Immigrant Neighbor On My Mind
Hot off the press is the report Immigrants Among Us: A Lutheran Framework for Addressing Immigration Issues, approved in November 2012 by the Commission on Theology of Church Relations (CTCR) of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS). The report is also available online in Spanish. The publication of the report happily coincides with Concordia Seminary’s Center for Hispanic Studies (CHS) 8th Annual Lecture in Hispanic/Latino Theology and Missions and the triennial 3rd Hispanic Lutheran Theological Consultation (March 11-12, 2013), which will focus on the topic “Immigrants Among Us: Theological and Practical Implications for Working Among Immigrant Neighbors.”
To give readers a taste of the contents, here are some of the basic highlights of the first two parts of the report dealing with the proper way to approach scriptural data on immigrants and the matter of obedience to the civil law concerning immigrants:
I. According to Scripture, Christians have a twofold responsibility to love the neighbor and obey the civil authorities. A number of implications follow from these two equally valid demands God’s law places on us.
1. Christians are called to love immigrant neighbors regardless of their legal status, and at the same time obey the civil authorities that regulate their legal status. On the one hand, immigrants, aliens, sojourners, or foreigners are our neighbors, and thus are included in God’s timeless command, “love thy neighbor as thyself.” The command to love the alien is not tied to the fulfillment of certain conditions. We are simply called to love them regardless of their status in society and our particular positions on immigration law. On the other hand, love of the immigrant does not trump the place of government, instituted by God, in the creation and enforcement of immigration laws, particularly in the context of modern nation states.
2. The report warns against reading Old Testament data on immigrants in an anachronistic manner either to support a lack of concern for immigration law or to argue for certain types of immigration enforcement today.
Christians should not use the Old Testament…to argue for love of the immigrant in ways that diminish the significance of the rule of law as it functions in nation-states today. Similarly, Christians must be cautious about using particular distinctions between Israel and aliens made in the Old Testament to advocate for particular forms of immigration law or law enforcement today, or to argue that such ancient biblical distinctions can or must be replicated in terms of the relationship between citizens and foreign nationals in contemporary nation-states (p. 16).
3. Scripture does not deal specifically with the issue of illegal immigration, but it does provide a starting point or framework for shaping the church’s basic attitude towards immigrants:
We are bound by Scripture to love our neighbor, including the immigrant in our midst. Therefore, even as Christians struggle to address legal and political questions on the narrow issue of legality, the broad and consistent biblical teaching on God’s love for the aliens who live and move amidst His people must be taken with utmost seriousness (p. 18).
4. Christians are called to love and attend to the needs of citizen neighbors, as well as immigrant neighbors who live among us. Obedience to the law is also part of God’s will and thus included under the command to love the neighbor. It is common and understandable for modern nation states to give priority to the wellbeing of their citizens in public policy and thus in their approach to immigration law. At the same time, a nation can legitimately ask questions and engage in debate about its moral responsibilities towards immigrants, especially those who have been living among us and contributing to our communities for a significant amount of time.
Now, here are some highlights from the second part of the report on approaching immigration issues from the perspective of God-given vocations in the spiritual and temporal realms.
II. In the Lutheran tradition, Christians approach their twofold responsibility to love the immigrant and obey the authorities in the world, and deal with the tensions such commitment may bring, through their various God-given vocations and in the context of God’s two kingdoms (or realms)—namely, the spiritual realm, where God justifies sinners through faith in Christ, and the temporal realm, where God brings about justice in society. Other implications follow from these confessional guidelines.
1. The fulfillment of our vocations leads us to advocate in favor of particular neighbors and their wellbeing. Vocational priority accounts for the positions we take for or against some neighbor or set of neighbors and, whether we realize or not, shapes our arguments on immigration law or certain aspects of it. Vocation allows us to defend the neighbors God has called us to serve, and inevitably yields various positions on immigration law among Christians. Such vocational priority explains why Christians with an equal commitment to God’s Word may give different weight to various factors in the immigration debate (e.g. border security, family unification, labor market, economic need, human rights, path to legalization).
2. Christians do not always agree on the moral failure of immigration law today, whether there is something inherently sinful about the same, contrary to God’s will. For this reason, Christians understandably hold different positions on what is fair, reasonable, just, or godly in current immigration law. One must not conclude that Christians who have issues with immigration law are in favor of illegal immigration. Instead, they take issue with certain aspects of the law.
When it comes to the immigration debate, the critical argument is not whether one is for or against “illegal” immigration. Whatever is “illegal” according to this or that current law is, strictly speaking, “illegal.” There is no argument there. Disagreements about the civil law have to do instead with whether immigration law, either broadly or in certain aspects, deals adequately, fairly, justly, or reasonably with certain neighbors or sets of neighbors (p. 39).
