The Alien who Resides with You
by Christopher Dodson
Executive Director, North Dakota Catholic Conference
November 2014

“You shall treat the alien who resides with you no differently than the natives born among you; you shall love the alien as yourself; for you too were once aliens in the land of Egypt. I, the LORD, am your God.” Leviticus 19:34

Contrary to what the editors of some of the state’s newspapers believe, dealing with that state’s unprecedented growth - not abortion - is what dominated the last North Dakota legislative session. It will also dominate the legislative session that starts in January.

The make-up of the legislature has not changed much. The Senate will have 32 Republicans and 15 Democrats. The House of Representatives will have 71 Republicans and 23 Democrats. Once again the state will be flush with money and once again there will be competing ideas about what to do with that money.

Expect a combination of proposals to deal with challenges that have come with the state’s economic boom, including funding for hard infrastructure projects like roads and bridges, law enforcement, increased regulatory demands, and maybe even protection of natural resources. Legislators will have to decide whether and how to balance these needs with calls for tax relief and the very real possibility that the price of oil will drop. Ask any long-term legislator and he or she will tell you that, while having so much money in the state treasury is great, dealing with the demands of such rapid growth is sometimes more difficult than those years when things were lean.

We cannot forget that the state’s prosperity comes with, and is dependent on, newcomers. The license plates at Walmart tell the story. They come from every region of the country. The languages spoken tell us more. Ten years ago it was rare to hear someone speaking a language other than English. Now we can hear a rich diversity just walking through a mall.

The changes are not exclusive to the Bakken region. Just about every section of the state is experiencing economic growth and with it comes new residents.

There is something about the human condition that makes us wary, if not outright hostile, to “strangers” among us. Psychologists, sociologists, and evolutionists have varying explanations, but as the Old Testament shows us, the tendency to treat the alien among us differently has always been with us.

There are some precepts in the Pentateuch that applied only to the Israelites at that place and time. Others are universal. They apply to all human persons in any place, at any time, because of who we are as human persons and because of our relationship with God. God’s commandment to treat the newcomer like ourselves is one of these.

It might be tempting to think that God is only talking to the Israelites because they were once aliens in the land of Egypt, but the implication is that the Egyptians should not have treated the Israelites differently while they were in Egypt. Reminding them of their plight reinforces and brings home why they should follow God’s directive. It is not the reason. After all, the Egyptians had not previously been in exile someplace else.

The reason God wants us to treat the newcomer like ourselves is given in the next line: I, the Lord (YHWH), am your God. This is the same language used at the beginning of the Ten Commandments. It is the call to absolute faith in God alone, the God who created all human persons, native and alien, in his image.

By following the commandment with the reminder of who God is (and implicitly who we are in relation to God), God is telling us that failing to treat the alien like the rest of our neighbors is to sin against him. The newcomer is a child of God no less deserving of respect than anyone else. Moreover, giving undue preference to our own can become a form of idolatry.

We can, in many ways, be proud of how North Dakotans have embraced our new neighbors. We cannot, however, forget them when it comes to legislative priorities. Education, behavioral health, and social services will need resources to respond to new residents, new languages, and new problems. Unfortunately, there are not high paid lobbyists to advocate for people in need, especially new residents. Their needs can get lost among the competing demands placed on our legislators.

Let us pray that our elected officials remember to address the needs of our new residents, especially those most in need.