Lutheran Ethics and Immigration Reform

1] As I write, two very different bills addressing comprehensive immigration reform move into a congressional conference committee. Since this public immigration debate began, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS) has asked Lutheran churches, leaders and individuals to communicate concern to their representatives.

[2] As a cooperative agency of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LCMS) and the Latvian Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (LELCA), LIRS advocates for and serves immigrants and refugees. The concerns LIRS raises are deeply rooted in Lutheran understanding, teaching and experience.

A Lutheran Foundation
[3] Lutherans understand that Baptism transforms individuals and their communities. With Baptism’s water and word comes the realization that identity-“who one is”-is not based on one’s roots in family and nation or on the fruits of what one does. As baptized people we continue to embody our legacies and, for better and worse, our abilities. But we are ultimately who God deems us to be. In the baptismal encounter with God we discover that God graciously overlooks our heritage and mercifully forgives our actions. God shifts the center of our being from reliance on inheritance and ability to reliance on the fact that God justifies and embraces us as we are. Indeed, when we seem beyond hope, God’s Jesus, the crucified Christ, saves, redeems and calls us into a life of eternal proportions.

[4] This shift from “I am who I deserve to be” to “I am who God graciously makes me” transforms how we think about ourselves and others-friend and stranger alike. ELCA and LCMS documents articulate this trajectory to guide individual Christians and the corporate church bodies.

God’s Grace: Mercy
[5] In the LCMS World Relief and Human Care’s 2004 “Theology for Mercy” its executive director, the Rev. Matthew Harrison, charts the movement from God’s mercy acted out through Baptism to individual and corporate “diakonal vocation” that embodies and extends God’s mercy to our neighbors including today’s refugees and immigrants. “The Gospel gifts bring forgiveness, and beget merciful living. Lives that receive mercy (grace!) cannot but be merciful toward the neighbor (love!). Thus the merciful washing of Baptism produces merciful living.…Christ’s mandate and example of love for the whole person remains our supreme example for life in this world, and for the care of the needy, body and soul” (p. 4).
[6] Harrison makes the case that “the church has a corporate life of mercy” (p. 4), noting that “The Lutheran Confessions explicitly and repeatedly state that the work of diakonic love (alms, charity, works of love) is an assumed reality in the church’s life.” The call to diakonic ministries is diverse, multifaceted, and flexible as it responds to a variety of needs. The call also extends to all levels of the church and beyond. While “the call to love the needy applies to Christian individuals as such (love you neighbor as yourself) the call to diakonic mercy is particularly addressed to Christians as a corporate community (church!)” (p. 5) and involves “reaching out in love to Lutheran partner churches” and cooperating with others to work toward common goals in meeting human need (p. 6).

[7] Outreach includes “speaking with a collective voice on issues of great significance to society” (p. 7). Harrison writes that “in these matters the church must spend its capital wisely and sparingly. It must avoid both quietism and political activism.” The document concludes with the caveat that “the church must not speak simply when it MAY do so! The church must speak ONLY when it MUST do so” (p. 8).

God’s Grace: Justification
[8] The ELCA’s social statement “The Church in Society: A Lutheran Perspective” also follows a Baptism-launched trajectory toward serving and speaking for the well-being of immigrants, refugees and neighbors of all kinds. “The church, the baptized people of God, is created by the Holy Spirit through the Gospel…” (p. 1), “In dying to sin and rising with Christ in Baptism, Christians are called to ‘walk in the newness of life.’ They fulfill their baptismal vocation in ordinary life as family members, friends, citizens, workers, and participants in voluntary associations” (p.4). In daily life Christians serve God and neighbor. “Word and sacrament are the originating center for this church’s mission in the world through its baptized members, congregations, synods” and other corporate expressions (p. 2). “It is in grateful response to God’s grace in Jesus Christ that this church carries out its responsibility for the well-being of society and the environment” (pp. 1-2). “In witnessing to Jesus Christ, the Church announces that the God who justifies expects all people to do justice” (p. 3).

[9] The statement also notes that “love calls for justice in relationships and structures of society” (p. 1). Identifying justification as God’s grace, “the church announces that the God who justifies expects all people to do justice” (p. 3). Speaking of the ELCA’s understanding of the call to advocacy, the statement says, “This church respects the God-given integrity and tasks of governing authorities” but “must participate in social structures critically” (p. 3). “With Martin Luther, this church understands that ‘to rebuke’ those in authority ‘through God’s word spoken publicly, boldly and honestly’ is ‘not seditious’ but ‘a praiseworthy, noble, and…particularly great service to God'” (p. 4).

[10] With these understandings the statement commits the ELCA “to sustain and support its members in their baptismal vocation,” “to foster moral deliberation” and to witness “as an institution” (pp. 6-8). This witness seeks to serve God and neighbor” not only through the congregations, organizations and the ELCA’s “affiliated institutions and ecumenical relationships,” but also by participating “in local, national, and international organizations, and interfaith and ecumenical partnerships in service of common goals” (p. 7).

At the Intersection
[11] Since its beginning in 1939 LIRS’s perspective on immigration has been strongly shaped by its founders and its experience. When one of every six Lutherans in the world was displaced by World War II, Lutherans in the United States advocated for Congress to open America’s doors to them. Family by family, Lutheran congregations integrated them into communities across the United States. This experience of an immigrant church welcoming refugees from war-torn lands evolved into intentional assistance for group after group of refugees, asylum seekers and other immigrants who flee home and country to seek safety and freedom.

