IMMIGRATION, CHILDREN, AND JESUS
Interpreting the Bible and rightly applying its precepts to modern life isn’t always as straightforward as we would like to imagine. Some revealed truth is a slam-dunk when navigating this world; for instance, shall I commit adultery? Shall I engage in sexually intimate conduct outside of my marriage? Nope. No way. The Bible, from start to finish, will have none of it. It’s unequivocally clear.
On the other hand, biblical guidance on the complex weave of American immigration policy (in the macro) and the separation of minor children from their parents at the border (in the micro), is less precise. The sacred text talks often of “foreigners” and migrants, and features many of them as leading exemplary figures on the stage (think Joseph, Mary, and Jesus here—and Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, too, to name a few).
But then, the world’s borders were not exact “lines in the sand” then as they are now, were they? People roamed about so much more routinely in biblical days, didn’t they? The biblical commands in both Testaments to honor strangers and foreigners, well, er uh, that was then and this is now. That whole Jesus-at-the-judgment thing where He says, “I was a stranger and you took me in” (Matthew 25:35) couldn’t possibly frame the modern political drama of today’s headlines, could it? It would be so impractical. You know, like tithing. Or, becoming the greatest by becoming the least. Or saving your life by losing it. When you think about it, the whole Holy Book is filled with great ideas that could not possibly be applied to real life. Well, except “thou shalt not steal” or “commit adultery” or “bear false witness.” These make sense. We get them. We see how those can work.
I do not intend to be flip here. I am simply acknowledging the challenge with which all of us wrestle, when we are honest, when staring down seemingly intractable problems in the public square, especially when framed by the white-hot emotion defining the political discourse of our time. It’s easier just to ignore the news, sometimes, and retreat to a more comfortable church dialogue about “discipleship,” “church growth,” or even “salvation.” These are the wheelhouses of legitimate ministry, are they not? The rest is just noise. The rest is none of the church’s business.
Well, not exactly. Because, as we study the Bible and presume to actually “follow” Jesus, His words stand out front, tall and daring. Even more, they are commanding. And, they always demand that we be countercultural, conformed by His take on things, not “conformed to this world.” He waved no flags save His own, and drew no lines in the sand; He only separated sheep from goats, not ethnicities, languages, cultures, colors, or nationalities. He never assigned labels to “the others” or negatively stereotyped nations or classes. His was a world divided by those who were in the Good Shepherd’s flock and those who were not. Categorizing those made in the image of God otherwise was not in His vocabulary. Living up to the words of Jesus should be the church’s only business.
We have no record of Jesus directly addressing immigration, of course. He has given us some compelling markers, though. How about this one: “Treat other people the way you would like to be treated” (Luke 6:31) and “Do to others whatever you would like them to do to you. This is the essence of all that is taught in the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 7:12). Now, we’re talking “discipleship.” And, maybe, public policy, too. In fact, if we really want to find a textbook for discipleship, the Sermon on the Mount (from which these ideas are drawn) is the seminal work: the Magna Carta of the kingdom.
Using these words of Jesus as the lens, our present confused and controversial immigration policy falls short (by all accounts, from every side of the aisle). Way short. No one is satisfied with the status quo. No one would want to be treated the way we treat those who knock on the American door. The rules are tedious and complex. Legal approaches to the United States are, for most, cumbersome, expensive, and prohibitive. Filing paperwork and waiting for answers can take years.
For instance, as I write, a Church of God pastor, called to serve a local congregation of the Church of God on the West Coast, is unable to gain permission to move here and assume his pastorate, because he was born with a different passport—even though his application has long ago been approved. He and his family—and the local church out West—have been in limbo for years. Not weeks. Not months. Years. He is fluent in four languages (English among them), brilliant, gifted, and a citizen of the same kingdom of God as are we. Today’s delay is due to a third American review of his “criminal history”—of which there is none. Impenetrable. Mysterious. A labyrinth. That can too often be the game when you legally knock on the door, even with a job (and gospel calling) waiting in the United States.
