The United States prides itself on being a country of laws. There is the settled conviction that here citizens obey the laws of the land and that those who do not are duly punished according to the nature of the violation. Christians who oppose the presence of undocumented immigrants turn to Romans 13 to emphasize that these people are breaking local and national laws and that the appropriate penalties should be applied. This passage is a quandary, too, for some of those who are more sympathetic to the plight of immigrants. They are torn between the harshness and contradictions of the laws and this biblical mandate to submit to the authorities.
Several observations can help put this passage into proper perspective. To begin with, Christians must recognize that their agenda is set in the previous chapter of Paul's letter. Chapter 12 tells believers not to be molded by the "pattern of this world" (12:2). Their lives should be characterized by service to others, love, and compassion-even toward enemies (12:3-21).
The authorities, however, have a different purpose and a different way of doing things, and this is spelled out in Romans 13. Christians are called to respect the government, says the apostle, but this does not mean sanctifying everything that it might legislate or do. Citizens of the U.S. have the right to disagree with the government, and, motivated by their principles, Christians do this in multiple ways: at the ballot box, through publications, by organizing educational, legal, and civic organizations that defend other points of view, by participating in peaceful protests of many kinds for a host of causes, and the like. Each of these actions in its own way expresses reservations about the state of affairs and the things that the government is mandating. Immigration is an example of an area where many believers diverge from the goals and enforcement of current legislation.
What is more, the U.S. government itself admits that legislation on immigration must be changed. Leaders from across the political spectrum recognize that what is in place now is not working. Recent efforts to craft a comprehensive immigration policy are clear evidence of the need for new immigration laws.
Therefore, to point to Romans 13 and adherence to the law in debates on immigration, without nuance or biblical and historical depth, simply will not do. Christians should search all of the scriptures for guidance in evaluating the development of immigration policy and engaging its challenges. From that foundation, Christians can begin to move forward to the legal issues. In other words, discussion on legality cannot be limited just to questions about complying with current laws, laws that all know are impractical and will soon be replaced. If these laws are problematic-theologically, humanely, and pragmatically-and if all sides agree that reform is needful, the call to submit to the authorities in Romans 13 should be rethought in fresh and constructive ways. Respect for the nation's present laws can be coupled with and informed by the move toward a new set of laws. Ideally, laws should embody the best moral principles of a nation. Clearly, immigration legislation does not measure up.
But what of immigrants who are Christians? How do they respond to Romans 13? They know that they are violating the law by living and working here. But, they also have experienced personally the law's inequities. For example, the government turns a blind eye to many employers because the country needs cheap labor, but then it makes access to social services increasingly difficult for these same workers. Hispanic immigrant believers admire the efficiency of the legal system of the U.S. and want to contribute to society, even as they work for a better life. Many do their best to obey the laws in every area that does not threaten their jobs, homes, and children's education and welfare. Many desire to be model 'citizens' as part of their Christian duty and in order to gain the respect of the majority culture in which they live. All fervently want a fair legal resolution of the situation.
Where can we go from here? If one evaluates immigration law in the U.S. as confused and unfair, and if one believes that these laws do not square with the teaching of the Bible and the ethical demands of the heart of God - let alone the historic openness of this country to foreigners - then these Christians will not say, "What is it about 'illegal' that you don't understand?" Instead, they might declare with the apostles, "Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God's sight to obey you rather than God" (Acts 4:19).
Before this statement raises all kinds of alarm, let me make it very clear that I am not advocating civil disobedience on a large scale, just as most Christians who have strong misgivings about undocumented immigrants are not lobbying for a massive national deportation operation to rid the country of one and all. It is a narrow understanding of the nature of law and the Christian's relationship to human government that must be questioned. We need to move ahead towards constructive change with Christian humility and charity, with respect for those placed in authority over us but especially with an eye to the higher calling of the people of God to be a blessing to the world.
Dr. M. Daniel Carroll Rodas is a distinguished professor of Old Testament at Denver Seminary, and author of Christians at the Border: Immigration, the Church, and the Bible (Baker Academic Books), from which this post is adapted.