Even as popular opinion—and the opinions of a growing number of Members of Congress—seems to be shifting in favor of immigration reform legislation, the American public is still very much wary of the idea of amnesty. The concept is so unpopular that population control groups seeking to dramatically reduce immigration levels apply the term as an epithet to any sort of legislation that would include the possibility of undocumented immigrants ever becoming lawful residents, even proposals which would require undocumented immigrants to pay a significant fine (by definition, not the free grace of amnesty) and earn permanent legal status through a probationary process lasting a decade or more.
To be clear, my employer, World Relief, and most other evangelical advocates of immigration reform have long been clear that we oppose amnesty (properly defined) because we believe that appropriate legislation should be informed both by a biblically-informed respect for the rule of law and by the many commands to extend welcome and love to immigrants. We have said that immigration legislation should require the payment of a fine for those who have entered without authorization or have overstayed a visa (and who have not committed other, more serious criminal offenses, which might merit deportation) and establish a rigorous but clear process by which people could regularize their status and eventually become fully integrated citizens of our country. Such a response, as pastor and author John Piper has said, both “would give honor to the law and show mercy to the immigrants.” In contrast, a simple amnesty—from the same etymology as amnesia, forgetting that an offense has occurred—would not respect the rule of law.
Amnesty is based in the idea of forgiveness; it’s a synonym for grace, which is a rather important concept for Christians. As people who believe we have been forgiven much—of all of our sins, through Christ’s death on the cross—Christ explicitly commands us to forgive others (Matthew 6:12, Luke 6:37). I believe that those injunctions apply to us as individuals, but not necessarily to governments, which is why I do not believe amnesty is the right public policy response. If a government informed by Christian values had to automatically forgive every offense, we could have no criminal justice system at all: there could be no penalty for murder, theft, or domestic violence. Chaos and injustice would reign. Forgiveness is a good and beautiful thing, but while it is appropriate that there be elements of mercy in our laws, Scripture also makes clear that the government has been divinely established to maintain order for the common good, which precludes it from simply forgiving every violation of law (Romans 13:1-7).
Still, I’m somewhat startled by the contempt for the word amnesty among some Christians. While it may not be the policy the government should adapt, it is very clearly the policy that individual Christ-followers should embrace in our own interactions with those who have violated a law or even who have injured us personally. We ought to respond to those who have violated the law like our Father responds to us, like the beautiful picture Jesus gives us of an eager father running out to embrace his lost, prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32). Instead, the miserly response that some undocumented immigrants have received from native-born evangelical Christians more closely resembles that of the prodigal’s older brother, who bitterly resents the grace and forgiveness his brother receives from the father. To be sure, grace is a scandalous idea, but without it we have no gospel: we would do well to come to terms with the idea, because Jesus is very clear: “If you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins” (Matthew 6:15).
I’m also not suggesting that every violation of civil law is necessarily a sin. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were clearly not sinning when they violated the law by refusing to worship Nebuchadnezzar’s idol, for example. I do not think that overstaying a visa to provide for one’s family is necessarily a moral failure, even if it is indubitably unlawful. This distinction between civil law and moral law only further begs the question of why so many American Christians seem to find unlawful presence in the U.S.—which does not require any sort of malicious intent, and in fact is often driven by noble desires—so much more offensive than other violations of law, such as exceeding the speed limit by a few miles per hour, which seems to be quite socially acceptable. Why do people seem so much more upset about people using a false Social Security card to work and support their family than they do about minors using a fake ID to be able to consume alcohol, which seems to be a far less virtuous motivation but which is common in just about any college town?
While the role of the state may appropriately be to require undocumented immigrants to earn their way to full legal rights and privileges through the payment of a fine, repaying any back taxes owed, and meeting certain other criteria, our role as individual followers of Christ is to extend grace freely, without condition. We are commanded to “be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32). God’s forgiveness is not contingent upon our repaying our debt: we cannot possibly earn salvation by our own merit. We receive it as free grace, through Christ’s costly crucifixion. And then we are commanded to extend that grace, forgiveness and welcome lavishly to others.
The state has its biblically sanctioned role, and we—as participants in a democratic form of government, where being subject to the governing authorities encourages lobbying our elected officials to support just policies—ought to advocate tirelessly for common sense legislation that restores the rule of law, recognizes the inherent dignity and potential of each person, and keeps families united whenever possible. As individuals and as churches, though, we must go beyond that, responding to the immigrants in our communities with grace.
Matthew Soerens is the co-author of Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion & Truth in the Immigration Debate (InterVarsity Press, 2009) and the US Church Training Specialist at World Relief. His blogs appear here on Mondays.
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