Faith & Immigration in Alabama

Posted: August 21, 2011 by Todd in Culture, Justice, Theology
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I was recently invited to speak to a Sunday School class at Faith Presbyterian Church about theological support for welcoming immigrants.  It is adapted from my earlier response to the introduction of Alabama HB 56.  Below is the text of my comments to the Sunday School class.

Theological Support for Adopting a Welcoming Stance Toward Immigrants

Welcoming the Stranger as Biblical Theme

The Biblical them of welcoming the stranger goes beyond isolated verses – it spans old and new testaments, it is found in virtually every genre of literature in the Bible, and we have examples of Jesus embodying it.  Such examples include:

Deuteronomy 10:19, “You shall also love the alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.”

Leviticus 19:33-34, “When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the LORD your God.”

The story of Jesus giving water to the Samaritan woman.

Stephen in Acts reminded the Jerusalem Council in a sermon that they are an immigrant people (Acts 7:6-7)

The passages are linked to the identity and story of God’s people: a people who were immigrants in the foreign land of Egypt, a people who wandered in many foreign lands, and a people who had no place where they could provide for themselves. [more…]

Sharing the Story

The Bible has more to say to us than a prooftext of be-kind-to-immigrant verses.

When you go a bit deeper and look at the Bible in both its cultural context and through the lens of our own history – some remarkable similarities emerge.

Like the Israelites, our story, unless we are Native Americans, is that we are strangers in a foreign land.  Our story should create in us a desire to welcome the stranger, for our ancestors were once aliens in the very land in which we reside.  There may be a temptation to think that yes, our ancestors may have been immigrants, but that was 250 years ago.  Right here, right now, we are an established people in a nation governed by laws.  But Israel’s experience as immigrants was multi-generational, spanning hundreds of years as well – and God said the faithful response to their story was to remember that they were foreigners in a strange land.  How then could a faithful response be any different for us?

We cannot evade our duty to be a welcoming people because now we have laws in the nation state now called America, when North American colonizers did not have such laws – simply because no nation state existed.  Both morality and the Biblical themes I’ve been speaking of did exist, so such arguments seem to rely on something quite trivial.

“Obey the Authorities”

I want to address a couple of theological arguments that supporters of tight immigration laws often rely upon.  One is the “obey the authorities” argument in Romans 13, where Paul tells the Christian church at Rome to obey their civil authorities.  In my view this is weak when used as a biblical theme because it does not seem to recur throughout scripture.  In this passage, Paul doesn’t address what believers are to do with unjust laws, but with normal things such as paying taxes, which he does endorse.  There are many examples of subverting civil authority in Scripture that would seem to counter this theological argument.  Such an example can be found in Israel’s disobedience toward Pharaoh in their start of a migrant path into a 40 year wilderness journey.

Furthermore, if you rely on these verses, how do you answer the question of different civil governments?  Do these verses apply in China, in Myanmar?  What about conflicts between federal, state, and local law.  Our city (Huntsville) has passed an ordinance to be an inclusive community and our state has passed a law leaning towards being an exclusive community – which civil authority do we obey?

What if civil authorities act in unjust ways?  American civil authorities have formed a free trade agreement – NAFTA with Mexico requiring them to remove “barriers to trade” such as tariffs and regulations that affect the prices of imports to Mexico, making them cheaper.  Then, those civil authorities in America act in protectionist ways towards its own market for imports, giving huge subsidies to farmers (also a “barrier to trade”), making it near impossible for farmers in Mexico  to sell their produce at a price above their production cost in the American marketplace.

Also, America has a huge demand for illegal drugs and other black market commodities with the resources to keep a large part of the production side of these commodities and their criminal elements outside of our own borders.  Mexico finds parts of itself in near lawlessness with large criminal elements, which provide for the demand of the illegal drugs of America.  Are we to obey the civil authorities when we add in these complexities?

If the civil authorities – at least in part – help to create the conditions that lead people to immigrate, then pass laws outlawing the attempts of ordinary people trying to escape those very conditions, are we to obey them?

I don’t think it is a simple as blindly following Paul’s advice to submit to the civil authorities.

“What About Those Standing In Line Patiently?”

The other theological argument I have heard people make in support of tough immigration laws and enforcement is contained in a question.  They say, “What about immigrants who stand in line and wait patiently and follow all the rules?  Why do those who break the law get to ‘cut in line?’  Shouldn’t we reward the faithful?

This argument is a logical fallacy.  It is what is called a false alternative – creating two choices when more than two exist.  In this case, it paints a choice between rewarding lawful immigrants and punishing undocumented immigrants or its opposite.  Aside from over-simplifying the real life situations, these are not the only two alternatives that exist.  There are a number of both legislative and faith responses that exist between these two extremes.

I for one am glad that I worship a God of grace because that means there is hope for me despite all the dumb things I do that undermine God’s kingdom every day.  I pray that a Christian response to immigration communicates more than anything that we have a God of grace and we, as Christians, are at least on our way to becoming a people of grace.


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