This somewhat misleadingly headlined Washington Post article takes note of an effort among Evangelicals (not all of whom are conservative) and other religious folks to participate in the current conversation about immigration reform. It focuses on this relatively new organization, whose membership isn’t exclusively conservative (e.g., Jim Wallis is featured as an original signatory).
In addition to open letters to President Obama and the House and Senate leadership, the group has issued a statement on citizenship, organized an Evangelical Day of Prayer and Action for Immigration Reform, and issued the “I Was a Stranger” challenge.
The group favors immigration reform that upholds the following principles:
- Guarantees secure national borders
- Respects the God-given dignity of every person
- Ensures fairness to taxpayers
- Protects the unity of the immediate family
- Establishes a path toward legal status and/or citizenship for those who qualify and who wish to become permanent residents
- Respects the rule of law
I have no doubt that the organization means well, and that its members wish to approach immigration reform in a humane and biblically-informed way. I took the trouble this morning to look up the forty Bible verses they would like us to contemplate and pray over. Many from the Old Testament urge Israel to treat sojourners justly, typically mentioning them in the same breath with widows and orphans, i.e., those outside the protection of a household headed by what may loosely be called a citizen. It’s hard to derive anything about a path to citizenship from these verses; indeed, the organization seems to exclude a few verses (like Ex. 12:48, when we’re supposed to contemplate Ex. 12:49) that show how high the barriers are for full inclusion. I’m tempted to go even further and insist that most of the verses presuppose a more or less permanent distinction between Israel and those who sojourn among it.
Let me state the problematical character of the Old Testament verses in another way. They call Israel to some combination of charitable or compassionate behavior and what we would now call equal protection of the laws. I can offer someone charity and equal protection of the laws without offering him or her a path to citizenship. That much is surely required when we regard our fellows as created in God’s image. But neither in the Old Testament nor in any political theory that takes its departure from human dignity is there a requirement that particular human communities extend full membership to all who request it.
The New Testament verses aren’t on the whole more straightforwardly helpful to the organization’s cause. Matthew 25:35 is a call for personal charity and hospitality, not to admission to citizenship. Paul’s speech in the Areopagus (Acts 17: 22-31) would seem to cut in a different direction as well, focusing on God’s providential creation of different nations:
And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel their way toward him and find him.
Similarly problematic is Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians (2:14-18, omitting the highly relevant 2:19):
For he [Jesus] himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father.
So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.
The universality and catholicity is of the city of God, not the city of man, but the members of the Evangelical Immigration Table don’t want to call our attention to this, so to speak, inconvenient truth. Indeed, other passages (from Philippians and 1 Peter) make more or less the same point: that, as Christians, we are sojourners whose true citizenship is in heaven.
I don’t know if I’m enough of an “Evangelical thought leader” to sign their statement of principles (there are people I admire and respect who have signed), and I’m tempted to sign onto the general principles, but the path from Scripture to those principles is, as I hope I’ve shown, hardly straightforward. Sola Scriptura doesn’t get them all the way, it seems to me.