The Biblical Narrative and Immigration Reform

The Biblical Narrative and Immigration Reform May 31, 2011

Minneapolis protest against Arizona immigrant law SB 1070photo © 2010 Fibonacci Blue | more info (via: Wylio)


In America, Christian attitudes towards issues involving politics could not be more polarized.  On one end of the spectrum is the paradigm of the religious right.  They believe in small government, except when it comes to national security / foreign policy issues.  On the other end of things is the group of progressive evangelicals.  They tend to call out for social justice and think that the government ought to create just systems.  Progressives, unlike conservatives (politically, not theologically), would like to see a small military.  And in the current political climate, both groups have gotten really good at talking past each other.

I want to suggest that this is not helpful for either side of the debates.  My conviction is that Christian evangelicals on either side of the spectrum ought to allow the Scriptures to inform their approach to politics.  This is certainly true when considering the issue of immigration.  How should we as Christians approach the families of Mexican immigrant families for instance?  Perhaps, a brief look at the biblical narrative will help to give a lens through which to approach this important issue.

The Bible is a book that moves from creation to new creation.  These are the bookends of God’s sweeping story.  In order to address considerations for Christian attitudes towards Mexican immigrant families, I will examine the large scope of the biblical narrative.

Creation (Gen 1-2)

The Bible begins with a declaration that God is the creator of all reality.  He made this universe to function for four distinct relationships: to God, to others, to creation, and to the self.  This is often referred to as shalom which is a Hebrew way of saying holistic harmonious peaceful relationships.  When these four areas are in the right, God’s creation project is as it ought to be.

Humanity, we are told in Genesis 1, is created in the image of God.  There are several multi-faceted explanations to what this means, but at its heart there is the reality that all humans are valuable to God.  We all have intrinsic value.  So does all of creation.  When humanity is functioning as part of God’s larger creation project, the writer is able to call it “very good” (Gen. 1.31).  To summarize, all human persons are valued by God and have intrinsic value to God.  We are designed to be in right relationship with each other as evidence of our right relationship with God.  The unfortunate reality is that humanity chose a different path.

Crisis (Gen 3-11)

In Genesis 3-11 we find that humanity decided that alienation from the four areas of shalom was more desirable.  Therefore we get a narrative about Adam and Eve’s rebellion, the first human bloodshed in Cain and Able, the regret of God for having created the world during the time of Noah, and civilization attempting to create a system of power and greatness in the tower of Babel – resulting in the scattering of people into segregated groups.  And thus, the biblical concept of national alienation is born.

Calling into Community (Gen 12)

People of the problem become people of the solution to sin and evil in the world as God calls Abraham in Genesis 12.  He is to leave his homeland and thus to become an immigrant heading towards an unknown land that will be for a new human race that will come from his line.  In Abraham’s family all nations would be blessed and the alienation of Babel would be reversed, at least this was the plan.  We know with hindsight that Israel never lived up to her potential and became as bad as all of the pagan nations.  God’s solution would yet come from this line of descent, but it would be embodied in one man, namely Jesus the Messiah.

Exiled to Egypt (Exodus)

Eventually, Abraham has children and a few generations later, Jacob is the patriarch.  He and his family end up with no other choice than to relocate their families from their homeland, to immigrate to the foreign land of Egypt.  What is telling about this story is that initially the Hebrew people were welcomed with open arms.  This is very similar to the American narrative as well.  In generations past, this nation welcomed people to come to this land with little restrictions.  They were welcomed in.  But just as we have changed our approach to immigration and our approach to such people, Egypt saw an opportunity to mistreat the foreigners among them.  Egypt, the host nation became oppressive and enslaved the Hebrews.  After 400 years of subjugation, God heard the cries of the slaves and liberated them from their bondage.  They then were sent to the Promised Land.

Promised Land (Torah)

According to the Torah, there are several stipulations for how the Hebrew people were to treat foreigners / sojourners among them when they arrived in the Promised Land.  A quick survey of some of these passages will give us great insight to the biblical approach to immigrants.