Alternatively, families fearful for their lives, desperate to find work, longing to advance the cause and promise of their children’s future, sometimes risk everything for the chance to “cross the border,” even if without permission. Yes, some will commit crimes (just like many American citizens do); but because a tiny percentage are “rapists” does not fairly describe large numbers of them—any more than Americans who are guilty of sexual assault should be the face of this country. I cannot imagine Jesus trafficking in—or approving silently–such prejudicial stereotyping.
All the evidence demonstrates that most who “cross over” the southern border are not destined for a life of crime, but of hard work, sacrifice, and devotion to family. Indeed, the conservative social and family values embraced by American evangelicals are more strongly present in this immigrant class than in many of our American-born neighbors. This is not to say Jesus would advocate “open borders” or “no borders.” It is to say that, as we grapple with the tough questions of regulating our borders and respectfully engaging those born in other countries, even when entry must be denied, we can all expect our government to treat immigrants as we would like to be treated.
The debate has been exacerbated in recent months by the much maligned (and in some places praised) “zero-tolerance” border regime launched this spring. The net effect of this enforcement approach (the law has not changed, it is subjectively just being enforced differently) has been the separation of thousands of minor children from their parents. As I write, there are over 11,000 undocumented immigrant children held in detention, over 3,000 separated from their parents since April. The government has so far been unable to conclusively differentiate which of these crossed the border unaccompanied and which were taken from their parents. Genetic testing is now required for some to facilitate reuniting children with their families; parents have been sent to jail, children have been sent to detention centers thousands of miles away. Adults who cross the border without permission (including those who, by American law, can legally apply for asylum once here) are now being criminally prosecuted and incarcerated, requiring their children to be sent elsewhere in government care. The government, as we have all seen, was not well-prepared to absorb the thousands of children necessarily thrown into its custody by the new “zero-tolerance” policy. Record-keeping, logistics, processing, and all the rest have overwhelmed the system. The public outcry and images of “children in cages” have inflamed much of the public, even as it has been applauded in some quarters.
It can be argued that the parents who have crossed the border without permission are to blame for their children’s trauma. The government has also argued that it has, by design, chosen to use the plight of children separated from their parents as a wedge to discourage other migrants tempted to seek a better life in the United States. Wherever we land in our political calculus here, can it be argued that Jesus would address border issues in this way? Can followers of Jesus embrace this remedy? If so, on what grounds?
The government has suggested that people of faith anxious about this new “zero-tolerance” approach should relax and read Romans 13:1, where the Apostle Paul reminds believers that “everyone must submit to governing authorities.” The passage continues (Romans 13:4), “The authorities are God’s servants, sent for your good.” It is interesting to see this text applied now by some who were not so inclined to quote it when Barack Obama or George W. Bush lived in the White House. All of us understand that there are times when voices must be raised to challenge public policy that confounds our deepest core values. Were it not so, George III would have remained King of the American colonies and slaves would still be owned as property in many states.
All Scripture must be read through the lens of Jesus first. He is the ultimate expositor; He authored the whole, after all. His unforgettable command, “Let the children come to Me. Don’t stop them! For the kingdom of heaven belongs to those who are like these children” (Matthew 19:14), was spoken to those who thought children were not that important, incidental to the larger, more pressing issues of the day. The Scripture then tells how He “placed His hands on their heads and blessed them before He left.” This must haunt anyone who watches the drama unfolding with these little migrant children now, consequent to a sudden and elective change in enforcement policy, especially when the Bible is parsed to defend it.
What to do? Pray. Pray for those kids. Pray for those in uniform who must execute policies handed down from above. And, pray for those who are above and make the policies. Prayer matters.
Call or write the President and the Congress. It has been said that a Congressman or Congresswoman is moved to action when seven constituents make contact on any single issue. Your voice does matter. Speak, for Jesus’ sake.
Let us demand that the circus be stopped, that the border challenges be resolved, and that the American government be always committed to keeping families together on principle, no matter what the political questions. Surely, there are other ways to effect change. Surely, the government of the United States can do better than this. We can do better. We must be better.
