Grounding Theologically the Call for Immigration Reform

[1] To begin with, I would like to express my appreciation for the kind invitation to respond to the ECLA Social Policy Resolution Toward Compassionate, Just, and Wise Immigration Reform. It is a privilege, and a somber responsibility, to speak into the tradition of Christian communities other than one’s own. The Lutheran Church has a long history of caring for refugees, immigrants, and asylum-seekers. This document is another step in that long-standing commitment and, in fact, builds on an earlier 1998 statement.

Grounding Theologically the Call for Immigration Reform by M. Daniel Carroll R. (Rodas)

[2] The three adjectives in the title — compassionate, just, and wise — are significant; each represents an important dimension. To focus on just one or two of them skews the discussion. For example, some desire to speak of justice, and this usually in relationship to obeying the existing laws and system. Not only is this a limited view of justice in the immigration debate (what is missing, for example, is the call for just treatment of immigrant laborers and their families), this emphasis can lack compassion. Reform requires legislation, of course, but an issue centered on the livelihood of vulnerable people requires that the legislation be benevolent. It must also be wise. In other words, those who call for reform do well to recognize that whatever this nation agrees upon will necessarily involve compromise. How to move toward the best possible solution becomes the challenge. Realism must be the order of the day in dealing with the pragmatics of health care provisions, the educational infrastructure of the nation, tax backlogs and categorization, and other areas. To incorporate legally millions of newcomers and move them to citizenship, with all that this process will involve, will be extremely difficult and complicated. Change must come, but it must be constructive and workable, with an appreciation of the time that will be needed for proper implementation. Clearly, all three elements — justice, compassion, and wisdom — are fundamental to viable immigration reform.

Specific Observations on Part One
[3] Toward Compassionate, Just, and Wise Immigration Reform is divided into three parts: Theological Commitments, A Broken Immigration System, and Resolutions. My area of expertise concerns biblical and theological matters, and, therefore, I will limit my comments to the first of the three sections. Perhaps others with different backgrounds can respond to the other two.

[4] My first observation is that the theological section is the briefest of the three. This, in my view, is surprising. What should undergird a Christian document on public matters must be the very resources that make for a specifically Christian position: our Scripture and the theological perspectives that arise from within it, along with an awareness of the contributions that might be gleaned from the history of Christian faith and practice. My experience in traveling around the country to speak on immigration has taught me that this is the point where confessing Christians exhibit particular weakness. Theirs is a “thin” theological conviction on the topic, whichever side of the debate they fall on. Those who support positive measures for immigrants often work from a general or vague sense of Christian charity or just a couple of biblical verses; those who oppose the presence of the undocumented and take a harder line look to the Romans 13 passage and appeal to the notion that God has ordained governments to protect their citizenry. There is little specifically Christian in the Christian engagement. Many have made up their minds along party lines and come to the Bible and theology to boost opinions established on other grounds. This fact is why one would have hoped for a richer biblical-theological basis for Toward Compassionate, Just, and Wise Immigration Reform, a richer fund from which its readers could draw for identifying the salient moral issues and divine demands connected to immigration. Because of the space allotted to me, I will point out just a few items.

[5] “Theological Commitments” begins by citing the “core conviction” of the 1998 document, which is that “Hospitality for the uprooted is a way to live out the biblical call to love the neighbor in response to God’s love in Christ.” The two biblical citations that inform this statement are Leviticus 19:34 and Matthew 25:35. The utilization of simply two verses substantiates my worry about the depth of theological grounding. This opening paragraph closes with the admission that Romans 13:1-7 and Lutheran doctrine concerning the nature and role of government were not dealt with at that time. The third paragraph returns to these themes and expands on them. I will make a further comment on this below.

[6] The second paragraph discusses the creation of humans in the image of God (Gen. 1:27). What is said about the image reflects classic Lutheran teaching, which defines this concept in largely relational terms. From this, the document moves on to connect the dignity of persons with its implications for labor (the choice of the word “work” instead of “labor” is deliberate; cf. endnotes 8-10). This is an important point, since immigration has always been largely about labor, the push of people out of their home countries due to its lack, insufficiencies or injustices and the pull into this nation, where jobs are to be had. A proper theology of labor is to be rooted in a theology of human personhood.

