Treating the Sojourner

Recently a pastor friend recalled a sermon he preached about a local immigration ordinance that was dividing the community and his congregation. He remembered looking out into the congregation, knowing that half supported the law to limit public services for undocumented immigrants and half did not—never an easy place for a preacher to be. If only I could have had handy Daniel Carroll’s Christians at the Border: Immi­gration, the Church, and the Bible.

The book doesn’t provide an easy answer to one of the most contentious public policy issues facing our country. There aren’t any. What it does is implore Christians to expand the lens with which they view Hispanic immigration beyond merely an economic or political one. He asks that we consider this recent wave of immigration, and the controversy surrounding it, deliberately as Christians.

What exactly does that mean? In the first place, it means informing ourselves about what the Bible teaches on the issue, which is no small task. The Old Testament is a veritable history of people on the move. Carroll guides us through the stories of biblical migrants and refugees, the forces (which are remarkably similar to those of today) that drove people to leave their homelands, and Hebrew laws on the treatment of the sojourner. He also draws lessons from the gospels and Jesus’ embrace of the outsider. The extensive scriptural evidence, paired with sections at the end of each chapter outlining their implications for today, makes this book a relevant resource for Christians hoping to engage in this issue.

However, Carroll emphasizes that a consciously Christian approach to Hispanic immigration also invites us to examine its significance for the church. He points out that the majority of Hispanic immigrants to this country, documented and undocumented, are fellow Christians. In turn, he asks us to consider how migrations increasing around the world could be part of God’s divine plan “to revitalize the Christian churches here and to present to those who do not yet believe the opportunity to turn to Christ in their search for a new life.” Certainly, Hispanic churches are a growing, energetic force in U.S Christendom. But what does it mean if thousands of those believers are also undocumented immigrants?

IN MANY WAYS, Carroll is asking us to question our allegiances. As a professor of Old Testament at Denver Seminary and raised in both the U.S. and Guatemala, Carroll has spent years doing just that. Are our concerns about our changing culture, valid as they may be, more important than scriptural teaching or the potential strengthening of God’s kingdom in our country? Does God still call us to welcome immigrants who are breaking the law by coming here? Carroll avoids a particular political alignment, but this territory makes that exercise very tricky.

For that reason he saves the treatment of Romans 13:1-7 for last, once all the other evidence is on the table. These verses, on submitting to governing authorities, are often used by immigration opponents as the scriptural equivalent to “what part of ‘illegal’ don’t you understand?” Carroll argues that limiting the discussion on legality to complying with current law is simplistic, particularly considering that the governing authorities themselves all recognize that our current immigration system is seriously flawed and in need of revision. Carroll’s leap from biblical teaching to assertions that U.S. immigration law has historically been “confused, contradictory, and in some ways unfair” might lose some conservative or skeptical readers, but certainly not before he has laid out an effective case for God’s heart for the immigrant.

Indeed, partisan debates over tax burdens or benefits to the economy will never lead us to a meaningful fix of our broken immigration system. For the thousands of communities and congregations struggling with this issue, productive dialogue can only happen when it is grounded in respect toward outsiders and recognition of their dignity. Fortunately, Christ­ians at the Border is an excellent tool to guide us through that process.

Patty Kupfer is the Christians for Comprehensive Immigration Reform campaign coordinator at Sojourners.

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