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What the Bible Says about the Current Immigration Crisis

Categories Biblical Studies Theology Ethics

How does the Bible speak to the current immigration crisis? Earlier this week we sat down with Scott Rae, Professor of Ethics at Talbot School of Theology, to discuss how the Bible might shape our discussion of immigration, along with some practical things Christians can do in response.

In this video, Scott discusses:

  • What Romans 13 says—and doesn’t say—about the current immigration debate
  • How to respond when immigration law calls for forcible separation of children from their parents
  • The difference between immigrants and refugees
  • Israel’s identity as a nation of people on the move
  • Why it’s difficult to use the Bible as a foundation for shaping immigration policy
  • How the modern concept of national and ethnic identity conflicts with the Bible
  • The meaning of the Hebrew words translated into English as “immigrant”
  • Does supporting the left’s policy on immigration also mean supporting the left’s view of sanctity of life, marriage, and other issues?
  • How to balance the command to submit to government authority with the need to be in service to the most vulnerable people
  • 3 practical things Christians can do in response to the current crisis

What follows has been lightly edited for clarity.

What Romans 13 says—and doesn’t say—about the current immigration debate

For many people in the immigration debate, it starts and ends with the citation from Romans 13, which says in verses 1 and 2, "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 upon themselves."

That's pretty strong medicine, suggesting that the law of the land is actually instituted by God and must be obeyed.

And that is often invoked in the immigration debate, usually by those who favor more closed-off borders and tighter immigration restrictions. It's often used as a discussion-stopper, or as a trump card in the debate.

I've often heard people say, "What part of ‘illegal immigration’ don't you understand? Don't you know that we've got to obey the law?"

In general, that's true. But the Bible also makes allowance for the fact that there is such a thing as an unjust law. We are not mandated to obey an unjust law.

For example, if the law required Christian physicians to perform abortions, the Christian doctors would not be obligated to follow the law of the land.

I was being considered for jury service, and the judge asked me, he said, "You work at a religious college," and I said, "Yes," and he said, "Do you think you can follow the law?" I said, "Of course. What are you talking about?" What he wanted to know was, Do you believe that there's a law of God that's higher than the law of the land?

Once I got the point of the question, I said, "Well, Your Honor, actually, I do believe that there's a higher law than the law of the land. I don't think they'll conflict here, but I do believe that there are times when we must obey God rather than men," referring to human law.

So I would argue that Romans 13 is a starting point in the discussion, not the ending point. I think we have competing obligations. We do have an obligation to obey the law, but we also have an obligation to be compassionate and care for the most vulnerable among us, which clearly include some immigrants and most refugees.

Immigration policy is one thing. Our obligation to care for immigrants and refugees may be something a little bit different.

How to respond when immigration law calls for forcible separation of children from their parents

One of the trickiest parts of the current immigration discussion is what to do when immigration law forcibly separates children from their parents.

This is really a hard scenario, because under most circumstances, unless the parents are unfit, the law does not permit forcible separation of children from parents. In fact, it protects the sacredness of the family unit.

I think there are times when families who are trying to get into the country illegally will often try and leverage that knowledge that we don't like to separate families and children to their advantage.

That being said, I think as a general rule, any immigration policy that we come up with ought not, as a matter of policy, allow the forcible separation of children from parents. Any scenario that wantonly and deliberately creates orphans among already vulnerable children, I think is very problematic morally, and is something that we ought to do our best to fix legally.

And it may be that, if that means admitting that some people have played the system, then that, in my view, would be an acceptable cost in order to make sure that children and families are separated only under the most rare conditions that involve the unfitness of the parents to care for the children.

It seems to me that the sacredness of the family unit is one of those Biblical principles that ought to govern our immigration policy.

The difference between immigrants and refugees

Immigrants and refugees are actually two slightly different categories of people on the move.

Though there's some overlap between the two, immigrants generally are those who have chosen to leave their country in order to pursue a better life for themselves and their family in another country.

