Crisis at the border! Thousands of unaccompanied children are crossing vast distances and taking huge risks for the opportunity of receiving asylum in the US. Depending on whom you ask, the crisis is either a humanitarian crisis or a national security crisis. The crisis is evidence of Obama’s failed policies (e.g., the “Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals”) or of Congress’s failure to pass comprehensive immigration reform.
Frankly, I feel sorry for people in Washington. They have a hard task. Even leaving aside the political considerations that tie them in knots, the question of immigration is complex. On the one hand, nations have borders and they have the right to regulate their borders. This right pertains to what Christian theologians have called the ius gentium, sometimes translated as “international law” or “the right of peoples.” On the other hand, people have the right to move freely (a ius peregrinandi). Christian tradition has favored the latter over the former, but neither right is absolute. In weighing these sometimes competing rights, politicians have to measure the harm that can result from immigration or its control. But how? It used to be that this country identified citizenship with whiteness; its immigration policies were fueled by fear of the societal harm that would result from miscegenation. And now? Is the browning of America harmful? What about the change of California into “Mexifornia”? What about the influx of retirees into Florida and Arizona? What about gentrification?
Given the complexities of the immigration issue, I’m not surprised at the current impasse. But given that the vast majority of these immigrants are not only children but Christians, I have a modest proposal for immigration reform, that Christians welcome other Christians. In justification of this proposal, let me offer three reasons.
First, being undocumented or having an illegal immigration status is not a sin per se. However, being undocumented, even if not inherently sinful, has moral implications. So, being undocumented is not sinful per se, but it can dispose one to certain sinful acts such as lying about one’s immigration status, identity theft, health care fraud, and the like. Moreover, being undocumented can increase the likelihood of adultery and divorce, as borders separate spouses and divide families. However, undocumented persons are not alone this. Being rich is not per se sinful, but riches are fraught with moral complications. In any case, the church doesn’t have a citizenship test. Whether a person presenting themselves for baptism has a US birth certificate, a Green Card, a student visa, a tourist visa, or nothing at all, isn’t an issue for the church. The questions that we ask our members are: “Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of sin?”
Second, when in baptizing in the Triune Name we pledge allegiance to authorities that transcend national borders. Implicit in the Great Commission of Matthew 28 is the claim that the apostles have the authority to preach to any nation in the world, which presupposes the right to travel and move freely. The ius peregrinandi attains its goal in the ius praedicandi. The right to preach the gospel is absolute; the act of baptism makes a claim that exceeds all natural and human law or rights. The natural inclination to society and friendship attains its perfection in the community of friends of God, the church. The baptismal certificate is not a green card but something infinitely better. It is the passport to an outpost of the kingdom of God, a kingdom that is beyond borders because it comes from above.
Third, at the conclusion of the act of baptism a local congregation commits itself to “surround these persons with a community of love and forgiveness.” It might be argued that these promises are only for the local congregation and that they are largely symbolic. But baptism is into the one body of Christ, and symbols have an underlying reality on which they are grounded. So unless our congregational vows are mere air vibrations without significance, then they must mean something. At bare minimum, the congregation should not itself initiate deportation proceedings. However, such a minimalist approach does not rule out richer interpretations of these promises (political advocacy, employment, sanctuary, etc.) — interpretations that take seriously Paul’s commendation in Gal 6:10: “So then, let’s work for the good of all whenever we have an opportunity, and especially for those in the household of faith” (CEB).” Moreover, it’s significant that the reception of the baptized into the congregation becomes the occasion for the congregation to renew its own membership vows. In welcoming the stranger as brother or sister, the church revitalizes its own identity.
“Christians should welcome one another.” This is admittedly not a comprehensive proposal. It is silent on the treatment of non-Christians. But it is a start.
It is a good start. It reminds me of something similar I’ve heard attributed to Stanley Hauerwaus regarding violence: what if we began with the commitment not to violently harm another Christian? We can work out from there. We should do good to all people, especially those of the family of faith.
Compared to some of our current political pundits, this essay is a model of ethical and historical reflection. I think your reflection about the nature of Baptism also takes this to another level. How few of our churches make this utterly basic connection to our baptismal vows as pledging allegiance “to authorities that transcend national boundaries.”
Simon Chan has a great reflection on this in his chapter on the catechumenate in Liturgical Theology where he argues that becoming a Christian in the early church is understood not merely as a “change of heart; it is a change of citizenship.” And thus the church dramatized in her Baptismal liturgy the shift from “the dominion of darkness” to “the kingdom of the Son” (Colossians 1:1-14).
I came to the US as a pre-teen because my parents were sent here by their church. Their Christian calling always seemed more important to them than national identities, and our whole family has been glad to remain “permanent alien residents”. It has somewhat relativized our view of citizenship, or should I say elevated it, since we were taught to think of ourselves as “sojourners” in the land and part of a larger mission. This has not reduced our appreciation for the US, or our love for our British and Canadian heritage.