An experienced observer of public religion in America could, without reading anything on the topic, imagine the outlines of the unedifying theological debate over our country’s immigration policies. Recent attempts at rewriting immigration laws have addressed the difficult policy areas of border security, a guest worker program, establishing the status of those already here illegally (and in many cases their citizen children), and family unification. Yet the explicitly Christian voices on the matter have generally treated these issues not as ambivalent and thorny but as part of a sweeping and simple application of Biblical ethics as encapsulated in a few verses.
The broad coalition known once as the Christian Right and more recently re-branded as “values voters” has predictably continued its practice of dragooning Scripture and theology into the service of a
pre-existing conservative political and cultural agenda. Paul’s exhortation to good order and faithful
citizenship in Romans 13 is a popular text with respect to the question of illegal immigration. The Christian
Coalition even proposes Deuteronomy 27:17 (remember that one?) as an authoritative Scriptural statement on the matter of national boundaries. Such anxious exegesis often points to a serious moral and theological ambiguity. An online poll conducted by the Family Research Council found large majorities in favor of building a wall on the Mexican border, arresting and deporting illegal immigrants, and printing election ballots exclusively in English. Only 10% of respondents described the requirements of Christian discipleship with respect to immigrants as “Illegal immigrants enter the United States as strangers searching for a better life for themselves and their families and they should be welcomed, not punished or sent home.” The rest say, “Illegal immigrants should be treated humanely, but they are breaking properly enacted laws and they should be detected, arrested, and returned to their country of origin.” Whether the absence of the exculpatory introductory clause would have lowered that 90% response is an interesting question. In any case, it is noteworthy that so many self-professed values voters consider the aggressive detection, detention, and deportation of so many human beings — without regard to the integrity and well-being of their families or communities — to be compatible with treating these same human beings “humanely.”
This is not to say that the Right has cornered the market in theological simplification. An open-borders attitude justified with broad reference to the Good Samaritan and loving one’s neighbor is not at all uncommon among church liberals. Typically, as in a recent resolution proposed for the United Church of Christ, this call to love and help the neighbor presents itself as a univocal ethical demand, the fulfillment of which is relatively uncomplicated. When I have heard preachers insist that we welcome the stranger and not build up walls either in Mexico or in the West Bank, I always suspect that he or she goes home and locks the door.
In the midst of this roiling, hostile, and simplistic debate (mirrored, of course, in the arguments made by secular groups), the ELCA has wisely decided to update its teaching on immigration with “an additional
message on immigration.” The current message, adopted in 1998 after restrictionist legislation in 1996 (including measures that denied federal benefits and protections to legal residents), hews generally to an immigration-expansionist line anchored in Matthew 25 and Leviticus 19. Lutherans’ history as an
immigrant and refugee population is noted, as is our record of welcoming asylum seekers and others resettled for reasons of war or political persecution. In distinction with more radical voices, however, the ELCA message does assert the right of a nation to control its boundaries and protect its population from an influx of contraband and crime (read the message at https://elca.org/en/Faith/Faith-and-Society/Social-Messages/Immigration/).
I recently discussed the new “additional message” with Laura Koepke, a writer and researcher on the project (Ms. Koepke, a friend of many years, formerly worked for the Refugee Services Division of Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota and in what follows she speaks for herself only). The new address, she told me, will expand on the policy dimension as well as re-articulate the theological principles of the original message. Following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, some ELCA synods began requesting a new message on immigration to reflect concerns about borders, immigration, and national security. The process of producing an additional message began before the introduction of last year’s version of the Kennedy-McCain immigration bill and will be proposed for adoption by the Church Council in April of next year.
The additional message will likely continue to address a decades-long Lutheran emphasis on family reunification over skills-based visa provision, Ms. Koepke told me, as well as an emphasis on generous asylum and refugee laws. “Provisions of the USA-PATRIOT Act have labeled refugees as material supporters of terrorism” even if they are escaping legitimate persecution in Columbia or Burma, she says. On the other hand, we may see a more pronounced (and traditionally Lutheran) emphasis on the rule of law. “The rule of law is important,” Ms. Koepke says, “so it’s important to have laws that work. The current laws don’t reflect the situation.” Rather than enforcing the present laws at the cost of immense national effort and great human suffering, the best way to promote respect for national laws and sovereignty may be to reform those laws and admit many of those here illegally as legal residents with a chance to become citizens. The Two Kingdoms theology of Luther may be relevant, she says, in balancing the need to preserve
national boundaries and laws with a Biblical call to welcome the stranger even as a citizen and neighbor (Leviticus 19:34).
I would take this logic farther. The Gospel gives the Church no authority to exclude any human being from access to protection and well-being. This is especially true when many are being excluded or attacked for reasons of national fear or ethnic or linguistic hostility, and truer still when these attacks happen under the auspices of Scriptural piety. Yet the state must administer a limited and imperfect law for the order and welfare of a limited and imperfect world–a world in which the entirely unregulated flow of humans from one place to another would have serious and painful consequences for all involved.
With the demise of this year’s attempt at immigration reform, it seems that this complex of issues will confront the nation until the additional message is taken up by the Church Council and perhaps for a year or more after. Hopefully this additional message will contribute something to our impoverished national debate in a way that does justice to the breadth of Scriptural witness and the depth of our communion’s experience both as stranger and as citizen.