Migration and Christianity

When I wrote Principles of a Free Society, I hinted at a Christian case for open borders:

American Christianity has not been only a conservative force, fending off bad foreign ideas and keeping America true to its heritage of freedom. It has often championed reform, progressively realizing the latent imperatives of America’s founding ideals.

Nobel laureate Robert Fogel has argued that American history has followed a pattern by which the evolution of religion leads the evolution of political reform, with four “Great Awakenings” in religion– in 1730-60, 1800-40, 1890-1930, and 1960 to around 1990– leading to four great eras of political reform: the American revolution, the anti-slavery movement and the Civil War, the creation of the welfare state, and the civil rights movement; and finally the tax revolt of the Reagan era and the 1996 welfare reform.

Fogel’s periodization could be disputed; but the links he draws between religion and political reform are compelling. Churches enjoy no institutional representation in the American political system, nor do they typically instruct their members how to vote. Yet religion heavily influences voting behavior and other forms of political participation. Today, for example, one of the strongest predictors of voting Republican is church attendance.

In spite of the Republican bias of American Christians, however, and the anti-immigration bias of the Republican Party, I think there are signs that immigration (that is, support for immigration) is emerging as a distinctively Christian political issue. An immigration amnesty in 1986 was championed and signed by a born-again Christian president, Ronald Reagan. Another Christian president, George W. Bush, strove for and nearly succeeded in passing immigration reform in 2006 and 2007, with widespread support from churches.

The Catholic Cardinal Mahoney of Los Angeles compared a repressive anti-immigration law in Arizona to Nazism. Richard Land, president of the general conservative Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, has advocated comprehensive immigration reform. Polls by Pew show that religious leaders and frequent churchgoers are significantly more pro-immigration than less frequent attenders.

Ultimately, I think the Bible, the New Testament, the Parable of the Good Samaritan, and in particular one detail in the Parable of the Good Samaritan, will force Christians to turn against the world apartheid system of border controls. When the priest and the Levite see the wounded man on the road to Jericho, they do not just fail to help, they pass by on the other side of the road— that is, they deliberately create physical distance between themselves and the suffering man in order to avoid incurring the moral responsibility to help him.

But of course, this is exactly what migration restrictions do: they keep the world’s poor at a distance, so that we will not feel conscience-stricken and have to help them. But of course it is perfectly clear in the parable that the priest and the Levite only make themselves more culpable by trying to avoid moral responsibility; and so it is with rich countries that close their borders to poor immigrants. Christians cannot go on failing to see this indefinitely. Time for a Fifth Great Awakening?…

How would church-state relations change if the conviction became widespread among Christians that to “love thy neighbor” meant not collaborating with the enemies who want to deport him? (Principles of a Free Society, pp. 189-191)

At that time, however, I had not read what the Old Testament specifically has to say about immigrants. When I did so, last May, for the post “The Old Testament on Immigration,” I was astonished at how thoroughly they confirmed my views. Again and again, the Bible stresses that foreigners are to be given justice, treated fairly, loved, and included in Jewish festivals and Sabbath observances. They were often grouped with widows and orphans as a protected class. In correspondence with readers after that post, I learned that there seems to be a distinction between a ger, which I’ve seen translated as “resident foreigner” but which means something close to “convert to Judaism,” that is, someone who has accepted the religious rules of ancient Israel, and a “foreigner at the gate,” zak or nekhar. Many of the Biblical passages which most strongly urge “foreigners” to be treated well use the word ger, and some argue that these exhortations do not apply to the zak or nekhar. I believe it is the latter, moreover, to whom the Mosaic law permits Jews to lend at interest and sell meat found already dead, which Jews are not allowed to eat. Some contemporary writers equate ger with legal immigrants and zak with undocumented immigrants. But this is certainly untenable, for several reasons. First, ancient Israel had no passport regime, and zak were not breaking the law by dwelling there: they were not illegal. Second, while the Bible does suggest that ger must obey the Mosaic law and thus shared the obligations as well as the privileges of Jews, there is no hint of some process of permission by Jewish authorities that had to take place for a person to become a ger. And in the story of Ruth the Moabite, no permission is asked. Ruth admittedly has a Jewish mother-in-law, Naomi, but her admission to Israel is not conditional on that. She simply comes, and gathers grain behind the reapers, taking advantage of a sort of ancient Jewish poor law. In short, there were open borders under the Mosaic law. And if that was the case even under the Old Testament law, which in many respects is rather harsh– a girl found guilty of premarital sex was to be stoned, for example (Deuteronomy 22:21)– then what about the New Testament, which often seems to endorse complete nonviolence…