[7] I would add other elements, however, to the image of God discussion. Genesis 1:26-28 declare that humans are to rule the earth as God’s vice-regents. They are to continue his work of ordering and subduing (properly understood) creation. In chapter two they are designed to care for God’s world (2:15), and they exemplify their unique status in the naming of the animals (2:19-20). The activity of naming in the ancient world communicated sovereignty over what was named; humans, in other words, here extend the gracious reign of God over the created order as his representatives. It is true that humans have profound worth, yet the biblical text also teaches that humans have skills and special capacities, an unlimited potential to accomplish much for the common good. Appreciation of this fuller view of the image can push the discussion beyond arguing that immigrants are valuable and not an impossible burden (which can devolve into more of a defensive posture) to promoting consideration of what they can contribute to the nation. Reform is not simply a question of treating them with respect; rather, it is also about thinking through avenues to empower them to become all that they can become for their own sake and for the benefit of the host country. Surely, this is good news for immigrants, too!

[8] As mentioned above, the third paragraph of the theological section speaks to matters revolving around human government: its divine commission to “preserve the created order and serve the common good” (understood both as the national common good and that of the entire globe), to promote peace and well-being, and to establish proper immigration policies. A careful reader would recognize that these lines are full of latent meaning, yet the document has chosen not to unpack them. That is a shame, since resistance to immigration reform often comes from a particular view of human government — its origin and function in the economy of God. The Lutheran tradition has much to say here, its theological reflections born of historical experience, both good and bad. I wonder if the “average” reader, Lutheran or otherwise, would be aware or knowledgeable enough to be able to draw out what is expressed overly succinctly. One example suffices to prove the point: The “Christian doctrine of sin” is mentioned, yet this doctrine and its relevance are not spelled out for the layperson. Its connection to the final sentence and the reference to “unjust and harmful ideologies, structures, and processes” are quite pertinent in light of the history of immigration and immigration law in this country.

[9] Finally, I am disappointed that the full breadth of the Bible’s contribution to the immigration discussion is not mentioned. What is lacking: the Old Testament narratives are largely those of people on the move; the multiple laws and their motivations in the Old Testament that provide for the outsider; the connection between acceptable worship before God and care for the vulnerable; the life and teaching of Jesus; the requirement of hospitality for leadership in the church; and the statement in several New Testament epistles that all Christians are sojourners in this world and should, therefore, treat the goods and government of this life and fellow human beings differently because of this fact.

[10] The retort might be that to include this would have made the document too long. I would argue that if things had to be cut, let it be from the other sections so that the document could reflect more fully the biblical and theological framework for a Christian position on immigration. It appears, too, that the resolution is directed at a non-immigrant readership. To harness the biblical material from the immigrant perspective would have added another layer of material. For instance, immigrants can “find themselves” within the Old Testament narratives, where they witness others going through similar experiences and grappling with the nature of God in those circumstances. Theological and pastoral potential open up in new directions.

[11] More and more denominations — mainline, evangelical, and independent — are speaking out on immigration and formulating official statements. Toward Compassionate, Just, and Wise Immigration Reform is an example of this amazing trend. Christians from across the theological and ecclesiastical spectrum are coming together to speak and act on this topic.

[12] I do hope that my comments are not taken as a negative judgment; my brief was to interact with it, so comments will concern what this reviewer thinks is missing or could be handled differently. I applaud this effort and am grateful for it. It does offer basic theological direction and introduces key issues. The endnotes point to other resources. One can quibble over what is mentioned or left out, but these endnotes are a good place to begin for further reading and reflection.

[13] Toward Compassionate, Just, and Wise Immigration Reform continues the legacy of the Lutheran Church’s concern for the outsider. May that history and this new resolution be a light to others who seek a deeper engagement with one of the most serious moral and theological challenges of our day.

M. Daniel Carroll R. (Rodas)

M. Daniel Carroll R. (Rodas) is Distinguished Professor of Old Testament at Denver Seminary. He is the author of Christians at the Border: Immigration, the Church, and the Bible (Baker Academic, 2008). Christians at the Border has been translated into Spanish as Cristianos en la frontera: La inmigración, la Iglesia y la Biblia (Casa Creación, 2009).