The other day, some fellow Georgians and I were informally discussing the potential effects of the recent immigration legislation (H.B. 87) passed by the Georgia House and Senate. The sub-topic was constitutional rights.
It was mentioned how we, as citizens, feared potential abuses of governmental authority and were concerned over potential civil rights violations. One person was quick to suggest that he felt non-U.S. citizens should have no rights afforded them by the U.S. Constitution.
I was not only taken aback but grieved by the suggestion because this man is also a deacon and leader in his Baptist church. Really, I thought? The same rights you cherish are yours exclusively to hoard, without concern for another child of God?
Sadly, this attitude is replicated in many church circles of varying denominations. Many of the people holding such ideas are, of course, not inherently evil. So why do good people hold such positions?
It is quite possible that such positions have not been challenged by local church leadership. The time has come, and is now past, for the church to address this issue in our own congregations and communities.
Please understand that this is not an argument for illegal immigration. This is an argument for a Christian approach to loving neighbor.
We can talk about the politics of immigration after we talk about how to treat the alien in our midst. The cart of immigration cannot go before the horse, the driving force, which should be a biblical response to injustice.
The issue of how to treat a foreigner was a social issue for ancient Israel as well. In Numbers 15, there are no fewer than six instances where God grants the “alien” identical rights given to the nation of Israel.
For example, “There is to be one law and one ordinance for you and for the alien who sojourns with you” (Numbers 15:16).
We might also remember a civics lesson that included something like: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Every person who ever drew a breath was created by God, and because of that, every person deserves respect and consideration. This doesn’t mean we condone illegal actions, but it means we must enter into discussion without hostility, fear and blame.
If we strip the rights of noncitizens, because of their status, then our whole precious legal system of protections is vulnerable to collapse.
What other statuses or distinctions could be used to justify the removal of rights from others (rights given by God and not humans)?
One could argue, “But undocumented immigrants are breaking the law.” That is true, but what of Christ and the criminal?
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Christ socialized with tax collectors and prostitutes, a fact that earned him scorn from many.
Tax collectors often took more than they should (theft) and oppressed the poor. Prostitutes sold their flesh for money. Both examples involve criminal offenses, then and today.
Surely, however, we can differentiate between a person’s status as undocumented and other criminal actions.
The first involves no action of harm toward another person. It is a mala prohibita offense. That is a Latin legal term referring to a law that deems an action criminal based solely on the prohibition against it.
In contrast, most crimes against persons and certain theft offenses are mala in se laws. That is, they are actions that are inherently wrong and have human victims. The lack of documentation held by an alien is certainly less threatening by comparison, both legally and spiritually.
Even so, Christ socialized with these “criminals” and ministered to them – not because he condoned their actions, but because the Gospel of God is about restoration, both spiritual and social.
They were trapped in spiritual sin and social marginalization, and Jesus sought to pull those disenfranchised by society (even those who committed mala in se offenses) back into the societal and spiritual fold.
Why do we think that if we take this ministry approach with the alien of today, we are condoning any current and past illegal activity?
Society, or perhaps politics, is giving us what is known as a “false choice” or “false dilemma.” This occurs when people are given only two options, when there is, in fact, a multitude to choose from.
Society is telling us we must condone or condemn the alien in our midst – one or the other. This scenario is simply untrue.
When Jesus rebuked the crowds ready to stone an adulterous woman, they dispersed. “He then said to her, ‘Woman, where are they? Did no one condemn you?’ She said, ‘No one, Lord.’ And Jesus said, ‘I do not condemn you, either. Go. From now on sin no more'” (John 8:10-11).
Jesus neither condoned her activity nor condemned her. He sought to restore her as a person and child of God. Her value as a human being was more important than the sin she committed.
So it is with the alien in our midst today. God values the alien as much as he values the citizen. There are options beyond condoning and condemning.
We must put down our stones of hate, as we ourselves are not without sin. Only then can we approach the table of discussion, as Christians, and discuss social and political responses to immigration.
Matt Guthas graduated from McAfee School of Theology in Atlanta, Ga. He works in law enforcement and lives in northeast Georgia, where he attends 12 Stone Church.