Refugees are, generally speaking, those who are forced to leave their country to resettle somewhere else, usually as a result of some sort of religious or political or government-instituted persecution.

The law treats them slightly differently. For example, the law tends to make allowance for immigrants who come bringing particular skills or job talents to a country. Refugees have a little bit different status, basically because of their desperation. Refugees are eligible for asylum, which is a protected status due to their experience of persecution in the part of the world where they came from.

Israel’s identity as a nation of people on the move

For a significant part of their history, Israel as the people of God were people on the move.

Even though they were settled in the land of Israel for hundreds of years, for a good bit of their history on either side of that, they were on the move. For example, during the Patriarchal era, the extended family of Abraham were essentially desert nomads, going from place to place in order to seek the best place for their flocks and herds to flourish.

The Exodus, I think, was probably the example of Israel attaining refugee status. They came to Egypt based on famine, multiplied to a point where they became a threat, enforced slavery instituted, then they were expelled forcibly from the land.

And from the time of the Exodus until they entered the Promised Land, I think it's fair to say that they had refugee status. They were the poor wanderer that the book of Isaiah describes.

And then they settle for a while in the land, but even after that, they're on the move again when they are forcibly taken into exile, and then the Northern Kingdom of Israel was forcibly scattered throughout the Assyrian Empire.

For probably half their history, they were people on the move, to varying degrees.

That immigrant experience deeply impacted the nation of Israel. They are told throughout the Old Testament law to continually remember their immigrant experience. It deeply mark them. For example, in Leviticus 19, one of the places in the Law that directly addresses this, beginning in verse 33: "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."

And there are several other texts that bring out that parallel between how Israel was abused as an immigrant, and yet how they are to treat immigrants among them in a way that upholds their dignity, and with compassion.

Why it’s difficult to use the Bible as a foundation for shaping immigration policy

One of the tricky parts in applying Biblical teaching to any issue of public policy, not to mention immigration, which is really complicated, has to do with taking into account some of the differences between the context in which the Biblical text was written and the context in which we are attempting to apply it today.

When it comes to immigration, borders were actually somewhat different in Old Testament times than they are today. They weren't nearly as rigid as they are today, they were more natural boundaries than they are today, they were somewhat less arbitrary than they are today. The concept of a nation state was different.

In Old Testament times, there were empires, and then there were clans and extended families, who were ethnically the same, but the idea of a nation-state was somewhat foreign to the Old Testament world that Israel found itself in.

Now, Israel became a nation with a constitution, sort of, in the Mosaic Law, but that developed over time.

Israel started out as just a collection of extended families, and many of the "nations" that surrounded them were these large extended families that were ethnically the same.

So the world, I think, is quite different, and there was quite a bit more movement between these borders than there are among borders and nation-states today, and there were not the kinds of things like papers and identification and passports and things like that in Old Testament Israel.

In Old Testament Israel, there were not well-defined welfare states, where you could go and actually have a government make provision for you because you were in need. Now, to be fair, Old Testament Israel did have some mechanisms in place to enable the poor, immigrants and refugees included, to help gain at least a subsistence level of food and some shelter. But the idea that there was a very generous welfare state and somewhat open borders today, like there are throughout the United States and many countries in Western Europe, that idea was relatively foreign in the ancient world.

Now, when the Bible speaks to these issues, the Bible rarely speaks to public policy issues with details and nuance and specifics about how the policy should be worked out.

Rather, it tends to speak to public policy issues at the level of broad, general principles about which there can be, I think, legitimate debate and discussion about the best way in which to apply those.

You also have to recognize that in the realm of public policy, you may end up with goals that are not always compatible, and so choices have to be made and priorities have to be set.

How the modern concept of national and ethnic identity conflicts with the Bible

One of the most complicated things in the immigration debate is the concept of someone's national identity, because in many cases, someone's ethnic identity is more foundational and may actually chronologically precede someone's national identity.