[12] The Lutheran trajectory from Baptism to vocation is evident in LIRS’s mission and values. In 1995, asking “Who Is My Neighbor?” an inter-Lutheran theological committee wrote that “In Christ God creates a new community to live in the peace that God intends for all humanity. We affirm that the primary gift which marks members of this new community is love toward God and neighbor, the love which we have received from God” (p. 11).

[13] The God-given love LIRS brings to immigration reform applies Lutheran commitment in practical ways to vocation lived out in family, work, community and church. LIRS respects the responsibility of government to establish laws. But LIRS contends that an immigration system is broken if it does not permit individuals to fulfill their vocations, or blocks churches from corporately conducting ministries of mercy. Where the U.S. immigration system is broken, LIRS is charged to advocate for its repair.

[14] In recent years LIRS President Ralston H. Deffenbaugh, Jr. has candidly told audiences, “The U.S. immigration system is broken. It simply does not work.” As a basis for repairing the system, Deffenbaugh has advanced three principles that coincide with Lutheran teachings on vocation and one that speaks to the rule of law:

[15] Family: LIRS advocates for laws that support family unity. Current law results in immigrant and refugee families typically being separated for years, and in some cases even decades. This undermines the well-being of spouses, children and communities. Current law fails to recognize the profound bond that connects families and compels them to fulfill family responsibilities regardless of legal restraints. Honoring this family bond is a cornerstone in Lutheran understanding of Christian vocation.

[16] Work: Work enables individuals to participate in God’s creation, to contribute to the larger economy, and to sustain themselves and their families. LIRS advocates for laws that secure the opportunity for people to work and that protect worker rights such as receiving agreed-upon, fair compensation and freely leaving one job for another without suffering repercussions from either the employer or the government. LIRS continually encounters instances under current immigration law in which these assurances do not exist.

[17] Community: LIRS advocates for laws that give individuals a secure path to permanent residency and citizenship. Immigrants and refugees contribute to the well-being of the communities where they live. When their legal status is uncertain, immigrants will limit their participation in societal structures for fear that visibility would put their ongoing residency at risk. Currently, the steps toward permanence are unclear, expensive and place individuals at risk of losing legal status or opportunities. LIRS believes current law undermines the vocation of immigrants and refugees as contributing members of the community.

[18] Fear: Refugees and asylum seekers have fled countries whose governments, military forces and police have created a rule of fear based on ethnic, racial, religious, social and political differences. Policies that unnecessarily cause fear of police and threaten family well-being, job security and freedom to participate in community life are, in LIRS’s view, broken. Current immigration laws and the interpretation of many regulations since September 11, 2001, have created an environment of fear among many law abiding refugees and immigrants. Punitive proposals under consideration by the U.S. Congress threaten both immigrants and American citizens who extend mercy to them. LIRS affirms the federal government’s exclusion of terrorists and their supporters from the United States, but critiques unjustly excessive interpretations of laws and regulations that have penalized innocent people. LIRS strongly advocates for clearly articulated due process and for protection of individuals’ rights. For successful implementation, new immigration laws must foster participation by documented and undocumented immigrants. Laws that create fear instead of hope will discourage participation.

Expressing Common Concern
[19] LIRS has experienced affirmation of its approach and principles from both the LCMS and the ELCA.

[20] In March Deffenbaugh joined ELCA Presiding Bishop Mark S. Hanson and synod bishops in signing a joint statement advocating for laws that allow people to live as families, enjoy the rights and protections due to workers, freely participate in their communities, and live free of fear.

[21] In early June Harrison and LCMS President the Rev. Dr. Gerald B. Kieschnick issued a parallel, complementary statement. After noting that “we, the United States, have failed to appropriately, justly and reasonably regulate immigration” the statement concludes with a request that “paths to legalization be found sufficient to the need so that our assistance to those in need include helping persons become legal residents and citizens.”

[22] On many issues, Lutherans find it difficult to share vision or purpose and to cooperate in ministry. But following a trajectory that moves from Baptism to grace-inspired vocations of mercy and justice, LIRS serves at an intersection of shared Lutheran concern for neighbors who are strangers and aliens in our midst.

“The Church in Society: A Lutheran Perspective,” Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, produced by the Department for Studies, Division for Church in Society. Adopted by Churchwide Assembly in 1991. Copyright 1993.

“Theology for Mercy”, Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, written by Rev. Matthew C. Harrison, Executive Director, LCMS World Relief and Human Care. Copyright 2004.

“Who Is My Neighbor?” Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, adopted by the Board of Directors September 21, 1994; revised and reprinted 2001.

“Memorandum to The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod: A Statement Regarding Immigration Concerns,” LCMS President the Rev. Dr. Gerald B. Kieschnick, and LCMS World Relief and Human Care Executive Director the Rev. Matthew Harrison, June 2, 2006.

“Evangelical Lutherans Call for Fair and Just Immigration Reform,” ELCA Presiding Bishop Mark S. Hanson, and LIRS President Ralston H. Deffenbaugh, Jr., March 2006.