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’[a] But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well.” (Matthew 5:38-40)

… which pointedly softens the Mosaic law, e.g., when Jesus pardons the woman taken in adultery (John 8:1-11), and which is far more universalist in spirit, for example in eliminating the circumcision requirement so as to integrate Gentile converts? Surely it would be odd for someone to agree that the Old Testament called for open borders and then say that the New Testament offered a warrant for a harsher and more exclusionary migration policy than what the Old Testament allowed.

Given the comparative rarity of open borders advocacy among Christians, however– devout Christians are more likely to favor open borders than others, but it’s still a small minority view– I’m always interested in hearing the other side. What do Christian restrictionists have to say for themselves?

A recent post at VDARE (hat tip Vipul, and that goes for most of the links in this post) is entitled “Memo from Middle America: Borders are Biblical! Evangelicals Resisting Their Pro-Amnesty ‘Leaders’.” Borders are Biblical? Interesting. What’s the basis for that? It appears at the end of the post:

After all, St. Paul declared in Acts 17:26 that God “hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth, and hath determined … the bounds of their habitation.”

Borders are biblically-based!

Hmm. Here’s the passage in context, which was part of Paul’s speech to the Athenian Areopagus.

“The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. 25 And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. 26 From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. 27 God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. 28 ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’[b] As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.‘”

I don’t see it. It seems like Paul is making a general point about Providence, about history unfolding in a way that God foresaw and planned, with a view (somehow) to leading people back to himself. I suppose if the point is just that God intends that there should be borders of some sort, that’s fine. I don’t disagree. This website advocates open borders, not no borders. If anything, the important point here is in the words from one man, or as I saw in another translation “from one blood”: Paul is stressing that all men are of one blood: “the brotherhood of man” as we might say. If one takes this as relevant to immigration at all, it would seem rather too strong for anyone’s taste: one might, though it is a very strained interpretation, suppose that Paul is telling people to stay within the appointed boundaries of their lands. That would condemn legal as well as undocumented immigration. But in fact, many migrations have occurred: are these contrary to the will of Providence?

The post quoted above links to another VDARE post entitled “Immigration: An Evangelical Approach.” Here the author, Bill Barnwell, reviews some Biblical history and then concludes:

As I’ve shown, the Israelites were supposed to welcome foreigners who believed in their spiritual ideals and wanted to freely become a part of the Israelite community. To speak anachronistically, they were not supposed to welcome foreigners who would come in and burn their flags and sing the national anthem of the Canaanites.

Christians, therefore, should be advocating an immigration policy that welcomes those who seek to willingly assimilate and become a part of their national culture and heritage.

Foreigners who became a part of the Israelite community were obligated to forsake their old ways and assimilate to their new culture. While for the Israelites this transformation was primarily spiritual, it surely carried many secular connotations as well. Christians should not have a racial focus, but a values focus.

This is a very large concession, and would actually amount to a much more liberal immigration policy than what the US has now. No amount of willingness to assimilate to US culture, political values, or whatever, ensures admission to the US. It would entail, if not quite a right to migrate full stop, then a right to migrate with the intention of assimilating. But even this does not go far enough, for the Bible does not authorize the physical exclusion of foreigners who did not intend to assimilate. In any case, the assimilation requirement is difficult to cross-apply to the present day. In ancient Israel, Sabbath observance and other religious rules were backed by force, and there was no religious freedom. It was clearer what assimilation meant: it meant observing the whole Mosaic law and liturgy, it meant being a Jew, putting away idols, worshiping God. Contemporary Americans have freedom of religion, freedom of speech, even freedom to burden the flag (probably bad, but legal) and sing foreign national anthems (which isn’t even bad). Since the assimilation requirement doesn’t seem to have been a hard-and-fast condition for residence in ancient Israel, and since in any case it can’t really be cross-applied to contemporary America, it seems like the best way to live up to the Biblical teachings is pure open borders. But if you want to propose some kind of right-to-migrate-with-the-intention-to-assimilate and make that the law of the land, I’m all ears. If not, be honest enough to admit that your immigration views are not consistent with Christianity.

