As I walked into the World Relief office, I saw children everywhere. They were from many different nations around the world and were with their families. Tim, the director came out and showed me around and offered me a cup of coffee. A nondescript builiding in a suburban office park outside of Nashville was serving as a processing and assimilation point for around a dozen refugee families at that very moment. World Relief helps settle and assimilate people who come to the United States as refugees from oppressive situations. All over the world right now, scenes of refugees crossing borders and settling in countries that are not their own are causing anger, frustration, fear, and predictions of dire consequences. How are Christians to respond to what we see happening in Europe as waves of Syrian and African migrants cross oceans and borders? How are Christians to respond to refugees coming to the United States or to immigrants who come here, either legally or not?
One response to the migration of peoples across borders is to build a wall, both literally and metaphorically. Walls keep some people out and keep others in. They separate people. This is what many of us want and it is often reflected in national policy. In Robert Frost’s poem, “Mending Wall,” the neighbor says, “good fences make good neighbors,” but Frost disagrees. He says, “Before I built a wall I’d ask to know, What I was walling in or walling out, And to whom I was like to give offence. Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, That wants it down.”
Nations and cities build walls to protect those inside and keep out those from the outside. Walls make sense, in a very real sense. But, what about the Christian? How are we to see it? Is our main perspective to be the national one of protection and fear of the “other,” or are we to see things differently? Is there any other source from which we can draw our inspiration beside the national drive for preservation, power, and prominence?
M. Daniel Carrol R., in his book, Christians At the Border says regarding a “Christian” view of the United States’ border with Mexico,
In a very real sense everyone in the United States has to take a political position about what is going on at the physicial boundary with Mexico. Consciously or unconsciously, we all take a stand at that literal border, a stand that reflects our social, economic, and racial attitudes and situations. But for Christians there is an additional border. It is a metaphorical decision point. We must determine whether the place we choose to stand in the national debate will be based on the Word of God or whether we will ignore its teaching and defend our opinion on other grounds. This border, in other words, confronts us as a crossroads of faith and conviction.
To Wall or not to Wall? Is that the question?
Perhaps there is another way to look at it. While we recognize and believe that every nation has the right to have borders and defend its borders and to promote order and peace and let in who it wants and keep out who it doesn’t – even if you agree with that perspective (as I do), if you leave out the higher perspective, it falls short. The higher view is also needed as we talk about borders and walls and migration and who is in and who is out. The higher view remembers that we are ultimately talking about people made in God’s image. We are not just talking about numbers or blips on a statistician’s worksheet. We are talking about real people who have often gone through real trauma and who really are more than just a pawn in a national debate regarding who gets to rule.
Perhaps, instead of starting with a question about who gets to come in and who is kept out and what benefits us or harms us, perhaps we should look at the people affected by all of this to know that we are dealing with real human beings and real stories. In formulating a Christian response to these issues, are we just trying to add some Scripture to our nationalism to justify it? Or, are we reading a more liberal immigration policy into Scripture that isn’t actually there?
I heard a story about a young man in my town who was brought here from Mexico when he was 6 months old. He is now 17 years old. He has lived his whole live without documentation. The law says that he should not be here. But, what does our humanity say? What would God say? Where will we send him if he cannot stay here? Is Mexico his country or is the United States his country? He has never been to Mexico – not in his memory. If we sent him away, what would happen to him? Is he not an American? Is it just a piece of paper that makes one an American? These are real questions about a real person and our law, as it is currently constructed (DACA notwithstanding) has no real answers for this young man. What would a just and merciful society do for him? What would a Christian say to him? What should the church say?
I would contend that the beginning of a Christian approach to immigration, migration, and refugees is found in first considering what God cares most about. Does God care most about nations and borders and preserving the “way of life” of a people so that there are no threats to them? Or, does God care most about reconciling the people of the nations to Himself through the work of Christ? Does God care most about a nation’s economic policy and debt situation, or does He care most about the people in that nation coming to know Him and loving one another sacrificially? Where we start often determines where we end up.
If we think that the most important thing is the “rule of law” and a secure border so that only those get in that we desire to get in, then we will always end up with walls first and fear and insecurity continuing to grow as we live suspicious of the “other.” What do we keep out with our walls? Perhaps we keep out more than just immigrants that we deem undesirable. Maybe we keep out the concept of a free society itself. But, if we start with what God is doing as peoples move across the face of the earth, then perhaps we will take a different approach.
