Book Review: Christianity and the Law of Migration edited by Allard, Silas W., Kristin E. Heyer, and Raj Nadella

[1] Christianity and the Law of Migration comes at an opportune time. This volume of essays brings law and legal principles into conversation with Christian Scriptural, ethical, and theological concepts on the topic of global migration. The work represents an important intervention into scholarly, humanitarian, and policy discussions at a time when millions of people are on the move.  While migrants search for safety and survival, many countries need new immigrants for their communities’ well-being. Unfortunately, the legal structures that govern migration are ill-equipped for the reality of the situation; they fail to promote the good or even recognize the human dignity of many people worldwide.

[2] This review will discuss five aspects of the book: its title, audience, format, content, and a few responses and critiques.

[3] First, the title. As Allard says in his introduction, the volume arose out of a series of dialogues, beginning with a workshop of 7 legal scholars and 6 theologians. The editors made an early choice to facilitate interdisciplinary dialogue between legal scholars and Christian theologians (including Biblical scholars). The work represents an enormous undertaking. Its theological contributions come only from the Christian tradition, although a similar project with a multi-religious group of scholars would be a worthy future goal.

[4] “The law of migration” here is primarily understood as the body of laws that structure and limit migration. The authors are certainly aware of other aspects of law – for example, human rights law that mandates a minimum standard of dignified treatment for migrants. In this work, “law” is a “central site of challenge, reflection, and critique” (4). Law orders human life and thought in sometimes-useful ways, but contemporary law of migration is viewed as the source of more harm than good (a perspective with which this reviewer tends to agree). Most authors in the volume write from a U.S. context. Certain chapters do examine aspects of migration in Europe and Asia, but the majority of the case studies in the text are from the United States, and the majority of legal discussions address U.S. law.

[5] Audience: this is a scholarly work. It is likely mostly to be read by fellow scholars in the theological and legal fields, and possibly by clergy, legal practitioners, and policy advocates. It is lengthy, with 348 pages of text/notes and 18 chapters, as well as a foreword entitled “Displacement and Trauma” crafted beautifully by theological ethicist Emilie M. Townes. The authors’ writing is overall clear and engaging, but the mix of legal discussion, policy and activist concerns, and theological concepts may at times be difficult to follow for non-specialists.

[6] Format: the book’s process of development and its format represent its most unique contribution to legal and theological studies of migration, and many of its best insights arise out of the formatting and collaboration decisions made by the editors and authors. The editors have done remarkable work in bringing legal scholars and theologians together to engage with each other’s work and even to co-write the five chapters collected in Part 3, appropriately entitled “Dialogues.” Each “Dialogue” brings theological concepts to bear on some specific aspect of migration law, from how laws allow for exploitation of migrant workers to practices of border security, to prosecution of humanitarian workers. Part 1 (“The law of migration”) and Part 2 (“Theology of migration”) have single-authored chapters, yet the authors are still clearly in conversation with each other around shared themes of human dignity, a preferential option for the poor, exploitation of migrant workers, critique of common conceptions of borders, and more. While a few authors’ references to other chapters feel generic and perfunctory, the editors are to be commended for crafting a space and a text in which authors speak to each other. A common complaint about edited volumes is that the chapters can appear disconnected from each other despite having a common topic; this is not the case in Christianity and the Law of Migration. And though the book is long, each chapter is a manageable size and explains its points succinctly. In some cases I was left wanting more, which is a testament to the authors’ ability to bring both depth and precision to their arguments.

[7] Content: the volume addresses multiple topics in law, theology, ethics, and Biblical Studies related to migration. As suggested in my discussion of the title, the content might be generally described as “Christian theological critiques of contemporary law related to global migration, and new, theologically-grounded modes of thought and practice that can challenge and transform law in this area.” I was especially intrigued by Bill Ong Hing’s “Defense of Chain Migration” (51-68), which makes a case for migration based on family reunification and against favoring so-called “high skill” or wealthy immigrants; Silas Allard’s discussion of borders as sites of community and engagement, not simply exclusion (87-104); UIrich Schmiedel’s discussion of migration and political theology (212-229); Gemma Tulud Cruz and Enid Trucios-Haynes’s examination of migrant worker vulnerability (292-311); and Bill Ong Hing and Raj Nadella’s case study of the “Gerasene demoniac” depicted in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke as a metaphor for the violence of empire and the need to recognize the full humanity of those who are harmed by empire (312-331). The first and last chapters of the text provide a thoughtful introduction and conclusion while engaging in unique arguments of their own, again demonstrating the coherence of the work. (The first chapter is composed by editor Silas W. Allard and the last by editor Kristin E. Heyer alongside Daniel Kanstroom.) Several chapters are written by Biblical scholars who examine Scriptural texts in depth, which is a welcome addition to the important, but necessarily briefer, discussions of Scripture in the chapters that focus primarily on law and theology.

