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.
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.
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.
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!