After the last (Texas) legislative session and the raft of anti-immigrant bills, I’ve been thinking more about immigration lately—in particular, the wave of Hispanic immigration across the U.S.-Mexico border. Since many of the laws have been proposed by legislators who flash their Christian credentials, I’ve wondered whether one could really argue that harsh anti-immigration bills are Christian. (By the way, the sub-title of this blog could be: “How to Talk with your Fundamentalist Brother(Sister)-in-law about Immigration.”)
So I picked up a neat book, Christians at the Border: Immigration, the Church and the Bible, by M. Daniel Carroll R., who teaches both at Denver Seminary and El Seminario Teologico Centroamericano in Guatemala, a Christian scholar with feet in both worlds, for some guidance.
Christians at the Border offers an overview of Hispanic immigration in the context of other immigrations to the U.S., especially in terms of its impact on cultural identity, economics and the church. This is followed by a survey of what the Bible has to say about immigration. There is, after all, a surprising wealth of material in both testaments about immigrants and refugees. He concludes with some implications and hopes for the future.
If you’re looking for something that lays out where we need to go legislatively or that recounts in detail the social and economic impact of Hispanic immigration, you’re not going to find it here. Carroll has a much more focused, but no less important purpose.
“Christians at the Border,” he says, “above all else strives to motivate believers of the majority culture and Hispanics to begin thinking, talking, and acting as Christians in regard to immigration” (138). Given the heightened rhetoric of the last couple of years, perhaps Carroll might have reconsidered the notion of getting Christians to behave like Christians.
So how does this thesis actually play out? Let’s jump right to the heart of the matter, to the whole question of undocumented immigrants. Many Christians have argued that these folks are here illegally, they’re breaking the law and they should expect to suffer the consequences. As Carroll puts it at one point, “What is it about illegal that you don’t understand?”
However, Carroll rightly points out that the law, in this case an argument from Romans 13, is not the starting point for Christians. We begin with an appreciation of the myriad migration experiences of God’s people and the history in practice and in law of hospitality toward strangers and sojourners in the Old Testament. Then we look to the ministry of Jesus, particularly his ethic of compassion toward the hated Samaritans, as a model for how to behave toward the immigrant. While none of these Biblical examples translates into a particular law, the weight of the Biblical witness certainly tilts the table in a clear direction, toward grace and compassion.
After all of this as context, Carroll hopes that when we finally return to the issue of law, to the "confused contradictory and unfair set of laws" that constitutes our current immigration laws, we might be moved to ask a different question, namely, about whether we need a new set of laws based on theological, pragmatic and humanitarian concerns.
I hope that Carroll’s book gets a wide reading, especially in the conservative evangelical world. It’s always a good thing to remind those of us who call ourselves people of the book what the book actually says.