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A Christian conversation on immigration

"A Christian conversation on immigration" Continued...

One of the reasons Christians disagree about the Bible and immigration is that we speak from diverse perspectives that define in different ways how the Bible can be used for societal issues. Our starting points differ, as do our arguments. We should not be surprised, then, that we differ on things like immigration. We talk past each other without realizing we are speaking different “theological languages” from various church traditions. Our disagreements, though, do not disqualify Christian input into the national discussion, but we need to be wiser about how we speak out and be more aware of our theological and church backgrounds that may lead us in contrary directions.

Commitment to realism

In addition to being theologically aware, we need to be contextually aware. There are two relevant contexts here, the ancient and the modern. The ancient so that what the Bible says can be properly understood; the modern so that what we take from the Bible for today is done appropriately.

The history of the human race is the history of migration. The reasons why people migrate have always been similar. In Old Testament times many migrated looking for food and a new life. Others left their homelands to flee war or persecution, and still others were forcibly removed and sent into exile. It also is clear from the Old Testament, other ancient literature, and archaeology that nations maintained borders and were aware of outsiders. Economic and political factors came into play in how ancient peoples interacted with outsiders, and some nations had systems for monitoring their movement. Although the modern nation-state is different from what we find in ancient times, the contexts are not totally different. Then and now, concrete sociopolitical realities, economic pressures, and climatic factors (like drought) drove people to migrate.

In terms of our current situation, discussion of immigration should include the thorny issues of its effect on labor; economic cost-benefit analysis; possible effects on the healthcare system, schools, and Social Security; and the challenges to law enforcement. It also should have some knowledge of the history of immigration into this country and the history of our immigration law, which has had exemplary moments as well as a dark side that has been driven by racism (like the Chinese Exclusion Act) and religion (such as the quotas on the Irish and the Italians, in part because of their Catholic faith). It is informative to track the progressive shift in the location of the office dealing with immigration affairs, from the first time immigration became a federal responsibility in the last quarter of the 19th century until the present day. Immigration matters originally were under the jurisdiction of the Treasury Department, moved to the Department of Labor, then to the Department of Justice, and now reside within the Department of Homeland Security. These administrative changes reflect evolving perceptions of the immigrant and immigration.

Of course, migration is a global challenge. The United Nations estimates that more than 200 million people are migrating in some form or another. Immigration, in other words, is a worldwide phenomenon of the push and pull effects of international economics, labor, climate change, and political unrest.

More information about the ancient and modern contexts makes for a realistic discussion. The immigration debate must grapple with the pragmatics of politics, economics, the nature and history of immigration law, and the many other spheres that the migration touches both in this country and around the world. This realism must be combined with the solid theological orientation, which was my first point.

Identifying the Bible’s contribution

Third and last, a more complete Christian point of view on immigration will need to discern what the Bible—specifically Old Testament legislation on foreigners—actually can offer to the discussion.

Some Christians dismiss Old Testament legislation, believing it is locked within its ancient theocratic framework. Others disregard it because they think it has no relevance for Christians after the establishment of the church in the first century. These observations are common but shortsighted. Of course, the world of the Bible is not the 21st century United States. But that does not mean it cannot inform Christian views on issues not mentioned explicitly in its pages. We go to the Bible all the time, as our Scripture, for guidance in many such areas, like ecology, nuclear war, and genetic engineering. Even though the Bible does not deal directly with these things, we still seek its wisdom for our positions on them.

What Christians seek is a moral compass from the Bible, not a blueprint for policy. To imitate how an ancient people dealt in its laws with foreigners in that agrarian peasant context does not make sense. It did not make sense even in Israel’s time for other nations to copy its laws. But this legislation was seen as judicious and as a pointer to the God of Israel (Deuteronomy 4:5-8). In other words, the law contains a set of enduring principles that can be carried across borders and across the centuries. These principles can be classified as general moral imperatives (respect for human life, compassion, hospitality) and as practical legislative guidelines. Both levels of principles are needed today. For instance, outsiders are listed with widows, orphans, and the poor as a vulnerable group in need of gracious aid. Their vulnerability makes them a target of God’s love (Deuteronomy 10:17-19). The moral imperative to be welcoming to strangers is given expression in legislation that included fair wages paid on time, suitable rest from work, equal treatment under the law, and the provision of means for sustenance. How the moral imperatives and legislation might be implemented today obviously would be different than what is found in Israel’s laws, but the principles stand.

Photo of Mark Tooley by James Allen Walker for WORLD

Photo of M. Daniel Carroll R. (Rodas) courtesy of Denver Seminary

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