Editor’s note: This is the fourth installment in A More Welcoming Way, a series of TC articles on the immigration experience, attempts at reform and the church’s role in the process.
For Christians who take seriously the authority of Scripture, immigration is much more than a complex and controversial political issue. It is also an important theological issue.
The Bible actually has a lot to say on the topic of immigration. The Hebrew word that best fits the idea of an immigrant - the ger - appears 92 times in the Old Testament alone. God makes clear that He loves immigrants and He commands His people to do so as well (Deuteronomy 10:17-19; Leviticus 19:33-34). Often, the command to love and welcome immigrants is mentioned alongside two other uniquely vulnerable groups: orphans and widows. In fact, Old Testament scholar Walter Kaiser notes that the Hebrew Scriptures warn “no fewer than 36 times of Israel’s obligations to aliens, widows and orphans. Most important here, Israel’s obligation is to be motivated by the memory that they had been aliens in Egypt.”
In the gospels, Jesus interacts with foreigners in countercultural ways. While many around Him despised Samaritans, Jesus’ interactions with these individuals, whom He considered to be “foreigners,” are characterized by love and respect. He reveals Himself as the Messiah to a Samaritan woman, in whom He sees a potential evangelist. He highlights the gratitude of a Samaritan whom He has healed of leprosy. And, most powerfully, He makes a Samaritan the hero of one of His most important parables, depicting him as a model of neighborly love.
The New Testament also makes clear that hospitality - literally, philoxenia, the love of strangers - is a requirement for Christians and, in particular, for leaders in the church. In contemporary English, we often use the word hospitality to refer to having our friends over for a meal, but Jesus makes clear that our welcome must extend beyond that to welcoming those on the margins. Indeed, though many in our society associate “strangers” with a potential threat, it is the explicit command of Scripture to welcome them, with the suggestion that by welcoming strangers we could be welcoming an angel or even Jesus Himself.
There is no law prohibiting a church or an individual from welcoming immigrants, sharing the Gospel with them or meeting any number of basic human needs.
Ask an average, church-going Christian which Scripture passage most informs their view of immigration and some will quickly reference Romans 13, which speaks not to our treatment of immigrants but to our relationship to the divinely ordained civil authorities. Yet it’s an error to hear “immigrant” and infer “illegal,” because most immigrants in the U.S. are present lawfully. Given an estimated 11.5 million immigrants present unlawfully, however, this Biblical teaching certainly is relevant.
The good news is that, at least at present, there is no United States law prohibiting a church or an individual from welcoming immigrants, sharing the Gospel with them (or, as might be just as likely, letting them share the Gospel with us) or compassionately meeting any number of basic human needs - so long as there is no employment involved. Romans 13 is not an excuse to ignore Scripture’s plethora of commands to love, welcome and seek justice for immigrants.
Romans 13 does compel us to work within our form of government, though, to advocate for public policies that would both restore the rule of law and extend compassion to vulnerable immigrants. Hundreds of Christian leaders, from a broad range of theological and political perspectives, have affirmed the Evangelical Statement of Principles for Immigration Reform, which sets forward a series of principles that they hope will guide Congress to move forward on this issue. Regardless of what Congress does, though, Scripture compels those of us who profess to follow Jesus to reach out with compassion and genuine hospitality to the immigrants in our communities.