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Letter 88 | American Values Religious Voices

Letter 88

Beatrice Lawrence

Assistant Professor of Hebrew Bible
Seattle University

April 17, 2017

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

The Bible’s deep concern for strangers is well known, as is the need to treat them with kindness and justice (for instance, Exodus 22:20-21; Leviticus 19:33-34; Jeremiah 7:6). The repeated command to protect the stranger emerges from the Israelites’ own experience of oppression in Egypt and from the expectation that the memory of suffering must breed compassion and a passion for justice.

The book of Leviticus takes this notion of Israel’s identification with the stranger even further. In the laws of the Jubilee, we read that once every fifty years, all land must be returned to its original owners. This requirement certainly has an economic element, but its primary purpose is ethical: to prevent the rich from exploiting the poor and to avoid the pain of permanent displacement. God explains why: “For the land is mine; you are but strangers and sojourners with me” (Leviticus 25:23). The land is not ours; we are but temporary residents on this earth—strangers and sojourners each and every one of us.

As part of the Jubilee laws, we find a verse that plays a prominent role in U.S. history and our self-image as a nation: “You shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants” (Leviticus 25:10). In 1751, the Pennsylvania Assembly selected this verse to be engraved on a bell ordered to commemorate the fiftieth year of the Pennsylvania “Charter of Privileges.” The word translated as “liberty” (dror) here and on the “Liberty Bell” actually means “release” in its biblical context. This verse articulates the goal of the Jubilee: to ensure freedom from lifelong debt and economic oppression. The demand to release persons and land periodically “was a reminder that liberty comes from God, the true owner of all property” (Daniel Dreisbach, Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers, 186).

Thus, we cannot allow ourselves to pretend that any of us own this country. We must remember that we are merely borrowing the earth from its Creator, who has bestowed upon us the task of caring for the land and its people. In order to fulfill this obligation, we must heed the divine command: “Justice, justice you shall pursue” (Deuteronomy 16:20).

Sincerely,

Beatrice Lawrence

Beatrice Lawrence, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Hebrew Bible
Seattle University

 

About the author

Beatrice J. W. Lawrence, Assistant Professor Hebrew Bible at Seattle University, holds a Ph.D. from Emory University in Hebrew Bible with an emphasis in Jewish Hermeneutics.  Her research interests include biblical interpretation in rabbinics and parshanut, gender and sexuality in Jewish texts, popular culture and cultural theory, and critical interreligious engagement.