In these fever-pitch days of summer, with the once-in-a-generation chance at real immigration reform in Congress, we’re hearing a lot about how reform is good politics (for both parties) and good for the economy. These are of course important factors, especially in the political context of a major legislative fight on Capitol Hill, but for Christians, should these be the most determinative considerations?
Whenever I speak with church groups about immigration issues, I spend most of the time talking about how the ubiquitous presence of immigrants in the Bible raises crucial theological questions for the Church. But when we open it up for questions, usually most of the concerns are not theological at all but rather economic. “Don’t illegal immigrants take more in services than they contribute in taxes?” “What about unemployment – can we afford more immigrants?”
Economic questions are important, but they go far beyond a cost-benefit analysis of immigration reform. Economic arguments from both sides of the aisle can be based on assumptions about economies, free markets, and labor which might themselves be called into question by the gospel. Therefore, we should think twice before uncritically allowing this type of rhetoric eclipse our call to care for the stranger. We have to remember that when we talk about immigration, we are dealing with people, not just dollar signs and bottom lines on budgets. Questions about economics cannot and should not be separated from or elevated above questions about how we should treat our neighbor and what the church believes will contribute to human flourishing and worship of God.
A market-based cost-benefit analysis doesn’t deal with the nature of the Church as a welcoming community or the Christian virtue of hospitality. It won’t wonder aloud how a people already welcomed by God could close their doors to “outsiders”, or what it means for political boundaries to forcibly separate the Body of Christ. What if Christians asked these questions first? What if our knee-jerk reaction to “political” issues like immigration reform were not to recite our favorite set of talking points but to listen to those most deeply affected, to learn all we could, and to ask how our faith informs our views?
It is disturbing to me that Christians talk about immigration in the very same way that non-Christians do. The conversation must necessarily be social, political and economic because immigration deals with all those things. But let us, as informed Christians, ground our conversation on the Bible.
So here at the NC Council of Churches, we’re fighting for humane immigration reform because we believe that governments shouldn’t arbitrarily and unfairly divide the Body of Christ. To put it another way, when one part of the Body suffers, we all suffer (I Corinthians 12). As Christians, our communion with our brothers and sisters in Christ, whether they happen to be American, or Argentinian or Zimbabwean, runs deeper than allegiances to any flag or empire.
Beyond this concern for the Church, we believe that all families should be protected. It’s wrong to forcibly separate hard-working moms and dads from their children because they don’t have the right government papers.
Throughout the Bible we see how God brings gifts to Israel and the Church through the most unexpected people – often those who lack the right status in the eyes of the authorities. In their words and deeds, the prophets and Jesus echo the Torah’s refrain: “You shall love the immigrant because you were immigrants in Egypt” (Deuteronomy 10:19). Thus, in many ways the people of God find themselves as both the giver and receiver of hospitality, of unearned welcome. As Christians today we embody this tradition knowing full well that we too are strangers or “resident aliens,” belonging not to nations but to each other and to God.
One of the main obstacles hindering American churches’ offering of hospitality to immigrants is the sense that “they” have violated the rule of law. In the life of Jesus, however, we see how he consistently places the dignity of people in the eyes of God above their “natural” place in society as dictated by the powers that be and the rule of law. Matthew 12:9-14 (NRSV) is just one of many examples:
Jesus left that place and entered their synagogue; a man was there with a withered hand, and they [the Pharisees] asked him, “Is it lawful to cure on the sabbath?” so that they might accuse him. He said to them, “Suppose one of you has only one sheep and it falls into a pit on the sabbath; will you not lay hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable is a human being than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the sabbath.” Then he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and it was restored, as sound as the other. But the Pharisees went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him.
Is it lawful to welcome undocumented immigrants in our midst? We believe it is lawful to do good, to treat all our immigrant brothers and sisters with respect and hospitality no matter their immigration status. And we believe that our nation should update its immigration laws to keep more families together, protect workers, and allow millions of immigrants to come out of the shadows and fully participate in society.
While we are confident that economic and political factors weigh heavily in favor of reform, we would be involved even if it were a more costly policy battle for the Church. Whatever happens with this immigration reform, we don’t look to economists or political analysts or the empires of this world to tell us how to think about our neighbors or with whom we can and cannot minister. We trust in God. We look to our Scriptures. And we anticipate the coming of God’s reign, when the walls constructed to divide us will crumble and “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” will worship God together in full communion (Rev. 7:9).