Let’s Have an Uneasy Conversation About Immigration

I must confess that I am uneasy. I am uneasy about the stories of immigration in the news lately. I am uneasy with progressive responses to those situations. I am uneasy with Christian responses to those stories. I am uneasy about the trustworthiness of news sources, the spin of commentators, and the histrionics of disputants. But beneath and throughout all of this uneasiness, I’ve felt especially uncomfortable with how Scripture is used when it comes to questions of the “immigrant,” the “stranger,” and the “refugee.” Some serious thinking was required, and the result is something of an uneasy conversation.

Immigration_CNN_mcallen-texas-exlarge-tease

This uneasy conversation is rooted in the fact that immigration (both legal and illegal), refugees, and Christian responsibility come together in an awkward discourse, one that stretches the boundaries of any simplistic ethics. At the heart of the conflict are two, oil-and-water realities—the life of the Kingdom of God, and the existence of nation-states. Unclear thinking in both areas, to my mind, has created a great deal of misinformation and confusion. Perhaps one way to summarize the diverse dialogues and talking points is to pose a simple question: what is the Christian responsibility towards the immigrant/refugee?

The most common answers I encounter come from certain interpretations of Scripture. Consider two such interpretations now. In this first image Jesus, Mary, and Joseph are likened to refugees, fleeing Herod to Egypt. The message, implicit, is that the state of the refugee is crucially linked to the story of Christianity itself.

Immigration_Holy Family as Refugees_Kelly Latimore

An Icon of the Holy Family, by Kelly Latimore.

Another image lists a series of scripture texts, but pointedly translates the word “stranger” as “immigrant.”

Immigrant Scriptures_

I won’t take the time to analyze these images in depth, but where I want to focus is on their use of Scripture. Specifically, in both cases Christian Scripture (or an event) is used pointedly to address the current immigration/refugee issue in the US. Each is, in fact, a form of proof texting—here is a situation, here is a Scripture to address said situation, case closed.

Allow me to register a few concerns. First, modern labels such as “immigrant” and “refugee” are heavily freighted with meaning. While the Bible does indeed have things to say about the stranger in the land, they may not be the same kinds of things that modern commentators are making it say. Is the modern refugee really the same as Joseph, Mary, and Jesus fleeing to Egypt? Can these texts really be applied to our modern situation without interpretation or context? For instance, in order to claim that Israel’s stranger laws should directly inform America’s immigration policy we would need to establish that the nation-state of Israel is sufficiently similar to the nation-state of America. This is a deeply tenuous connection, and one that many commentators would not be so happy to make.

In light of this, a second concern. In addition to the quoted stranger laws, the Bible has lots of other things to say about how we treat one another, specifically from the same passages of text! For example, instructions in Leviticus 18, 19, and 20 shift almost breathlessly from laws about clothing of two fabrics, to rules about sex with slave girls, to the breeding of cattle, to forbidding homosexual relations, and to honouring one’s parents. Many of the same people who reject the Bible’s teachings on some of these issues (e.g., homosexuality), are presenting contextually linked scriptures as proof-texts for immigration reform. Furthermore, when they give reasons for why they are not bound by a scripture like Leviticus 18:22, they cite the fact that we do not observing other, contextually linked passages, such as the garment laws. The law of the stranger, then, is binding, but none of the others. I find this, at best, disingenuous.

Levicitus Clobber Text

While these flaws make me uneasy, they are not themselves an argument. They are bad rhetoric, and possibly poor interpretations of Scripture, but we still must examine the Scriptural claims about what, if any, is the proper Christian response to the immigrant/refugee. We’ll need to think about this from two angles—the nation-state, and the immigrant.

The Bible and the State
First, does the Bible speak to the circumstances of the modern nation-state? In a word, not really. The Old Testament offers instruction on the management of theocratic, then monarchic Israel. Many Christians believe that these instructions ought to shape the governance of their nations, but this is by no means a simple open-and-shut Scriptural case. For example, the text points to the role of boundary stones (Proverbs 22:28), of property management (Leviticus 25), of ethnic purity (Deuteronomy 7:3), and of economics (Leviticus 25, 23:22, Deut. 23). These are instructions for Israel specifically. It is worth noting, however, that when other nations stand in violation of certain aspects of God’s law they are judged, and even destroyed, based on those violations (e.g., Deuteronomy 18:9).

And yet, apart from these passages of judgment (for moral reasons) we get no instruction on secular civil governance in the Bible. Paul tells us in Romans 13 to “obey the civil authorities” (and he says this about Nero, mind you). John in Luke 3 tells the tax collector to collect just the right amount, and the soldiers to avoid harassing people and be content with their wages. If we wish to look to the Scriptures for advice on how to govern, manage, and maintain national borders, we are going to get precious little help. Furthermore, the concept of the modern nation-state—as a non-religious, non-ethnic social aggregate of disparate persons—is unheard of in ancient Israel, and certainly insufficiently like the Roman state for easy comparison with America, if only because no ancient person had a vote like modern persons do.

EmperorMaximiam

Emperor Maximiam offering incense to Jupiter.

In view of Romans 13, however, it is worth remembering that Christian obedience to the state clearly had limits. When the New Testament was written, the early Church had an uneasy but largely unchallenged relationship to the Roman government. But in the years following the writing of Paul’s letters this situation changed—the question of obeying Caesar or Christ became pointed, and the resounding witness of the early Church was to honour Christ, even if it meant death. Thus, when a given Christian stood before the altar to Caesar and was pressed to offer incense to him as a deity, that Christian refused to obey the civil authority. Death, by the very sword entrusted to those who govern, was often the consequence.

