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 witImmigrants Among Ush 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.

Inmigrantes entre nosotros

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.





9 responses to “Immigrant Neighbor On My Mind”

  1. Mark Squire Avatar
    Mark Squire

    This is certainly a complex issue. I wonder what connections we can draw with the struggles faced by runaway slaves and “northern” Christians during the time leading up to the Civil War. On the one hand, those who came in contact with runaways would want to love them, serve their needs, show them mercy, and protect them from abuse. On the other hand, the laws in place demanded that runaway slaves be returned to their masters. I think part of the complexity of the issue is struggling with the question, “At what point is obeying the government contrary to the Word and will of God?” In other words, when does it become “obeying man rather than God?” I pray that Christians throughout the country are moved to show love and mercy to their neighbors in every way possible.

    1. Leopoldo Sanchez Avatar
      Leopoldo Sanchez

      Thanks for your comments, Mark! You are right in saying that the moral failure of immigration law, or certain aspects of it, is not a black and white issue. Not a slam dunk. Christians often disagree on this point. Some feel that current immigration law, as it stands, and in all its parts, is not contrary to God’s law. Others see certain aspects of immigration law as contrary to God’s Word and thus unjust and sinful. Others may not see certain aspects of immigration law as inherently sinful but may still argue for more sensible laws for various reasons, involving the wellbeing of particular neighbors (e.g., border security, labor and economic needs, keeping families together, etc.). The CTCR report acknowledges your basic observation.

      I have to give some more thought to the connections one could draw from your historical analogy. Back in the day, I suppose Christians could have felt they had a tension to deal with between loving the neighbor and obeying the authorities. Part of the problem with the analogy, however, is that, at least in retrospect, the tension between showing mercy to slaves and obeying the authorities regulating their status in society is in some ways gone for a number of reasons. One reason is that, once a slave entered a free state, one could argue he was now under a different legal situation and thus no longer had legal responsibilities towards the former master in the former state of residence. We have a little bit of an analogous circumstance going on in immigration law today, with some states implementing different laws than other states on the matter of admissions of undocumented immigrants to public colleges and universities within their borders. In other words, we have a situation in which what may apply in one state no longer applies in another.

      Another reason that shows how the historical analogy loses to a significant degree the tension between love of neighbor and obedience to the authorities one finds in current immigration issues is that slaves were often thought of and treated as less than humans. Slavery in the U.S. was even pretty brutal. In such a situation, there is enough justification on moral grounds for Christians to question the godliness of slavery and related laws. Having said that, there may be a parallel if and when immigrants are taken advantage of by coyotes or human traffickers, or by employers who exploit them. Immigrants are at times taken advantage of as part of an economic system that makes use of their labors but does not legally regularize their status so that they may come out of the shadows. Slaves were often seen as an economic commodity, as things to be owned and thus not as human beings created in the image of God for whom Christ died.

      The historical analogy does not apply in every case for sure, but it allows us to think further about some questions concerning the rationale for taking positions on the extent to which laws are contrary to God’s will, or whether they are fair, just, godly, or at the very least reasonable. Thanks again!

  2. Yvette Moy Avatar
    Yvette Moy

    Each major period of immigration in the United States has been part of larger migrations around the world. One of the key passages in the CTCR is this reminder:

    Our Lord desires to identify Himself with the stranger so that we might see Him in the stranger: “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and
    you welcomed me” (Matthew 25:35, italics added). Notwithstanding the various interpretations of the identity of “one of the least of these” in Matthew 25,26 Martin Luther uses the text in his explanation of the fifth commandment in his Large Catechism to identify Christ with “those in need and peril of body and life.”

    The migration of believers in the Bible was a blessing to the nations. Could it be that God is bringing millions of Hispanics to the United States to revitalize 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?

    1. Leopoldo Sanchez Avatar
      Leopoldo Sanchez

      Thanks for your comments, Yvette. They brought to mind an observation that is often made by Latin American scholars, namely, that what we see in the U.S. is really part of what goes on in all of the Americas. Indeed, migration is a global phenomenon. People are always on the move and the big reasons often are, when it comes down to it, politics and economics. If I remember correctly, When the CTCR invited people to its Consultation on Immigration in El Paso a year or two ago, we noted afterwards that we had failed–for whatever reason–to find and thus hear the perspective of Lutherans working more directly within these dimensions of the problem. I do not recall hearing from an economist, a farmer, a business person, or a politician. In my opinion, as far as matters of the temporal realm like immigration law go, such perspectives are sorely needed in the conversation at a local and national level–even at an international level, for matter (e.g., what responsibilities do nation states who share a border have towards one another in political and economic terms?).

