Tag Archives: Bill Barnwell

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? Continue reading “Migration and Christianity” »