How should we as Americans and Christians think about immigration? I realize I’m a little late to the party. Immigration was a hot topic a few weeks ago; it seems to have died down a bit now. But Presbyterians are always late to the party on things like this; at least I am. Or perhaps that’s why I’m Presbyterian?
I wanted to write about this because so much of what Christians are saying about it seems to be marked more by political ideology than by biblical thinking. This concerns me. I’m not an expert on immigration, but, having lived in Iraq (one of seven countries named in the recent temporary immigration ban) for over a year, I do have a unique perspective on some of the issues. But I’m also a pastor; part of my role is that of “public theologian;” I ought to be helping people see how the Bible speaks to the issues of our day.
When we read scripture we should ask what spheres of life (or authority) these passages fit into. Consider a police officer; his job is to serve and protect the people. This authority comes from God himself. (Rom 13:1-7) But say this police officer is also a Christian, and thus should follow Jesus’s command to not resist an evildoer, but turn the other cheek. (Matt 5:39) How does the police officer reconcile these two seemingly conflicting commands? Should he return fire at the bank robber who is shooting at him? This would make him a good police officer, but not a good Christian. Or should he stand down and offer his other cheek as a target to the robber? This would make him a good Christian, but not a good police officer.
The idea of sphere sovereignty is helpful here. In his role (sphere) as a police officer, he has a duty to protect others, using force if necessary. However, in his personal life, it would be wrong for him to use that authority by pulling out his service pistol to confront a neighbor whose dog poops on his lawn. Here, in the personal sphere, Jesus’s command to turn the other cheek would take precedence.
This same principle applies in our talk about immigration. A government that fails to protect its people is failing in one of its basic mandates. But there is also the sphere of a Christian's personal life where we all should be willing to lay down our own lives for the sake of the Gospel. Much of the disagreement I’ve seen among Christians happens because people take scriptures meant for one sphere of authority and try to apply them to another sphere. But that’s the same mistake as the police officer saying he won’t return fire on duty because he needs to turn the other cheek. In the immigration debate, someone might cite a scripture passage regarding the care of immigrants, yet ignore passages regarding the government's priority to protect its people. Understanding the different spheres of sovereignty helps us to both welcome immigrants and be committed to keeping our country safe.
One of the most ignored (and helpful) teachings of Scripture when it comes to immigration is the doctrine of total depravity. This doctrine teaches that, while humans are not as bad as they could be, every part of humanity is affected by sin. (Jer 17:9; Titus 1:15; Rom 3:10-19)
Some who would advocate for more open borders forget that people are totally depraved. I get the sense that some politicians believe that, if they could just sit in a room and talk with certain extremists, they would win them to their side and the American way. Unfortunately, this belief ignores that people are totally depraved. Some have been so twisted by sin that they take pleasure in the brutal killing of others.
But others who advocate for much stricter policies seem to forget that we are all totally depraved. The threat of violence is not just “outside the gates” but also within. The sin that leads terrorists to commit horrible acts of violence is the same sin that is within us. This should give us a healthy dose of humility. When we forget total depravity, it can lead to pride, to thinking we are somehow better than others. But we forget that we only have what we have by the grace of God. Because of this we should have compassion for all people.
Christ Is the True King
As Christians who are citizens of the United States we cannot forget that God is our true protector. This keeps us from unhealthy paranoia regarding acts of terrorism. It even allows us to accept some risk in accepting refugees, if there are good reasons to accept them. Trusting in an earthly king more than in God is what often got Israel into trouble. Israel often wanted a king who would build a strong army, economy and alliances; yet, ironically, the more Israel sought those things, the more they tended to lose them. Had God’s people worried less about military and political might and had instead sought God first, they would have been safer.
Forgetting All People Are Made in the Image of God
In Genesis 1:26-27, we learn that God created all people in his image. No higher honor can be given than to be made in the image of the God who made all things! This means we must reject “us versus them” thinking. We must reject ostracising certain groups of people because of a few bad apples. Even in the worst people, God’s image remains. We must show a respect for every human life, never stooping to the same lows that those who wish us harm would use.
One of the things that struck me while deployed in Iraq was how much I had in common with most of the Iraqi citizens. They were all Muslim, and yet they were a lot like me. They had the same desires, worries and struggles that I did. The vast majority of Iraqis I met didn’t hate us; many were incredibly hospitable. Even those who would aid Al Qaeda by planting a roadside bomb were not usually religious extremists. The economy was bad in Iraq, and no one had money; so Al Qaeda started to pay good money to people to plant roadside bombs. This was the only work available. To “sweeten” the deal Al Qaeda operatives would often threaten to kill his wife and kids if a citizen refused. If you were in that same situation can you be sure you wouldn’t have made the same choice many of the Iraqis did? Plant the bomb, and your family gets to live. The Americans at least had body armor, which is much more protection than your children have if Al Qaeda comes for them. The greatest casualties of Islamic Extremism in Iraq were Muslims themselves.
When I get to know people who are different than me I soon learn we actually aren't that different. Because we are all made in the image of God, we have many similarities. And because we are made in the image of God, we all have dignity.
We Need to Respect Our Leaders
Romans 13:1 gives us some of the clearest guidance for our posture towards those in governmental authority. It says,
Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.
Who should submit to the governmental authorities? Everyone. But what if they support things you are against? Doesn’t matter. They are in that place because God placed them there. Now, if a ruler asks us to do something that violates God’s law, we must obey God. (Acts 5:29) Ultimately God will hold leaders accountable for their actions and whether they submit to God or not. (Psalm 2) One of our first duties is to pray for them. (1 Tim 2:1-2) How many of us can say our prayers for our leaders outnumber our complaints about them? Scripture says that our attitudes towards our leaders should not change whether or not their politics mesh with our own. Paul plainly states that we should “honor the emperor.” (1 Peter 2:17) He makes no exception for Roman emperors who are unfriendly to Christians.
We’ve looked at some principles for how we should think about refugees within the sphere of our national citizenship. Next month we will look at this topic as it relates to the sphere of the church. I cannot tell you what you should believe regarding our national policy for immigration and refugees. But it is my hope that we will seek to turn our thinking on the matter in a scriptural direction. How can we truly call ourselves Christian if we do not seek to conform all our thinking to Christ?
The Government has an obligation to protect its people. There are evil people who take pleasure in destroying anything good, and so the government must protect its citizens from them. But most people don’t fit into that category. Most refugees, I suspect, are like many of the people we met in Iraq. People caught in the middle, simply wanting to take care of their families. Recognizing this was one of the things that turned the tide of the Iraq war. Instead of seeing the local populace as our enemies or a nuisance, we started seeing them as partners and allies. They were then less likely to help Al Qaeda operatives; in fact, they would give us tips on where the roadside bombs were. Sometimes I even suspect they knew where a roadside bomb was because they planted it! But they didn’t want to harm us; they were just trying to keep their children alive by doing what Al Qaeda forced them to do.
Let’s realize the issues are complicated and that good people can disagree. And just because someone disagrees doesn't mean they hate America--no, they probably want the same thing you do, to keep our nation safe. They just have different ideas for how to do it. Remember, every one of us if deeply affected by sin, so let’s show some more humility. Most of all, let us ensure that we are honoring God and esteeming the name of Christ in all we do.