Finding Theological Clarity Within The Immigration Debate

Jul 27th, 2019 | By | Category: Featured Issues, Politics & Current Events

The current American immigration crisis is exacerbated by the two extremes that dominate the debate.  The Democratic side often stresses repudiating the entire immigration structure, including detention camps, the deportation of non-criminal aliens, and “decriminalizing illegal entry and extending benefits to undocumented immigrants.”  On the other extreme are those Republicans who deny that there is a crisis.  The US has no responsibility to maintain humane conditions in the detention camps, especially for children.  The migrant camp conditions are not inhumane and there is no moral responsibility to keep “vulnerable people, children above all, in the most humane conditions possible when their detention is required” [Ross Douthat].


Rooted in Scripture and the compassion that naturally goes with the Gospel, evangelical Christians have something to say about all this.  Several considerations:


First, Bekah McNeel of Christianity Today asked Christian leaders to help us think, lament and grieve over the border situation.  Here is a sampling of their comments:


  1. Max Lucado, author and pastor in San Antonio:

“The harrowing photo of a drowned immigrant and his nearly two-year-old daughter stirs outrage. These are human beings; a dad and his child, a family. We scarcely have time to process the emotion before we read about sick, hungry, migrant children who are at risk in detention centers. Children? Combing lice out of each other’s hair?  Oh, my. My, my, my.  We want to look away. But let’s not. Let’s not turn away. Let’s not return too quickly to our summer activities. Let’s let these reports and images prompt the deepest form of prayer.  Let’s groan.  The groan is the vernacular of pain; the chosen tongue of despair. When there are no words, these are the words. When prayer won’t come, these will have to do. Sunnier times hear nicer, more poetic petitions, but stormy times generate mournful sounds of sadness, fear, and dread. These sounds, these unadorned petitions of darkness, find their way into the ears of God the Father. Why? Because they are entrusted into the care of the Holy Spirit.  Likewise, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God (Rom. 8:26–27).  We do not know how to pray as we ought. The Spirit does. And the Spirit will.  We lament the desperate conditions of immigrant families.  We lament the impossible assignment given to the Border Patrol and officials.  We lament the inability to find civil solutions. Let us pray for God-breathed solutions.  Lord, please help us.  We need to act, help, and rescue. But first, we need prayerful empathy. This is a mess. A humanitarian, heart-breaking mess. As we are wondering what can be done, let’s do what we are called to do.  Let’s pray. Let’s lament. Let’s groan.”

  1. Karen González, author of The God Who Sees: Immigrants, the Bible, and the Journey to Belong:


“How long, Lord? Will you forget the children forever? How long will you hide your face from their suffering? How long must they endure separation from their parents and have sorrow in their hearts? How long must the cruelty of their captors triumph?

Look at them and answer, Lord my God. Restore them, heal their traumas, and reunite their families.  We repent for our complicity in their suffering. We have failed to support policies that care for our neighbors and not just ourselves. We have failed to elect legislators who will do justice for migrant families. We have failed to do our part to welcome immigrants in mutuality. We have failed to see their humanity and trust in your bountiful economy.  But we trust in your faithful love to transform us; we trust that you hear the cries of migrant children.  Our hearts rejoice in your salvation because you have been good to us.  We commit to do justice for the immigrant, to love mercy remembering your mercy to us, and to walk with you all of our days.

  1. Alan Cross, Southern Baptist pastor and author of When Heaven and Earth Collide: Racism, Southern Evangelicals, and the Better Way of Jesusand advocate on behalf of immigrants and refugees with the Evangelical Immigration Table:


“Tears flowed reading this. If only someone had been there on that river bank to grab the baby girl, Valeria, to hold her safe, to help her father, Oscar Alberto Martinez Ramirez. After crossing the dangerous river with his baby girl, he went back for his wife, Tania, on the other side. Little Valeria, probably scared and wanting to be with her father, jumped back in the river to follow him. Oscar turned and went after her, but the strong current of the river swept them both away; Valeria clinging to her father, Oscar holding her tight. Their bodies were later found together face down in the mud.  Jesus sees them. They matter. He sees all of the crowds of migrants, harassed and helpless and fleeing for refuge. Tens of thousands of parents and children making the dangerous journey from Central America, fleeing violence, drug gangs, corruption, and cartels.  Do the millions of Christians in America see them? Can we be moved with compassion for the crowds of migrants coming to us? Can we weep for Oscar and Valeria? Jesus sees. Do we? May God help them. May God help us.”

Second, Dr. Michael Pocock, former Chairman and Senior Professor of World Missions at Dallas Theological Seminary, offers three key points that enable us to maintain a biblical perspective on immigration:

  1. Because all people are created in God’s image, immigrants should be treated with dignity, even if they attempt to circumvent the law.
  2. The Old Testament helps us see that God makes provision for alien and poor workers, exemplified in the case of Ruth and Boaz. Boaz permits an alien, Ruth from Moab, to glean in his fields and offered her protection from his own male workers as well as safety, respect, water, and shelter.
  3. National governments are basically units of government established by God to accomplish His purposes. Rule of law must be respected and government has the obligation to establish policies for the well-being of its people—and this includes laws that establish a reasonable and manageable flow of immigrants into its nation.  Somehow, Christians must find a way to embrace a policy that reflects understanding, compassion and respect for immigrants, while at the same time urging respect and honor to government and its laws.  Pocock writes that “Christ’s immigration policy would stress ministry to migrants and also the responsibility and privilege of Christian migrants to spread the gospel wherever they are.”