      Your comments also speak to an argument that, for the sake of brevity, we can call the missiological one (or perhaps the evangelistic or evangelical one), namely, that we are called to evangelize the nations, including immigrants in our midst. Since immigrants are part of the nations, the church should be concerned about their spiritual wellbeing in addition to caring for their bodily needs. Early in the process of drafting the CTCR document, committee members resonated with the idea that the document should speak to obedience to the law but also obedience to the Lord’s mandate to the church to make disciples of all nations by baptizing and teaching. The CTCR report simply calls the church to do and support the work of proclamation as part of her right-hand realm vocation in the world regardless of the left-hand realm status of the recipients of such proclamation. The report makes this move, without speculating on what might be in the mind of God, as we see with our eyes the migration of people from the global South to the U.S.–a migration that includes both legal and illegal migration.

      Finally, your comment on the migration of “believers” brings another twist to the church’s thinking about migration. The church does have to take care of her own, one would think. The church shows hospitality to all, but especially to those of the household of faith. The church exercises a certain priority of love towards those who are brothers and sisters in the faith. This may mean an extra measure of compassion even in regard to the temporal realm issues affecting the undocumented immigrant. I know of Lutheran congregations who have done everything in their power to deal with regularizing the legal status of undocumented immigrants who are also their brothers and sisters in Christ. In such cases, the church’s compassion extends to the wellbeing of the brother and sister in the temporal realm as well. And yes, immigrants who are believers often contribute in many ways to the vitality of our congregations and even in outreach efforts to immigrant communities. They are a blessing to us. There is a reciprocal relationship involved. In an analogous way, it is interesting to note that attempts to deal with immigration law or reform in the country often asks questions of mutual responsibility and benefit. And so, for instance, there may be a recognition in immigration reform of the benefits of immigrant labor to the U.S. economy, which then leads to the argument for the responsibility of the government to acknowledge the fact and reciprocate with some benefit (e.g., a worker visa of some sort, a fair path to legalization, etc.) Thanks again, Yvette.

  3. Ted Hopkins Avatar
    Ted Hopkins

    Excellent article, Dr. Sanchez. Many important things to think about. I would, however, like to raise one question:

    Is it right to talk about a tension between obeying the government and loving the neighbor? To talk about a tension is to suggest that God calls us equally to love the neighbor and obey the government, and I’m not sure that is true. We have multiple explicit commands from Jesus as well as from Saint Paul to love, but only rather vague and ambiguous commands to obey the government. Certainly, we are called to be subject to the government, but Paul has in mind really only paying taxes and not rebelling violently against the government in Romans 13. I’m not sure Paul expects more than that to the government. I think (with the Confessions) we ought to talk about obeying the government but not in an absolute sense. The CTCR report says a similar thing when it states, “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.” To use a metaphor from confessional subscription, it seems to me that we ought to obey the government quatenus it promotes love toward neighbors and not quia it does so in whatever it does. In other words, the actions of the government should always have to be measured against what the scriptures say about love, and if it does not measure up, then the government should be called out for its failures and Christians ought to resist the governmental laws by loving a neighbor in the face of governmental laws. Certainly, this is a kind of rebellion, but it is not a violent one, but a passive rebellion where we submit to any penalty the government may give us.

    What difference does this make? Well, my main point was to bring out more clearly the need for critical thinking and reflection upon laws and justice in the land. We can see the difference played out in how we address the issue of illegal immigrants. The CTCR states, “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.’” This seems to me to be a misstatement of the problem from a Christian standpoint. Framing the illegal immigration issue using the terms from the government already frames the question in terms of the law rather than love of neighbor. Certainly, we have to get around to the question of the laws of the land, but we should not and cannot take it for granted that because illegal immigration is illegal, it is thus wrong. We must think critically about the immigration issue from the very roots. That’s the difference I hope my emphasis would make.

    To the specific issues of immigration, I’m not sure my perspective would change very much. I suspect that you are right that we have particular neighbors in mind, and that’s okay. But we must also be self-critical to see if we are mostly concerned about the quality of our neighborhoods, the race of our children’s boyfriends/girlfriends, and our own economic opportunities. None of these questions should trump caring for an immigrant who is trying to feed his or her family and make a better life for him or herself. I think that the critical approach that I’m suggesting ought to lead to self-criticism and self-reflection as well as governmental criticism.

    1. Leopoldo Sanchez Avatar
      Leopoldo Sanchez

      Good thoughts, Ted! I am sympathetic to your main concern and call for critical reflection on civil law. The second citation you share from the CTCR document is actually meant to be understood along the lines of your concern and it even accommodates the first citation you highlight. First, the second citation states, simply as a matter-of-fact, that what is illegal according to law is “illegal.” It simply points out the current state of affairs, without necessarily attempting to make judgments about such a state. Second, this second citation is actually meant to be seen in the broader context of legitimate and valid Christian criticism of aspects of the current state of the law that ought to be changed. The first citation you bring up does the very same thing.

      Now let me put the citation along with your concern in an even broader context, one of authorial conversation and intent leading to the draft you now have of the report. One of the issues discussed during the writing of the document was whether illegal immigration law was actually an issue to discuss at all–pardon the redundancy! We were aware that someone might say something like, “what about ‘illegal’ do you not understand?,” and then end the conversation at that point. To make room for further discussion or critical reflection on the law, we wanted to show that, while Christians agree that we must obey the civil authorities quia (I am using your language in a slightly different sense) or because it is God’s command, Christians do not always agree on whether particular laws civil authorities create, enact, or enforce are fair, just, or reasonable. So there is a quatenus dimension to the issue of obedience to the law at this level, as you define it, if Christians can argue convincingly that current immigration law is in whole or in part contrary to God’s will.

