The Common Good
June 2011

When in Romans...

by Jennifer Kottler | June 2011

The Utah Compact has good immigration principles -- but there's still a more excellent way.

Most of us can agree that our immigration system is broken. We are in desperate need of a federal immigration solution that works; however, given the environment in Washington, we are unlikely to get that any time soon.

As a result, many have been trying to address this issue at the state level. Notably, people of goodwill in Utah -- elected officials and civic and religious leaders -- have drafted and signed the "Utah Compact," spelling out five principles for immigration legislation. First, immigration is a federal, not a state issue; second, local law enforcement should focus on apprehending criminals, not undocumented workers. Third, because strong families are central to our society, family unity must be the aim; and fourth, immigrants, as workers and taxpayers, are critical to the state’s economic health. Finally, any solution must value all people of goodwill -- citizen or immigrant.

In March, Utah's legislature passed immigration legislation. Some parts of it -- such as a guest worker program -- were in keeping with the spirit of the compact, but much of the legislation, including an Arizona-style enforcement bill, wasn't. Despite this mixed result, the Utah Compact's principles can still be used to drive the federal immigration conversation in a positive direction. While these are not explicitly Christian principles, they mirror closely the values many Christians, on the basis of their faith, hold on this issue.

However, some Christians can’t seem to get past Romans 13 as a justification for enforcement-only immigration policy. This chapter is used by anti-immigration folks to make the case that God has ordained the laws of the earth, and immigration laws are some of those laws, so if people break the (current) law they need to be punished.

But that’s not the point of the letter -- which is an all-call, "everybody in, nobody out" letter to the early believers in the seat of power of the Roman Empire. The epistle's point is that, because Jesus lived, died, and rose again, we are resurrected to new life in Christ! We are reconciled to God through Jesus Christ -- in fact, the whole world is in an ongoing process of reconciliation through the love of Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit. As Paul wrote in Galatians, "There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus." And, I would argue, if Paul were writing to the church in Washington, D.C., he might say, "There is neither documented nor undocumented, immigrant nor citizen … for we are all one in Jesus Christ."

I'd argue that the point of the Romans 13 is to contrast what God requires of us with what the state requires of us. We need to obey rulers, Paul said; if you break the law, you will be punished. This is the world’s economy of justice. But God's economy is different. In the 12th chapter, Paul writes, "Don't be like the people of this world, but let God change the way you think. Then you will know how to do everything that is good and pleasing to [God]."

How do we fulfill God's law? We love! Paul writes, "Let love be your only debt! If you love others, you have done all that the law demands" (13:8).

So, my brothers and sisters in Christ, let love be our aim. Love will point us to justice and righteousness, and if our justice is just and our righteousness is right, it should point us back to love. We will never achieve justice for immigrants, or for anyone else, if we fail to first love others as much as we love ourselves.

Rev. Jennifer Kottler, incoming associate pastor at Park Avenue Christian Church in New York City, is the former director of policy and advocacy at Sojourners.

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