[8] Responses and critiques: theologians, legal scholars, ethicists, and advocates with any interest in the intersection of law and theology of migration will find much to enlighten and inspire in this work. I recommend it highly, especially to those audiences. The authors and editors have an impressive diversity of experiences, identities, and backgrounds. On a topic such as law of migration, it is refreshing to engage with a work that encourages legal scholars and theologians to speak with, not at or past, each other. There are several “explainer” passages that help non-lawyers understand basic aspects of international and national laws related to migration. Similarly, several authors examine and explain Scriptural texts on migration, movement, and hospitality, and common theological themes of hospitality, welcome to the stranger, and care for the vulnerable. In a few instances, the repetition of certain themes is a bit much, but I appreciated the work of Heyer, in particular, and some other authors when they dug into theological ideas about migration that go beyond concepts of hospitality and welcome.

[9] The interpretive work in one particular chapter did not seem quite right to me. Having studied religious freedom claims made by people who assist migrants, I was intrigued and pleased to see Rose Cuison-Villazor and Ulrich Schmiedel address the case of a No More Deaths volunteer, Scott Warren, who was charged with crimes for providing food and shelter to migrants in the Sonoran Desert. Their analysis of Warren’s claims that he acted on the basis of religious commitments is well worth a read. However, the authors seemed to conflate the fact that Warren’s beliefs were not obviously identifiable with Christianity or another tradition, with the fact that a court did not initially accept his religious freedom claim. As I understand the case, and as the authors appear to describe it in the first part of the chapter, Warren’s religious freedom claim was initially denied because, in the eyes of the court, he had not demonstrated that his beliefs required him to help undocumented migrants specifically. The claim was not denied because Warren’s beliefs were not recognized as truly religious or because they were expressed in a “performative rather than a propositional register” (272). The authors write, “If No More Deaths was rooted in clearly identifiable and coherently interpretable claims of Christianity, it could make a convincing case for its ministry to fall fully under freedom of religion – but it is not” (272). I disagree that this is the crux of the issue in Warren’s case, in which the court seemed to accept his claim to identifiable religious belief but questioned whether his beliefs really compelled the actions he undertook. Fortunately, Warren was acquitted of the most serious charges, and his religious freedom claim eventually prevailed in the one remaining charge. The authors of this chapter use Warren’s case to spark an extremely enlightening consideration of diversity in theological thought and practice around migration, yet I do not perceive that his specific case provides a firm foundation for their discussion. This chapter might have been better split into two.

[10] Finally, I attended a roundtable discussion of this work at a recent conference, and one of the questions that a participant asked was “where is the political theology in this work?” The question may seem odd: Schmiedel uses the phrase “political theology” in his chapter title, and the field of political theology is referenced in several places in the work. However, I took the questioner’s concern to relate to the relatively heavy emphasis on theory and critique in the work as a whole. In many of the chapters, the application of theological concepts to specific laws or policies, or the way that theological concepts might play out in the work of humanitarian or advocacy groups, is mentioned only briefly. Authors do consider the work of advocacy and humanitarian organizations such as No More Deaths and the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development, as well as two recent international agreements, the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly, and Regular Migration and the Global Compact on Refugees. But the essays only minimally address the application of specific theological concepts to particular policy proposals or acts of political advocacy and community building. Readers might come away with new perspectives on how laws and their application might truly move in more humane directions, if this volume – or a follow-up companion volume? – were to dig more deeply into the political implications of its theological concepts, both at the highest levels of government and international diplomacy, and in the daily work of national and transnational grassroots networks, including networks directed by migrants.

[11] Christianity and the Law of Migration is a groundbreaking, insightful, interdisciplinary work of theology and legal studies. Any reader would benefit from its analysis of law, Scripture, and theological concepts. In particular, theologians and legal scholars who are looking for fresh and incisive perspectives on the intersection of law and theology – gathered together in a work that shows as well as talks about collaborations between scholars – should certainly make the time to read it in its entirety.




Laura Alexander

Dr. Laura Alexander is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.  She specializes in Religion and Human Rights and is the first recipient of the Goldstein Family Community Chair in Human Rights.