I’m enrolled in seminary at George Fox Evangelical Seminary in Portland, OR. For a recent Old Testament class, my professor asked us to write a 750-word op-ed piece on a portion of the Old Testament, connecting it with a recent world event or something in culture. Here is my reflection on the recent thriller from Denis Villeneuve, Sicario, and a passage in Deuteronomy 24 about immigration. We were limited to 750 words, so I couldn’t do justice to either reviewing the film or exegeting the passage, but did my best to explore both themes:
Zeal for Justice: On Sicario, Immigration, and Deuteronomy
Sicario, the title of filmmaker Denis Villeneuve’s latest thriller, stems from a Hebrew word referring to religious zealots keen on killing Romans in retaliation for the oppression of their people. In the cartel-controlled world of Mexico, “sicario” refers to a hitman. The film centers on FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) as she finds herself drawn into a violent world where boundaries, both political and moral, are blurred beyond comprehension. An idealist recruited to a covert government task force to combat the drug cartels at the Mexican-American border, Macer finds herself powerless to stop the formidable wave of violence coming from both borders. This violence is embodied in the enigmatic and terrifying Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), whose notion of justice is a vengeful “eye for an eye.” The Mexican immigrants are mere pawns in a conflict between the cartels and American agents, tools to be used for the advancement of an unjust agenda.
The film raises significant questions about justice, violence and moral boundaries, and our personal response to Mexican immigration. Villeneuve (wisely) refuses to settle for easy, comfortable answers. Do we welcome Mexican immigrants with open arms, or do we round them up and send them back? Do we use them as cheap labor for less-than-deal jobs? Do we turn a blind eye to the entire situation? Even deeper, can we trust our government agencies to practice true justice regarding immigration practices? For American Christians, what should be the response from the people of God?
These verses in Deuteronomy 24 have significant implications for these questions about justice and the immigrant:
You shall not deprive a resident alien or an orphan of justice; you shall not take a widow’s garment in pledge. Remember that you were a slave in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you from there; therefore I command you to do this.
When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it; it shall be left for the alien, the orphan, and the widow, so that the Lord your God may bless you in all your undertakings. When you beat your olive trees, do not strip what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow.
When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, do not glean what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore I am commanding you to do this. (Deut. 24:17-22, NRSV)
Notice that God’s heart of justice for the resident alien and the oppressed—two designations often paired together in Scripture—is embodied here in concrete practices: the provision of food (vss. 19-21) and the prohibition of debt-incurring pledges (vss. 17-18). This justice is quite simple in its pragmatism: provide food for foreigners, and don’t abuse them for personal gain.
What moves this justice beyond simplicity is God’s repeated phrase to “remember that you were a slave.” Why would God have specific commands for his people regarding immigrants? The life of an immigrant (legal or otherwise) is one of stress, anxiety, and constant barriers—social, lingual, financial, and political. Immigrants have few advocates as they sojourn in a foreign land, just as the Israelites had no advocates in Egypt apart from God. The Israelites were to remember their own season of oppression, the experience of being on the other side of injustice. They were to remember God’s salvific act through the Exodus experience, and to respond by caring for the widows, orphans, immigrants, and oppressed in kind. While God also tasks the Israelites with purging the promised land of enemies, such as the Amalekites (e.g. Deut. 25:17-19), his heart for the immigrant and the clear connection to justice is evident in the above verses.
In the dark world of Sicario, it may feel like there is little hope for true justice. Notably absent within the film is a recognition of God. When we take matters of justice into our own hands apart from a divine moral compass, we’re often left wandering in the realm of ethical ambiguity (at best) or downright injustice (at worst). By the end of Sicario, Kate Macer is overwhelmed by the expanding injustice at the border. Though she is capable of making righteous individual decisions, the tears in her eyes reveal a need for an outside savior from this broken system. Both Sicario and Scripture prompt us to remember the God who redeems and saves the oppressed, whose faithful acts within human history inspire zeal for tangible justice.