions, I learned about the so-called “pact with the devil” that the African slaves of Haiti made to free themselves from the French. Later I learned about the so-called “renewal of the covenant” presumably made by Aristide in 2003 where he officially recognized Voodoo as a state religion.
When the earthquake struck Haiti, I knew that it was only a matter of time before a televangelist would say something that the media would pick up and allow themselves yet another opportunity to paint evangelicals in a negative light. While I agree that Pat Robertson’s comments were embarrassing and offensive (for the record: I don’t think that anyone should ever claim they have divine knowledge as to why a specific natural disaster occurs. Luke 13:2-5 speaks loudly against that), I also think that the reaction of the secular media and some in the progressive faith community has been — good intentions not withstanding — condescending.
Perhaps I’m overly sensitive about this. A couple of weeks ago my wife and I visited a peace-oriented church in Albuquerque. After the service I struck up a conversation with a guy that asked me what I do for a living. I told him I’m a missionary that travels the world and that I lived in Africa for a period of time. When I told him about how missionaries view most African traditional religious practices as demonic, the reaction I got was “Um…oh…that’s nice. I’m sure you see some value in traditional African religious practices [aka witchcraft] … don’t you?” I told him the truth. No I don’t.
Here’s the ironic part. While I’m sure that this man felt justified in his appreciation for traditional African culture over and against the supposed mentality of “culturally imperialistic” missionaries, the reality is that millions of African Christians — and I suspect Haitian Christians as well — would agree with me, not him.
One of the reasons why Christianity has exploded in Africa, and countries of African descent like Haiti, is because many African social systems are structured around fear of evil spirits. Unlike in the West, where the predominant salvation model centers around guilt/forgiveness, in African societies people often place their faith in Christ because they view the message of the resurrection as a cosmic defeat over the power of demonic forces. This is why when Africans (and/or people of African descent) read their Bibles, most don’t read through the prism of Western liberalism. They take what the Bible says about the supernatural at face value.
Western liberal academia might scoff at the idea that idolatry leads to poverty, but for millions of African Christians, the dots were connected a long time ago. They themselves are fighting against sorcery and witchcraft in their spiritual warfare conferences — without the prodding of Western missionaries. And for good reason. Witchcraft is a poor moral base to build a prosperous society. When people are afraid to succeed in their jobs or businesses because they fear their neighbor will place a deadly curse on them, that’s bad news for the economy. Most African Christian leaders recognize this. This is why when Western media and religious elites treat witchcraft/voodooism as a harmless practice that may or may not be compatible with Christianity, what they’re really doing is trivializing the beliefs of millions of African Christians — a sort of paternalism in reverse if you will.
Lest I be misunderstood, I’m not saying that idolatry/witchcraft/voodooism is the only factor perpetuating poverty in African societies. Certainly the legacy of slavery and colonialism, unfair trade laws, Western interference in internal political affairs and — name your political injustice here — have all played a role in keeping Africans and people of African descent in economic slavery. But if we in the West want to partner with African background Christians to bring about social justice in their respective countries, then we need to take their worldview a bit more seriously. If you don’t believe me, read Philip Jenkins’ book The Next Christendom or, better yet, watch any film made in Nigeria.
I can’t speak for every African and/or Haitian Christian, but my sense is that while many would be offended by Robertson’s comments, most would also tell us that if African societies are to progress into the 21st century, then both physical and spiritual issues will need to be addressed.
This article appears courtesy of a partnership with Sojourners.