Monday, February 12, 2018

Thinking About Illegal Immigration As A Citizen Of Heaven

So, the disclaimer first. 

As a result, I've been reading a lot about how Christians are processing the illegal immigration issue.  It's no secret we Christians are all over the map in how we believe we should respond. What I offer here is an attempt to do justice to two distinct sides on this issue, express some thoughts about the intersection of justice and mercy, and offer a solution that I hope offers a vision of how the church could change the world for our good and God's glory. 

So be patient, please, if you choose to read this. I'm not asking you to agree with me on every point; like I said, I'm sure these won't by my final thoughts. I would love to engage respectfully with you if you disagree in hopes that I can learn and grow.

I also encourage you to read the links at the end of this article.

* * * * *

As Christians, our claim is that God’s nature is the foundation or the source of good; therefore, what we understand as ‘good’ in the world is that which aligns with or reflects God’s nature. 
  • God is a just judge; God will give people what they deserve, which could be punishment or reward. 
  • God is full of long-suffering, mercy and grace, so God is not eager to punish. Through Jesus, God has satisfied his own demand for the justice that must follows sin by taking the penalty upon himself. In so doing, God gives us mercy we don’t deserve but which he freely offers.  
  • God is loving. In Jesus, we see what a deeply sacrificial, other-oriented love looks like. 
This list could go on, but you get the idea. So when we look at the world, we must consider everything about the nature of God, not just parts. If we isolate God’s attributes, we will misunderstand God, and we will fail to properly see and support goodness in the world.

My concern about the discussion I have heard about  the immigration issue is that I often see Christians focus almost entirely on one of God’s attributes: in this case, God's justice and the biblical value of the law vs. God's mercy, grace and love.


There is a pretty solid argument to be made here. 
  1. God is a God of order, not chaos, which we see from Genesis 1.
  2. God is a God of boundaries. In Genesis, the natural world is put into boundaries to bring order (light from dark, etc). In the Mosaic Law, the laws stressed living an ‘unmixed life’ ( aka holiness or separateness) in even the most mundaneof areas (which, I believe, is one of several reasons why they couldn’t mix grains or fabrics, let alone mix foreign gods with worship of Yahweh). The penalty for moving boundary markers was severe.
  3. If foreigners emigrated to Israel, they weren’t required to covert to temple worship of Yahweh, but they had to adhere to any of the laws of the land that had to do with social order and stability.
  4. In the New Testament, the early church is clearly told that it’s part of God’s plan for the world to have governments – it’s how you keep order – and Christians are to honor the king, give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and live in obedience to the law unless we can’t in good conscience do so as a follower of Jesus.
  5. The purpose of government's law is perhaps an echo of the purpose of the Mosaic law: it is a school teacher, a guide, the means by which we see a path of life that is for our good - and in the case of governmental law, for the good of society.  

The Bible has little to say about what the government should do other than that it should punish evildoers and reward those who do well. Evildoers, for the record are a very particular thing in the Bible. From 
Malefactors or offenders of God's law. Used generally of the ungodly, as, "Fret not thyself because of evil-doers." (Psalms 37:1). Sometimes also of personal offenders: "He hath delivered the soul of the needy from the hand of evil-doers." (Jeremiah 20:13).
In other words, evildoers break God's law (which is a church issue, not a government issue) or they hurt others (which is a government issue indeed). 

If you read in the Old Testament, you will see that a just rule or government is characterized by things like fairness and impartiality; a concern for what we would now call the marginalized; a love of truth; and the punishment of those who do evil to protect others from their evil.

Put all these together, and you have a strong case that God, who is a just Judge, demands a just world, and the best way to a just world is one that honors governmental authority. Our call is to live as obedient citizens of  the kingdoms of the earth (unless is clashes with obedience to the Kingdom of God), and as such we must support the law and order our government has ordained whenever possible.


Mercy is a concept integral to an understanding of God's dealings with humankind. It involves compassionate and loving acts, not just emotions, and must be expressed in tangible ways. 

Grace is giving people more than they deserve irrespective of the cause of their need and without regard to national, cultural or religious boundaries. It is, by definition, an undeserved gift offered to someone who is in need. The gospels present Jesus as one who brought good news to all who would listen (the crowds) but especially to those who lived on the periphery of society: lepers, slaves, the demon-possessed, a paralytic, a tax collector, a young girl, and the blind. A life of grace means a life lived with those usually ignored or rejected by others.

The fundamental characteristic of love is that it seeks the good of the other. It is contrary to all selfish, self-centered attitudes. Love involves choosing to love the unlovable, including even those one thinks of as an enemy. Love exists most particularly where it is offered towards those for whom one feels least, or where it is reaching out to one who does not, or is not able, to love in return. ('Grace' and 'Love' are quoted excerpts from The Evangelical Alliance, "Eight Core Christian Values")

Love your neighbor as yourself (Mark 12:31); do unto others as you would have them do unto you (Luke 6:31); when you help the ‘least of these,’ it is as if you helped God himself (Matthew 25:40). All of these biblical commands are wrapped up in notions of mercy, grace and love.

