Obama’s Christmas-Tree-Lighting Immigration Sermon

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Haraz N. Ghanbari / AP

President Barack Obama, first lady Michelle Obama and their daughters Sasha and Malia attend the annual National Christmas Tree Lighting Dec. 1, 2011, in Washington.

Between Kermit the Frog’s antics and the christening of a new National Christmas Tree Thursday night, you may have missed the moment President Obama preached on immigration reform. And unlike his Thanksgiving address that did not mention God at all, this sermon was unmistakably biblical.

“More than 2,000 years ago, a child was born to two faithful travelers who could find rest only in a stable, among the cattle and the sheep,” he said at the tree-lighting ceremony. “Christ’s birth made the angels rejoice and attracted shepherds and kings from afar. He was a manifestation of God’s love for us.”

It is difficult to believe that Obama’s invocation of the traveler was not intentional. It echoes a long tradition of Biblical scholarship in the spirit of John Calvin, who was a political refugee and reformer in 16th century Geneva, and more recently Pope Benedict XVI, that reflects Christ’s birth narrative as a story of God’s compassion for immigrants.  After Jesus’ birth, Mary and Joseph fled to Egypt for political refuge from King Herrod (Matt. 2:14-15), the Pope clearly reiterated earlier this year on the World Day for Migrants and Refugees.

As religious activist groups like Sojourners have noted throughout the national immigration debate, the Bible as a whole points out the plight of travelers—and the need to compassionately support them. This pattern repeats itself: When the Israelites escaped slavery in Egypt, God not only promised them that he “defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing,” but also that he commands others to do the same: “You are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt” (Deut. 10:18-19). Paul in his Letter to the Ephesians reminds Christians that all God’s followers were all strangers until they followed God’s Spirit. And the grown-up Jesus often surprised his disciples by healing and feeding citizens not just from his homeland, but also those his homeland cast out.

While Obama did not get into all these theological examples in his speech, he did take the story a step farther to its logical conclusion. “But this was not just any child,” he said. “He grew up to become a leader with a servant’s heart who taught us a message as simple as it is powerful: that we should love God, and love our neighbor as ourselves.” Christ, a child brought by immigrants to a new land, eventually became one of the most world-shaping people. It sounds a lot like testimony on behalf of the DREAM Act.