At the Intersection of Faith and Politics: The Christian Response to Immigration

A family member emailed me recently, asking to hear my thoughts on immigration. To be honest, I hadn’t before pondered the issue within the context of my faith. Immigration, particularly illegal immigration, is a sticky topic at present and not one I prefer to dwell upon much. But as I weighed this request, I realized that the Bible does have some meaningful things to say regarding the Christian response to foreigners within our borders, both legal and illegal. And I think there are many who might find such a teaching helpful.

Illegal immigration is a tough issue to discuss precisely because it intersects those delicate lines of faith and politics. On the one hand, the Bible commands believers to extend generosity and equal rights to foreigners. On the other hand, illegal immigrants are lawbreakers. They’ve found some way to circumvent the system, sneak across the border, and make legal immigration tougher for those who wish to respect our country’s laws. So, what should the Christian perspective be?

In spite of the vast cultural, governmental and sociopolitical differences between ancient Israel and the modern U.S., we share some surprising common ground. The nation of Israel, while encompassing the descendants of Abraham, was diverse. Some historical scholarship suggests that the original band of Hebrews was composed of various exiles and castaways from the Mediterranean region. When God brought them into the Promised Land of Canaan, they came as foreigners. In fact, Abraham himself lived as a foreigner in Canaan hundreds of years before. So did his brother, Lot. The Israelites, as a national people, do not have a single, specific country of origin. And so it is with Americans. We are a diverse people who settled a land that was not originally our own.

Like our Hebrew forebears, we have reaped the fruits of the land we settled and become a powerful people. And exactly like our Hebrew forebears, we have foreigners coming in among us wishing to share in our blessings. With all the attention given to the genocidal commands in the Old Testament, people forget this reality of Israel’s history. Anyone who agreed to live by the Mosaic Law of the Israelites by giving up their pagan practices, becoming circumcised and observing certain social and religious rites was allowed to integrate into Hebrew society. God commanded the Israelites to treat these foreigners with full compassion and equality:

When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner 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. (Leviticus 19:33-34).

For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt (Deuteronomy 10:17-19).

Do not take advantage of a hired worker who is poor and needy, whether that worker is a fellow Israelite or a foreigner residing in one of your towns (Deuteronomy 24:14).

At the end of every three years, bring all the tithes of that year’s produce and store it in your towns, so that the Levites…and the foreigners, the fatherless and the widows who live in your towns may come and eat and be satisfied, and so that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands (Deuteronomy 14:28-29).

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 (Deuteronomy 24:19).

“So I will come to put you on trial. I will be quick to testify against sorcerers, adulterers and perjurers, against those who defraud laborers of their wages, who oppress the widows and the fatherless, and deprive the foreigners among you of justice, but do not fear me,” says the Lord Almighty (Malachi 3:5).

Yep, the same Israelites who were commanded to stone adulterers, exile eaters of bloody meat and annihilate entire pagan cultures were also commanded to love and care for the foreigners who chose to live among them. In fact, the purpose of tithing in ancient Israel was to provide for foreigners and others who could not provide for themselves! Because when God said He wanted food in His temple, He meant, you know, actual food (Malachi 3:10).

Guess what? The crucifixion of Jesus didn’t change God’s mind on this matter. As Christians, we’re called to continue in the practice of loving our neighbor. Scripture provides no exceptions to that based on the neighbor’s legal status.

Unfortunately, some “Christians” have developed a response to immigrants that combines deep bitterness with irrational suspicion and a solid dose of racism. Every person with an accent and skin a shade darker than tan becomes a target for their vitriol. They are convinced that immigrants are stealing from them personally—their jobs, their children’s scholarship money, and their social safety net. They view the immigrant’s presence as an offense to themselves, believing the person immigrated simply out of envy for their possessions and wealth. A few of these people even see it as their mission to “punish” illegal immigrants by being mean, discriminatory and, in some cases, violent toward them.

This is not a Christ-centered response. And such a response is simultaneously devoid of justice.

As one of my favorite bloggers succinctly put it, “Surely we don’t think that God gives us blessings simply so we can spend nearly $2 billion a year on hair removal?” No. We are blessed so that we can lavish God’s love and abundance on others—so that we can provide for the foreigner, the orphan, and the widow.

