Immigration and the Kingdom on the Left Hand

[1] About twenty years ago, Joseph Carens, in a seminal article on the ethics of immigration, pointedly drew attention to the essential dilemma that it poses: “Borders have guards and the guards have guns,” he wrote. To the needy, desperate, and oppressed of the world, seeking access to a free and wealthy nation like the United States, “the borders, guards and guns are all too apparent. What justifies the use of force against such people?” Few of them, after all, are “criminals, subversives, or armed invaders…. They are ordinary, decent people, seeking only the opportunity to build decent, secure lives for themselves and their families. On what moral grounds can these sorts of people be kept out? What gives anyone the right to point guns at them?”[1]

[2] This description zeroes in on the fundamental moral structure of immigration restrictions: when we prevent entry by would-be immigrants, we are using force (or threatening to use it) against people who are innocent of any wrong-doing (apart, at least, from the attempted entry itself). We do so for any number of reasons, political, economic, and cultural, but all of them reflect in a broad sense our collective self-interest. Immigration restrictions thus reflect a willingness to assert, by force if need be, the interests of ourselves and our compatriots against those whose need is great and who have done us no wrong. This looks suspiciously like mere selfishness. Can it be justified?

[3] I believe it can be, and that the appearance of selfishness is ultimately misleading. In the course of a longer discussion of immigration, Stephen Perry once observed that the dilemma described by Carens actually has a familiar moral shape: “The question of whether and under what circumstances it is permissible to exclude outsiders from joining a political community is just one aspect of the larger issue of whether and to what extent the differential treatment of compatriots [from other persons in the world] is justified.”[2] This suggests a helpful way of thinking about immigration, namely, as an instance of preferential love embodied in public policy. When we limit immigration, we in effect allow our particular attachment to our fellow citizens–our shared political institutions, economic relationships, and cultural way of life–to override our sense of charity or obligation towards the needy outsiders seeking admission. Civic friendship, as it were, trumps agape. Observing this does not solve the problem but merely states it, since agape challenges and destabilizes our particular loves. Still, framing the question in these terms is helpful, for it indicates that mere “selfishness” does not do justice to the complex web of competing obligations brought to the surface by immigration policy.

[4] In what follows, I want to suggest (all too briefly) that approaching immigration in this way, as one example of the broader problem of preferential love, raises a pair of quite fundamental political questions: the moral status of patriotism, or love of country; and the meaning or purpose of political representation. I also want to suggest (again, all too briefly) that Luther’s theology, in particular his conception of “office,” can help us think through both of these issues. Finally, I will suggest that Luther’s own reconciliation of the demands of agape with the need for temporal justice maps nicely onto the dilemmas posed by immigration.

[5] (1) To say that immigration restrictions enact into policy a preference for the interests of ourselves and our compatriots over those of potential immigrants who might disrupt our way of life implies that such restrictions are morally defensible only if the sentiment of patriotism, or love of country, is itself morally defensible. Assuming that we have some moral obligation towards outsiders, we can override it in the name of “our” collective interests only if there really is a “we,” and only if the bonds attaching us to our fellow members carry real moral weight. We typically explain obligations arising from particular attachments in terms of the expectations and dependencies that form between people in certain relations with one another. Thus, for example, the relationship between parents and children creates a legitimate expectation that I should provide for my own son and daughters before attempting to feed other hungry children here in Allegany County. Similarly, my relationships with my friends entitle them to expect favors from me that I would not grant to strangers; my colleagues in political science at Houghton College have a right to expect my cooperation and effort in a way that the political scientists at neighboring SUNY Geneseo do not; and my fellow parishioners can reasonably ask me to help care for the church grounds on a Saturday morning in a way that a neighboring congregation cannot. But do similar bonds exist among fellow citizens in a contemporary nation-state? Can a bond like patriotic affection ground a claim, for example, that I should support immigration restrictions in order to protect the interests of far-off Californian agricultural workers against those of would-be Mexican migrants who are equally unknown to me?

[6] It is certainly true that contemporary nation-states are larger and more abstract entities than, say, a Greek polis. (Though perhaps also less unreal than is sometimes claimed, as events like the recently-completed Olympics remind us.) Nor are the interactions or relations between fellow citizens as rich as those between friends or family members. But perhaps we need not appeal solely to the experiential “thickness” of the citizen bond in order to generate a notion of patriotic obligation. Here Luther’s conception of “office” may be helpful. Luther commonly speaks of the different offices that a person may hold–as parent or spouse, as a member of a profession, as a citizen. These offices belong to the temporal realm or the earthly kingdom, aiming not at salvation but at serving the needs of life in human society. “[W]e must sharply distinguish between…the office and the person…. [W]e have two different persons in one man. The one is that in which we are created and born, according to which we are all alike–man or woman or child, young or old. But once we are born, God adorns and dresses you up as another person. He makes you a child and me a father, one a master and another a servant, one a prince and another a citizen.”[3] To each of these offices attach certain characteristic duties. As a husband and father, for example, I have obligations to love, cherish, and be faithful to my wife and children, to maintain, together with my wife, the good order and discipline of the household, to provide for the religious education of our children, and to work in order to support the needs of my family. Analogous duties attach to the office of citizen: to support the governing authorities, uphold the rule of law, and assist the needs of my fellow citizens.[4] This conception of the office of a citizen thus generates a set of mutual responsibilities that helps to explain and justify patriotic duty or affection, in light of which fellow citizens rightly give priority to the collective needs of their fellow members above those of outsiders.[5]