At last, we must resist all negative stereotyping of “the others,” “the foreigners,” “them,” of people not like us; no political fray can excuse prejudice. I want to be respected and not categorized before I have had the chance to be proved true, without regard to my birthplace or color; I suspect you would like the same. As followers of Jesus, we must treat others the way we would like to be treated.
I know, I know. If we carry this Jesus thing too far, all kinds of public policy could be challenged. What about just war theory? What about social welfare conundrums? What about tax policy? And what about all the rest? Like I said at the beginning of this piece, it’s not always easy to apply the Scriptures to every question, rightly dividing the Word of Truth.
But, in this case, in the case of young children in the arms of loving parents, whatever we think of their decision to enter the country, it seems like treating others the way we would like to be treated and blessing those children would lead us to a different outcome than “zero-tolerance” has provided.
Now, some footnotes; some additional context:
First: American immigration law has historically been racially-based and prejudiced. The Chinese Exclusion Act (1882) was the first federal law to restrict immigration of a specific group based on nationality; it legally defined Chinese immigrants as “aliens ineligible for citizenship.” Its draconian prejudice would not be repealed until the 1940s. Indeed, over the years, most federal immigration laws were drafted to restrict immigration from almost anywhere in the world except Northern and Western Europe and Canada. Southern Europeans in general (and Catholics in particular) were targets, too, as was anyone who was “non-white.” This was cemented comprehensively with the Immigration Act of 1924 (which included the National Origins Act and the Asian Exclusion Act), which remained largely in place until new post World War II realities and the American civil rights movement prompted some reform. The 1924 law reinforced existing bans on the immigration of “non-white” persons and sought to further restrict the coming to this country of people born in Roman Catholic majority countries, Eastern Europeans, Arabs, and Jews. Asians were then especially feared (“the yellow peril”) and forbidden from further entry; Indians (from the subcontinent) were subsequently deemed in court cases to be “non-white” and, therefore, also severely restricted. Interestingly, immigration from sub-Saharan Africa was exempted from the “non-white” ban.
Second: In 1965, new legislation sought to shed much of the ethnic and racial prejudice of immigration law, while at the same time emphasizing opportunity for those with skill sets and expertise thought to enhance the American economy, without regard to origin. At the last minute, in the Congress, the bill was amended to make family connections with those already born in the United States the overriding consideration when processing applicants for legal entry. This was then thought to protect the existing racial composition of the country; in effect, however, it opened the doors for a much more diverse population, as few Northern Europeans sought to immigrate in the wake of post-World War II economic prosperity in Europe and a surge of many in the developing world (with family in the States) hoping to find new life in the new world.
Third: Immigration from Latin America was not essentially regulated until the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. This was the last piece of comprehensive immigration legislation to pass the Congress and be signed by the President. In the last three decades, the world around us has experienced exponential change, once more, requiring a review of how we address border security, immigration, its social and economic consequences, and the values we say we hold most dear. This is hard work and requires inspired leadership, grounded in transcendent truth, that can help all of us understand the whole picture and reach for best—and righteous—outcomes. “From those to whom much has been given, much will be required…” (Luke 12:48). Oh, there’s that Jesus talkin’ again.
Fourth: There are an 11,000,000 undocumented residents in the United States. By the letter of the law, they should all be deported. No attempt has been made to do so; logistically it is not possible; the government must always make hard decisions about what can be done and what should be done, given the hard realities on the ground. Of course, over 25 percent of farm labor alone is in this category: undocumented. Even if deportation was possible, everyone knows that our economy could not sustain such a loss; your supermarket certainly could not. And in a season of statistically defined “full employment,” the loss of so many helping hands would be very disruptive, for everyone. The White House makes decisions all the time about what laws it will enforce rigorously and which ones it will not. That is the nature of government. No law (or its enforcement) has mandated the seizing of children at the border and separation from their parents.
At the last, I know some will not be persuaded by the angles of this piece. No problem. But, all of us in the household of faith must speak about and engage issues like these, if the kingdom work of holiness and redemption is to be pursued. Personal holiness will inevitably birth social holiness. We cannot walk in this world in the Spirit and not influence, like salt and light, the world around us. Thank you for reading, wrestling, praying, and loving with us—loving when we thoughtfully disagree.