Take the Kurds, for example. Their identity is as Kurds, but they live in Turkey, Iraq, separated between those two countries, and the border between Turkey and Iraq was somewhat arbitrary when it was drawn back after World War I.

The reason this matters is because some argue that an influx of immigrants and refugees actually has the potential to dilute the particular national identity of the country that they're coming into.

For a place like the United States, which was built more on ideas rather than race or ethnicity or any genetic factors, the question of national identity is, "Which national identity?"

And how do different ethnicities come in, necessarily dilute a national identity that's fundamentally based on a set of ideas, rather than a set of ethnicities?

In a place like California, where I live, probably in the next five years, Caucasians will become a majority minority, which means we'll be less than 50%, still the majority culture, but for the first time, less than 50% of the population.

It raises an interesting question: At what point does the identity of California become diluted, and compared to what? California's always been a bit more of a melting pot, I think, ethnically than most states in the United States.

How does the Bible speak to that?

I think fundamentally, the Bible subordinates national identity, and even ethnic identity, to ultimately our identity as the people of God and who we are in Christ.

This, I think, is relevant not only to immigration, but to other issues that have to do with ethnic identity formation, because culturally, oftentimes, the things that are emphasized are the things that divide us, rather than the things that we have in common and could potentially unite us.

In the Scripture, it's just the opposite of that. The Scripture far more emphasizes the things that unite us and the things that bring us together, as opposed to the things that divide is.

In fact, the enduring testimony of the reality of the gospel is how the things that unite us are able to overcome the various things that divide us, and show evidence of the unity of the Body of Christ.

The meaning of the Hebrew words translated into English as “immigrant”

The Old Testament has two distinct words to describe people on the move, the ger, who was the sojourner, the one who's more at home, and the nokri, who is the stranger, one who's much less at home in the land of Israel.

Regardless of what conclusions we draw about those lexical distinctions, it seems to me that the mandate to care for the vulnerable, to have compassion on those who are in your midst, still remains the same.

Now, I think that distinction has a lot of relevance to what immigration policy should be, but I'm not sure it is as relevant for how we treat the immigrants and refugees who are among us. If the nokri is actually someone who is potentially dangerous, then I think that obviously affects immigration policy. It also, I think, affects the caution with which you take that person into your life and family.

But in general, I think, for both the ger or the nokri, the people of God were not allowed to mistreat, oppress, or treat either group in ways that would be a violation of their dignity.

So it seems to me, immigration policy's one thing, but our obligation to treat well the people who are in our midst, whether they're here legally or not, still remains.

Just because the Bible proclaims that we are to take care of immigrants in the same way we're to take care of our native-born, nothing necessarily follows about how open our borders ought to be, what the procedure ought to be for immigration in terms of how long you wait in line.

There are all sorts of public policy questions that have to be argued separately than the moral dimension that said you treat immigrants the same way you treat the native-born.

Does supporting the left’s policy on immigration also mean supporting the left’s view of sanctity of life, marriage, and other issues?

How to proceed in the discussions on immigration, particularly in our fractured political culture today, is really a challenge.

So, let me suggest a way of viewing political party platforms from the perspective of Scripture.

It seems like in our increasingly divisive political culture, you're either all on one side or all on the other, and very little nuancing in between, which means if you like one side's view on the sanctity of life and the sanctity of marriage, but you sort of have to hold your nose with some other policies that maybe relate to the death penalty or immigration or race, but then, on the other side, you might love what they're doing for the poor, but you have to hold your nose at their denial of the sanctity of life.

No political party's platform is going to be ideologically pure, and there's a good reason for that, and that's because no political party platform was written with the intention and the goal of being faithful to Scripture, unless you take the theonomists from years ago, but there are hardly any of them around anymore.

Every party platform is going to be flawed.

There are going to be things that you don't agree with from the perspective of Biblical fidelity. So I love the fact that part of one platform upholds the sanctity of life and upholds the sanctity of marriage, but I love the fact that on the other side, there's genuine care and compassion for the poor in ways that are really tangible, and that there seems to be much more of a concern and commitment to doing right by immigrants and refugees.