[7] (2) Describing immigration restrictions as embodying a preference for the interests of citizens over those of outsiders raises important questions not only about the relationship of citizens to one another, but also about their relationship to their government. I speculated earlier that the government’s protection of our collective self-interest in this way may appear suspiciously like mere selfishness. The previous argument, about patriotic affection, may help to dispel that appearance at the level of individual citizens. But what about at the level of the government, or of the polity as a whole, in its relations with outsiders? Even if individual citizens can plausibly claim obligations towards their fellow citizens, does not the collective whole take on the appearance of a selfish leviathan astride the international arena, subordinating concerns of transnational justice to the pursuit of its national interest?

[8] It is important to recognize what is true in this image. If citizens are right to support policies giving preferential weight to the interests of their own compatriots, then any government reflecting their wishes will inevitably pursue a version of the national interest. This need not be threatening or aggressive, of course, because the defense of one’s own need not imply an attack on others; indeed, immigration restrictions are a good example of the pursuit of national interest taking a purely “defensive” form. Still, that is cold comfort to poor migrants seeking entry. This highlights, however, the impossibility of considering the ethics of immigration apart from some reflection upon what it means to have a “representative” government in the first place. By invoking representation here I do not mean to describe only the kinds of democratic, elective mechanisms used throughout the contemporary West. Monarchies can also represent their citizens, as can aristocracies. At the root of the concept of representation, however, is the idea that behind every government lies some discernible population whose interests, wishes, values, and traditions it exists to embody, defend, and transmit to future generations. For representation to mean anything, a government must represent its own people, not just people in the abstract.

[9] Here too the concept of office may prove helpful, though the relevant office in this context is not that of citizen, but that of “prince”–or, to use a more congenial word, the “magistrate.” Just as the office of citizen has characteristic corresponding duties, so too does that of magistrate. Chief among these are to provide justice and protect the citizens, “the punishment of the wicked and the protection of the upright,” in Luther’s words.[6] “It is the duty and obligation of those who participate in this earthly regime to administer law and punishment, to maintain the distinctions that exist among ranks and persons, to manage and distribute property.”[7] Government officials who fail to serve the needs and defend the interests of their citizens fail in the representative duties of their office. Indeed, even were I, as an individual Christian person, prepared to sacrifice my interests and goods for the sake of immigrant non-citizens, it is not clear, without further argument, that my government would therefore be freed from its obligation to defend those interests and goods on my behalf. Luther argues, for example, that an individual Christian, even when wronged, should not go to court to press his own interests; rather, he should “suffer evil and injustice” and “have utterly no need of temporal authority and law for his own sake.” Nevertheless, “the governing authority should, on its own initiative or through the instigation of others, help and protect him too, without any complaint, application, or instigation on his own part.”[8] Rather than regarding immigration restrictions as a form of national selfishness, therefore, we might alternatively interpret them as an expression of the law of neighborly love, of the government’s fidelity to the duties of its representative office.

[10] (3) Finally, Luther’s account of political rule, as outlined in the essay “Temporal Authority,” draws attention to the appropriate role played by love for one’s fellow citizens in earthly politics. His discussion there of the Two Kingdoms–according to which true Christians do not require political authority and law for their own sake, but nevertheless obey and support them for the sake of their neighbors–maps very nicely onto the dilemmas posed by contemporary immigration. We know that we live in a world of sharp political and economic inequalities, where countless numbers of people suffer from poverty, hunger, and want, from a lack of freedom, opportunity and respect. We know too that many of them could improve their lives significantly by moving to free and wealthy Western democracies, even though this would entail costs, perhaps substantial ones, for those countries. As Christian citizens of one of those fortunate countries, we may feel obliged–if we follow Luther in refusing to water down the demands of agape or to pretend that they don’t really apply to us–to sacrifice our own, personal interests in order to help those more needy than we. But of course in a fallen world requiring the services of temporal authority, where each of us bears both a sacred and a secular person, it is rare that only our own, personal interests are at stake. We must be concerned also with the needs of friends and neighbors whose communities are disrupted by an influx of migration; the fellow citizens whose standard of living declines as they are drawn into wage competition with cheap immigrant labor; the children and grandchildren whose rightful political and cultural inheritance we risk by ignoring the possible disruptions of large-scale immigration. Prepared to sacrifice our own good, we may not neglect theirs. The “true Christian lives and labors on earth not for himself alone but for his neighbor…. Just as he performs all other works of love which he himself does not need–he does not visit the sick in order that he himself may be made well, or feed others because he himself needs food–so he serves the governing authority not because he needs it but for the sake of others, that they may be protected…. He loses nothing by this; such service in no way harms him, yet it is of great benefit to the world. If he did not so serve he would be acting not as a Christian but even contrary to love….”[9]