And if we, as individuals, refuse to embrace this will of our Father—if we choose instead to hoard our blessings and treat the foreigners among us with contempt—we won’t be happy with the consequences. In fact, I’d say the consequences are already upon us:

Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on you. Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days. Look! The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the innocent one, who was not opposing you (James 5:1-6).

I’m about to say something highly controversial: Jesus doesn’t care one iota about the so-called sovereignty of America’s immigration laws. He doesn’t give two flips about the boundaries imposed by the U.S.-Mexico border. A person crossing that border, legally or illegally, is not injustice in his eyes. Injustice is 4 percent of the world’s population consuming 25 percent of the earth’s resources while 80 percent of the human race lives in abject poverty. Injustice is people who have been blessed with over 100 brands of bottled water (nevermind the tap) and Sleep Number beds and warehouses full of clothing denying charity and asylum to people who reside in countries so violent that they cannot even walk down the street to their jobs. (A fact you probably won’t hear on the evening news, because we get more upset when a former child TV star dances suggestively on stage in a bikini.)

Yes, immigrants want what we have. They want literate kids. And food on the table. And neighborhoods where they can walk down the street without getting shot. And medical care. And a house that has more than one room in it—a house that’s made with something other than sheets of rusty corrugated metal tacked over a dirt floor. They want it!

And there is only one thing Jesus Christ, the sovereign Lord of all, is going to ask us at The Judgment: What did we do for the least of these (Matthew 25:40)? Because when we stand before him and give an account of our attitude and stewardship, he’s not going to be impressed when we—who have so much food that we often throw it at each other for entertainment—say that we upheld the law, policed the border, and demanded that the “lawbreakers” go home and become self-sufficient. Because we were once foreigners and lawbreakers, too, both spiritually and historically. And Jesus gave everything he had to restore us to equality. He’s expecting his followers to act likewise, no matter our political leanings.

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12 responses to “At the Intersection of Faith and Politics: The Christian Response to Immigration

  1. Not all government policies are legitimate and not all human laws are moral. Even some revealed precepts may be “relative.” Jesus was always offending the religious leaders of his day with his rule breaking, such as his impious healing someone on the Sabbath.

    The Law of Love transcends, and surpassingly fulfills, all other laws.

    Politics is not about loving others, it concerned with reconciling conflicts of legitimate interests and/or desires through negotiation so that people don’t turn to violent means to get what they think is “justice” for themselves. Legitimate or “good government” also protects our common good/public welfare from predatory special interests. Unfortunately, with the influence of “Big Money” on our electoral process, we have governance by political officials who have had to commit to serving the special interests over our collective national interests to finance their campaigns. This is no time in our Nation’s history to be simplistically confusing what is *legal* with what is moral.

    It is a time to be courageous. Civil disobedience is not the same as anarchic violence. In fact, if successful, it may prevent a social descent into a violent revolution.

    “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” –John F. Kennedy

    http://www.opendemocracy.net/transformation/mary-mountcastle/moral-mondays-new-face-of-protest

    http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/12/us/weekly-protests-in-north-carolina-challenge-conservative-shift-in-state-politics.html?_r=1&

  2. Perfect. I have lived on Earth for going on 61 years, and no mere human being wrote what is penned above—save one phrase: “Yes, immigrants want what we have.” I do not think that is quite accurate. They want an opportunity to earn their way in life under an umbrella of peace, acceptance, and hope.

    Personally, I remain convinced that a majority of the people who oppose their presence here, including Christians, use “law-breaking” as euphemistic cover for racism because all overt expressions of real racism these days carry social sanctions that people fear, like losing their jobs because no one wants a racist at the company conference table. They fear an America that looks more like their waiter at a Mexican restaurant than the picture of George Washington on a $1 bill. They fear that the 50 stars on the American flag will soon be replaced by 50 little tacos.

    However, and this is important so watch this closely, the copper skin and jet black hair of most rural Mexicans and Central Americans who come “illegally” to this country are not Spaniards. They are biologically and to a large degree culturally American Indians. I am a professional anthropologist, and we know such things for certain—meaning it is not a subject open to argument. Their ancestors were the great elephant hunters who crossed the Bering Strait or paddled down the west coast in boats 13,000+ years ago at a time when the United States was totally uninhabited by humans. These so-called “alien wetbacks” are the lineal descendants of those First Americans. Historically speaking, they have more of a right to be here than we people of European extraction do. I think we could give them a little bit of break—and so does Jesus.