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. Leviticus 19.33-34

God's Love Has No Bordersphoto © 2006 Michael L. Dorn | more info (via: Wylio)
This passage makes clear that a foreign person living in Israel was to be treated with dignity and respect.  They are to be welcomed into the national family.  Motivation for such point the Jews back to their experience in Egypt as foreigners.  In Egypt they were mistreated and they are not to continue that oppressive cycle in their homeland.  As it says in Exodus: “You shall not wrong a sojourner or oppress him, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 22.21).

Justice that is due to anyone in the nation of Israel is due also to the sojourner.  Consider the following: “Cursed be anyone who perverts the justice due to the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow.’ And all the people shall say, ‘Amen’” (Deuteronomy 27.19).  This means that there cannot be any restriction of rights to immigrant people in the land.  They are to be treated with the same measure of justice as everyone else.

Finally, the following passage illustrates that the Jews were called to even support immigrants who are unable to provide for themselves.  “If your brother becomes poor and cannot maintain himself with you, you shall support him as though he were a stranger and a sojourner, and he shall live with you”  (Leviticus 25.35).  This begs some huge questions about our approach to immigrants that live among us today.  Should there be social programs in place to help immigrants create a better life for themselves?  Should the church support radical immigration reform to make the process of coming to the United State more reasonable?  How should individual church communities serve the migrant community?  I do not intend on answering such questions, but feel that they are worth reflecting upon.

Exile and Return (Prophets)

Once Israel gave into idolatry and oppressing the poor among them, God lifted his divine hand of protection and allowed other nations to come in and take them into exile.  During this time, the prophets spoke harsh words of judgment for oppressing the poor and mistreating the foreigner.  They convey the same principles as the above passages from the Torah, so I will simply list them here for you to read:

  • Thus says the Lord of hosts, Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another, do not oppress the widow, the fatherless, the sojourner, or the poor, and let none of you devise evil against another in your heart.  Zechariah 7.9-10
  • Then I will draw near to you for judgment. I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired worker in his wages, the widow and the fatherless, against those who thrust aside the sojourner, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts.  Malachi 3.5
  • You shall allot it as an inheritance for yourselves and for the sojourners who reside among you and have had children among you. They shall be to you as native-born children of Israel. With you they shall be allotted an inheritance among the tribes of Israel.  Ezekiel 47.22
  • For if you truly amend your ways and your deeds, if you truly execute justice one with another, if you do not oppress the sojourner, the fatherless, or the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own harm, then I will let you dwell in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your fathers forever.  Jeremiah 7.5-7

Intertestamental Period

What is necessary to note, is even after being allowed to return to the land of Israel, most Jews did not regard themselves as truly out of exile.  They were still victims of foreign overlords, the Temple had not been properly rebuilt, and they had not seen the glory of the Lord come to dwell in the midst of His people.  Thus, they were “foreigners” in their own land.  The so-called post-exilic people of God still looked forward to a true liberation from exile.  The restoration that they believed would happen at the end of time did not occur during that historical period.  Faithful Jews began to look forward to a true release from exile, or as it came to be recognized, a new exodus. The people of God have a history of either being called to love the immigrant or a being in the mistreated position of the sojourner.  This is the situation out of which the New Testament emerges.

New Testament

Rome occupied Israel and rarely granted Jews citizenship.  The Jews came to hate their overlords and ever other race.  In other words, the majority of Israelites became ethnocentric.  This is why, when Jesus teaches to welcome the “stranger” (Matthew 25.35), it is so radical to those who heard his teachings.  Think other such teaching like the Good Samaritan.  Jesus was tapping into the Torah and Prophets on the issue of how to treat those outside of Israel.

In the New Testament, there is clarity that humans from every nation on earth are forming a different kind of kingdom, therefore, the lens we are to view this issue through is primarily that of the kingdom of God.  Consider the way Paul discusses citizenship in light of God in Christ forming a new human race:

For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, 15 by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, 16 and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. 17 He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. 18 For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit. 19 Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone.  Ephesians 2.14-20

Christians are not primarily to find their identity in the kingdoms of this world, the United States or any other nation.  We are to find our purpose and calling to an allegiance to God’s kingship.  This means that as we consider how to approach the issues surrounding immigration and specifically, Mexican immigrants, we are called to welcome the stranger.  We are invited to take part in radical hospitality and to take issue with any policy that contradicts such an approach.  In doing so, we anticipate the coming liberation of the whole creation that will restore shalom once again (Romans 8.18-28)!

