Sunday, May 29, 2011

Across the Water

Immigration is a bit more complex than the scripture verses people toss back and forth at one another - usually Romans 13 and various Hebraic codes from Deuteronomy and Leviticus. With any contemporary application of scripture, we have to remember that none of the writers of the Bible could ever have conceived of the issues with which we deal in our present time. There will always be a bit of interpretation. No verse is going to tell us specifically how to act.

I am not concerned with how the government handles immigration. I believe every government is free to make any law it sees fit. That is the benefit of power - the ability to control that over which you have power. It's exactly what Romans 13 is all about. I am concerned, however, about how Christians handle immigration and how we respond to laws of the land.

First, I don't think a Christian can, in good conscience, actively help undocumented immigrants cross a national border in violation of law. Now there is a big exception to that, specifically when the life and safety of people is concerned. Most nations do a poor job of recognizing and facilitating the immigration of asylum seekers and refugees. Christians should have a strong presence among these groups, treating them as valued and worthy people as opposed to the inconvenience they become to most nations.

Second, Christians have a responsibility to care about the problems and injustices which perpetuate immigration. Generally, people want to stay at home. If the opportunities (for safety, work, nutrition, love, and healthcare) available in the new country were available at home, there would be few immigrants. In most wealthy nations, peaceful foreign aid is a political tool and not a priority. Again there is great slack here which Christians can pick up and carry.

Third, and most controversially, is a Christian attitude towards immigrants in your own country. Most nations have a legal process of immigration and most immigrants who come through these processes are treated as any other resident of the nation. There are some problems with those who wish to retain the identity they've left behind, but if there is mutual respect and communication, these problems are not insurmountable.

Great contention arises for those immigrants who are unable to move through the proscribed process - those who immigrate in violation of law. God has always been clear about our treatment of others - we are to love. God specifically instructed Israel to treat foreigners in their midst exactly as they treat citizens. This is the crux of those Torah instructions so often quoted. Every person is God's creation and every person deserves the same treatment, no matter their place of birth.

What then, do we do with the seeming contradiction with Romans 13 - which tells us that God established the authorities over us and instructs us to submit and not rebel? What it means is that every authority is answerable to God for its execution of authority. We do not have a right to rebel, to overthrow, or undermine our government. Vigilantes, who take border enforcement into their own hands - whether fishing boats in the Mediterranean or militia groups in the Mojave - are not submitting to governing authorities.

This passage does not mean that civil authority is equivalent to moral authority. Breaking the law is not sin - not when it violates the authority of God's design for life in creation. Every Christian would violate the law if it outlawed worship of YHWH. Most would violate the law if it prevented them from feeding the hungry or clothing the exposed because of immigration status. Many would violate the law if it meant denying an undocumented immigrant the chance to work for a living. They do so because of their belief that every person is equal in God's eyes - and thus in ours as well. An argument from legality has no standing for Christians in light of an argument from morality.

I am not saying every Christian will understand their responsibility towards undocumented immigrants the same way - nor should we. There are different lines drawn based on conscience - but they must be drawn with grace. It pains me to see Christians assert their perspective as the correct view or to engage in "us and them" language. There may be more creative ways to supply jobs and education and we must work for them. Remember, treating the foreigner as you treat your own is secondary to the foreigner having their needs met at home. We must remember to do the first until the second is a reality.

Ultimately, however, I do not think our contention about immigration has much to do with immigration or law. It has everything to do with individual rights and liberty. Most opposition to immigration comes from those who feel it will cost them something - lower standard of living, lost employment, increased taxation, etc. These are legitimate human fears. They require a Christian response.

Christ challenged us to "deny ourselves" and to "take up our cross and follow" him. This means that the Christian is willing to give whatever is necessary to show love to others, even if it means our very lives. At times, following Romans 13 means sacrifice. Submitting to authorities often means willingly embracing the punishment required for disobedience. At times, following the Torah teaching on the treatment of foreigners means sacrifice.

Christians are told to thank God for the privilege of suffering for the gospel. It is rarely easy, but it is our ideal. As Saint Juniper put it as he met a beggar, "I have nothing to give you except my robe and my superior has told me under obedience not to give it or part of it to anyone. But if you pull it off my back, I certainly will not prevent you.”

For Christians, liberty is found only as we are enslaved to the God of love; rights are useful only to be given away. If our words and actions do not reflect unconditional love and self-sacrifice, they do not reflect Christ.

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