There is no question that immigration issues and border policies are complex. From legal and political concerns to national security and economics, all of these variables need to be considered when sketching out a just and civil equation that adequately deals with immigration reform. But rather than pretend to tell the government what it ought to do (plenty of others are doing that), I want to focus on how the Church might begin thinking about the treatment of immigrants and suggest that, for the Body of Christ, immigration is primarily a moral issue, not an economic one, though economics are inextricably tied to it. If this thesis is correct, then the Church in America must not only raise but answer some questions before it can articulate a biblically faithful response to the displaced immigrants entering the US.
First, many churches have a “deacon’s fund” or some means of providing for transients, struggling widows, single parents, or others with legitimate needs. The basis for this is James 1:27, which says “religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress.” Psalm 68:5 says the Lord is a “father to the fatherless, a defender of widows” and while Jesus was on the cross, one of the things He was concerned about was the care of His widowed mother (John 19:27). How should the Church’s treatment of immigrants be any different?
Note: I am purposefully avoiding “legal” versus “illegal” to define immigrants, since my presupposition is that moral matters transcend legal ones, where the latter ought be a reflection of the former. Whether immigrants are in America legally or illegally is a secondary matter to having their basic human rights met. Put differently, crossing the border does not forfeit one’s basic human rights (surely “GITMO” has taught us this much by now).
Second, what is so wrong with sharing some of what we have with those less fortunate who are legitimately in need? As I argued in my essay “The Call to Generosity,”
the largest passage on giving (2 Cor. 8-9) has little if anything to do with supporting a local church ministry in terms of its operating expenses, but has everything to do with the relief of poverty in the Church at large. This alone should give churches pause before committing abundant resources to buildings, unnecessarily high staff salaries, and the like. While there is nothing explicitly unbiblical about having sufficient staff and facilities that meet the needs of a local congregation, the burden of New Testament teaching is in meeting the needs of the poor. To diminish or even ignore this emphasis in Scripture while building larger parking lots and acquiring sufficient acreage to build the church “campus” seems a bit beyond Scripture when there are so many legitimate needs of the poor that surround us.
Third, if Israel was to treat with love and justice those foreigners living in their land, so too should the Church, the new Israel. Christopher Wright’s excellent book The God I Don’t Understand lists some texts that may very well speak to how Christ’s Body can begin thinking about immigration issues.
(Admittedly, Wright does not address immigration but uses these passages to speak to the ethical treatment of the Canaanites, who occupied the land promised to Israel. Nevertheless, when reading through I could not help but ask whether these passages contain solid and enduring principles upon which the Church could begin constructing a stance on treatment of immigrants from foreign soil.)
If you find an immigrant on your doorstep, in your neighborhood, community, city, or even church, then what is the biblical response? Whether you are a leader in or member of a church or simply a Christ-follower, carefully, reflectively, prayerfully, and practically consider:
Leviticus 19:33: When foreigners reside among you in your land, do not mistreat them.
Exodus 22:21: Do not mistreat or oppress a foreigner, for you were foreigners in Egypt.
Exodus 23:9: Do not oppress a foreigner; you yourselves know how it feels to be foreigners, because you were foreigners in Egypt.
Deuteronomy 24:17-18: Do not deprive the foreigner or the fatherless of justice, or take the cloak of the widow as a pledge. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the LORD your God redeemed you from there. That is why I command you to do this.
Leviticus 19:9-10: When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner. I am the LORD your God.
Deuteronomy 24:19-22: When you are harvesting in your field and you overlook a sheaf, do not go back to get it. Leave it for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow, so that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. When you beat the olives from your trees, do not go over the branches a second time. Leave what remains for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow. When you harvest the grapes in your vineyard, do not go over the vines again. Leave what remains for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt. That is why I command you to do this.
Leviticus 19:34: The foreigners residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the LORD your God.
Deuteronomy 10:18-19: He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigners residing among you, giving them food and clothing. And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt.
Romans 12:13: Practice hospitality.
Hebrews 13:2: Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.
If these passages offer a framework from which to begin constructing a morally responsible stance on the treatment of immigrants, then I suggest the following: When immigrants’ basic human rights are not met in their home country (e.g., physical/emotional safety, food, clothing, housing, health care), and a person or family member believes they must flee their homeland in order to fulfill these basic human rights, then immigration is a moral issue. And, moral issues are issues not only for the State but also for the Church. After the spirit of Francis A. Schaeffer, the final question that remains is “How shall we then live?”
Postscript: My wife and I watched a documentary on the struggles of border patrol keeping up with the flood of illegal immigrants. One segment showed a US citizen who was deeply committed to the principle that no one should die in the desert from lack of water, regardless of whether they’re breaking the law in coming to America. Thus, at strategic spots along the Arizona border this US citizen has placed multiple 55-gallon containers of water, which he refreshes weekly. Tragically, when driving up to some of his locations he finds every container punctured beyond repair by nearby US citizens who insist that he’s complicit in the immigrants’ crime of crossing the border. I wonder who is truly the complicit one here!
(Note: I’m aware that many seek to come to America for wrong reasons; human or drug trafficking, for instance. However, this post is not addressing those concerns, but only those that deal with the loss of basic human rights.)