Tuesday, April 18, 2006

How Christians Might Think About the Immigration Issue: Part 2

"He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?" (Micah 6:8)

In these posts, I don't intend to push a particular agenda on immigration policy in the United States. Instead, I want to present a series of windows through which Christians might look at the issue and then make up their own minds.

The first window through which I looked was the Christian belief in law and civil authority. Christians believe that governments exist at the behest of God, even though those governments, run by human beings, may do wrong things. Governments are meant to create a modicum of the order and serenity which would exist in perfection if the barrier of sin didn't exist between God and human beings and among human beings. Governments then, have the right--and the obligation--to establish and maintain borders.

Today, I want to look at the issue of immigration through a different Christian window: Justice.

These days, the Bible's emphasis on justice is often overlooked. To some extent this may be understandable: Much of what might be appropriated directly from the Scriptures on the subject shows up in the Old Testament, coming from a time when Israel, God's people, were part of a theocratic nation. No nation in the world in 2006 is a Biblical theocracy, making the mandates for Israel's judges and kings found on the Old Testament's pages difficult to apply.

Complicating our view through the Bible's "justice window" is that in the New Testament Greek, the word for justice never appears. Its Hebrew equivalent shows up only infrequently in the Old Testament.

But, the variations of a word related to justice appear frequently in the New Testament portion of the Bible: righteousness (diakaiosune). It has the notion of rightness in our relationships with God and one another. (In fact, when the New Testament speaks of our being justified by Jesus Christ, it uses a form of this word.)

The relative absence of the word justice definitely doesn't denote an absence of concern for it on God's part. The concept of just treatment of others permeates much of the Old Testament law and prophecy, addressing not only the actions of kings, but also those of ordinary people in their interpersonal relationships. And a commitment to justice is certainly apparent in Jesus' teaching, even in His voluntary death and resurrection for a human race weighed down by the curses of sin and death.

To understand the Biblical mandate for justice, we need to study another key Biblical concept.

When asked what the greatest of God's commandments are, Jesus responded that there were two of equal importance: to love God completely and to love one's neighbor as one loves one's self.

In this response, Jesus was summarizing what the reformer Martin Luther described as "the two tables" of the Ten Commandments. By the traditional reckoning of the commandments brought down from Mount Sinai by Moses, the first table is composed of the first three commandments:
  • You shall have no other gods.
  • You shall not take the name of the Lord, your God, in vain.
  • Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy.
Each of these commandments deals with our relationships with God.

The second table is made up of the remaining seven commandments, as traditionally reckoned:
  • You shall honor your father and your mother.
  • You shall not kill.
  • You shall not commit adultery.
  • You shall not steal.
  • You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
  • You shall not covet your neighbor's house.
  • You shall not covet your neighbor's wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his cattle, nor anything that is his.
As this second table deals with our relationships with others, the two tables, you can see, correspond with the two components of Jesus' great commandment. (The verbiage of which comes from Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18, by the way.)

Love, in the Biblical understanding of the term, has a lot in common with what we mean today when we talk about justice. For the Biblical writers, love has little to do with what we feel and a lot with what we do. Love, from the standpoint of God's Word, relates to the way we live out our relationships with others. Specifically, it has to do with whether they're marked by a commitment to do for others what we would like others to do for us.

In addition to not seeing love as primarily an emotion, contrary to our usual contemporary view, the Biblical writers would also be uncomfortable with our post-Enlightenment notions of justice, which are rooted in ideas about rights and entitlements. They would prefer to speak of the responsibilities each of us have to share the undeserved blessings of God with others and to treat others with respect.

In fact, at the outset of Paul's famous commendation of servanthood rooted in the example of Jesus Christ (Philippians 2:4-11), he encourages believers by saying, "let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others."

Christians are called to do this and empowered by God's Holy Spirit to do this, no matter what the circumstances of our lives. The apostle Paul wrote in his letter to the Philippians:
I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. (Philippians 4:11-12)
Gratitude for God's grace and a commitment to love others as Christ has loved us is at the center of the Christian value system, no matter how our lives may be going at a particular time. Through Jesus Christ, Christians live in the confidence that they have a place in eternity. We have the assurance that a God Who, when He came to earth, didn't shirk the cross and then rose from death to give us life, will always be by our sides (Matthew 28:19-20; Romans 8:31-39; Acts 2).

The reality of God's grace operating in the lives of people who follow Christ is an objective truth. It's a solid foundation that frees Christians to risk loving their neighbor. In practical terms, that means enacting God's love and justice in the ways in which we live, vote, buy and sell, trade, hire and fire, and so on.