Barnwell continues:

However, Christians need to recognize that the purpose of immigration policy is not to invite more potential converts into our churches.

Really? And how can that claim be justified? This is a very important point. Jesus, after the Resurrection, told his disciples: “Go into all the world and preach the Gospel to every creature. He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned” (Mark 16:15-16). To get into the theology of salvation and how believing in Christ is an essential step in accepting God’s mercy and inheriting eternal life would go beyond the scope of this post; but given that Christians believe this, surely converting as many as people as possible, if the conversions are genuine and effectual, is just about the most important thing that Christians can do. Now, some people live in places where their right to practice Christianity is restricted; in others, proselytizing is forbidden. By letting immigrants into America, with its abundance of churches, American Christians would certainly give a lot of people the chance to hear the Gospel and to be drawn into Christian communities which they would not otherwise have. Some might take their Christianity home with them and spread it there. And the stakes are very high here: people’s immortal souls. Opportunities for evangelism seem like a very compelling independent reason for Christians to support open borders.

Christian restrictionists seem to place a lot of weight on the apparent blank check Paul writes to governmental legitimacy in Romans 13:1-7:

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. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.

This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.

Barnwell summarizes this as follows:

In general, the Bible supports the idea of obeying the governing authorities (Romans 13:1-7). However, when the authorities are rebelling against God’s will (Revelation 13), the Christian has the obligation to “obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).

But that is not an accurate reading of Romans 13:1-7, which makes none of the exceptions Barnwell suggests. On its face, Paul’s endorsement of governments seems absurdly generous: they are appointed by God, they “hold no terror for those who do right,” they bring punishment on the evildoer. Really? No one who is innocent is ever punished by the state? Perhaps there had been few martyrs at the time Paul wrote that (under the emperor Claudius, I think), but would he have taken the words back when he saw thousands of Christians being killed for refusing to worship the emperor as a God? But of course, there was one example of an innocent man punished by the state whom Paul must have been very aware of: Jesus Christ, crucified by Roman soldiers! How can Paul have written such a naive blanket endorsement, not only of the “legitimacy” (whatever that means), but of the justice of earthly governments?

But wait a minute. I thought about it for a while and another reading of the passage shone through. Why do rulers hold no terror for those who do right? Not because governments never perpetrate violence against the innocence: of course they do, and often. Rather, because those who do right have no reason to fear death. They can expect a heavenly reward. As Jesus said, “I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after your body has been killed, has authority to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him” (Luke 12:4-5). “Do what is right and you will be commended.” By whom? By those in authority? Perhaps, but perhaps not, and anyway, why should you care? Christians should know better than to chase after the praises of men. No, by God: that’s what matters. Rulers, of course, often commend the wicked and condemn the good, but never mind that.

“Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities.” Yes: Christianity is not a political revolution, especially not a violent one. It is meant to operate through moral suasion. But is a person who engages in civil disobedience against an unjust law in violation of Romans 13:1? That would be a troubling conclusion, since it would imply condemnation of some people whom we admire, such as the Solidarity movement in Communist Poland, or Martin Luther King, or those who participated in the Underground Railroad to free slaves in the years before the Civil War. But actually, it would also condemn the prophet Daniel and the early Christian martyrs, because Romans 13:1-7 does not single out rulers who are “rebelling against God’s will” and make them exceptions. I think Romans 13:1-7 is simply a reiteration of “turn the other cheek.” Rulers have the power, the force, the violence, and Christians are not to resist it: we are to be subject to the governing authorities, to turn the other cheek, to submit and suffer. But meanwhile, to keep doing the right thing, and to have no fear of temporal powers, of which even the most wicked are part of God’s plan somehow, and which in any case cannot terrorize the man who knows that his soul is right with God. If it is written in a way that sounds like a more positive endorsement of governments, that may have been because Paul knew that his letter would be read by agents of the Roman state, and wanted, without saying anything false, to write in a way that would appease them. Or perhaps Paul meant it in the most straightforward way, as a Roman patriot, but Providence ensured that his words should have a deeper and more universal meaning. Of course, sometimes Romans 13:1-7 can be taken in the most straightforward sense, if one is living under a government that is just and beneficent, as many governments are, more or less, in some respects.