The Bible makes it clear that many biblical persons were in fact immigrants at some point in their lives:  Abraham; Isaac; Jacob; Joseph; Moses; Eilmelech, Naomi and her sons; Ruth; David; Joseph, Mary and Jesus; Aquila and Priscilla; and Jewish Christians  fleeing persecution.  Pocock concludes:  “Whether it is hospitality to strangers (Rom. 12:13), or entertaining those who cannot repay (Luke 14:12-14), doing good to all persons ( Gal. 6:10), or considering all people equally no matter their culture or ethnicity (Col. 3:10-11), the Bible speaks to our attitude toward those of other races or cultures.”  The church should lead the way in finding the balance between treating immigrants with dignity and obedience to the rule of law.  Compassion mixed with respect for law must be modeled by the church.

Third, I invite you to consider the Evangelical Immigration Table’s Evangelical Statement of Principles for Immigration Reform as a commendable set of basic elements of a biblical posture relative to immigration.  The Statement’s introduction reads as follows:

Our national immigration laws have created a moral, economic and political crisis in America. Initiatives to remedy this crisis have led to polarization and name calling in which opponents have misrepresented each other’s positions as open borders and amnesty versus deportations of millions. This false choice has led to an unacceptable political stalemate at the federal level at a tragic human cost. We urge our nation’s leaders to work together with the American people to pass immigration reform that embodies these key principles and that will make our nation proud. As evangelical Christian leaders, we call for a bipartisan solution on immigration that:

  • Respects the God-given dignity of every person
  • Protects the unity of the immediate family
  • Respects the rule of law
  • Guarantees secure national borders
  • Ensures fairness to taxpayers
  • Establishes a path toward legal status and/or citizenship for those who qualify and who wish to become permanent residents.

My friend, Ralph Enlow, acknowledges that “the above principles leave a chasm that can only be bridged by a commitment to engagement and compromise. But we ‘strangers’ who through the blood of Christ have been reconciled to God and to one another (Eph. 2:11-22) must take the courageous and costly initiative to:

  • lead our fellow citizens in repentance for our collective hypocrisy and cultural hubris;
  • reach out on a personal level to embrace the despised and disenfranchised; and
  • advocate within the sphere of our citizenship responsibility for the rectification and re-framing of immigration’s legal apparatus.”

A most helpful book that can guide Christian leaders in this effort is Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion and Truth in the Immigration Debate.  It presents an important historical overview of immigration in the United States, a thorough investigation on “Thinking Biblically About Immigration,” and offers insights into the economic and legal aspects of this complicated issue.  In the Appendix are valuable discussion questions for groups and for churches that are serious about thinking through and leading the church in this immigration debate.  I highly recommend this resource.

See Bekah McNeel, “Grieving Our Broken Border” (1 July 2019);  Spring/Summer 2010 issue of Kindred Spirit; Ralph Enlow, “Immigration: How Do We Get Out Of This Morass?”  4ThoughtLeaders, Biblical Higher Education, Perspectives (6 and 21 January 2018 and 4 February 2018); Matthew Soerens and Jenny Hwang, Welcoming the Stranger:  Justice, Compassion and Truth in the Immigration Debate; and Ross Douthat in the New York Times (7 July 2019). 

Comments Closed

2 Comments to “Finding Theological Clarity Within The Immigration Debate”

  1. Peter Wiebe says:

    It would be helpful to understand clearly that a boarder crisis exists, and why. It has existed for a number of years, Obama addressed it critically years ago, and set up the current procedures for handling the crisis. This was set up by Obama, not Trump. More importantly, let’s stop the blame game and solve the problem in a lawful, humane way. The quote from this article is so extremely misleading, “On the other extreme are those Republicans who deny that there is a crisis.” Just the opposite is the case. Democrats have been the ones saying that there is no crisis, it’s some rhetoric Trump was using to further his cause. Then, these same folks started screaming about these horrific conditions which, they said, Trump created. Neither was true, but more importantly, Trump pleaded with Congress to address and alleviate these conditions. They have done absolutely nothing. It appears that the Democrat Law Makers are more interested in using this crisis to defeat the Trump administration at the cost of resolving this crisis. It has become very clear that Democrats have absolutely nothing to offer other than their “open borders” and have no intention of working to solve the problem. Pressure needs to be put on BOTH side, yes, including the Democrats so that there is some protocol in place to deal with this matter in some humane and yet lawful way.

  2. Arlie Rauch says:

    I live near the border now and have been instructed not to cross over because it is unsafe (actually I have no need to cross except for a sense of adventure). I wish there were a solution, but I do not claim to have one. Some folks opine as if we should be for immigration. The truth is that we as a nation have never been against it, though there have been limits and periodic cessations while those here assimilated. But is it not possible that immigration can overrun and change a nation dramatically as has happened in Europe? What are the effects when you discover that now a religion is in charge that was not since the founding of this nation? Can we be too compassionate? Is it compassionate to have limits and uphold them? Does one’s motive matter in the position you take? If there is no limit to immigration, can you provide the care needed? For how long? Many more questions than answers. God did found nations with borders early in history, and somewhere that has meaning. Pray for those in authority!