As someone who has worked in immigration law for a number of years, I have good sense of the immigration situation in the U.S. In addition, as someone who has graduated from a Southern Baptist seminary, been a pastor and is an evangelical, I am acutely aware of what many in the evangelical church think about immigration, and particularly those who are undocumented. I have come to the conclusion that I do not think that many in the evangelical church understand how bad it is for those across the border. In addition, as has been the case many times, people in the church improperly emphasize one passage of the Bible over the other. Finally, I believe that many evangelicals have lost sight of what is most important – seeking to share the gospel of Jesus Christ and make disciples. My fear is that many evangelicals, rather than focusing on making disciples, have taken a position that communicates to the undocumented that they are not welcome in the church.
It is a desperate situation across the border.
The past three years, my wife and boys have traveled across the southern U.S. border to build houses with a Christian organization called Clubdust. This has always proved to be an eventful experience, as we have done this trip twice with children that are only a few months old. We decided to do this trip because 1) we wanted to help people in need and 2) I wanted my children to understand how fortunate they are and hope that they grow up wanting to help others. During our most recent trip, I was especially struck by the contrast between Mexico and the U.S. It was never more apparent than when I drove through U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s check point. The buildings at the CBP checkpoint are so much nicer than most buildings in Mexico. It is a night and day difference.
In the location where we built houses in Mexico there are no paved roads, which means that it is dirty and can be very muddy when it rains. Except for the houses the organization builds, the usual family housing structure is a mix of various materials that they find and can attach to each other. The organization will only build houses where the family either owns or leases the property. Thus, the families who receive a house have means to afford some things, but are still living in an impoverished area.
The thing that came to mind when we were coming across the border was that as long as there is such a disparity between Mexico and the United States, people will always be coming across the border to the United States. The father of one of the families receiving a house is a bricklayer, which is a good profession. If a bricklayer is living in such conditions, consider what it would be like for those who do not have a job.
Is Romans 13 absolute?
Many who oppose helping the undocumented are quick to point out that they are here illegally. Many in the church will point to Romans 13 and say that God commands us to submit to the governing authority. However, is Romans 13 absolute? Is that passage to be followed at all costs? If it is absolute, the American Revolution, which many in the church believe was God ordained, is wrong. As a veteran and American, I would like to still think well of the Declaration of Independence. If Romans 13 is absolute, the work of people such a Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks in the civil rights movement was in violation of God’s will. The truth is that if the government were to pass a law that would force a Christian to do something that directly violated his/her faith, they would likely say that Romans 13 does not apply.
Is breaking the law ever permitted in the U.S.?
About six years ago, there was a family of four, the Kim family, traveling in Oregon when they took a wrong turn and became stranded in the snow in the mountains. After waiting six to seven days on little resources, the husband, James Kim, left the car that contained his wife and two small children to look for help. A few days later, his wife and daughters were found alive in the car. Two days after that, James Kim was found dead. It was mentioned that the car was not far from a lodge that was fully stocked with food, but not in use at the time. If they had found the lodge, no one would have died, but they, of course, would have had to break into the lodge and steal the food to survive, which is a crime. However, it not likely they would have been prosecuted because of something called the “necessity defense” which is on the books in many states. In simplest terms, the government is not going to prosecute someone for a crime if their only alternative to avoid a great harm, such as the loss of life, was to commit the crime, as long as the harm avoided was greater than the crime committed. Thus, in our own jurisprudence is the idea that the law is not always absolute.
Is it ever necessary for the undocumented to break the law?
I have often asked the following question: are those entering the U.S. illegally breaking into a house to steal a T.V., or are they stealing a loaf of bread to feed their family? Of course, there are some who are here to steal a T.V., but there are many more that are at the point of desperation, and out of necessity, break the law and enter the U.S. illegally. In addition, most do not come for a handout, they come wanting to work. I will never understand why people say they are stealing jobs. Many undocumented immigrants come and take a job most would not want and do it for minimum wage (or less). To me, that describes hard-working individuals. Though those people may not possess a green card, they possess within their heart and mind the foundational American ideals of hard work and self-reliance. They are desperate, but they are not lazy.
The evangelical church needs to reacquaint itself with the Biblical concept of mercy.
The Bible teaches that God is a God of justice and righteousness. As a God of justice and righteousness, he must punish sin (Exodus 33:7). The Bible also teaches that the wages of sin are death (Romans 6:23) and that all people are sinners and deserving of death (Romans 3:23). However, the Bible also teaches us that God is a God of Mercy, which means that God sees people as desperate and needing of help (Deuteronomy 4:31). These two attributes are contradictory. How can a just God who must punish sin, save those who have sin. It is in Jesus Christ that God allows Himself to be just but merciful at the same time. Jesus died on the cross once and for all to pay for our sins and provide a way for us to be saved by a just God.
As a follower of Christ, I can, at times, get caught up in the rules – it is all about justice – and forget about mercy. This was a big problem with many of the Pharisees during Jesus’ time. They tended to be just focused on the rules and forgot about the heart matters. As followers of Christ, we need to put things in perspective with regard to the undocumented. While they have violated the law by entering the U.S. illegally, many are desperate situations. A trip to Mexico or many other third world countries will bear this out. We all have broken some rules, if not many, in our life, yet that has not prevented God and others from extending mercy to us.
The Great Commission does not stop because people break the law.
In Mathew 28:19, we read Jesus commanding the disciples (and essentially all believers) to go into the world and make disciples. There is nothing in that passage that means we should not reach out to those who have broken the law. In addition, we must remember that Jesus spent a lot of time with the people who were breaking the law and were despised for it. One in particular comes to mind – Zacchaeus (Luke 19). Those who grew up in Sunday School will remember him as the short guy who climbed the tree to see Jesus. There is even a song about him. Jesus freely went into his home. It says that through this engagement with Jesus, Zacchaeus turned his life around and decided to pay back four times what he stole. Yes, that is right – Zacchaeus was a thief who stole money, but that did not stop Jesus from sharing the love of God with him.
Many in the church need to stop focusing on the wrong and focus on what they are called to do. Millions have come to this country, many through illegal means, but that should not stop us from reaching out to them. In addition, for those many that are in desperate situations, we need to look past the wrong and see that many had no other choice. Many in the church feel good about themselves because they support missionaries overseas, but God has allowed these people to come to our doorstep. Christians do not need to look across the border; they just need to look out their window to find those to whom they can minister.
J. Lance Conklin is Director, Immigrant Legal Services Technical Unit at World Relief. He has worked in immigration law for almost 15 years and holds a Master of Divinity from Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary and has served as a pastor of a Chinese congregation.
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