Christian Ethics and Immigration

Both Democratic and Republican American political leaders have taken a ‘tough on immigration’ stance over the past 20 years. In part they are responding to constituents. Both voters and leaders are engaged in a misguided attempt to prevent terrorism in the U.S through increased immigration restriction. One reason that it is misguided is that most terrorist attacks in the U.S. are committed by American citizens. Anti-immigration practices would not identify these people at all. Second: we have a ‘rich man’s window’ in our immigration system called the EB-5 Visa. If you can invest $500,000 in the U.S., you can get a Green Card and onto the path to citizenship. The Bin Laden family are billionaires. Tightening immigration restrictions against the poor would not have identified the 9/11 attackers, either.

There is no valid national-security argument for increased immigration enforcement. In fact the funding for border patrols, detention centers, and deportation processes would be better spent on…actually funding research and intelligence-coordination about terrorist threats. If you need intel, then fund foreign-language instruction at universities. Require foreign-language proficiency for all undergraduates. Encourage Americans to study and travel to other parts of the world. And let immigrants inform you about conditions and attitudes across the world. At minimum, Donald Rumsfeld should have heeded what Iraqi immigrants were warning about the invasion of Iraq as they protested–every weekend for months–in 2002 and 2003. As immigrants they had chosen the U.S. over Iraq; but that also meant they knew both countries well enough to make a better strategic assessment than a sheltered, privileged German-American.

There are other dimensions to the immigration debate. The economic pros and cons are complex, but in fairness, all of us whose ancestors immigrated from other continents over the past 500 years need to apply all those arguments to ourselves. In fact, the ethical question of fairness overrides all considerations other than security. Fairness and ethics are the basis of rights in the U.S., and rights overrule any more particular consideration.

Here I want to focus specifically on the ethics of the Christian tradition, because I am surprised to find that some Americans who regard themselves as Christian seek to restrict immigration.

The cautionary lesson of the Fate of Sodom

In popular American culture, Sodom is usually characterized as a place that was destroyed because ‘unnatural acts’ were permitted and encouraged there. However the prophet Ezekiel states that God explains the condemnation of Sodom very specifically:

“‘Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and did detestable things before me. Therefore I did away with them as you have seen. (Ezekiel 16:49-50)

We could get distracted trying to imagine the ‘detestable acts’ of the Sodomite women. Or we could focus on the one practice that was unambiguously declared to be objectionable: they did not help the poor and needy. In other passages, the explanation for the damnation of Sodom and Gomorrah is that they were unrepentant for their sins (Isaiah, ch.3 and Amos, ch.4). When they harmed others, intentionally or not, they did not apologize.

Regarding the depravity and the destruction of Sodom, many Christians fundamentally miss the point. Conservative Christians in the 1990s remarked that if the year 2000 marked the End Times, God would destroy San Francisco because of its tolerance for homosexuality and the rights of gay people. There is a shocking gap between what conservative Christians say, and what is actually written in the Bible. If San Francisco—and other American cities—are to be condemned, it will be for the collective preference of homeowners who enjoyed massive capital-gains on their home-values, at the expense of thousands of families being driven into homelessness. ‘Knowingly doing nothing to help the poor and needy’ is a really clear case of unrepentant cruelty.

But back to the question of immigration. Who are the people trying to cross the border from Mexico into the U.S. without papers? Are they an invading army? If yes, that means that the governments of Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador have declared war on the United States, and are seeking some military objective. We have dealt with enough actual war to know this is not the case. Calling migrants ‘illegals’ and ‘invaders’ is a way to dehumanize them and make it easier for us not to think about their actual circumstances.

Is there some other way we should understand these migrants? What reasons do they give for risking so much to come to the United States? (1) Grinding poverty in their home communities. (2) Gang violence and the threat of forcible recruitment of their sons into the gangs. (3) Government-backed vigilante groups terrorizing ethnic minorities.

In other words, migrants are refugees.

Some argue that they should be helped by their own governments. But is that what scripture says about foreigners?

The Lesson of the Good Samaritan

Do we have any ethical obligation to help foreigners? Two thousand years ago, foreigners were even more despised than they are now. Not only did they speak other languages; they also committed sacrilege by worshiping differently and eating differently. Foreigners were not just unclean; they were corrupting. You had to re-do ritual cleansing if they touched you.

For Judeans and Nazarenes, the Samaritans were a well-known example of impure foreigners. One of the most overt messages Jesus relayed was that anyone who follows his teachings must regard all peoples as worthy of compassion—and sometimes as better examples of good behavior than his fellow Jews in good social standing.

The Vision of Peter (Acts, chapter 10)

Ah, my namesake. The stubborn, hard-headed Apostle who governed the Church in its earliest days. Initially, Simon Peter shared the prevailing view that Gentiles are unclean. Furthermore, the most blatantly unclean Gentiles were the occupying Romans, with their unclean foods, idol-worship, and pantheism. But Peter had a vision in which a vessel containing ritually unclean foods was lowered from heaven three times, and he was commanded to partake of this heavenly-but-unkosher feast.

Peter did not know what to make of this vision until he had to respond to another vision—that of Cornelius, a centurion of the Italian cohort. Cornelius is described as God-fearing and pious, but still a Gentile. Cornelius’ vision was that he had to seek out Simon Peter in Jaffa. Peter responds to Cornelius’ invitation without hesitation. Peter even knowingly breaks Jewish law to do so:

“You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean. So when I was sent for, I came without objection. Now may I ask why you sent for me?” (Acts 10:28-29)

Peter’s sense that he must abandon rigid exclusionism is soon confirmed. The Romans ask him to testify. As he testifies,

The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” (Acts 10:45-47)

Scriptural Ethics About Migrating Refugees

Some lessons from scripture are difficult to interpret. This message is not:
1. Welcome strangers.
2. Treat foreigners with respect and compassion.
3. Help the poor and needy.
This message is consistent in both the Old and New Testaments. Muslims use different examples, but the same ethic is clear in the Qur’an and the Hadith. Believers in Odin and Zeus are also commanded to welcome and honor the stranger. Humanist atheists have an equally strong ethic of mutual accountability of humans towards humans.

This essay is addressed to all those who practice some form of religious faith, but especially to those of us who take up the challenge of following Christian teachings. We must welcome foreigners into our community, even when that goes against our sense of comfort or tradition. We must challenge any elected leader who claims to be Christian but also opposes immigration. Not only do they harm the most vulnerable people in our world, but such leaders also poison the public understanding of Christianity.

Is Christian faith a belief in hatred, intolerance, and racial supremacy? No; but to challenge such cruelty among your fellow believers means risking your membership in your worship-community. This requires extreme courage and devotion to the lessons of the New Testament. You risk alienating your parents, your brothers and sisters. Does Jesus call for such radical action in his teachings? Are we called to follow the harder road, through the narrower gate? Are we called to challenge prevailing beliefs and practices, even as the elders and respected leaders condemn us for violating convention and custom?

This is not easy. But then again, neither is smuggling yourself from Honduras to Tijuana. Anyone tough enough to make that journey will be an asset to American society.


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