Of course, no Christian ever embodies this reality completely in his or her life. The siren call of inborn sin keeps on wailing in even the most saintly of Christians. (see here) The awareness that every Christian has that she or he is a sinner saved from death because of the gracious intervention of Christ on their behalf only gives us added incentive to love our neighbor and to press for justice. Saved by grace, we express our gratitude by loving others. (see here, here, and here)

How might the cause of Biblical justice--practical expression of love for neighbor born of God's love for all people--be addressed by Christians in the question of changes in immigration policy here in the United States? There are a few responses on the table these days.

1. First, there are President Bush's initial proposals in this matter. Newsweek correspondent Howard Fineman, who has followed the President's career since he was governor of Texas, is convinced that Mr. Bush sees this matter in more than economic terms. He sees it, Fineman believes, as a justice issue.

Be that as it may, many who support the President's proposals for a guest worker program believe that a decent regard for the economic conditions under which many live in Mexico and in Latin America should cause us to welcome many into the United States. They also often argue that those who have entered illegally have escaped intolerable circumstances to be productive contributors to the US economy.

The Roman Catholic Church has argued that there is a Biblical mandate to open our borders in a responsible way to as many of these guest workers as can be accommodated. It argues that doing so is a simple matter of justice.

2. Others, like Christian blogger Deborah White, argue that the real justice issue that must be engaged when addressing immigration policy is how she sees US employers interacting with potential and actual illegal immigrants. She argued in the comments section of the first installment of this series:
I hope you include in this series the Christian way to view the millions of US employers who hire these undocumented workers (at low wage with no benefits and poor working conditions) , and the Bush Administration, which knowingly and deliberately chooses to "look the other way" when employers hire illegals.
Deborah argues that "a broken US economic system that relies on below-minimum wages paid to illegals (or anyone) to make more profits" is what's behind the presence of 12-million undocumented workers and that this economy results in the unjust treatment of both US and illegal workers.

She concludes:
There is an obvious and immediate fix to illegal immigration: criminalize every employer who hires illegals. The issue would be entirely cured in three months.
3. Then, there's the rather different critique of another of yesterday's commenters, Michael Wenberg:
Certainly a number of groups and institutions are culpable beginning with our politicians who pass laws they then underfund so they cannot be enforced, to businesses that take advantage of a ready, willing, and able cheap labor pool, to union organizers who see illegal workers as a new constituency to manipulate and control, to the average American whose only value is reflected best by Wal-Mart's promise of low prices...That said, this isn't just our problem. The biggest culprit in the illegal migration of over 10% of Mexico's population into this country is the Mexican government and the families that have misruled and exploited that country for the past century. They benefit the most by exporting their workers illegally into this country because it acts like a safety valve, reducing the pressure for change by getting rid of those that would benefit most. So, what should Christians do? That's not a hard question, is it? While we are helping the poor and disadvantaged and loving our neighbors as our selves even when those "neighbors" may be a Spanish-speaking migrant worker and his family, we should also examine our own hearts and habits and reflect on the desire for low prices at any cost and then finally, we should harangue our representatives to push for a real fix to the problem, a fix that can only come by reforms in Mexico. Anything less will be just another bandaid and we will be discussing this again in another 10 years or so.
Michael thus points to injustices that he sees in Mexico (and presumably others countries) and in the United States as the main problems to be addressed.

How we best address the issue of justice and, at times, just where we see injustices is a political judgment.

But for the Christian there can be no doubt that however we parse this issue, the call to love our neighbors as we love ourselves, whether those neighbors are immigrants or American workers, consumers, and businesspeople, is one of the windows through which we must examine matters.

The Old Testament prophet says that God finds worship which in words alone tiresome. He wants people to worship Him also by the way in which they love their neighbors:
Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.(Amos 5:23-24)
[Here is the first installment of the series.]

THANKS: John Martin at Martin's Musings has linked to this post and the first installment of the series. I appreciate your recommending these pieces, John.

THANKS ALSO...to Dan at A Slower Pace, who has also linked to the first two installments in this series. Dan also dropped an encouraging email my way. Thanks, Dan. I hope that this series can help everybody who reads it take some fresh looks at the questions raised by the current immigration debate.

I'M HONORED...that Dr. Andrew Jackson of SmartChristian.com has chosen to link to this second piece on immigration. He already linked to the first post. (By the way, Andy's site always has interesting links on it.) Thank you!


LonewackoDotCom said...

When evaluating the best course of action in a given situation, you need to examine all factors involved and the ramifications of taking various actions. Those who support illegal immigration out of supposedly humanitarian grounds are either unable to examine everything involved, or they aren't being straightforward.

