Many commentators on both right and left agree that President Trump’s recent executive order temporarily banning refugee resettlement and immigration from certain countries was an incompetently written and poorly executed snafu. The underlying issues are more contested: To what degree can the United States accommodate people from other nations and cultures? And what moral duties does the nation-state have towards its own citizens and the citizens of other countries?
The Bible is frequently deployed in this discussion, with all the precision of a barrel bomb. One side emphasizes the verses in which God commands His people to care for the alien and the stranger; the other side extrapolates from Romans 13 and similar passages that the state’s protection of its citizens is paramount. Neither set of texts settles definitively the questions of prudence facing the U.S. today. But certain Scriptures can prime us for this task, by emphasizing God’s concern for otherwise invisible people—just as the Bible is often invoked to make apparent the value of unborn life. The whole counsel of Scripture points us to a more interesting—and difficult—task for American Christians.
To deal with that task, we must consider arguments more compelling than prooftexting. On the one hand, the U.S. bears significant moral culpability for the current refugee crisis, since its foreign interventions have undermined the protection that several nation-states were providing to their own citizens. The U.S. has, therefore, a moral obligation to care for refugees. Most of these refugees, of course, will never be resettled, and we must go to them to reckon with our debt to them. But only a severe and imminent danger would justify halting resettlement.
On the other hand, there is this sound critique of mass immigration: Every nation has its particular ways of life, reflections of its habits, history, and habitat. Mass immigration undermines these particularities, atomizing host and migrant people until both are amorphous “global citizens,” vulnerable to exploitation by global elites. There is evidence that ethnic diversity within nations and neighborhoods decreases social trust, even if restrained migration maintains social trust and allows for assimilation.
There are clear advantages to the trust that is fostered by homogeneity in a church, community, or nation-state. “Diversity” as popularly celebrated is generally limited to a particular arena (such as the university or workplace) and requires submission to some unifying (typically Western and liberal) set of values. Forcing larger numbers of people to share more of life together in a less constrained environment will unavoidably create friction. Even people who desire to have “diverse” friends for themselves and their children want to be able to control their experiences, such that their friends do not bring down home values, test scores, or moral standards (whether conservative or progressive).
The Bible is not ignorant of these issues. In the Old Testament, God warns the Israelites not to intermarry with the peoples of the land He has given them, knowing that even their ethnically close pagan cousins would corrupt their religious and cultural identity. However, the frequent references to the glory of God being declared throughout the nations and the inclusion of foreign women in the royal lineage of David subtly declares what is later made plain in the New Testament: God intends for cultures and nations to mix, clash, and worship.
Before Christ returns, the Gospel must be preached to all nations (Matthew 24:14, paralleled in Mark 13:10). Paul’s later exposition in Romans finds this imperative throughout the Old Testament, where the ethnic and cultural isolation of Israel was meant to create a flashpoint out of which the good news of the Messiah would explode across the world. The Book of Revelation then reveals the heavenly reality that is already and not-yet: All of the peoples of the earth are worshiping God in unity (5:9–10), yet each of the nations brings its unique glories to God (21:24).
The New Testament shows that the clash of civilizations took place within the body of Christ almost as soon as it was incorporated—reflecting the free movement of peoples within the Roman Empire. Acts, Galatians, and Ephesians show God’s people wrestling with the practical and spiritual realities of different customs and cultures; while there is no prohibition on a monocultural or monoethnic church, Paul and the other apostles clearly assume that many congregations will have different ethnicities in their midst.
The cost of bringing disparate ethnicities and cultures together is real. Yet God delights when His people turn conflicts into opportunities to display His glory. He has blessed the U.S. with wealth, power, and security unimaginable to previous centuries; our role as citizens should include petitioning the government for opportunities to share these resources with people who have known trauma and war. He has blessed our churches with the towering inheritance of Western Christianity; as citizens in the City of God, we should seek out opportunities to love people who do not know Jesus. We have much to gain spiritually from welcoming: A wall that keeps out people who might teach us humility and charity is a wall that will keep pride and greed dammed up among us.
There is a place for prudent questions about security, but the responsibility of the nation-state is a minor concern compared to the responsibility of God’s people. Good citizens will hold both institutions accountable: We must ensure that the United States is just and secure, so that we can welcome as many people as is prudent and send out our very best to participate in God’s work elsewhere.
Have we as Christians chosen to silence the parts of Scripture that call for sacrifices on behalf of the vulnerable? Or do we speak and act out of our primary citizenship in the City of God, and work to make the City of Man honor its obligations?