By Rev. Matt Koerber
Here is a reminder of where we are:
Week #1: Foundational Thoughts
Week #2: Immigration Policy
Week #3: Voices of Immigrants
Week #4: Refugees
Week #5: Engaging with Islam
Week #6: Bridging Barriers and Putting Ideas Into Practice
The title for the post comes from a line in the Tony Award winning Broadway musical Hamilton as Alexander Hamilton (Scotland) and the Marquis de Lafayette (France) celebrate the continental army’s victory at Yorktown. It is a reminder that immigration issues have been central to the American story from the very beginning. It is also a reminder that “getting the job done” is literally part of the challenge. From New England farms to frontier homesteads to the steel mills of Pittsburgh, immigrants have found new work opportunities in America. In the process they have often clashed with the people already there by threatening to take their jobs or their land.
This week we will discuss immigration policy and look at the economic impact of immigration. In my opinion, this is probably the most complicated aspect of the immigration discussion. In the upcoming weeks we will deal with some of those challenges, but this week we will try to address the economic challenges of immigration and think in terms of immigration policies. In order to do that we will begin to include a greater range of voices in this discussion. We have planned to have a wide range of contributors this week who can help us think about the way in which immigration issues are felt by people who live close to the U.S.-Mexico border, by those in construction-related fields, and by those in tech-related fields. We will also try to listen to the ways in which recent immigration debates have impacted the Hispanic community.
I want to preempt this by framing the discussion in a couple of ways. First of all, this topic is so complex that it would require a year’s worth of writing to adequately address. Our goal is not to achieve comprehensive coverage in a week of short posts, rather, it is to expand our understanding and model a measured and reasonable dialogue. Not all of our contributors will agree on all points and it is not our intention to seek a single harmonized message. Secondly, we should recognize that there are a range of legitimate positions that Christians can take on this issue. It is reasonable for a country to limit immigration – every country on earth does this – and it is necessary for a nation to enforce border security. Third, the Bible does introduce some principles about immigration that can apply generally to this conversation, so we are not without guidance.
Here is what I am thinking about concerning biblical principles. There are repeated references to conduct towards immigrants in the Bible, with many using the language of “alien”, “exile” or “sojourner.” There are repeated warnings that we not take advantage of someone in this condition. (See Ex. 22:21, 23:9, Lev. 19:33, 25:35, Jer. 7:6, 22:3, Zec. 7:10, and Mal 3:5.) That does not mean that a country needs to have completely open borders. But it does remind us that immigrants are often particularly vulnerable and open to exploitation.
There is another passage that grounds this concern in a way that is particularly relevant. Deuteronomy 10:19 commands the people of Israel to “Love the sojourner, therefore, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.” God tells Israel that their conduct towards outsiders in their midst should be rooted in their experience of having been an outsider. That doesn’t meant that this command only applied to the first generation to leave Egypt, but it was the collective experience of their people and part of their identity. Although immigration policy is a complex subject, we should always remember to ground our current policies in the right historical context. We can’t isolate the immigration discussion from our national history of immigration. Here are some ways that can be applied:
[MK: I asked Evelyn to contribute to this foundational section as our first guest blogger. I knew that she had an important view because she essentially stands with a foot in two worlds. She was born and raised in the U.S., but married to someone who is not a citizen. Her in-laws are an ocean away, and visiting them means a trip into a foreign country. I wanted her to share a bit of that perspective to help us enter into an experience that is different from our own.]
I never imagined I would be affected so closely by immigration issues.
My husband Kevin came here as an immigrant on a student visa to pursue his graduate education in 2013. We started dating in 2014, married in 2016, and as of two months ago he has a green card that gives him legal permanent residency. Although I work in a university setting where there are many international students, I only started to realize just how complicated immigration is once I joined my life to an immigrant.
Many of Kevin’s overseas family and friends thought that he became a US citizen the moment he married me. If only it was that easy! In his case, the laws of his home country do not allow him to hold citizenship in a second country, so if he does decide to become a US citizen when he is eligible, he must renounce his Malaysian citizenship. This means when he returns home to be with family, his own country would consider him an outsider. Or, if he decides to keep his Malaysian citizenship, he won’t have the same legal status as our potential future children.