[11] I note briefly in conclusion that the practice of granting asylum–a small corner of immigration policy, to be sure–might be regarded as a limit case embodiment of Luther’s characteristically paradoxical account of earthly government. Michael Walzer has described asylum as a somewhat ad hoc practice that “mitigate[s] to some degree” a cruel dilemma posed starkly by the situation of refugees: “On the one hand, everyone must have a place to live, and a place where a reasonably secure life is possible. On the other hand, this is not a right that can be enforced against particular host states.”[10] That is to say, a refugee needs a place to stay, but we cannot necessarily single out some particular country (the United States, or Canada, or France) as the particular one required to take her in. Because we have obligations towards our fellow citizens and the life we share, we cannot be required to offer “a refuge to everyone in the world who could plausibly say that he needed it.” But at the same time, we should not “use force against helpless and desperate people” by deporting asylum-seekers and returning them to countries where they are sure to be persecuted.[11] Admitting that this is at best a rough-and-ready response to the situation, Walzer confesses, “I don’t have an adequate answer” to the dilemmas posed by refugees and asylum-seekers.[12]

[12] Walzer’s position is, I think, fair enough. We should not expect ethics to provide a principle capable of resolving the messy complexities of every difficult moral situation. Still, Luther’s account of the Two Kingdoms helps illuminate asylum not simply as a policy born of desperation, but as a very appropriate attempt to live in both kingdoms simultaneously. Faced with potentially large numbers of migrants, the duties flowing from the offices of citizen and magistrate permit us, oblige us even, to regulate the flow. But when the truly desperate actually show up in our towns, on our streets, before our doors–when, as Walzer puts it, expelling these people would require the deliberate use of force against some of the most helpless people in the world–then, surely, there is little left to do but turn the other cheek, offering not only our coats but our cloaks also.

[13] As I hope these brief observations on asylum make clear, my argument here is not intended as an argument against immigration as such, or one that borders should be closed, or that we have no obligations to outsiders. I believe countries have strong obligations to admit some immigrants, especially refugees and relatives of current legal residents; and I think also that the moral case for offering amnesty to long-term illegal residents is very strong.[13] But Christians often find themselves tongue-tied trying to defend immigration regulations against charges of sheer self-interest. Luther’s view of the Two Kingdoms, together with his conceptions of the offices of citizen and magistrate, provide a framework for regarding such regulations in a different light. As long as we remain subjects of the kingdom of the left hand, attempts to regulate immigration must also be understood as expressions of the law of love.

[1] Joseph H. Carens, “Aliens and Citizens: The Case for Open Borders,” The Review of Politics 49.2 (Spring 1987), p. 251. Emphasis in the original.

[2] Stephen R. Perry, “Immigration, justice, and culture,” in Warren F. Schwartz (ed.), Justice in Immigration (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), p. 96. I have made the argument of this paragraph at greater length in chapter three of Toward a Theory of Immigration (New York: Palgrave, 2001).

[3] Martin Luther, The Sermon on the Mount, tr. Jaroslav Pelikan, in Pelikan (ed.), Luther’s Works, vol. 21 (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1956), p. 23. See also ibid., p. 171: “[E]very human being on earth has two persons: one person for himself, with obligations to no one except to God; and in addition a secular person, according to which he has obligations to other people.”

[4] Consider, for example, ibid., p. 109: “There is no getting around it, a Christian has to be a secular person of some sort. As regards his own person, according to his life as a Christian, he is in subjection to no one but Christ, without any obligation either to the emperor or to any other man. But at least outwardly, according to his body and property, he is related by subjection and obligation to the emperor, inasmuch as he occupies some office or station in life or has a house and home, a wife and children; for all these are things that pertain to the emperor. Here he must necessarily do what he is told and what this outward life requires…. You see, now we are talking about a Christian-in-relation: not about his being a Christian, but about this life and his obligation in it to some other person, whether under him or over him or even alongside him, like a lord or a lady, a wife or children or neighbors, whom he is obliged, if possible, to defend, guard, and protect.”

[5] For a somewhat different attempt to defend love of country from a Christian perspective, see my “Christians as Patriots,” First Things 130 (February 2003), pp. 31-35.

[6] Martin Luther, “Temporal Authority: To What Extent it Should Be Obeyed,” tr. J.J. Schindel, in Walther I. Brandt (ed.), Luther’s Works, vol. 45 (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1962), p. 87.

[7] Luther, The Sermon on the Mount, p. 108.

[8] Luther, “Temporal Authority,” p. 101.

[9] Ibid., p. 94.

[10] Michael Walzer, Spheres of Justice (New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1983), p. 50.

[11] Ibid., p. 51.

[12] Ibid.

[13] For the latter argument, see my “Immigration: Citizens & Strangers,” First Things 173 (May 2007), pp. 10-12.

Peter C. Meilaender

Peter C. Meilaender is Associate Professor of Political Science at Houghton College, Houghton, New York. He is the author of Toward a Theory of Immigration (Palgrave Macmillan, 2001).