Voices

You used to be one

A theology-based policy for immigration

Issue: "Illegal passage," April 15, 2006

If evangelical Christians in America don't get with it pretty soon on the subject of immigration, they may well end up as embarrassed and impotent as Republicans are in California when Hispanics happen to be in the room.

The California Republicans' plight is the result, of course, of the high-profile stand former Gov. Pete Wilson took in 1994 against the influx of Hispanics from the south. Some people say Gov. Wilson single-handedly guaranteed that Hispanics would refuse to vote Republican for the next generation or more.

But note this well: The issue for evangelical Christians involves a great deal more than political pragmatism. The real issue is compliance with God's standards-and thankful hearts for His mercy. The big fear for evangelical Christians should not be the ire of Hispanic voters, but the wrath of God.

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There are certainly some public-policy issues (try NAFTA) where it may be hard to discern how to apply the heart of God. There are important aspects of immigration policy where it's tough to map out biblical standards. But a Christian's basic posture must be to show mercy to aliens. Just trace the terms alien and stranger through the Bible, and remind yourself how consistently one-sided God's instructions are on the subject.

Yet the basis for this welcome is never some mushy-minded, mealy-mouthed, softheaded, be-a-doormat-for-everybody way of thinking. The basis instead is a starkly theological premise-an argument that comes right from the core of the biblical message of redemption. "You shall not oppress a sojourner," God says bluntly in Exodus 23:9. "You know the heart of a sojourner, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt."

God does not want us to be partners in oppression, and someone who has illegal status can readily be oppressed. He knows how easily we dismiss from our minds that we too were once aliens, and how quickly we assume that we are instead the landed aristocracy.

Many of us who are Christians in America actually suffer from double memory loss. We forget first that we were once theological aliens, and next that the great majority of us owe our U.S. citizenship to ancestors who immigrated here within the past 400 years. That's a blink of the eye to God, who tells us it's a bad thing to forget those roots. The very essence of His salvation is to burst our pride, demolish our self-sufficiency, and drive us to lean on Him alone for all that is good.

Part of what has always been good for America is to extend a warm and humble welcome to immigrants to our land and to God's kingdom. Is it wrong to set conditions on that welcome? No, it's almost certainly important to do so. And we have argued in this space on several occasions that one appropriate condition would be to require immigrants to learn English. But let's package that restriction along with the establishment of classes in English at hundreds, and even thousands, of our churches.

That's just one example. Every time we think we're forced to put up some barrier-and there will be very good reasons for doing so-let's find a way to bracket that barrier with welcome signs so genuine that the newcomer will say, just as so many of our grandparents did, "I understand that restriction, but they actually want me here!"

What if evangelical Christians were known as those who were in the forefront of efforts to turn illegals into legals, not in a sneaky or surreptitious way, but in a constructive manner that demonstrates creative and gospel-driven thinking?

Does positive thinking solve all the problems of escalating crime rates in some border areas? No, not right away. Does it make it easier for border states to pay for the high costs of burgeoning schools and bloated welfare rolls? Not at first. But answers for those problems aren't readily apparent either from those (including too many good conservatives) who slur almost every foreigner as a criminal-to-be.

What's called for, more than anything, is a different tone. And it's hard to think of a tone more helpful, more creative, more constructive, more tenderhearted, than the voice that says: "Don't be harsh with these aliens. Whenever you're tempted that way, just remember that you too used to be one yourself."

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.

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