3. Positions on immigration law in the temporal realm should not become an obstacle to the unity of the church, which the Gospel alone brings about in the spiritual realm. Christians are able to disagree on the current state of immigration law and still commune at the Lord’s altar on Sunday morning. Moreover, positions on immigration law in the temporal realm must not become an obstacle to the church’s work of proclamation and mercy among all needy people—including immigrants regardless of their legal status in society. Otherwise stated, we should monitor the potential danger of letting a temporal realm issue, where passions can at times run high, get in the way of the church’s work in the spiritual realm.
4. Christians should be careful not to use vocation as an excuse to avoid dealing with other neighbors that might not neatly fit in one’s vocation, including immigrant neighbors. While the Lutheran teaching of vocation allows us to focus on particular neighbors to whom we give the priority of our love and for whom we advocate, such teaching should not be seen as being above the command to love all neighbors—including immigrants in our midst. Luther’s ethics is one of vocation, but not in an exclusive sense.
Some final thoughts…
It may be useful to note that during the process of reflection and writing of the draft, the CTCR benefitted from feedback given by a variety of individuals with a wide range of experience and expertise dealing with immigration issues, who came together at a Consultation on Immigration Issues in El Paso, Texas, September 17-19, 2011. Speakers represented fields such as law, law enforcement, national and local government, social services, ethics, history, as well as church workers serving among immigrants, including pastors, district staff, and theological educators. Such a variety of positions on immigration confirmed one of the central arguments of the CTCR report, namely, that when people approach immigration issues they are doing so from a particular vocation and thus with a particular neighbor in mind.
One of the concluding paragraphs of the CTCR report reminds us how Lutheran theology avoids extreme positions on either side of the immigration debate by calling both sides to take seriously the commandment to love the immigrant neighbor and obey the authorities. Even questioning whether certain aspects of immigration law deal fairly or adequately with immigrant neighbors need not be interpreted as disrespect for the rule of law, but may be seen as a sign of deep respect for the law and an indication that Christians actually care about the law.
On the one hand, the desire to proclaim the Gospel and do the work of mercy can foster an unwillingness to deal with immigration laws. Biblical data on God’s command to love the aliens in our midst should also take seriously God’s command to obey the authorities. On the other hand, the desire to promote the rule of law can foster an uncritical, passive, and even idolatrous attitude towards government and civil law that does not lead to a serious consideration of a potentially unjust state of affairs. Here the Christian should take seriously God’s command to love the immigrant neighbor in his overall reflection, but also be willing to be well informed on the state of current civil law on immigration, and its potential problems and injustices, precisely for the sake of respect for God’s law in general and for the rule of law in particular (p. 45).
Another concluding paragraph speaks to the place of the law and the gospel as Christians on either side of the debate express their concerns about immigration law and immigrants to one another and in the square of public opinion. It calls people on all sides to repentance and shows us all our need for the gospel.
Finally, Lutheran theology can be misused in a way that obscures the Gospel. A strong rule of law stance without an equally strong concern for the proclamation of the Gospel and the work of mercy among immigrants can lead immigrants to see Lutherans as Christians who do not practice what they preach. Moreover, a persistent insistence on the need for undocumented immigrants to repent of their sin of breaking the law, without an equal insistence on the need for repentance for all who benefit directly or indirectly from their labors, makes the church look hypocritical and thus like a church whose Gospel message cannot be trusted (p. 46).
We must all acknowledge that we do fail to help some neighbor and we do not fulfill all that the law demands of us. We all sin in various ways as we seek to fulfill our vocations in the left- and right-hand realms and kingdoms. Therefore, in what is one of the most complex and debated issues of our time, the Gospel, by means of confession and absolution, must be brought to bear continually as Christians engage in conversations about what is best for various neighbors and attempt to better carry out their vocations responsibly and in good conscience for the sake of these neighbors—including immigrants among us (Ibid.).
The release of the CTCR report could not have come at a more opportune time as the U.S. Congress seeks to tackle immigration reform this year. Any number of pre-negotiations and bipartisan proposals are brewing on the table that move from border security and law enforcement measures towards a fuller consideration of other issues such as the nation’s economic needs and the question of some path to legalization for undocumented immigrants and their children.
Immigrant neighbor on my mind. The immigrant neighbor is relentless. The immigrant neighbor keeps coming back to the table, to Congress, to our collective reflection, to our communities and congregations, and thus also to the church’s thinking and acting in the world. With the new CTCR report, we can be thankful to God that Lutherans are not without theological and pastoral frameworks to deal with one of most complex issues of our time.