Immigration law affects immigrants around us in many ways that are often invisible to us. Those who are immigrants know just how all-consuming a pending case can be. Terrible phrases like “what if” and “maybe” cause distress, uncertainty, and anxiety. We felt this deeply when the first travel ban was issued in January, because it appeared to focus on Muslim-majority countries. We found ourselves starting to say those terrible phrases, because Malaysia is also a Muslim-majority country. It didn’t take much imagination to see Malaysia being included in any future travel bans. Many well-meaning friends and family tried to tell us that we had nothing to worry about, but the immigration process offers no guarantees. So long as Kevin is not a US citizen, he is here only at the goodwill of the US government. As we have seen with rising tensions between many countries worldwide, that goodwill can change in just an instant.
Our immigrant friends and neighbors bear heavy weights. One of the weights Kevin and I bore was the burden of proof to show that our relationship was legitimate. This started a very strange process for us where we scoured our houses for tangible things that proved our intangible love for each other. Neither Kevin or I are overly romantic, and so I never felt like we had enough “stuff” to absolutely prove we were married for legitimate reasons. I found myself obsessively hoarding anything I thought could be evidence, because any one thing by itself (photos, letters, cards, ticket or movie stubs, etc.) felt like it could easily be dismissed as fake. Those terrible phrases came up in conversation between us many times: “What if they don’t think 30 pictures is enough? Maybe we should send 50.” “What if something gets lost in processing? Maybe we should send two copies of everything just in case.” Kevin’s green card application that we mailed in weighed over two pounds.
A week after we sent our application, Kevin’s father died unexpectedly from complications in his battle with cancer. When a green card application is in process, applicants are not allowed to leave the US without prior permission from the US government. Due to a technicality of the timing when we submitted Kevin’s application, it was impossible to get permission in time to leave the country and be with his family. He was not able to attend his own father’s funeral.
We carry that burden with us, too. Our absence was noted by the many people who paid their respects. Kevin’s mom and younger brother had to explain again and again why he wasn’t there. We carry all these burdens with us.
This is just one way my husband and I have been impacted by his status as an immigrant, and compared to what I’ve heard from others, we have had it pretty good overall. I’ve found that every immigrant’s story involves some degree of sadness and sacrifice, and it grieves me that so many immigrants suffer through this alone, out of sight of most Americans. Immigration is not without real cost.
Marrying an immigrant made these issues much more personal to me, casting them in a much brighter light. Many of you will never be related to an immigrant, but there are still many ways to meaningfully connect. Immigrants are quietly carrying their burdens among us, even in our congregation. May we strive to bear the burdens of all of God’s image-bearers, especially the immigrants.
For the body does not consist of one member but of many. (1 Cor 12:14)
On that first Pentecost, God brought together Jew and Gentile into one body. Since then, the church has tried to simultaneously uphold two truths.
First, believers in Jesus are members of the same body; there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, no male and female (Gal 3:28). If our diverse nationalities, ethnicities, and political leanings keep us from sharing communion together, we have failed. Second, each member in that body is an individual shaped by a particular culture and unique history. The church, in its very nature, is meant to display the diversity of God’s creation. If our communion excludes or burdens those of different stripes, or is composed of a homogenous collection of people, we have failed.
These two truths will inform our discussion of immigration over the coming weeks; they pertain to how we embrace those who are ethnically and culturally different from us. This week, I want to reflect on how these two truths inform how we embrace those within the church who are politically and ideologically different from us. Our ability to do the former hinges on our ability to do the latter.
We commonly think of God’s emphasis on unity and diversity as two sides of the same coin. We recognize that they must be simultaneously true in any flourishing church. However, I’ve begun to avoid thinking of these as sides of the same coin, because it implies the right balance can be found. It tempts me to think that if we only found the right balance, we could avoid many sins and hurts.