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  • Thank you for posting this!  Matthew Soerens at Welcoming the Stranger writes a great deal about immigration as well.  I have been heart sick over the way immigrants are treated and demonized in this country.  I pray that our eyes will be opened to correct the systemic injustices against immigration in  this country and reach out as Christians to welcome people with love.!

    • Not just a US problem – here int he UK it is the same, as I am sure it is in a lot of rich countries. It is a great human tragedy.

  • As always, an incredible, amazing, authoritative piece of work. Thank you! I believe it is incompatible with the gospel to be against immigration, for the reasons you outline above and one other: leaving people in poverty is against the gospel and there is no more potent tool against poverty than migration. Consider recent research which found that opening the world’s borders would add USD $39 trillion to the world economy over 25 years – equal to 500 times the amount of global foreign aid!

  • Is it possible to be for immigration and immigrants, but against uncontrolled and unaccountable illegal immigration that bring with it a whole host of secondary problems, such as crime(both by illegal immigrants and AGAINST illegal immigrants)?  I absolutely agree with the Christian call to radical inclusiveness of the “foreigner”, but I should be able to use wise discernment on how and when I let people in MY front door.  I will gladly welcome anyone into my home who comes seeking help/asylum by the front door, but if someone broke my upstairs window and started ransacking my bedroom I would run outside and call the police!

    • Yes Adam, surely.  But lets be honest… 90% of undocumented peoples from Mexico are not violent criminals… they are simply trying to feed their families.  I know many of these people and they are wonderful human beings who happen to get dealt worse cards…

      • I totally agree.  I think our whole system needs rehauled.  We do not currently have an appropriate, or sustainable, system in place to wisely guard against abuses of the system while making sure as many people as possible have an entry point into society as a fully participating member therein.  If I came home one evening to find 10 uninvited people in my house, and my house had been trashed, I would be upset and have them removed.  Even if only one of them was really the problem I would make sure in the future that I can control entrance to my house so that it doesn’t get trashed again.

        Also, with the current state of affairs with the way they are “immigrating” it is a direct assistance to the truly evil and criminal organizations that are “organizing” the people crossing the border.  John Doe Immigrant may be an amazing, honest, hard working person, but if he is paying a known drug runner/murderer to help him get across, I am extremely concerned.   These are things we need to be wary of.  But increased vigilance in that area needs to go hand in hand with a clearer and easier path to citizenship for those who desire to make a new life here.

        • I don’t like the house analogy much when talking about immigration and it’s taken me some time to figure out why but I finally did.  The house analogy implies that our country is something we own.  But we don’t own this country we just got born here.  In the end this is God’s country.  Our fellow human beings made in the image of God are struggling and suffering…who are we to put barriers in the way of meeting basic human needs? 

          • Actually, I think the house analogy is important: we are called to welcome the stranger into our house. I believe when Jesus talks that way, he is talking about immigration. However, we can’t apply that to immigration while dismissing the house analogy! I believe we need to “redeem” the house analogy from the world and give it a Godly implication, i.e., no longer is the house analogy about how immigrants are criminals etc, but it is about how welcoming we should be!

        • Adam, actually I don’t think that, Biblically, we have the right not to welcome immigrants into our house. In other words: it is sinful to make anyone “illegal”. So illegal immigration is not sinful because of the immigrants, but it is sinful because we are not making it legal… It is “our” sin, not the immigrants’ sin!

    • Just one thing though: most crime among immigrants is due to the fact that they are made “illegal” by your system in the US and by my system in the UK. Allowing people to live in dignity and work and provide for their families would bring in more tax to our respective countries, less black market and would be a huge blow to organised crime! And it would boost economic growth, create more jobs, etc etc

  • I completely agree with the biblical basis for your perspective on immigration.  Unfortunately, Believers seem to get caught up in their emotional responses like fear in regards to issues like immigration, and it causes us to forget that God does desire for us to serve the foreigner.  In researching for a project on immigration, I actually sited many of the scriptures you’ve used, so I am glad to see you highlighting them.  While I understand laws and believe reform is needed to maintain both safety and justice, we cannot forget to be compassionate!  Thanks for touching on this tough issue!

  • – Written by Whitney Monn, Program Recruiter