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Why don’t Christians care more about open borders?

We’ve blogged a fair bit in the past about how Christianity demands open borders. It doesn’t get more simple than “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28) Co-blogger Nathan Smith has time and again (and again) taken to task restrictionists who co-opt the Bible in a hamhanded attempt to claim border restrictions and all the inhumanity they entail are ordained by God himself. Co-blogger Paul Crider has pointed out that if Christians take the Bible seriously, they need to speak out strongly against the evil of arbitrary border restrictions. Given all this, it seems to me that more than anything, the church today should be one of the strongest advocates for open borders. Yet, some of the Pope’s recent calls for greater humanitarian aid for migrants aside, migration seems to be hardly on the Christian agenda, if it is on there at all. Churches may pay migration lip service, but it seems like Christian institutions in general are far more concerned about homosexuality and contraception than they are about open borders. This is puzzling, when surely Christian doctrine must militate just as strongly for open borders as it does for almost any other social issue the church is focused on today.

I’ve read Nathan’s and Paul’s arguments before, and found them convincing, but I had forgotten about them until recently, when Evan blogged about Orson Scott Card’s views on immigration. Evan linked to a piece by Card reflecting on how Republicans in 2012 tarred and feathered Rick Perry for his defence of guaranteeing equal university subsidies to Texan residents regardless of immigration status. Evan didn’t focus on this, but one interesting part of Card’s piece was how vehemently he insisted that liberal immigration policies are clearly mandated by the Bible:

I think it’s worth pointing out, when we’re discussing how to treat the children of non-citizens in America, what the Lord said to the people of Israel as they were dividing the land near the temple site among the tribes:

“So shall ye divide this land unto you according to the tribes of Israel.

“And it shall come to pass, that ye shall divide it by lot for an inheritance unto you, and to the strangers that sojourn among you, which shall beget children among you: and they shall be unto you as born in the country among the children of Israel; they shall have inheritance with you among the tribes of Israel.

“And it shall come to pass, that in what tribe the stranger sojourneth, there shall ye give him his inheritance, saith the Lord God” (Ezekiel 47:21-23).

Now, this seems a clear principle to me, that God tells his people to share their inheritance with the children of strangers who dwell among them.

I’m quite aware that those of you who, as Perry said, have no heart, probably are already composing elaborate explanations of why God really means the opposite of the plain language of the scripture.

This prompted me to reread Nathan’s and Paul’s posts, especially the ones that explicitly rebut ostensibly Biblical restrictionist arguments. It amazed me just how spot on Card was when he pointed out that the Bible does not mince its words — and that you have to really twist the Bible to come up with any meaningful defence of the status quo, where we treat people who cross borders in search of a better life as if they are violent enemies of the state.

The other thing that came to my mind was how this might stack up against what the Bible has to say about other forms of inequality that our societies promote, either via social norms or by direct government action. The Bible says there is no Greek nor Jew, no slave nor free, no male nor female — yet for centuries, it was thought that the Bible is completely okay with enslaving people or treating women as inferior. Given how apathetic or antipathic most Christians seem to be about open borders, it seems fair to say even today, people think the Bible is completely fine with treating someone as an enemy before knowing anything about him other than his nationality — despite what Galatians says.

Galatians is not the last word, even if it sums up universal moral rights succinctly. Other Bible verses clearly come to bear on questions of equity and equality. A few months ago, I was browsing around the blog of Rachel Held Evans, a notable Christian blogger, and found her take on the Biblicalness (or lack of it) of slavery abolition:

…the fact of the matter is, the pro-slavery side had more going for it in the way of proof texts. Slavery apologists could cite passages like Genesis 17:2, Deuteronomy 20:10-11, 1 Corinthians 7:21, Ephesians 6:1-5, Colossians 3:18-25; 4:1, and I Timothy 6:1-2 to support their case. They pointed out that slavery was practiced by the people of Israel and regulated by God, and that Jesus never said a word against slaveholding. Even the apostle Paul instructs an escaped slave, Onesimus, to return to his master, they observed. Notably, many of the texts in question are the exact same texts—the Household Codes of Ephesians, Colossians, and 1 Peter—that are used today to support gender hierarchy in the home.

Many Bible-believing Christians, including those who were uncomfortable with slavery, just weren’t buying the abolitionist argument that placed the “spirit of the law” over the “letter of the law.” As Connecticut Congregationalist Leonard Bacon put it: “The evidence that there were both slaves and masters of slaves in churches founded and directed by the apostles, cannot be got rid of without resorting to methods of interpretation that will get rid of everything.”

I see Bacon’s dilemma, don’t you? Frankly, I’m glad I wasn’t trying to make a biblical case for abolition in the 19th century. I’m not sure I could have…or would have. Which is kind of sobering, right?

I have to agree: it’s incredibly sobering just how blatantly a by-the-letter-of-the-law reading of the Bible can lead one to blindly support the slavery or subordination of our fellow human beings. But what strikes me is how, in all the discussion I’ve seen of what the Bible has to say about immigration, we open borders advocates simply do not face the same conundrums that Christian abolitionists or Christian feminists once faced: the plain text of the Bible demands a large measure of equality irrespective of nationality.