Most dangerously, when there is disagreement, it tempts me to blame others for getting the balance wrong. If the view I disagree with is a minority view within the church, I can reject and silence it in the name of church unity. If the view I disagree with happens to be held by a majority, I can accuse a dominant group of marginalizing my own views.
At any given time, I am prone to draw on either of the two truths for political expedience, causing harm to others. I have found it helpful to consider the following questions.
What happens when I emphasize unity at the expense of diversity? I am prone to exclusion (see my last blog post). I silence and reject views different from mine. I may think I invite dialogue, but others do not feel they can dialogue with me. In some cases, I try to win them “back into the fold” without first trying to understand their position, and without considering the possibility that I might be wrong. This can feel like an act of violence for the person being “dragged back”. I need to ask myself: Am I prone to excluding views different from mine in the name of unity?
What happens when I emphasize diversity at the expense of unity? I am prone to forget my obligation to the others in the body, as I think my views (which may be correct) privilege me over those who are wrong. I start seeing people as friends or foes, seeking out “my tribe” within the larger body. I start excluding foes as oppressors, because there is no reason to care for someone with power over me. I need to ask myself: Am I all too happy to sacrifice unity to advance my perspective?
Is our unity and diversity rooted in truth and justice? Sometimes, we may avoid the two aforementioned extremes, but settle on a compromise that is not rooted in truth and justice. For example, men with differing views about slavery compromised to form our republic, which on some level maintained ideological unity and diversity, but sacrificed truth and justice. I am prone to thinking my own views are rooted in truth and justice, but not those of my opponent. I need to ask myself: Am I willing to lovingly correct others when their views compromise truth and justice? Perhaps more importantly: Am I willing to consider that my own views are not perfectly rooted in truth and justice?
Balancing unity and diversity, while not compromising truth and justice, is a gargantuan task. On my own, the best I can do is pose such challenging questions. Even then, I will certainly get the balance wrong.
However, a body with many members can do better. I need other members of the body who are different from me. I need others with voices, tendencies, virtues, and sins that are different from mine. The strengths of other members may be one way God saves us from my weaknesses. Out of this diverse mess of a body, with us posing hard questions to ourselves and each other, “He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths” (Isa 2:3).
“...the ‘others’ need not be perceived as innocent in order to be loved, but ought to be embraced even when they are perceived as wrongdoers.” – Miroslav Volf, “Exclusion & Embrace”
As an immigrant in the U.S., I often think of that first Pentecost when God’s people first expanded across national and linguistic boundaries. I’m privileged to worship with Christians who are ethnically and culturally different from me. Differences can bring life-giving diversity, but can also present challenges.
At high-pressure points in history, differences can feel especially hard to navigate. We are part of an increasingly polarized society; it seems to demand that we take one side or another on various issues. Our differences have never been more sharply felt than since last year’s presidential election.
The church has not been immune to polarization. Most of us have at some point heard fellow believers share views we consider wrong, and have felt that we are on different sides of some great divide, even as we share fellowship and communion. How can this be?
In this culture of polarization, every conversation potentially involves the wielding of power: words are not means of dialogue, but tools for exerting superiority. I feel it deeply when I am the victim of this. Rather than seeking to listen to and empathize with my fears, he dismissed them and argued his position. Rather than taking a charitable interpretation of my words, she misunderstood me and took offense.
In the midst of polarizing post-election conversations, I became wary of the words of others (especially about issues relating to immigration policy). I started seeing enemies everywhere. So of course, I responded in kind. Everything others have done to me, I am ashamed to admit I’ve done in return.
Borrowing from theologian Miroslav Volf, we are prone to exclusion: we either ignore, silence, or mischaracterize the voices of those who are “other”, or we try to reform them in our image (only then can we be sure they are “safe”). We allow communion only on our terms, but we’re fine without it.
The polarization in our society is unsustainable – can we exclude from our lives roughly half of the population who don’t think as we do on topics like immigration policy? The polarization in church may feel more subdued, but is in fact worse when we consider the high calling for unity within the church. How do we move forward in mission to serve immigrants and refugees if we cannot agree on what is good and right? How do we share communion with those whose beliefs we may find objectionable, even harmful?
