Reconciliation and American Immigration

Over the last few weeks I have constructed a few posts regarding the concept of “reconciliation” and how it should inform the way we follow Jesus. This week I want to begin to apply reconciliation to various social and political issues of our day. The first issue I want to explore involves the discussion around immigration in the United States. As someone who lives in a border town (San Diego), this has become an issue of immense importance locally.

Within the last year multiple caravans traveling from Honduras and Nicaragua have been making their way north, seeking refuge in the United States. Some are seeking asylum from violence, some are fleeing the harsh economic conditions, but all appear to be unified in finding a better life in the United States.

This is not the first time a caravan of immigrants has fled Central or South America for the United States border. But one particular caravan became especially newsworthy late last year when President Trump emphatically declared on numerous occasions that the caravan was an “invasion on our country.” While some with ill intentions could have populated the original 7,000-person caravan, it has been documented that the caravan, which is now sitting at an estimated 3,500 people, largely consists of women and children.

In recent days President Trump’s policy concerning immigration has regained attention with his recent declaration that the U. S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) will be removing the millions of illegal aliens who have illicitly found their way into the United States.”

Why do I detail all of this? What connection does the President’s policy have with the public witness of the church?

Simply put, a large part of the President’s supporters are evangelical Christians. In the 2016 election that saw Donald Trump elected as President, over 80% of white evangelicals supported then candidate Trump, and the number has basically remained the same, sitting at about 71%. In the wake of his unfounded accusations against the immigrant caravan, this 71% of evangelicals are either maintaining their support for the President or are remaining silent.

For me these statistics are troubling as we begin to zero in on some of the issues evangelical Christians support the president on, and in this case, immigration in the United States. The Bible is replete with instructions on how to treat immigrants, refugees, and other displaced people groups. While the politics concerning the fate of these people in our country is difficult and contentious, the concern for evangelicals – namely those who hold to a high view of Scripture and are verbally committed to Jesus as Lord – seems to be anything but “biblical.” Instead, they appear to remain grounded in a unique brand of American nationalism masquerading as Christianity.

Before moving forward on the church’s position on immigration, we need to reconsider the roles reconciliation and the gospel play in the life of the church. The last post concluded that our faith in “Jesus as Lord” is better viewed as our allegiance to Christ in opposition to other supposed ‘lords.’ Furthermore, this exchange in allegiance from the nation state to God’s kingdom is only possible since “we have now received reconciliation” from Jesus (Rom. 5:11) and the subsequent “ministry” and “message” of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:18, 19).

This means that Christ is everything for us!

As Paul emphatically states in Colossians 3:3,

“For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God.”

Colossians 3:3

Our “hiddenness in Christ” must lead to a reorientation of our worldview; it means to have the same values and vision for the world as Christ. This becomes an issue of ethics. In other words, what is the rubric by which the church determines what is ‘right’ and ‘just.’ Which narrative do we adopt? Do we subscribe to a vision where decisions are determined to benefit the state, or a vision centered on Jesus, who created a peculiar community that reveals a new way to live? These are not the same things.

As Hauerwas and Willimon adequately state,

“Christian ethics arise out of the formation of the peculiar community engendered by listening to scripture like the Sermon on the Mount and attaching ourselves to a master like Jesus. This must begin with an ideological shift away from nationalistic pragmatism and partisan politics toward a renewed vision for value human life plays in the economy of God’s kingdom.”[1]

Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon

Many would argue that the two are the same. They can’t be, otherwise, what makes Jesus is Lord so unique from the declaration that Caesar is Lord? Not very much.

My intention is not to engage in a debate on public policy. My goal is to challenge the church to rethink its own particular mission in the world, and for Americans, our country in particular. While much could be examined throughout the Old and New Testaments that provides a template for how the church should treat all people – particularly immigrants – a few passages in the New Testament stand out.

First, Joseph and Mary – Jesus’ parents – sought asylum in Egypt after they learned of Herod’s desire to kill every young male child two years and under in the town of Bethlehem (Matt. 2:13-18). It would have been immensely dangerous for a small family of three to travel alone to Egypt from Bethlehem. The harsh elements and wandering bandits posed a very real threat to travelers. There is little doubt that they traveled in a decent-sized caravan to protect them from real harm. It is striking how similar Jesus’ experience as a child refugee is to those who are also diligently seeking asylum from tyranny, oppression, and economic turmoil across the world.