Let’s go back to Card. His blustering condemnations of homosexuality make it surprising that he with such similar fervour demands open borders and liberal treatment of foreigners. But both of these make sense when you consider that all he is doing is applying the plain literal text of what he believes to be God’s word.

Now, as Christians, Card and I may disagree quite strongly about what God has to say about how we should treat our homosexual brothers and sisters. Here, I would have to follow the well-worn track of the Christian abolitionists and feminists who’ve come before us, and focus on the spirit of Christianity as revealed in the Bible, and summarised so well in Galatians: all human beings are created equal in dignity by God, and whatever you as a fellow human think of our sins or shortcomings, it is not your place to judge us, and it is not your place to punish or subordinate others for their sins or shortcomings. A system of justice is necessary, no doubt — but the Christian tradition is to render to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and render to God what is God’s. The judicial system should not enforce our personal judgments of others. However we might feel about blacks, women, gays, or foreigners, or what we might think the Bible says of them, it is not our place to force Caesar to enforce God’s judgment on others.

But I don’t need to take this tack with immigration restrictionists. All I need to do is to follow Card’s approach towards homosexuality, and quote the plain words of the Bible at those who want to oppress immigrants in the name of God. When God made the laws of Israel in Leviticus 19, he said: “Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly.” (Lv 19:15) He said: “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.” (Lv 19:34-35) Now, to be fair, in this same chapter, God also makes the law: “Do not cut the hair at the sides of your head or clip off the edges of your beard.” (Lv 19:27) I’m guessing on this basis, you could well argue that the entirety of Leviticus should just be discarded. But the fact remains: if we are to blindly follow the letter of God’s instructions to us, we must abolish discrimination against foreigners in our governments’ policies.

You can certainly find verses in the Bible that might suggest some discrimination against foreigners is Biblical. But you cannot find any verses which contradict the basic principle, which is made clear in Leviticus, Ezekiel, and Galatians: do not mistreat immigrants, but love them as you love yourself. Treat their children the same way you would treat your children. All of us are human beings equal in fundamental rights and dignity. As Nathan’s said before,

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.

Why then do Christians not heed the word of God and speak out against the grave injustices our governments and societies wreak upon innocent immigrants every day? Why do we not demand justice for the foreigner who wants to work in our country and contribute to our society? The restrictionist is quick to say that God has ordained international borders and we cannot contradict him — fair enough, but we don’t need to abolish borders, we just need to open them. The best defence I can see for the Christian restrictionist, ironically, is that Christians should not be trying to impose our values on the secular political system: render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and render unto God what is God’s.

This template for political disengagement might make sense, but I simply don’t see how most intellectually honest Christians can buy it. I think it’s fair to say most, or at least a lot of Christians want to do what is morally right by God. If we see harm being done, harm that goes against the moral principles laid down by our religion, it’s our obligation to do something about that harm. One thing we can do is, while avoiding confronting the actors behind these evils, help the victims of these harms. Churches can offer sanctuary and aid to immigrants who are being hunted by the state. And you can certainly make the argument that the church ought to do more. As Nathan’s observed before, Christians in democracies are sovereign citizens who have a say in making policy. There is nothing stopping Christians from vocally supporting and voting for leaders who would support an end to the global war on immigrants.

This is a different kettle of fish from using Christian morality as a basis to harm or oppress others. You can be a Christian who wants to use the power of the state to punish non-Christians, or to use the power of the state to punish people who sin by Christian standards. But you can also be a Christian who rejects Christian morality as a basis for harming or punishing others, while still embracing Christian morality as a basis for using the state to prevent people from coming to harm. I think there is a clear difference between these two types of Christians, and their respective kinds of political activism.

Immigration restrictions are a clear form of harm and oppression. They harm and oppress anywhere from “just” hundreds of millions to literally billions of people. And they do this in a very clear and unBiblical manner: by mistreating foreigners as if they are scum, rather than loving foreigners like we love ourselves. We do not need to demand that our governments provide equal measures of “social justice” or socioeconomic guarantees to all; Nathan himself has argued before that a modest amount of citizenism is still totally compatible with open borders and the fundamental principle of guaranteeing equal protection of the law to all, as Leviticus 19:15 instructs us. All we need to do is to demand the same basic rights for immigrants that we expect to be accorded ourselves: the right to live with, and take care of our own families. The right to work for an employer who offers us wages we are willing to accept.

The Bible does not waver on the point that we must love all humans as we love ourselves, irrespective of nationality. You might argue it’s infeasible to treat all humans as we treat our fellow citizens. But it’s impossible to treat all humans equally; that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive towards it. It’s easy to dismiss an idea as impractical without deep consideration. Unfortunately, I worry that this exact sort of dismissal is why Christians don’t give open borders the attention or consideration it so clearly demands. Rachel Held Evans concluded her discussion of abolitionism by noting a passage from the abolitionist tract Uncle Tom’s Cabin:

Noll points to a great scene from Uncle Tom’s Cabin in which Mary Bird tries to make the case for taking in runaway slaves based on Christ’s teachings in Matthew 25. John Bird’s response to his wife’s perspective made me laugh out loud: “But, Mary, just listen to me. Your feelings are all quite right, dear, and interesting, and I love you for them; but, then, dear, we mustn’t suffer our feelings to run away without our judgment.”