For an example, here's my list of the downsides of Cardinal Mahony's plans. He (supposedly) just wants to help poor people, but by so doing he's not just encouraging corruption in the U.S., he's also making things even worse for those he claims to want to help.

Mark Daniels said...

Thank you for writing. I will look at your list with interest. A few points...

(1) I haven't recommended any particular course of action regarding illegal immigrants, although I did state that governments have the right and responsibility to control their borders. I simply mentioned Cardinal Mahony's as one perspective.

(2) It's incorrect to equate "Christian" with "humanitarian," although they aren't mutually exclusive terms. I don't know if it's your intention to equate the terms, though that seems to be the case. The Christian perspective comes from seeking to answer the question, "What does God want?"


Charlie said...

Justice and righteousness (right living) are key to any Christian understanding of how to address this problem, in my opinion. Loving our neighbors and the Golden Rule seem to me to suggest a responsibility to act generously and virtously towards these immigrants, whether they are legal or illegal.

We cannot allow the desperation of these men and women to become an excuse for paying them inadequately for their work, or failing to offer them the benefits of decent housing, health care, education for their children, etc. But treating them justly will be costly to us all. Are we willing to pay what a migrant labor force really costs?

If we find the price too high, and simply send them all home, what obligations, if any, does justice and righteousness demand of us then? Do we turn our backs on Mexico, or do we help them out of their grinding poverty?

Mark Daniels said...

I think that it would be a huge mistake for us to forget the first window I discussed, which dealt with the rule of law. Love for neighbor doesn't mean that the borders should be opened or that those who are here illegally should be granted amnesty. To me, that option is off the table.

It seems to me that compassion can and should be expressed in other ways, especially by dealing with root causes.


Charlie said...

I agree, re: open borders and amnesty. Legalizing the whole system doesn't require amnesty, but it does require a bulked up guest worker program, which would provide legal protections for these folks, and legal entry into the US. There are currently only 10,000 visas made available annually for unskilled service workers, when the demand is in the millions. We can solve the problem through laws that face the realities of the workforce needed by our economy, and those laws will address a host of problems associated with the current situation. Or, we can close the borders and deport every illegal we find. It's our right and our choice.

But that "solution" brings with it a moral dilemma -- aside from our rights as a sovereign nation, what would God expect us to do (if anything) to address the problem of poverty in Mexico? What does justice and love demand of me as a Christian, and do we have any greater responsibilities towards Mexico, because of our common border and shared history, than we do towards, say, the Sudan?

Lehtonen said...

I want to start by saying that with very hard issues like this one on Immigration reform I understand that anything that is done will not be fair to everyone. In saying this it is my opinion that nothing will really come out of this Bill, these illegal people will keep coming and find different ways to get around the law.

I know about the immigration process, and even if you could say let all the illegal people become citizens as long as they get into the system. The system will become overloaded. We are talking about centers that administer immunization shots, centers that do the biometric processing, and doctors that must do the medical examinations on these immigrants. These three things along will be a Burdon on local governments and create corruption.

What is your position going to be?

Anna said...

Hi -

There are a couple of attitudes I've seen towards the U.S., which need to be addressed.

1. We're either viewed as the
great hope of every person in
the world for success or

2. We're hated for the prosperity
we have with everyone seeking
to grab whatever they can from
us legally or illegally.

While love for our fellow human beings is a must, especially for Christians, we have become a nation which enables the bad behavior of others. It is much better to teach them how to fish (how to prosper themselves) than to try to provide for everyone in the world. We are not God.

Our nation was founded on Godly principles of integrity, honesty, hard work and love of God. Good character was stressed.

We have established procedures for entering the U.S. and becoming a citizen. The problem is these procedures are not being uniformly applied. Don't you think people from former Soviet controlled countries would jump at the opportunity to live in and become citizens of our nation? Years ago, I knew a woman from England, who wanted to live and work here. She moved to Australia, hoping she would have a better chance to get in legally. Why should there be a double standard? Tough quotas, background checks, etc. are required. Why should Mexicans, Latin Americans or any other ethnic group be exempt from such quotas and requirements?

If adjustments need to be made in the quotas because we have a dire need in a particular area, make them. Then bring in people legally. People who are here without the blessing of the U.S. Government become prey to those who would take advantage of them. They live in fear and will never experience liberty as long as they are here illegally.

Tighten the borders, and help those who are sincere in their desire to be part of this country and meet the eligibility requirements to do so legally.

Those are my thoughts on the subject.