Paul is writing, moreover, to subjects, who had no say in the laws, no sovereign power. Doubtless it is often a Christian’s duty to submit even to unjust and inhumane laws. But in democratic America the people are supposedly sovereign, and a Christian put in such a position ought at least to strive mightily to change unjust and inhumane laws. To sum up, Romans 13:1-7 can’t be read in a fashion that would condemn all undocumented immigration without also condemning Oscar Schindler, Martin Luther King, the Underground Railroad, probably the Founding Fathers (who declined to be subject to a government that was doing them much less wrong than the US government does to deportees), and perhaps even the early Christian martyrs, the prophet Daniel, and Socrates. I do think there’s something to be said for exhorting undocumented immigrants to avoid deceit, and to stand ready to state the whole truth about their status whenever the occasion arises, thus elevating themselves to the level of civil disobedients. But that “love thy neighbor” and “do not mistreat the foreigner” entail not reporting undocumented immigrants to the police or collaborating in any act of deportation seems plain.

I found the below passage irritating, not to say brazen:

Any person who calls himself a Christian should of course demonstrate love to the less fortunate both in word and deed. But there are other ways to love immigrants than sanctioning their law breaking. It takes more sacrifice for a Christian to do a short-term missions project or to donate financially towards impoverished areas of Mexico than it does for them to cheer on illegal immigration.

Rather than just applauding faceless illegals—whom they may never actually meet—Evangelicals would do better to actually meet these people where they are and donate their resources (time, money, etc) to help improve their lots in life. Christians could also support Mexican churches in their efforts to provide relief to their countrymen and women.

Whatever route is chosen—and there are plenty of other possibilities—we should not act as if the only way to show love and compassion to immigrants is by promoting or condoning illegal behavior.

A grander goal for the global Christian community, and Americans on a whole, is to help impoverished Mexican communities empower themselves to better care for their hurting people. This of course takes more work and sacrifice than just promoting open borders.

The Evangelical must ask himself which side in this internal debate ultimately demands more love and sacrifice and is more closely aligned to the Scriptures.

Obviously there is no inconsistency at all between “applauding faceless illegals,” or to put it with less gratuitous abrasiveness, looking out for the interests of undocumented immigrants in society at large, and on the other hand, “meeting people where they are and donating resources… to help improve their lots in life.” One can do both. It’s as if Barnwell is saying one shouldn’t be polite to strangers, but speak loving words to one’s family instead. I would be very surprised, anyway, if there is not a positive correlation between trying to help specific undocumented immigrants whom we know, and advocating for systemic change that improves their opportunities. Indeed, there’s a certain absurdity in, say, opposing the DREAM Act, and at the same time trying to help undocumented kids in one’s church. No doubt there are cases of that: sometimes people don’t think things through. But how could one take the interests of a young undocumented immigrant into one’s own heart, and try to help, and at the same time wish upon him or her the catastrophe of deportation? If one does try to help undocumented immigrants privately– and I know case of this– it will quickly become obvious that migration restrictions make this much more difficult. You can provide money, you can pay this bill and that, you can give him a ride, but you can’t give him something he needs much more: the right to work. You could hire him yourself: then you’re directly breaking the law.