The Bible says a lot about strangers and sojourners and immigrants. One example is found in Leviticus 19:33-34,
“When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.
This is not just a law. This reflects God’s heart. How can we reflect God’s heart for the sojourner? Now, we could take a few approaches here. One is to say that any time a stranger comes to us then we are to automatically treat him like a citizen no matter what and give everything we can to him. But, does that fit with the rest of Scripture? Romans 13:1-8 tells us,
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.
So, the idea of law keeping and the State enforcing order in society and law is not wrong. It is actually God’s intention and heart as well. How do we reconcile law and love?
Perhaps the way that we reconcile law and love/mercy is to see the value of people made in God’s image and as objects of His love as we also recognize that order is needed in society to keep our most selfish interests at bay and to provide for the common good. If walls and laws are seen as a way of ordering the opportunity for human flourishing so that our selfish desires do not run amok and so that we can best reflect the image of God within each of us, then there is value there. But, if they are simply seen as the way that we can maintain control and promote our “way of life” over and above others, then they miss God’s heart as revealed in Scripture and the person and Jesus and become abusive and nonsensical.
Because human and national law, especially immigration law, is malleable, we can look at every situation and ask if we are valuing a principle that benefits some over the value of others or if we are promoting the law because it aids in human flourishing at every level. We can actually look at the situation and make that judgment based on what benefits society and the people involved and based on what best reflects God’s character. And, we can alter law to aid in the pursuit of the greater good.
For example, if millions of people are flooding across a border and are bringing chaos upon society and are breaking the law, stealing private property, committing acts of violence against innocent people, etc., then regulating that situation and keeping those people out would be the right move. We are valuing the lives of those being abused, which in this case would be those being overrun by unruly mobs. We would enforce the border laws and remove those causing trouble. The goal is the greater good, peace of a nation, and the value of human life.
But, if you have a situation where people came here years ago illegally for whatever reason and by various means, but have since lived peacefully and productively and have been ingrafted into a society where they seek to live and contribute, then it is for the greater good to keep those people from a pathway to come out of the shadows and apply for legal status? Who does it benefit to remove them? Of what social good is it? Or, are we just applying a principle for the sake of the principle? Or, for the sake of those who want to feel that their country is for them and not for those who are from somewhere else?
I would contend that a Christian approach to immigration, migration, and refugees always start with a view on God’s soveriegnty and God’s plan in the salvation of and care for the nations and then move to love for God’s creation, which, in this case, is man made in His image. What might God be doing in the migration of the peoples of the earth? Then, we look at the law and a nation’s borders as a way to maintain proper order so that the people living in that nation can flourish and live peacefully and so that their lives are valued. We must have an orderly immigration/migration system. But, we must also value the people caught up in that system and value the needs of the nation itself for those who are seeking to come here instead of just using our walls and laws to keep people out so that those who are here can “protect their way of life” over and above others.
The Church is representative of the Kingdom of God – a “colony of heaven in the country of death,” as Eugene Peterson calls it. We are to be salt and light. With that as our identity, we are to witness in the world to the realities of God’s reign and rule. We are not to answer every single question or completely draft every policy or govern in every way so that we try to wield power. Rather, we are to just continue to reflect God’s way and character into situations where it is not being reflected. We are to witness, not control.
The 17 year old boy who has no legal status because he was brought here when he was 6 months old is an example of the law as it stands not reflecting a higher truth involving the value of human life made in God’s image. So, how can we solve that? How can we “tell a better story” for that young man so that his life can be all that God created it to be? How can we write and enforce laws that provide for human flourishing in every respect instead of just enforcing principles that benefit some over others? Those are the questions that we should be asking, and when we do, we will be engaging in a more Christian approach to immigration reform, migration, and the plight of refugees. We will also be valuing the person in need and positioning ourselves to love them sacrificially while also recognizing that society needs order and that the State has a role to enforce that order as a demonstration of God’s benevolent care.
I guess that I am trying to say that I believe that a more Christian approach to immigration, migration, and the plight of refugees begins with God’s character as revealed and love and mercy for those that God loves and created and then develops laws and structures in a nation to provide for the common good and the greatest flourishing of that society and the people living within it – and for those that God might be bringing to it to also come to know Him and flourish as well. Maybe we can think about it that way?