The Common Good

That They May Be One: Immigration and Christian Unity

As we approach Holy Week, I’ve been re-reading the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ Last Supper, trial, crucifixion, and resurrection. In John 17, as Jesus prays for his disciples and their successors in the hours before he is arrested, he prays for our unity as his church:

…that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you… May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. (John 17:21, 23)

Central to our mission as Christ’s followers is to share with the world this good news: that the Father sent the Son because he so loved the world — but the best observable evidence of that Gospel reality, a unified Church, seems a distant, utopian dream. Just within the United States — this small sliver of the global church — we are divided by denomination, by race, by political ideology, and by the competitive human instinct that leads even those congregations who resemble one another doctrinally, ethnically, and politically to jockey over the same individuals in order to fill their sanctuaries (or auditoriums) and offering plates. Perhaps the situation is not quite so stark: I know that many — probably most — believers share the desire for unity. It just seems at times that we have so far to go, and might be drifting in the wrong direction.

The issue of immigration — where I spend much of my time — plays into this question of unity. On one level, the issue of immigration enjoys remarkable consensus: immigration reform is perhaps the only significant public policy on which the National Association of Evangelicals, the National Council of Churches, the Southern Baptist Convention, and the U.S. Catholic Bishops all substantially agree. Usually, as my friend Rich Nathan has quipped, it would take a peacemaking Mennonite just to keep these factions of American Christianity from erupting into a fight.

If at the level of national leadership immigration is uniquely unifying, though, the reality is that it can still be a very divisive issue at the pew level. Many American Christians think of immigration primarily as a political issue — rather than viewing immigrants first and foremost from the perspective of Scripture — and thus they begin any discussion from an entrenched position, whether on the right or the left. Ethnicity divides us even further: despite some valiant efforts, 11 a.m. on a Sunday remains one of the most segregated hour of the week . As I move between Caucasian and Hispanic evangelical churches — sometimes even between services within the same church building — I’m startled by how differently most Hispanic Christians view this issue than some of their white brothers and sisters. Latino Christians are drawn to the many texts of Scripture that command us to welcome and extend hospitality to immigrants; some white pastors, consciously or not, seem to avoid these passages. A politically conservative host on the English-speaking side of a local Christian radio station echoes some of the rhetoric of secular radio hosts afraid of an “invasion” of “illegal immigrants,” while the Spanish-speaking side of the same network calls people to march in the street — and pray — for immigration reform. There are many signs that white Christians are reconsidering their views, such as recent polls that find a majority of white evangelicals support immigration reform, but a contrast persists.

Divided as we may be, I believe there is hope for the unity for which our Lord prayed, and it’s found in the death of Christ that we remember at Holy Week. Ephesians 2 tells us that Christ died, first and foremost, for our sins: “when we were dead in transgressions,” God in grace and love sent God’s only son, Jesus Christ, to bear our sins on the cross (Ephesians 2:5).

Ephesians 2 suggests that there’s another reason that Christ died, though: as pastor Rob Bugh notes, Christ died for our sins, but also for our racism. Christ’s death “destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility” (Eph. 2:14) which divided Jews from Gentiles — and, it is fair to say, which divides Hispanics, Caucasians, African-Americans, Asians, and every other ethnic group. Christ’s purpose was “to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility” (Eph. 2:16).

I am convinced that if, by the help of and with the humility provided by the Holy Spirit, we can realize the unity for which Christ prayed and for which he died, the issue of immigration becomes easy. When relationships bridge the differences between us — so that we can recognize the many believing immigrants amongst us as our sisters and brothers — we can respond to immigration not as a political problem but as a family issue to which our biblical faith informs a response.

So let us pray, with the risen Christ, for that unity.

Matthew Soerens serves as the U.S. Church Training Specialist for World Relief and the Field Director of the Evangelical Immigration Table, a broad coalition that includes World Relief, Sojourners, and various other organizations. He is the co-author of Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion and Truth in the Immigration Debate (InterVarsity Press, 2009).

Image: Unity concept, C Jones / Shutterstock.com

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