The Spectacle Blog

A Bad ‘Biblical’ Case for Immigration Reform

By on 8.12.13 | 9:31AM

Jim Wallis, president of Sojourners, an evangelical Christian group based in Washington D.C., wrote in last Thursday’s Los Angeles Times that he thinks there is a biblical case for immigration reform.

After a long wind-up in which he suggests that many opponents of immigration reform are motivated by, among other things, “unacknowledged racial prejudice,” Wallis begins making his would-be biblical argument by noting that he and other evangelical Christians “don’t think a faith-based argument exists against immigration reform.” To which I find myself responding, “So what?” The non-existence of a case, biblical or otherwise, against something is hardly the same thing as a case in favor of it.

Wallis recognizes this and trudges on: “God’s passionate, abiding concern for immigrants and foreigners, strangers and travelers—and for our neighbors—is obvious to anyone reading through Scripture.” I think there’s a problem with the possessives here: how can an omniscient God have a “passionate, abiding concern” for “our neighbors”? (Does God really see the world in terms of nations and states with defined borders, competing interests, and so on? Does he have “neighbors” or do we?) Beneath the murky syntax I think what Wallis means is that the Bible tells us that God has, to borrow Wallis’s phrase, “a passionate abiding concern” for all of us, one that he expects all of us to share this compassion.

Wallis quotes two biblical passages in support of his reformist view, none of which, so far as I can tell, has anything to do with immigration in the contemporary sense. The first is Leviticus 19:33-34:

And if a stranger sojourn with thee in your land, ye shall not vex him. But the stranger that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.*

It’s far from clear to me that not vexing or otherwise mistreating “strangers,” whether they are legal or illegal immigrants or just visitors of some kind or another, is the same thing as bestowing various hard-won rights and privileges upon them. Illegal immigrants should not be harassed or abused, to be sure; but this doesn’t mean that they should all receive permanent legal status.

The second set of verses he offers, Matthew 25:35-36, are, if anything, even less obviously relevant to the issue of immigration:

For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.

To me all of the above has more to do with charity in a fairly general sense rather than with, say, bestowal of citizenship or the right to vote. The question is not, I think, whether Christian morality calls upon individuals to be charitable towards one another—it undoubtedly does—but rather what form this charity should take and whether a specifically Christian charity can or should be the province of a state, especially such an avowedly secular state as ours. That charity can and, indeed, ought to be synonymous with a reformist immigration policy Wallis seems to take rather for granted, making his biblical case for comprehensive immigration reform a dubious one at best.

*These are not exactly the same words that Wallis quotes. Like so many religious leaders today—Catholic and Protestant alike—he has the annoying habit of employing the least euphonious translation of the Bible he can find.

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