The argument that “it takes more sacrifice for a Christian to do a short-term missions project” than to support open borders is a very odd one. Yes, it does take more sacrifice. It’s also almost certainly less effective. I have to say that after working for three years in development, I’m a bit bemused by the idea of “short-term mission trips.” Do they really do any good? People with medical skills probably can be useful, but if you go to Honduras, say, to build houses… well, can’t the locals do that much more cheaply? Even Peace Corps volunteers, who spend two years and learn the language, have trouble finding ways to be useful, other than teaching English. Basically, Barnwell is saying, “If you have good intentions, why don’t you express them in a costlier and less effective way? That would demonstrate your good intentions more convincingly.” I suspect that in God’s eyes the main use of all these short-term mission trips is that by opening people’s eyes to the extent of world poverty, it will make a few converts to open borders. Again, the best way to help Mexican communities help their poorest members is to let them migrate to the United States, where they can earn more, and send more remittances home. Note also that one moment Barnwell is advocating “meeting people where they are” as against “faceless illegals,” the next he is telling us to direct our attention much further away, to villagers still living in Mexico. Charity begins at home, or not– he flips like a weathercock in order to find a way to separate the Christian duty of charity from the issue of undocumented immigration. Is Barnwell even writing in good faith here? The truth is plain: there is no need for any “internal debate,” but Christians ought both to stand ready to help particular individuals, and to engage in long-distance relief work where it can be effective, while also treating with the utmost generosity the undocumented immigrants in our midst.

In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says that He will one day say to the blessed, “I was a stranger and you took me in,” (Matthew 25:35) and grant them eternal life, and to the lost, “I was a stranger, and you did not take me in,” (Matthew 25:43) and send them into everlasting punishment. In the Gospel of Luke, He says “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous” (Luke 14:12-14). Can one read these verses and not see today’s rich countries, refusing to take in the stranger, inviting in their rich neighbors but not the poor? Again, consider the story of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31. The rich man spends all his days feasting, while Lazarus, a beggar afflicted with sores, sits neglected at his gate; in paradise their roles are reversed. Are developed countries not like the rich man, and poor immigrants– some of them at least– like Lazarus waiting at the gate? Recall, too, how Paul says “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). Surely Christians ought to say, today, that there is among us neither American nor Mexican, but all are one in Christ Jesus?

In the debate among Christians about slavery in the 19th century, abolitionists tended to apply the loftier ethics taught in the New Testament, love thy neighbor and the Golden Rule and “inasmuch as ye have done it unto the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto Me,” (Matthew 25:40), while apologists for slavery were more literalist, observing that Peter and Paul told slaves to obey their masters, and the patriarchs had slaves, and the Bible never seems to call for or envision a world without slavery. In the case of migration restrictions, too, the higher ethics of the New Testament clearly point towards open borders, but the difference is that the words of the Old Testament, too, quite literally and directly support welcoming the stranger in a fashion that there seems to be no sound warrant for interpreting otherwise than as a template for open borders. If this sounds shocking, remember that while open borders are a radical proposal in one sense, in another sense they are quite a conservative one, since open borders would represent a return to the 19th century. It’s quite right that, as Allan Wall complains, evangelical leaders are more pro-immigration than their congregations: presumably that reflects the fact that they have a stronger commitment to Christian teachings, have reflected more on their content, and feel a stronger obligation to adhere to them and teach them to others. Still, as in the times of slavery, Christians are for now far too timorous and compromising in seeking to realize the teachings of their faith. But I’ll stop before I go too far out on a limb.

Nathan Smith

Nathan Smith is an assistant professor of economics at Fresno Pacific University. He did his Ph.D. in economics from George Mason University and has also worked for the World Bank. Smith proposed Don’t Restrict Immigration, Tax It, one of the more comprehensive keyhole solution proposals to address concerns surrounding open borders.

See also:

Page about Nathan Smith on Open Borders
All blog posts by Nathan Smith

3 thoughts on “Migration and Christianity”

  1. Regarding Israelites charging foreigners interest: yes, it does seem to be nokriy (related to nekar) used in Deuteronomy 23:20.

    But regarding animals that died of natural causes, Deuteronomy 14:21 seems to use both ger and nokriy. I’m not certain, but I think ger is the one translated as foreigner in that verse in the NLT, and nokriy is the one translated as stranger: “You must not eat anything that has died a natural death. You may give it to a foreigner living in your town, or you may sell it to a stranger. But do not eat it yourselves, for you are set apart as holy to the Lord your God.” This strongly suggests that ger doesn’t always refer only to those foreigners who had agreed to (or were required to) follow exactly the same set of laws as the descendants of Jacob.

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