And here’s where we begin to see why the two need to merge in our thinking just as they are intrinsically intertwined in God. I refer one again to "Eight Core Christian Values": 
 Biblical justice… refers to very practical, down-to-earth actions which ensure that the weak, the poor and the socially disadvantaged are cared for, whether they ‘deserve’ it or not… Biblical justice… ensure[s] that the weak are protected from abuse, that the poor have what they need, that the stranger in the land is shown hospitality and that the socially disadvantaged are cared for. Even when this means giving them what they do not ‘deserve’… Justice is often interpreted in terms of seeking rights for oneself or one’s own group (‘we demand justice’) when biblically it is really an action on behalf of others… ‘Justice’ is not for ‘just me’. This means that Christians will be more keen to protect others than themselves.“
* * * * *

Here’s a question that's been nagging at me: As Christians, do we believe that merely obeying the law of the land is the same as saying justice has been served?

I hope not. Just look at American history. There have been many times when the law on the books was remarkably unjust. When that happened, Christians honored justice by challenging the law at minimum and at times breaking it (think of helping slaves escape to freedom). 

Let’s use a current example: some states demand that Christian bakers or photographers offer their services on same-sex weddings. That is the law. If we equate justice with keeping the law of the land, then in order to support justice, those business owners must adhere to the law.  Yet for those who oppose that coercion, that is clearly not justice – and they will, in fact, applaud those who disobey.

So Christians can never blindly assume that a law brings about justice simply because it is a law.  The question we must wrestle with is whether or not our current laws on immigration are just laws by a biblical standard of justice, which must be intertwined with love and mercy. The recent deportation of Dreamers who are being separated from their families after long, productive lives here must surely challenge us to think long and hard about this.

On the other hand, we cannot ignore the value of boundaries or the necessity of the rule of law. Both of these things are meant to serve the world (and thus serve us) by maintaining order in a world that would otherwise descend into chaos. If we aren’t careful, we can begin to undermine the vital role that just law plays. If everyone got to pick and choose the laws they want to keep, that won’t end well at all. And if we as Christians just shout, “Not a just law!” and do whatever we want, we will clearly violate the Scriptural command to honor rulers and live as obedient citizens as much as possible without compromise.  So somehow we must honor our system of leaders and laws while finding a way to challenge what is genuinely unjust.

* * * * *

Here’s my recommendation, for better or worse, on how to respond to illegal immigration as Christians.

First, we honor the government’s role in marking boundaries and setting laws by supporting the strong policing of our border, as well as the rigorous vetting of people entering the country on visas, etc. There are evildoers that want to get in to our country and sow chaos, and there is a clear biblical directive for the government to protect us from evildoers and punish them appropriately. The law is valuable and necessary, and we must support its implementation. 

Second, we should clearly honor our government’s arrest of undocumented immigrants who are actual evildoers just as we would any criminals who hurt those around them. There is no doubt some illegal immigrants are in this category; the government can and should be as proactive as possible in arresting them in order to keep those around them safe.

But this kind of enforcement cannot be blind and cold. We do a disservice to the concept of justice if we think one size fits all. For example, the vast majority of the Dreamers have broken one governmental law - an immigration one -  and that was unintentional (they were kids). Many of them have desperately been trying to ‘unbreak’ that law, but inept lawyers and an overwhelmingly complex immigration system in desperate need of overhauling have stymied them. They do not want to be lawbreakers, yet our system forces them to stay in this status in spite of their best efforts. What should we do when the path for someone to stop breaking a law they don't even want to break is not available?

Third, we must think more clearly about what love looks like on a personal level. Many immigrants are fleeing homes where abject poverty, violence and human trafficking are endangering their well-being or their lives. Some, especially from the Middle East, are fleeing certain death because they are Christians living in the presence of ISIS.  They aren’t sneaking in because they are criminals. They are desperate; if they wait 10 years to go through the immigration process, it will be too late.

This isn’t every situation of course, but it’s true of many. We need to put ourselves in their shoes. If my family were in that situation, how desperate would I be to ensure that my wife and boys were safe? In what ways can I personally do unto others what I would have them do unto me? 

* * * * *

What would happen if Christians in the United States focused on improving the lives of fellow Christians in Central and South America (which is where almost all of our border crossing originate)?

What if churches partnered directly with churches there and sent money, resources and people to help improve their lives such that there was no need for them to come to the United States if they didn't want to? I don’t say this because I don’t want them to come here. I am just guessing they want their home to be their home, just like I would. If they come here, it would be a freely embraced choice, not an act of desperate survival - which would likely ensure they would have the time and resources to pursue a legal path.  

What if Christians became known for this kind of transformation, this kind of focus on helping improve the lives of others so much that fleeing to a foreign land was not their best - or only - option?

What if we built this kind of friendship with those whom we too often see as the ‘other,’  those whom we too often fear, distrust, or even dislike? 

What if the people of God became known as the group that is so full of love that they are determined to bring economic and civil justice and peace throughout the Americas even at great cost to themselves?

I think that would look a lot like loving my neighbor as myself. 

And that, I hope, is an idea we could all get behind, no matter our opinion about borders.



No comments:

Post a Comment