Last Thursday night, President Obama announced that he would use his executive authority to stay the deportation of millions of ordinary immigrants without legal documentation. This landmark decision stirred strong reactions, not only from right and left of the political aisle, but among the Christian community. As I’ve been thinking on this, one text of Scripture stood out. On a single page near the end of the New Testament is a remarkable, personal letter. The letter is an appeal from Paul to a guy named Philemon. Although penned almost two millennia ago, the letter is strikingly relevant. Paul’s response to this sticky social situation may provide us helpful perspective as we wrestle with the question of illegal immigration today. From what we can infer, what happened went something like this.
Philemon, the recipient of the letter, had a legitimate beef with this guy, Onesimus. Onesimus had broken the law and ripped Philemon off. Philemon had been genuinely wronged and was understandably angry. At the same time, you could sympathize with Onesimus’ actions. He’d been in a bad spot. The letter doesn’t explain how Onesimus came to be there, but it tells us he was at the very bottom of the social pecking order, poor and powerless. The conditions he was living under just got to be too much. He felt trapped and desperate. So, he found a way out. He ran away from home and broke the law. His actions cost Philemon money and work he was due.
Immigrants who come to the US illegally are a lot like Onesimus. Research tells us undocumented immigrants are often fleeing terrible conditions. After all, it takes a lot to abandon home. They often spend everything and risk their lives to escape their environments. But even as they flee in search of a better life, there’s a real sense in which illegal immigration wrongs US citizens. Not only have they broken the law, critics allege, but they steal American jobs. Unsurprisingly, this makes a lot of people angry. After all, who wouldn’t be against people who break our laws and damage our economy?
Perhaps, not the Apostle Paul. At least, not if his letter to Philemon is any indication. Now, Paul’s letter doesn’t airbrush the wrong done. In fact, Paul acknowledges that Onesimus has wronged Philemon and needs his forgiveness. But, Paul calls Philemon to transcend the legal and economic lenses that would’ve framed his decision. Instead of exercising his civic right to punish Onesimus’ criminal activity, Paul asks him to forgive. And the economic loss? Paul tells him to write it off. This sounds radical because it is! Paul’s request would’ve sent shock waves through the ancient polis. Treating Onesimus as equal would require Philemon to not only forgetting his crime, but to reject the basic disparity between their legal and social standing. Paul and Philemon are friends, but this request was unthinkable. Can’t you see that these legal distinctions are basic to social order, Paul? How can you expect Philemon to simply drop his civil suit and ignore his economic interest?
Paul believed there was something more important that the moral, social, and legal issues separating Philemon and Onesimus. Paul explains. Onesimus has become a Christian. His identity as a follower of Jesus is the most important part of his identity. It is more central that his race, his class, legality, or previous history with Philemon. Without Christ, Onesimus owes Philemon. In Christ, Philemon and Onesimus are brothers. Their spiritual identity demands their social reconciliation. So, Paul asks Philemon to not only forgive, but to welcome Onesimus as an honored, beloved guest. Welcome the criminal as though he were the apostle himself.
Immigration is a thorny political problem, and most of us approach it from the concerns of our preferred political party. So, how does any of this relevant to Christian attitudes toward illegal immigrants? Well, Undocumented immigrants have fled untenable living situations, extreme poverty and violence. Many should be classified as refugees. Some have escaped persecution for their faith. And now they’re here in our backyard. But undocumented immigrants are not only lawbreakers and economic threats; very, very often they are brothers and sisters in Christ. The Pew Research Center estimates that a whopping 83% of the undocumented people in the US claim Jesus as Lord! This percentage of believers among the undocumented is higher than the general US population.
Philemon teaches us that there is an axis more important than the economic or legal. Of course, many on both sides of the social chasm are not believers, but for the many of us who are, we have a common citizenship far more important than that of the United States. What is the primary lens through which we see the undocumented; criminal, moocher, alien, or beloved brother? Amnesty is a dirty word in American politics, but what of forgiveness? Like it did for Philemon, forgiving may cost us something. It may mean relinquishing our social advantage, foregoing our rights.
The future for US immigration policy is still pretty hazy. Obama’s action is only partial and temporary. Oddly enough, we aren’t quite sure how things turned out for Philemon and Onesimus either. There’s one later document mentioning a bishop named Onesimus. Maybe the same guy? Paul leaves us with the tension unresolved. What did Philemon do? What will we? The aged apostle’s plea echoes into the present: For the sake of love, will you be reconciled?
Josh Wilson is a Pastoral Intern at Lawndale Community Church, a CCDA ministry in Chicago and Master of Divinity student at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Originally from Ohio, Josh spent his teenage years in Moscow, Russia as a missionary kid where he developed a passion for culturally authentic gospel expression. Josh loves the church and is pursuing pastoral ministry in an urban, multi-racial setting. A consummate nerd, Josh spends his free time drinking coffee and solving the universe’s problems in areas like theology, philosophy, social policy, ethics, and college football. He tweets at @liveinvictory
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