How can I empathize with others who are prone to exclude my perspective? How can I express my voice when I fear it will be misunderstood? How can I trust that someone who disagrees with me still cares about justice? I am keen to raise these questions, but hesitant to provide answers. They are complex. This blog aims to reflect on how we can face these questions as they pertain to immigration-related issues.
I want to end this post by suggesting that in some cases, try as we might to interpret others’ words and deeds charitably, there is no justifying the exclusion they carry out. Their beliefs may in fact be harmful and sinful. They may in fact be oppressors. We are rightfully offended.
But we are called to something even more offensive: to forgive, and to embrace rather than exclude the oppressor. If we’re truly as polarized as I believe, I expect counterarguments at this point. I must of course clarify: forgiveness does not equal endorsement, and we must stand up to oppressors for the sake of victims.
But after (maybe even before) these clarifications have been settled, we are called to start imagining what it looks like to embrace our enemies. In doing so, we can enable them to lay down their arms, but we will first need to lay down ours.
If we cannot embrace the political “other” with whom we currently share communion, the communion we might offer to the ethnic and cultural “other” will not be as rich and full as it should be. Over the next few weeks, let us move forward together in our mission to serve and love the foreigner, as the church did that first Pentecost.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies…” (Matt 5:43-44)
By Matt Koerber
In the previous post we talked about the first Pentecost. It was a breakthrough day in the life of the church. God used supernatural power to demonstrate the barrier-breaking mission of the church. The gift of tongues allowed the gospel message to be heard in the native language of each listener. It was an early sign that God would empower the church to be witnesses for Jesus – not only in Jerusalem – but to the ends of the earth. We said that this was a good backdrop for our discussions about immigration and the multi-ethnic church.
However, it is clear that the barriers that we face in America today are not primarily barriers of language. Instead, political conflict has created a polarized battlefield surrounding Immigration issues. In this atmosphere, talking points become part of a battle to advance each side’s agenda. Complex issues are oversimplified. Fear and slander are tools for power. Truth becomes a victim in the pursuit of political power. For example: Immigrants are scapegoated for large scale economic woes, refugees live under the cloud of our fear of terrorism, and people who favor immigration reform or border security are labelled racist.
Our goal in this blog is to provide a way forward that avoids the extremes of either the political right or the left. That requires that we deal graciously with people and that we seek to focus on issues of Biblical concern. There are many issues that we can legitimately disagree on – but we need to disagree in grace and listen carefully. But, there are also important principles that the bible does address. We need to carve out a distinctly Christian ethic on these matters.
A Christian approach to any controversial issue includes considering how we argue, not just what arguments we use. In his letter to the Philippians Paul wrote, “Let your reasonableness be known to everyone.” (Phil 4:5) Sometimes I wonder if that is a command that Christians take seriously enough. If we give in to the polarizing influence of our times we will struggle to be reasonable. Rather than trying to understand and listen to other points of view, we will view encounters with opposing ideas as an opportunity to “score points” or to “advance our cause.” Sometimes we fear that listening to our opponents will cause their position to be viewed as more legitimate.
But Paul’s admonition to be reasonable reminds us that the Christian life is not just concerned with winning a particular battle. It is also concerned with how we conduct ourselves in the midst of a battle. Because Jesus is the king, ruling with power from heaven, we don’t need to adopt a “win at all costs” attitude. Instead, we can engage with opponents in a reasonable way. In fact, the reasonable manner of our dialogue is, itself, a testimony to God’s presence and power. Let’s look again at the connection in Philippians:
Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; (Phil 4:5)
See the connection between God’s presence and our reasonable conduct? It is the presence of God that allows us to back away from the skirmish line and seek to engage in a different way. It is the powerful presence of God that allows us to love our enemies and risk opening ourselves up to challenging dialogue. It is the loving presence of God that allows us to listen to our opponents – even when they are wrong – and love them anyway. We hope that this blog is a small contribution towards reasonable discussion around a difficult topic.