      Here is the problem: Christians are all over the place on this particular issue. Subscription to obedience to the authorities may be said to be both quia (because it is God’s command) and quatenus (insofar as it does not go against God’s command), as you put it. The tension comes in the quatenus part, not the quia, because Christians disagree on the extent to which immigration law or some aspect of it is unjust. The state of such diversity may not create any tension at all for some Christians. They may just live with it, like we often do when it comes to tax matters. We may complain, wish for tax reform, but still pay. One may still find measures in place to pay less if one can reasonably prove one should be exempted from higher taxes, and so on. One can sort of work with the system, though a complex one and even a nuisance for some.

      The tension on the quatenus side comes in when some Christians feel more strongly that some laws are hurting a large number of neighbors, especially if such neighbors are close to them! But then things get complex again because such neighbors include both immigrants and citizens. And the law of love also includes both of these neighbors. So there are other tensions involved beyond that of the quatenus subscription given the diversity of positions on law when the matter is not so black and white. We see how the tension is even there in the command to love our neighbor because there is more than one neighbor, often on different sides of the divide. How do we love them both?

      Yet another tension lies in how Christians act when it comes to what they feel is unjust in a particular law. We speak of the power of the vote. Some join advocacy efforts on behalf of some neighbor. Some take a passive resistance attitude until matters are resolved in a more reasonable way by the government. Some protest in a public manner. There are various positions even among Christians on how to go about the criticism of the law or its application. Tensions, tensions, tensions.

      Having said all this, the report is careful to come back to your basic observation and challenge. We must be self-critical that we do not use our vocation, or law, or even good Lutheran theology as an excuse to exclude some neighbors whom we are still, when all is said and done, called to love. And those neighbors include the immigrants in our midst.

      Thanks for a great post!

  4. Len Busch Avatar

    Thank you Dr. Sanchez. I know that this has been a long time coming. But it appears that the careful deliberation that went into the project is reflected in the product (I look forward to reading the entire document as time permits). I am led again to appreciate the nuanced approach to complex issues permitted (if not required) by our Confessionally conditioned reading and, “rightly dividing (of) the Word of Truth.” As our congregations, now in just about every neighborhood, are confronted by the challenges AND OPPORTUNITIES of rapidly growing immigrant populations, this document will provide encouragement and wise guidance. I hope many congregations, Circuits, and Districts devote the time and effort to study and discuss it.

    1. Leopoldo Sanchez Avatar
      Leopoldo Sanchez

      Dear brother Len,

      Thank you for your encouraging words, your encouragement to pastors and congregations for further study of the issue, and your courage in the work of ministry among immigrants in your District. It is interesting to note that, throughout the writing of the report, one of the concerns communicated by members of the CTCR and participants in the Consultation on immigration in El Paso, regardless of their strong and at times diverse positions on current immigration law, was the need to deal seriously in the report with the Christian’s responsibility towards immigrant neighbors (including those living illegally in the U.S.) both in terms of vocations (individual or collective) in the right-hand and left-hand realms.

      And so the report attempts to deal with that concern for the immigrant neighbor because, at least in part, it recognizes the reality of living in the midst of “rapidly growing immigrant populations.” The title of the report captures that reality well: “Immigrants Among Us” (I mean literally!) This presents a challenge and and opportunity, as you put it. The report takes up the challenge and the opportunity to go back to our theology and see how Lutherans can seize the moment and have something to say about this complex issue that is congruent with or faithful to our confessional and evangelical teachings. The report does not want compassion to trump civil law concerns, but it does not want position on the civil law to become an obstacle to Word and sacrament (and mercy) ministry either. (It’s interesting to note that an analogous sort of tension, and perhaps balance between enforcement and compassion, is evident in more recent attempts at immigration reform in Washington.) Thanks again, Len!

  5. Ginny Valleau Avatar
    Ginny Valleau

    Thanks for the article Dr. Sanchez. I don’t know why the CTCR wrote the paper; I suppose the last Convention told them to do so.

    It all seems rather elementary. We respect and honor the laws of the land (unless they go against God’s Word) and at the same time we love our neighbors, some of whom are immigrants. It seems similar to ministering to any neighbor who has gotten in trouble with the law. We love them but we still respect the law.

    I am wondering why we needed the CTCR to spend time and $$$ on immigration when there are other more important unresolved issues in the LCMS: open communion, lack of ecclesiastical supervision, women in the church (of course, they have worked on this issue for decades and they still don’t have it in line with God’s word), lay ministry, lack of unity in worship, the dispute resolution process, etc., etc., etc.

    We already know that we are to obey the laws of the government and we are to love our neighbors. We didn’t need the CTCR to tell us this.

    God’s Blessings,
    Ginny Valleau
    Independence, Missouri

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