I underlined that bit and wrote in the margins of my book, “sounds familiar!”

I worry that this is why the church does not take open borders more seriously. The governments of the world spend billions of dollars a year to point guns at unarmed civilians seeking a better life — civilians who the Bible has commanded us to love as if they are ourselves. If we take the Bible seriously at all, we have to heed both its letter and its spirit. If Christians are going to say they can’t follow through on what the Bible commands because it’s just far too impractical for us imperfect human beings to manage, they need to be sure they truly have a watertight case for that claim. As far as I can tell from the empirics, there is no such watertight case. Regardless of where one stands on social issues like homosexuality or contraception, it seems to me impossible to deny that the global war on migrants is a war on the family, a war on human life and human dignity. It is a mystery to me why the church as an institution and Christians as individuals appear so nonchalant and blasé about the evils of closed borders.

The painting featured in the header of this post depicts a scene from the Bible’s Book of Ruth. Ruth was a Moabite who married an Israeli immigrant to Moab, and later herself immigrated to Israel after being widowed.

John Lee is an administrator of the Open Borders website. Liberal immigration laws are a personal passion for him. See all blog posts by John.

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5 thoughts on “Why don’t Christians care more about open borders?”

  1. Excellent post. I wish you’d followed the implications of your reasoning one step further though.

    Is it really a mystery as to why Christians are nonchalant about the evils of closed borders? Isn’t the simplest explanation that the church as an institution and Christians as individuals actually do not take the Bible seriously, at all? In this very post you couldn’t resist poking a little fun at Leviticus. Do you even take the Bible seriously? Does anyone?

  2. In studying the ways in which Christianity has influenced human history, you tend to face the choice of whether to point out that the glass is 90% empty or 10% full. You can ask why it took centuries before slavery mostly disappeared from Christendom in the Middle Ages, though it persisted at the fringes; and why people who were at least nominally Christian then continued practicing it on the margins of European civilization, where it made a horrible comeback during the imperialist expansion of early modern times. Or, you can be inspired by the fact that Christendom did, after all, abolish slavery, not only in the sense that slavery was abolished, basically for the first time in the history of the world– slavery had been pretty universal among cultures rich enough to afford it, until Christianity changed that– in Christian countries, but that it was first the early medieval Church and then a predominantly religious abolitionist movement that pioneered a model of civilized society without slavery. You can ask why Christians, professing a belief in “turn the other cheek” and other seemingly pacifist teachings of Jesus, have kept fighting not only against non-Christians but often against each other, no matter how many centuries elapse. Or you can observe that Christian monasticism emerged as something like the world’s first non-coercive society, and that Christian societies have often managed to achieve a thing rare in history: free and independent polities living alongside one another peacefully.

    In the case of open borders, it is fair to blame Christians for following a common pattern in falling far short of the lofty, one might almost say quixotic, moral ideals that emerge from the Bible, but the Christian churches as institutions, as well as devout people in the pews, do seem to be somewhat more favorable to immigration than the median voter. Catholic bishops, in particular, have routinely staked out positions well to the “left” of the mainstream on immigration, even if they don’t go as far as to demand open borders. It may be a matter of time, too. At various times in history, the Christian churches acquiesced in slavery for generations, with piety sometimes being a force to ameliorate slavery rather than abolish it, but they did overcome it in the end. Remember that (a) Christian churches don’t have absolute power to command their members, and (b) their primary concern is the salvation of souls, not the establishment of earthly justice. For every devout Christian who is resolved to obey church teachings and hierarchs to the utmost of his ability, there are ten half-hearted, worldly Christians (“Christians?”) who come to church intermittently and live in sin in all sorts of ways, and who want the church for its community and charm and to socialize their children, but who don’t want their way of life interrupted. Churches have to strike a careful balance to draw these people in without driving them away. Churches don’t want to provoke schisms, and priests and pastors are aware of the limitations of their expertise when it comes to matters of law, economics, and public policy. Indeed, some of them may hardly be aware of the nature of the world apartheid regime we live in.

    In spite of all the delays, difficulties, and doubts, I think the open borders can count Christianity among its allies.

    1. It seems to me, that the argument is less about ‘open borders” as it is about an ‘open welfare state”. Since the welfare state has become entrenched in Europe and now the US, the ‘fight” is about how many poor and welfare dependent people each ‘rich” country can absorb. When the US was growing during the 1800s, the demand for labor was almost unlimited and the need for more people was obvious. There was no welfare state. All were welcome, So, it seems to me that the enemy of open borders is the welfare state, not the attitudes of the American people. “Give me your tired, your poor,
      Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…” NOT, open our borders to more and more welfare recipients…

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