The Immigration Debate

May 18, 2006

After talking about American Idol, we never got around to Credo because Kevin decided to ask me to frame a biblical response to the immigration debate. He told me between breaks that no other issue has so polarized his audience. So he decided on the spur of the moment to ask me to offer some biblical principles that can guide our thinking.
It so happened that during the Pastors’ Summit in Madison, WI on Tuesday, I heard a brilliant talk by David Barton of Wallbuilders about the crucial (and largely overlooked) role that pastors played in early American history. He pointed that John Adams credited several pastors as key leaders in the formation of the United States. He also quoted many examples of pastors speaking out on issues of public interest (from wars to earthquakes to the advent of the railroad to the spiritual meaning of a solar eclipse). Those pastors believed that because Jesus is Lord over all the universe, his Word speaks to every part of life. Thus they had no hesitation about applying the Bible to anything that happened. In that sense, they followed Billy Graham’s example of preaching with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.
All of that was rattling around in my head when Kevin gave me about two minutes to come up with a few thoughts regarding immigration. When he asked me on the air, I said there is a difference between policies and principles. Policy refers to the details of a proposed law; principle refers to the underlying truth upon which the policy is built. In that light, I suggested four biblical principles to keep in mind:
1) National borders matter. God was very specific in detailing the borders of the twelve tribes of Israel. Check out Joshua 13-19 and you will discover the text says things like, “The border starts at such-and-such a village and goes to the ravine west of town, then it goes north to the top of the second mountain, and then the border runs west to the sea.” God also specified the borders of Israel, and he instructed that the ancient landmarks were not to be moved. Those who say that because of globalization and a shrinking world, national borders don’t matter are just plain wrong. Every nation has the right to protect itself and to guard the integrity of its borders.
2) Compassion for the poor matters. Again and again the Israelites were told to treat the stranger and the sojourner in their midst with respect. They were not to glean to the corners, but were to leave some of the crop so that the poor could find something to eat. God specifically commanded the Jews to show compassion and justice to the foreigners who lived among them. Jesus summarized the whole law as loving God and loving your neighbor. The parable of the Good Samaritan powerfully reinforces this principle.
3) Citizenship matters. In ancient Israel there was an established way for outsiders to become part of the nation. Solomon took a census and discovered there were 153,600 aliens living among the people of Israel (2 Chronicles 2:17). Over the centuries the Jews developed patterns whereby non-Jews could become part of the community.
4) Breaking the law matters. When the Lord gave the Ten Commandments, he specifically included the “aliens” in the command to keep the Sabbath (Exodus 20:10). The aliens could not say, “We’re not Jewish so the laws of the land don’t apply to us.”
Those four principles must be held in balance when we think about the current immigration crisis. We need to find a way to …
Protect our borders
Show compassion to the non-citizens among us
Extend citizenship rights in a just manner
Uphold the importance of obeying the law

Those four principles do not tell us exactly how to write laws that will end the crisis. Since political give and take lies at the very heart of the democratic process, we will never see laws that perfectly balance all the principles. But we must not neglect the principles or regard one as more important than the other. Compassion cannot override justice, and protecting our borders does not free us from the obligation to care for the poor and needy in our midst. The best law will be the one that takes all the principles into account.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?