Monday, July 25, 2011

Speaking of Immigration

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.


  1. When my pastor did a sermon on "The Immigrant' during the 2004 election cycle when it was a hot topic, he lost many congregants (I am an Evangelical Christian). He also went to march with the Hispanic people and was the only white pastor. If we REALLY read the message of the Gospel on this issue, you are right John, we would be thinking as Christians first.There is no easy solution but we serve a creative God who loves all of us. He did not draw lines on this orb and enslave some of the people. I may well need to read this book. You cannot say you are a Jesus follower and also not believe in social justice.

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  3. Thank you for drawing attention to this book. It sounds like a good read.

    Legal or illegal, migration is a means to human survival and human prosperity. It is essential to the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness. When done in peace and in ways that cause little to no harm to others, it is always affirmed by natural law, regardless of what statutory law says.

    The irony of our immigration policy is that its core purpose it to maintain the same socioeconomic inequity between the U.S. and Latin America that motivates illegal immigration. As we succeed in strengthening that inequity, we also give people more incentive to come here at any cost.

    For United Methodists, the stakes could not be higher on this issue. We are the most unpopular among all Protestant denominations among Hispanics, the fastest growing ethnic group in America and the future majority ethnic group of Texas.

    With a mere 65,000 Hispanic members nation wide, both the Jehovah's Witnesses and Mormons have more Hispanic adherents in the U.S. than the UMC.

    Hispanics are progressive politically, seeking economic equity and political enfranchisement, equal opportunity, access to services, a socially conscious public policy, but are as a matter of Christian identity, theologically and morally very traditional.

    Essentially, non-assimilated Hispanics are treated as invisible in the UMC because they are too poor, politically progressive (Democratic), and too foreign to appeal to many rich white Republican suburban conservative churches. At the same time, Hispanics' 85% evangelical/Catholic/Pentecostal identity will never get them beyond a mere paternalistic response from many liberals (who also resent the cultural and theological influence of Christians in the Central Conferences).

    As Methodists, I think we can speak with authority about immigration into American society when we are ready to welcome Hispanic migration into our own.

  4. Hi John - when I read the phrase "whether we need a new set of laws based on theological, pragmatic and humanitarian concerns" my first thought was that, while theology has it's place, our society is made up of many faiths and theologies. Personally, I think we hit this issue as Christians from 2 fronts.

    At the collective level, get involved with the community, the church and the legislative process, and let your faith based convictions drive your participation. But remember, at that level, it takes a village. And, in a multi-faith society, the Christian voice will only be one of the chorus of voices.

    At the personal level, act in a way that's consistent with your beliefs as well, though in that context, the interactions are going to be directly interpersonal. There are many immigrants (my family for 2 generations) that do not forget the help of another, and pay it forward.

    Not everyone can do both, and plenty do neither. But, if the issue matters, the point is to do something about it.

    Along those lines, as a reconciling church, we could and probably should consider the topic of increased diversity in terms of ethnic background. You and I hold up the small but zealous Canadian contingent, but it might be very beneficial for us as a church to open the widen the scope of our membership along this dimension.