Second, Jesus shows value for the undervalued of society. While this does not speak on the issue of immigration directly, it does provide continuity for how anyone who might be labeled as “the other” is to be treated, including immigrants and refugees. The only other people-group hated more than the Romans in first-century Israel was the Samaritans. They were viewed as a “half-breed” of sorts, practicing their own form of Judaism, but with a completely different temple, priesthood, and set of cultural practices, which was detested by Israel. To even speak with a Samaritan would have been culturally unacceptable, for they were a national enemy.

But that is exactly what Jesus does. Multiple times.

One popular example of this is Jesus’ correspondence with the Samaritan woman in John 4. This encounter was not by chance, but a deliberate part of Jesus’ mission. The author narrates in John 4:4, “He had to go through Samaria.” The verb “he had” is better translated “it is necessary.” Thus, “It was necessary he go through Samaria.” It was part of Jesus’ plan all along. This is nothing short of incredible since this story fits in between Jesus’ first two miracles that occur in Cana of Galilee. In the first miracle, Jesus turned the water into wine (John 2:1-12). Not only did he refill the jars with new wine, but the wine was of better quality. Jesus was bringing the kingdom in a new and fuller way. Similarly, after Jesus visits the Samaritans, he heals a Roman officials son without being present (John 4:43-54).

Conventional perceptions of God’s presence in the world is being replaced with a more robust inbreaking through God’s people, and the Samaritans were the first ones to experience this radical new reality.

While the two examples above do not give us a comprehensive guide on immigration reform, as Daniel Carroll concludes,

“If the life and words of Jesus in some fashion are important and binding on Christians, then other questions follow. Do we, as Christians, have as comprehensive an ethic as Jesus had? If not, why not? What areas of life have been left out? Have attitudes and actions towards immigrants been integrated into that ethic?”[2]

M. Daniel Carroll

This leads us back to the issue of reconciliation. In what way is the ministry of reconciliation relevant to our ethical approach to those who are outsiders to our country of origin?

The clearest answer is found in 1 Peter. In 1:1, Peter identifies his audience as “exiles scattered throughout” and again in 2:11 reminds them of their status as “foreigners and exiles [or strangers].” If we are “a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession” as Peter affirms in 2:9, then by definition we do not have an earthly nation which we are to give ourselves over to. As citizens of another kingdom who are labeled as outsiders we can easily and naturally identify with other supposed outsiders.

Immigrants are outsiders par exemplar. They are men, women, and children who are wandering without a home. They have abandoned a lot in order to gain a little. Followers of Jesus are supposed to be in the exact same place; sojourning until we arrive home is one of the distinctive markers for Christians. At least it is supposed to be. But ironically, the opposite has become true in American Christianity. Again, as Carroll states,

“Sadly, it is not uncommon for Christians to not feel like ‘strangers in a strange land’; their place of residence has lost its strangeness, and now they join others in wanting to keep strangers out.”[3]

M. Daniel Carroll

As an American Church, it is time to reclaim our identity as sojourners, foreigners, outsiders, and strangers. Change is always scary and typically unwelcome. But reconciliation by definition requires change. Embracing the immigrant and refugee is a clear indication that one has learned to embrace the gospel.

Recommended Reading

A concise overview of the history of American immigration at the southern border as well as an exegetical and theological analysis for how Christians should respond.
A classic exploration of a thoroughly Jesus-centered ethic that considers the church as a distinct ‘colony’ in the world.

[1] Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon, Resident Aliens: A Provocative Christian Assessment of Culture and Ministry for People Who Know That Something is Wrong, 2d ed. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2014), 99.

[2] M. Daniel Carroll R., Christians at the Border: Immigration, the Church, and the Bible, 2d ed. (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2013), 116.

[3] Carroll R., Christians at the Border, 118.

2 thoughts on “Reconciliation and American Immigration

  1. If we, as Christians, are to reclaim our identity as sojourners in a strange land, I can’t help but think that as a church we desperately need to corporately repent of our idolatry of nationalism (and no doubt idolatry of safety and comfort play a part in this as well). I’ve found your blog post here to be a powerful call for the church to deep repentance. Turning away from these very real idols is crucial. The only way we can truly live the message of reconciliation is if we can once again experience the reconciliation —repentance and forgiveness— that the Godhead offers… and maybe then we can reclaim our identity as sojourners, and welcome those who are outsiders and sojourners too.

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