From the Spring 2019 edition of Ministry & Leadership, Scott Swain writes about Immigration and the Kingdom of God, directing us to some key points we can glean from the Bible on this topic. 

As the Constitution declares, the United States is a nation “of the people,” and the people love to argue about politics. If you have ever experienced or read about life in a dictatorship, you quickly learn that political debate, much less discussion, about current affairs is discouraged. In America, however, political opining is as much a natural right as any.

Furthermore, with the advent of social media, it has become every American’s hard-won duty to feel deeply about issues in the public square, even if they know very little of the details about the issues they feel deeply about.

Even still, few political debates ignite as much of a visceral reaction as the one centering on the immigration issue in the United States. Few issues inspire more anger against the other side. Depending on your perspective, it might be hard to separate the immigration debate from the vivid caricatures that often attend to controversial public conversations in our country.

Here’s the rub for Christians who are trying to think about immigration in a manner informed by Scripture. First of all, we have to acknowledge that the Bible does not speak clearly about the details of U.S. immigration policy. For every passage about the sojourner or the nations or Jesus’ family seeking refuge in Egypt when being hunted by Herod, there is another passage about the impurity of the nations, about the evils of intermarrying with foreigners, and about explicitly building a wall to keep people out. Even more freighted is a good discussion of how to apply biblical teaching about the people of God to the government policy of a secular nation. Old Testament Israel is not the U.S., but neither is Old Testament Israel completely unrelated to the situation in the U.S.

I do not mean to imply that the Bible does not speak to contemporary issues — it surely does — but there is an all-too-common practice in which a person starts with a political opinion and then mines Scripture for verses that corroborate the foregone conclusion. Not only is this approach unhelpful, but it is sinful, because it places the reader in a position of authority over the divinely inspired text.

Several foundational points from Scripture should undergird our thinking about the issue of immigration. While these points may not tell us exact details about a proper policy (and we should not expect them to — beware overly precise interpretation!), certain principles and parameters gleaned from Scripture should guide us in policy decisions that affect very real individuals and families caught up in U.S. immigration policy.

God Loves and Cares for the Immigrant

It is commonly understood that God is concerned for those in need, but sometimes we might miss how prevalent this teaching is in Scripture. Throughout redemptive history God calls to Himself those who are poor, afflicted and oppressed. Israel is explicitly chosen not because it is the greatest nation, but rather because it is the least (Deuteronomy 7:7), and God establishes Israel in the Promised Land only after its enslavement and deliverance from Egypt. And this collective history is to form one of the key aspects of their collective identity (Deuteronomy 6:21-25). Likewise, Jesus Christ claims that he does not come for the healthy but rather for the sick (Matthew 9:12), and the apostle Paul affirms this teaching that the church is made up of the outcasts, “not many wise, not many powerful, not many of noble birth” (1 Corinthians 1:26-31).

Like their God who loved them, believers ought to have a special, irrepressible desire for the poor and the outcasts of this world. This logic is worked out in redemptive history whenever God calls His people to care for the poor and disenfranchised. In the Old Testament these come in the form of the orphan, the widow and the sojourner (Exodus 22:22; Deuteronomy 10:18; Psalm 94:6; Isaiah 1:17), and in the New Testament the kingdom of Jesus Christ itself is presented to us in the form of those who are sick, naked, hungry and homeless (Matthew 25:31-46).

This is not a peripheral aspect of God’s character, rather being reiterated over and over again as a central aspect to His redemptive kingdom. As a result, the citizens of this kingdom ought to love the poor and oppressed in a manner fitting for followers of the King.

Those in Need of Care Are All Around Us

The U.S. is the No. 1 destination country for immigration around the world, with 46.6 million immigrants, or 14.5 percent of the national population in 2016. Though facing very real problems of poverty and unemployment in its current population, a large percentage of the U.S. population is above the poverty line (around 87 percent in 2016), which of course is the reason why so many people want to live here. We should give thanks for the successes of the U.S. people while also looking for ways in which we can wisely and lovingly improve the situation of the 13 percent below the poverty line.

In short, Christians should be as concerned with improving the situation within the borders of the United States as much as we are with welcoming those in need outside our borders. Such a balance is not a cold calculus of “us and them,” but rather a recognition that we are responsible for those near us as much as we are for those who are far away. The Good Samaritan is not faulted for all the needy people whom he never encountered, but he shows that he is a loving neighbor by the way he treats the one he encounters on the road (Luke 10:25-37).

In other words, as we consider the immigration crisis, we need to consider how our decisions at the border will affect other realities for the poor in our own society, many of whom are themselves immigrants. The issues are related. For instance, decreased border security would have a significant effect on our nation’s social safety net and would make other programs like health care, labor policy and, yes, national security much more difficult to maintain. Most voters on both sides of the aisle would agree we should pursue solutions that would help those in need within our borders even as we incline ourselves toward those outside our borders.

Just Societies Require Just Laws

All nations are called to pursue justice. Whether they acknowledge it or not, all governments are established by God (Daniel 2:21). They are given authority to govern rightly (Romans 13), and they will be judged accordingly (Isaiah 13-23; Jeremiah 18; Ezekiel 14:13-18). This is true for Israel in the Old Testament, and it is true for the other nations of the world.

Christians who have the right to vote in a country have a share in that civic responsibility; they are, as it were, tiny but meaningful actors in the work of governance. As such, they should apply biblical wisdom to our public discourse and decision-making when it comes to immigration policy, but we must also be mindful of basic biblical commitments. God has saved His people from sin and made them citizens in His “Jerusalem above” (Galatians 4:26), even grafting Gentiles into a nation that was not ours previously (Romans 11:19).

Our hearts should be inclined toward immigrants as they are toward impoverished children and those in need in our own towns, but our laws should be just, not giving prestige to one form of poverty and need over another. A just law is one that is fairly applied and establishes systems and structures that nurture flourishing.

These are general principles for approaching the immigration crisis in the U.S. and abroad. They barely begin to lead us toward a detailed solution that will accommodate all of the idiosyncrasies of a particular border situation, but they do give us much-needed starting points as we begin to work through the “realities on the ground.”

In closing, let me posit one other paradigm from the Bible that I believe helps us in our thinking about this matter. We can be assured that one day, immigration will be finished. Every knee will bow and every tongue will confess the name of Jesus Christ, and one last emigration from the present age to the age to come will be accomplished. For followers of Jesus Christ, we are already breathing the fresh air of the new heavens and new earth because the Spirit of God dwells within us, making us a “new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17).

As emissaries from that beautiful country, we can become frustrated with issues like immigration, issues for which there seem to be no end in sight. Let us not be frustrated, but let us also not assume that the new heavens and new earth have already come. We live in a wonderful moment, but it is a wonderfully mismatched moment, a time after the resurrection of Jesus Christ and the outpouring of the Spirit, but before the second coming of Christ and consummation of His kingdom. We taste glory, but we are surrounded by obstacles. That is why we do best when we remember how Jesus loved the poor, the needy, the immigrant, while never forgetting that His work always pointed us further to another goal: a world without borders, where every tear is wiped away (Revelation 21:5). That’s where we are going too, but we are not there yet.

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