It follows, then, that because there are no Christian states, properly speaking, but only states with proportions of Christians serving inside them, no civil ethic ever aligns perfectly with a Scriptural model, whether Old or New Testament. The default ethic would appear to be some form of Romans 13:1-7 (to honor civil authorities), combined with some form of 1 Thessalonians 4:11-12 (to lead a quiet life). However, in those situations where the state stands opposed to Christian teaching, then we side with Christ, even if it means our imprisonment or death.

The Bible and the Stranger
Second, does the Bible speak to the situation of the stranger, the immigrant, or the refugee? In a word, yes—quite a lot, actually. While the image macro of Scripture texts above bent matters a little for its own benefit, each of the texts do speak about treatment of the stranger in the land. Exodus 22:21-24 is one of the clearest and most poignant:

21You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. 22 You shall not afflict any widow or orphan. 23 If you afflict him at all, and if he does cry out to Me, I will surely hear his cry; 24 and My anger will be kindled, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children fatherless.”

Slaves in Egypt

Israel, as a people who were formerly strangers—immigrants, if you will—in Egypt, are called to remember at all times their former status and to treat others accordingly. Note: the text makes no provision for the ethnic heritage of the stranger, nor for his or her religious background, nor for his or her quality of life, language ability, or socioeconomic status. It does not matter if the stranger is a qualified worker or a slave, he or she is to be treated justly. Leviticus 24:17-22 makes this explicit:

17 ‘If a man takes the life of any human being, he shall surely be put to death. 18 The one who takes the life of an animal shall make it good, life for life. 19 If a man injures his neighbor, just as he has done, so it shall be done to him: 20 fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; just as he has injured a man, so it shall be inflicted on him. 21 Thus the one who kills an animal shall make it good, but the one who kills a man shall be put to death. 22 There shall be one standard for you; it shall be for the stranger as well as the native, for I am the Lord your God.’

(Note: similar passages can be found at Leviticus 19:33-34, Deuteronomy 24:14-15, Deuteronomy 27:19, and Jeremiah 22:3-5.)

In light of these passages, does the situation of the modern immigrant and refugee correlate to the biblical picture? It certainly seems so. Central to the story of the Bible, Jacob and his sons flee economic hardship in order to reside in Egypt, where they are immigrants. In the book of Ruth an Israelite woman (Naomi), on account of famine (a natural disaster) emigrates to Moab. After her sons die, she returns with Ruth (now an immigrant) to Israel, where they live, essentially, as economic refugees. Mary, Joseph, and infant Jesus do indeed flee a situation of political hostility (the government, Herod, wants to kill them) and reside as political refugees in Egypt. Central to the story of Christianity is that of displaced people seeking safety and hope in foreign lands, and crucial in God’s ethics towards displaced persons is our responsibility to be hospitable to the stranger in our land.

The_Good_Samaritan_After_Delacroix_-_Vincent_Van_Gogh

Van Gogh’s Good Samaritan

At this point someone might object that for those stories, their movements were ordained by God as part of His story and plan. That is true enough, but it was on account of those stories—and especially the original story of Israel in Egypt—that we receive the clear commandments from Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy to care for the stranger in our land, irrespective of that stranger’s ethico-religious identity. Whatever the origin of the story, now we have inherited an ethic which governs our treatment of the displaced.

An Uneasy Ethical Balance
This, then, is the heart of our uneasy conversation about Christianity and immigration: on the one hand, we have a clear, Scriptural ethic to care for the stranger, and on the other hand, we have no clear Scriptural ethic about how to be a Christian in a secular nation-state. In light of this, I think the following, provisional conclusions are in order:

1) A Christian perspective does indeed carry ethical obligations toward the immigrant/refugee. If we take the Bible seriously, we must care for the stranger and seek justice for him or her.

2) To the degree that America is, in fact, a Christian nation, then it bears a Christian responsibility toward immigrants/refugees. By implication, Christians should be as pro-immigrant as they are pro-life.

3) To the degree that America is a Christian nation, to that same degree it bears economic, religious, and moral responsibilities as well. This will cover homosexuality and poverty, land reform and honouring the Sabbath.

As I close, let’s acknowledge two crucial factors. First, while conclusion #1 is unambiguous, neither #2 or #3 is in any sense ethically simple. Neither of the premises for #2 or #3 are clear (that America is a Christian nation), therefore the implications are necessarily murky.

But second, I’ve left aside one, looming question: what about illegal immigration? To answer that question, we will have to further consider the role of boundaries and self-identity in secular nation-states. For that discussion, we will need to return next week.

3 comments on “Let’s Have an Uneasy Conversation About Immigration

  1. Fred E Aurbach says:

    What defines a Christian nation?

    • jmichaelrios says:

      That’s part of what I’ll have to sort out next week! While I get that sorted, what do you think it means?

  2. Thank you for your thoughtful post. I may not entirely agree with everything, but I do agree that this is a tough issue, especially for Christians. There are a lot of arguments based on hospitality laws, yet the Old Testament is full of walls and gates for the purposes of security and protection. I think we need compassionate, responsible, comprehensive reform, but what that looks like I do not know; this is a complex issue indeed. And talking is the first step.

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