Yesterday evening Democrats in the U.S. Senate pushed through a budget bill to the disappointment of some Republicans. The bill according to The Daily Caller included a loophole that would allow illegal immigrants to acquire welfare benefits. The bill also imposes cuts on retired military members’ pensions. Sen. Jeff Session(Alabama Republican) along with other Republicans were unsuccessful in offering amendments to the legislation that would have used money saved from closing the illegal immigrant welfare loophole to keep from cutting military retirees’ pay. It seems to border on treasonous to put welfare benefits for illegal immigrants above keeping the promises made to people who have served this country honorably. That said, this bill is just a microcosm of the larger illegal immigration debate.
How should Christians view the debate? Should Christians be pushing for the current immigration reform bill going through congress that offers amnesty. What does the Bible have to say in regard to this? The Old Testament is filled with verses written to the people of Israel teaching them to treat immigrants well. In Exodus 22:21 it says “You shall not wrong a sojourner or oppress him, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.” Deut. 10:19 says “Love the sojourner, therefore, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.” What does the word “Sojourner” and how does it apply to the current situation?
Jame Hoffmeier in his book “The Immigration Crisis: Immigrants, Aliens, and the Bible” provides an understanding of the word, Sojourner. The word is used for “a person who entered Israel and followed legal procedures to obtain recognized standing as a resident alien.” There actually is another Hebrew word used to refer to people who did not have legal recognition. The bible would describe these people as “foreigners.” Understanding the difference in terms will lead to a better understanding of what the Bible has to say.
Hoffmeier comes the conclusion that
“Illegal immigrants should not expect these same privileges(of citizens or legal immigrants) from the state who laws they disregard by virtue of their undocumented status. The bible clearly distinguishes between the status of a legal alien and a foreigner, and one consequence is that there really is a difference between the legal standing of a present-day documented alien and an illegal immigrant.” (pg 156-57)
This confusion among terms has often been a problem for those calling for Amnesty. Dr. Russell Moore, a former dean of my seminary and current president of ERLC, has been one such person pushing for illegal immigrants to receive amnesty. In one of his blog posts , he wrote that, “our Lord Jesus himself was a so-called ‘illegal immigrant.’” Well certainly if it is the case that Jesus was an illegal immigrant than we must give some credence to the idea that our immigration laws need to be changed to allow for amnesty. The problem with this statement by Moore and others is that it fails to distinguish between legal and illegal immigration
It also fails on another point. When Moore refers to Jesus as an illegal immigrant he is referring to when Joseph and Mary fled the region of Judea when Jesus was an infant. Mark Tooley in writing for the American Spectator explains:
“(W)hich Egyptian immigration laws did Mary and Joseph violate when they fled there to protect the Baby Jesus from a murderous King Herod? Neither Scripture nor non-canonical sources reveal any such violations. Joseph, Mary and Jesus remained in Egypt until Herod was dead, when they settled in Nazareth. They were essentially temporary religious refugees who fled persecution. Besides, if both ancient Judaea and ancient Egypt were under the Roman Empire, was moving from one to the other an act of “immigration,” much less “illegal”?”
Thus Jesus was far from being an illegal immigrant. Pointing to the fact that Jesus moved from one region of the Roman Empire to another does not equate to the act of illegal immigration today.
There is an area of the Bible which may have more to say about this rather than trying to paint illegal immigration into the Christmas narrative. The Epistle to Philemon is a letter from Paul written on the behalf of a fugitive slave or bond-servant, Onesimus. Paul had met Onesimus possibly in Colossae and had shared the Gospel with him. Onesimus accepted Christ as his savior and had become a useful brother to Paul. Paul however sent Onesimus back to Philemon. Paul wrote Philemon to encourage him to receive Onesimus as a Christian brother and to forgive him for any offense that his abandoning Philemon had caused. Paul even offered to pay for any expense that Philemon may need. Without getting into the issue of slavery and all that it entails (It may make for a good blog at another time, however. Doug Wilson in his book Black and Tan does an excellent job trying to discuss the issue of American slavery and the Civil war though it is not without controversy.), the Epistle to Philemon provides an excellent biblical case study for our understanding of the Christian response to illegal immigration.
While Onesimus was not an illegal immigrant, his status as a runaway slave would put him in a similar situation. We notice from this letter that there are several things that Paul does. First of all, he shared the Gospel with Onesimus. Paul did not treat this man with any less dignity or respect than any other person. He cared for him deeply because he shared the love of Jesus with him. Paul considered him a Christian. Christians when they come into contact with immigrants, illegal or otherwise, need to remember this. ( My wife is a legal immigrant and so it is especially important to me that we get this correct.) Christian love and charity is to be shown to everyone.
Yet Paul’s love for Onesimus did not excuse the situation. Onesimus had wronged someone and was illegally away from where he was committed to be. Paul then sends Onesimus back to Philemon. There are a lot of questions as to the exact nature of the slave situation for Onesimus but we can imagine that for Onesimus it would probably have been financially and politically better to be with Paul than to go back. Yet, Paul sends Onesimus back. ( There does seem to be some intent by Paul for Philemon to receive Onesimus not as a bond-servant any longer. Phil 1:15-16 “(O)r this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, no longer as a bondservantbut more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother—especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.”)
This passage fits in with teaching of Romans 13 that calls for Christians to be obedient to the rightful authorities. It also gives good reason for illegal immigrants who have been converted to return to their home countries willingly. This is a hard teaching but yet is in full accord with the Bible. It would also be just then for the government to enforce its immigration laws. There are great many reasons why this should be the case. For one, it would be unjust to those who immigrated legally to give amnesty to those who did mot.
Lastly, from the book of Philemon we notice that Paul did not just sent Onesimus back empty-handed. Paul was willing to pay for any expenses that Onesimus might need. Christians should be willing to help illegal immigrants return to their home country. Christian charity can help provide resources that an illegal immigrant might be lacking in order to help them return safely. Christians in the home countries of the illegal immigrants must be willing to receive their brothers and sisters back with open arms. They may also push for political reforms in their own governments.
To borrow a phrase that I don’t really like, the “Socially Just” thing to do for Christians is to obey immigration laws. They should not call for rewarding those who have broken them. Christians should obey the laws of the land if they have been rightfully put in place. There may be times when Christians must disobey laws in order to obey God but the immigration laws as they are do not rise to this standing.
To summarize, arguments that try to squeeze illegal immigration into the Christmas narrative are uncalled for. The Bible encourages Christians to obey the rightful authorities. When one becomes a Christian, their faith pushes them to repentance. This repentance will entail that Christians who have broken immigration laws will attempt to obey them. Christians have no moral duty to push for the breaking of immigration laws. Christians do have the duty to treat all people with dignity and to share the gospel with everyone they may come in contact with. The case for amnesty and rewarding those who have broken our laws is not one required from scripture.