    • I really hope that such racist views are the extreme exception rather than the rule, but I fear sometimes that may not be the case. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Wow, lots to think about. Personally my view has been to let whoever come; illegal or not hasn’t made much difference to me. The only thing that has made me angry is lack of income tax contribution. I feel strongly that if all citizens (in theory) even on minimum wage, pay taxes, then so should anyone choosing to reside in the society. You did a wonderful job of gathering what God has to say on the subject; I will have to reassess my position for whether it is one I should have or not. I may soon find out I am wrong, but for now I can’t help but think that paying taxes like everyone else isn’t too much to ask. It’s why I have favored a high sales tax without income tax for years, but I digress. Sometimes it’s difficult to discern when politics and faith seemingly collide.

    • I agree with your view on paying taxes. Amnesty and an easier path to citizenship would actually help that issue a lot. It’s really difficult for citizens to get out of paying taxes.

      I have to admit, delving into the scriptures on issues like this changes my perspective a lot, too. I was actually suprprised that I came to the conclusion that I did on this piece; I’ve been very conservative on the immigration issue in the past. But I decided a while back to take an objective, holistic look at the scriptures and allow them to inform my perspective, rather than the other way around. Thanks for the comment, and God bless!

    • There are working poor who are so close or at the poverty level that they don’t pay taxes. Most of these people also receive food stamps which often run out before the end of the month and local food banks take up the slack.

      There are a lot of minimum wage immigrant families who work two or three part time/no benefit jobs to support their families. Those who are “illegal” have no recourse if their employers choose not to pay them or if they are raped. Many are economic refugees who have lost their subsistence farming resources after corporations have located on their land seeking cheap labor, few regulations and low taxes in exchange for bribes or lucrative careers for the ruling class.

      I worked in a primary care physicians’ office and the housekeepers from a local large hotel chain would beg for prescriptions for URIs and UTIs to be called in to the pharmacy without making an appointment because they would lose their jobs if they left during a shift. Of course, no doctor would prescribe an antibiotic without a confirming diagnostic test at the office.

      Working poor who live pay check to pay check have no disposable income for “responsible” middle class choices like regular auto maintenance, so economic crises are a way of life. It takes a lot of money to live “responsibly” in a complex hi-tech society like ours. The day when a person who worked as a mechanic could moonlight by fixing his neighbors’ cars in their driveways for an affordable charge is long gone. It takes access to sophisticated diagnostic machines to repair today’s autos.

  4. I live in the United Kingdom and immigration is a big issue here too. As christians it is so easy to get carried along with the general public view on these things. Thank you for reminding us of the biblical response,

  5. I never really thought about it like that. But it is interesting. Also, we decided land belong to us. We think we are Americans, Canadians, Germans, etc. Instead we are all brought forth from the same world. So in this sense immigration laws are funny.

    • I read a post on a political blog reminding us that most of the “Hispanic” immigrants are not really purely “Hispanic”, but Native Americans who are descended from the first people to cross over from Asia when there was a land bridge to the American continent and that those of us who are of European descent could be said to have “stolen” the land from them.

      “Christendom”, the cooperation of the power of Empire and Church has had an impressive history of successful colonization for centuries:

      “There is a story, which is fairly well known, about when the missionaries came to Africa. They had the Bible and we, the natives, had the land. They said “Let us pray,” and we dutifully shut our eyes. When we opened them, why, they now had the land and we had the Bible.”
      ~Desmond M. Tutu, “Religious Human Rights and the Bible”

      When the institutions of government and church join in a cooperative enterprise, it is always the Church that provides greater service to the State than the State to the Church. Whenever the balance has begun to turn, the State always calls the deal off and begins to persecute rather than support the Church.

      Becoming a civil religion, as has happened to Christianity in the West, is the worst thing that can happen to an authentic spiritual movement.

      • Carol. I could not agree with you more. The state uses the church to provide theological cover and apologetics for whatever evil it has determined that it wants to commit. For example, the Republican Party in Texas had several new political initiatives that it wanted to pursue in Texas government, one of them being opposition to a minimum wage increase. They asked Christian conservatives to come up with some “new theology” that would support what they wanted to do. Pseudo-historian David Barton gladly supplied that new theology not long after the request and personally presented it (overhead slides and all) in a video that I watched about a year ago. My heart sank as I saw how scripture was being twisted, and I would have hit the vomit button if I had had one.