I wouldn't expect any political platform to be the last word on any of these subjects, and I think you have to evaluate issue by issue. What is it that the Bible demands of me morally? And then, on what basis am I making an argument for some sort of public policy?

And anything that's public policy oriented has to have an argument that appeals to people for whom Biblical authority doesn't count for much, which is the majority of our culture today, and so it has to be done in a way that I think can create a compelling argument for a position, even for folks who don't have any appreciation for chapter and verse in Scripture.

How to balance the command to submit to government authority with the need to be in service to the most vulnerable people

Let’s say I'm pastoring a church in an immigrant community, and I face every week the tension between my moral and Biblical obligation to care for the most vulnerable among us, and the obligation to obey current immigration law.

What exactly does that mean for me as a pastor? Does it mean that in the state of California, that I decide that my church is going to become a sanctuary church in open defiance of federal law?

I'd say probably not on that, although I think it is entirely within the church's moral obligation and opportunity to care for and to provide for desperate immigrants and refugees for their immediate needs.

Am I obligated to participate with immigration enforcement officials?

Again, I think the answer to that is probably not, because the work of immigration enforcement, in my view, should be left to immigration enforcement professionals who are trained to do that.

Should I be hiring people to work around my church who are undocumented, who are in the country illegally?

That one, my guess is we probably have room to agree to disagree on that. The law maintains that we use all the verification techniques that we have in order to verify someone's employability, and so my inclination would be to employ only those people who are actually legally employable, but at the same time, not turn my back on immigrants who have genuine needs.

I'll give you an example from my own church. For some time, my church has had a ministry in one of the toughest areas, Hispanic areas of a city close to our community, has a lot of immigrants who are in the country illegally. We've essentially purchased a city block in one of these really tough neighborhoods, and we've started after-school programs, we've started literacy training, we've started job training for parents, we have pro bono legal and medical clinics. We even went to the city council of this city after we found that some of the people who were supposed to be providing services and helping immigrants were actually taking advantage of them, and we asked the law to crack down on them. And I think all of that, I think was consistent with our obligation to obey immigration law.

Now, we realized that we bumped up against an inconsistency in the law at the time, because the immigrants that we were working with, they were doing everything right, following the law, they were going to school, to which they were entitled to, they were taking advantage of all the benefits that they were entitled to, but when they graduated from college and it came time to find jobs, they weren't allowed to work.

And we said, "There's something broken about a system that's working like that," and so we've begun to advocate for specific types of immigration reform that, in our view, are governed by our commitment to Biblical principles, but not dependent upon those principles alone.

They're making a different set of arguments to justify a change in immigration enforcement.

3 practical things Christians can do in response to the current immigration crisis

Maybe the toughest question of all in this immigration discussion is "What can I do? I'm reading the Scripture, I'm seeing God's heart for the victimized and the marginalized. What are some tangible things that I can do?"

First, be informed about the issues related to immigration, be informed about the public policy discussion, and be informed by getting to know some people in these immigrant communities.

Take advantage of some opportunities to serve in some immigrant communities. Work through your church or through other nonprofits to have opportunities to serve, and actually get to know some people who are in these communities. That'd be a first step.

Second, once you begin to formulate your thinking about what immigration policy should be, it's entirely appropriate to advocate for what you think ought to be done, to write your congressperson, write your state assembly or state senator, or write your county commissioner, or whatever local government level you think is appropriate.

Third, pray. Pray that we have an immigration policy that actually works, and that will be fair to those who have waited in line and followed immigration law, but also not close the door to people who are increasingly desperate when they're coming into our country.


Scott Rae is Professor of Ethics at Talbot School of Theology and author of numerous books on Christian ethics, including Moral Choices: An Introduction to Ethics. He is also instructor for the Moral Choices Christian ethics online course.

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