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Letter 83 | American Values Religious Voices

Letter 83

Ryan P. Bonfiglio

Lecturer in Old Testament
Columbia Theological Seminary

April 12, 2017

Dear President Trump, Vice President Pence, Members of the Trump Administration and 115th Congress,

The command to “love thy neighbor” is at the heart of the Judeo-Christian moral code. Jesus names it as the second greatest commandment (Matthew 22:39), while the Hebrew Bible affirms that loving one’s neighbor is essential to Israel being a holy people (Leviticus 19:18). Yet, who exactly is our neighbor?

This question is relevant for many Americans today. In our ever-diversifying demographic landscape, many of us have neighbors who look quite different than us. They were born in different countries and come from diverse cultures. They speak a range of languages and eat unfamiliar foods. Some worship in churches or synagogues, others in temples or mosques. These individuals might live next door, but are they truly our neighbors? Ought we to love them in the same way as we love those neighbors who look, speak, eat, and worship like us?

We find an answer to this pressing question in Leviticus 19:34, part of the “Holiness Code.” This verse calls on the Israelites not only to love their neighbors, but also to love the strangers in their midst, “for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” The Hebrew term for stranger, ger, refers to those who have come from outside of the land to stay within the Israelite community. In the ancient world, the ger would have faced an uncertain existence. Lacking certain rights and privileges, they could easily be driven into the margins of society, left economically, socially, and politically vulnerable. Yet every major law code in the Hebrew Bible shows compassionate concern for the welfare of the ger, often with a command not to wrong or oppress the ger (Exodus 22:20; 23:9; Deuteronomy 27:19). Leviticus 19:34 goes further, insisting the people of Israel must treat strangers as neighbors—“The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens”—and love both groups “as yourself.”

I hope and pray that as you serve as leaders of this nation, you will honor this radical ethic of love for neighbor and stranger in your words, actions, and policies. In doing so, you will not only fulfill a commandment that is dear to many Americans, but you will help us become a stronger, freer, and more just nation.

Sincerely,

Ryan P. Bonfiglio.

Ryan P. Bonfiglio, Ph.D.
Lecturer in Old Testament
Columbia Theological Seminary

About the author

Ryan P. Bonfiglio, Lecturer in Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary, serves as the John H. Stembler Scholar in Residence at the First Presbyterian Church (USA) of Atlanta. His research and teaching interests include biblical metaphors, Old Testament theology, Israelite religion, and ancient Near Eastern iconography. He is author of Reading Images, Seeing Texts: Towards a Visual Hermeneutics for Biblical Studies (2016) and one of the editors of Iconographic Exegesis of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament (2015).