Immigration, the “Great Wall,” and Christian Virtue

This year’s presidential election has highlighted concerns over illegal immigration. According to the Pew Research Center, there were about 11.3 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. in 2014. About half of these were Mexican. While Mexicans make up the highest number, however, in many parts of Latin America people are fleeing their homes, attempting to take refuge in the United States. The Washington Times reports that 2014 saw a 14% spike in illegal immigration across the southwest border, marking the third consecutive year of increase.

Many of those showing up at our borders have traveled hundreds, even thousands of miles in the hope of a safer existence. Some are unaccompanied children. We call them “illegal immigrants” or “undocumented persons,” but a more accurate term for many would be “refugees.” They are fleeing tyranny, violence, and poverty. For such people, the American dream is not rags to riches. It is simply a chance to escape an early and violent death.

Donald Trump has suggested that we build a “great wall” along our southwest border. In fact, in accepting the Republican presidential nomination, Trump promised, “I will build a great wall!” And, he assured us, no one builds walls better than he does. In addition, he has advocated for mass deportation of undocumented people. He’s not the first person to suggest such measures, though he is surely the most visible proponent of them.

At one level, it simply makes sense to say that if we are going to have laws we need to enforce them. The problem with Trump’s proposed policies, however, is that the laws they will enforce do not deal sufficiently with the ethical issues related to illegal immigration. Not everyone coming across our border illegally is destitute, but many people are. Not everyone is fleeing for his or her life, but many are. Not everyone is an unaccompanied child, but those who are should create in us a sense of moral urgency. We cannot ignore the ethical imperatives so obviously before us.

Immigration is a complex issue that can’t be solved in a blog post. Thus I’m not even going to begin to suggest something like a comprehensive immigration policy. Rather, my goal is more modest. I simply want to identify some scriptural principles that should guide Christians as we think through what virtuous immigration policies would look like.

The Idea of a Virtuous Nation

I recently heard R. R. Reno discussing his latest book, Resurrecting the Idea of a Christian Society (Regnery Faith, 2016). In the course of the discussion, Reno asked an important question: We in the U.S. certainly value freedom, but freedom for what?

Whether Christian or not, I think most people in the U.S. would agree that our freedom should serve more than just the individual good. It should somehow serve the common good as well. While we may push, pull, and compromise with one another over what it might look like, most of us would agree that we want a virtuous society. The freedom we enjoy in the United States provides us the opportunity to shape society in virtuous ways. The problem is, we sometimes choose the unvirtuous path rather than the virtuous one.

Let’s say for the sake of argument that building the “great wall” and mass deportation would be the most effective ways to decrease the number of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. It is not enough, however, for a plan to be effective. It should also be virtuous. As a Christian, I cannot separate the virtuous solution from the guidance of Scripture, and I have spent quite enough time in the Bible to know that Trump’s proposed policies run afoul of the witness of Scripture.

The Consistent Witness of Scripture 

There are many passages in the Bible that I could draw upon to argue this point. I could, for example, argue from Leviticus 23:22, in which the Lord commands Israel, “When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Leave them for the poor and for the foreigner residing among you. I am the LORD your God.”

I could argue from Deuteronomy 27:19, “Cursed is anyone who withholds justice from the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow.”

I could cite Matthew 25:40: “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”

I could reference the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31), in which the rich man keeps poor Lazarus outside the gate of his house, even though Lazarus is desperately in need of his help. At the end of the parable, the positions are reversed, and it is Lazarus who lives in the bosom of Abraham, while the rich man exists in torment. In an ironic twist, moreover, there is a barrier (a “great wall”?) between the two, though it is now the rich man who cannot cross.

I might draw upon 2 Corinthians 8:9, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.”

One that really gets my attention is Proverbs 17:5: “Whoever mocks the poor shows contempt for their Maker; whoever gloats over disaster will not go unpunished.”

This is not simply prooftexting. The consistent witness of Scripture is that those who have much should enter into solidarity with those who have less, not least by sharing resources with them. The “great wall” solution is a way of creating distance from those who need help the most, and it provides no solutions that might ease their plight. In that sense, it is profoundly anti-scriptural. It is a simple solution, but it is not a virtuous one. In fact, there is likely no solution to matters of illegal immigration that is both simple and virtuous.

We do indeed enjoy incredible freedom in the U.S.– but freedom for what? We have the capacity to form a virtuous society. If a free society is not a virtuous society, that very freedom will sow the seeds of its destruction.

Some Guidance from the Past

Some will say that this is not our problem, that the U.S. needs to protect its national interests, and the interests of other nations are their own business. There are two difficulties with this perspective. First, the U.S. bears its share of blame for the deplorable state of many Latin American nations. Our history of interventionism, economic exploitation, and demand for illegal drugs has resulted in the destabilization of governments and the formation of ultra-violent cartels. As a nation we have contributed to these problems, and it is only right that we should look for effective ways to address them.

Second, and more relevant to this argument, Christians can never look exclusively to their own interests. Our faith does not allow this. We cannot support policies that pile desperation upon destitution, that seal us off from some of the poorest people in the world so that we might secure what is ours.

I teach at a school historically rooted in the pietistic Christian tradition. We were a school of the United Brethren in Christ, then of the Evangelical United Brethren. (In 1968, when the Evangelical United Brethren merged with the Methodists, we became a seminary of The United Methodist Church.) One of the most important foundational documents of the pietistic tradition is the Pia Desideria, by Philip Jakob Spener. If you have never read this document, I certainly commend it to you, particularly if you are a United Methodist. This is, after all, your tradition, too. As I was reading through this work recently, I was struck by the relevance of a particular passage, despite the fact that it was written in the seventeenth century:

If we look at trade, the crafts and other occupations through which men seek to earn their living, we shall find that everything is not arranged according to the precepts of Christ but rather that not a few public regulations and traditional usages in these occupations are diametrically opposed to them. Where is there anybody who remembers that not only his own support and gain (to which almost all attention is directed) but also the glory of his God and the welfare of his neighbor should be the object of all that he does in his station in life?

He goes on to state,

Wretched custom has obscured the precepts of Christianity to such an extent that we think it absurd when in a given instance somebody practices what is acknowledged by all, namely, that we should love our neighbor as ourselves, although the force of these words is little pondered.

Spener’s insights are no less relevant today than when he wrote them. Are our decisions informed by Scripture and by the witness of our communities of faith? Do our decisions simply support our own interests, or do they reflect proper Christian concern for the wellbeing of others?

Our True Citizenship

We should remember one other matter, as well. As Christians, we may be citizens of any nation, but that citizenship is secondary to our citizenship in the kingdom of God. Paul, who was formally a citizen of the Roman Empire, reminds the church in Philippi: “Our citizenship is in heaven” (Philippians 3:20). And we read in 1 Peter 2:9 that Christians are “a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession.” Before any other allegiance, we owe our allegiance to Jesus. Before we consider the national interests of the United States, we should consider the interests of the kingdom of God. We should bear in mind, moreover, that many of those whom we would exclude by our “great wall” are our fellow citizens of heaven. They are also a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession. And as we consider what to do about strangers and aliens in our earthly home, we must bear in mind that, according to Scripture, all of us are “foreigners and exiles” in the present age.

God gave Israel a choice: choose life or death. We have the same choice before us today. What will we choose? Will we work toward foreign and immigration policies that affirm the value of these God-created lives, or will we choose policies that perpetuate cycles of poverty, violence, and death? Will we mock the poor, and thereby insult their Maker? Will we gloat in their disaster and invite our own punishment? The answer is not yet clear.

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