As my dad handed the immigration officer our passports, I watched as the agent flipped quickly through each one of them. First my dad, then my brother, then mine. But when he got to my mom’s passport, he stopped and asked how long she had been an ‘alien’ in this country. My head quickly turned up as I looked with both surprise and offense at the agent asking such a question. “My Mom is not an alien!” I shouted, “She’s from Earth!” My dad shot me a look that quickly informed me that I was to remain silent as the agent and my parents conversed.
To my surprise, my dad turned back to the immigration officer and informed him that she had been in the country as an ‘alien’ for about 15 years. My young mind was now racing a million miles a minute as I tried to process the information I had just heard about my mom. It was also around this time that my family and I had just seen the blockbuster movie “E.T.” and images of tiny, brown walking aliens with glowing fingers filled my mind.
I started to form a series of questions in an attempt to understand what I had just heard: “What planet is she from?” “Does she still have access to the spaceship that brought her here?” “Can I have access to the spaceship that brought her here?” “Is she like Superman from the distant planet of Krypton and has amazing superpowers?” “If I’m her son, does that mean I have superpowers?!” These and a million other questions began swirling around in my mind as I sought to deal with this new information.
Observing the worry, astonishment, and puzzled look on my face, my mom, turned around from the front seat of the car and asked what the problem was. I nervously looked up at her and simply asked her, “What type of alien are you? Are you from Mars, Jupiter, or somewhere even further?!” With a smile on her face, she put her hand on my leg and explained that she’s not from another world like ‘E.T.,’ but an ‘alien’ from another country.
My mom was born in and grew up in India. Even though we now lived in Canada, she was still a citizen of India, with an Indian passport, and with the immigration status of ‘landed resident alien’ in Canada. With that, I slumped back into my seat and breathed both a sigh of relief that my mom wasn’t from another world, but also a little regret as all hopes of space travel quickly faded from my mind.
My Experience as an Immigrant
My experiences with immigration statuses didn’t end with my Indian Mom in Canada. Years later, I would find myself as a college student in Dubuque, IA, at Emmaus Bible College under the immigration status of ‘foreign student’, as I was a Canadian citizen studying in America. Those years as a foreign student would continue in Dallas, TX, as I pursued a graduate degree in Counseling from Dallas Theological Seminary.
My immigration status again changed to an ‘Optional Training Visa’ after completing my studies in Dallas and working there for a year. After my time in Texas, I was offered a position back at Emmaus Bible College, and I was able to change my immigration status to an ‘H1B Visa’ that allowed me as a Canadian citizen to work at the college. Soon afterward, my marriage to my American wife provided a pathway for me to pursue my application for my Permanent Resident Card, better known as my ‘Green Card’. Finally, in November of 2018, I happily completed the process of becoming an American citizen.
All that to say, my experiences with immigration have provided me with some insight and empathy for those that seek to come to this country. But it’s been my engagement with God’s Word that has provided me with a more precise and nuanced view on how to engage with those that may not have the same privilege and opportunities that I had in coming to America.
The Purpose of this Article
I realize that the topic of immigration status and undocumented workers is potentially fraught with political polarization on both sides. Images of border walls and screams of ‘amnesty’ fill the screens of political talking heads on both sides of the political aisle. But the purpose of this article is not to engage in the political issues and debate of immigration policy and undocumented workers.
For clarity, please note what I will NOT be examining in this article. I will not be providing a history of immigration policy in America. I will not seek to argue for or against any ‘solutions’ to the current immigration laws. I will not point to economic findings that relate to the population of undocumented workers. Nor will I bring to issue the debates regarding criminal activity and the undocumented community. These and many other issues connected to undocumented workers are important and need to be discussed, but that is not the focus of this article.
My aim is how do we as Christians think biblically about the people often labeled as undocumented workers in America? What principles should inform Christians when it comes to the issue of undocumented workers, and how should God’s people respond to those that do not enter this country through legal means? Even with this goal, I realize that this issue may still cause concern and disagreement. But I hope you at least see an argument that seeks to engage with God’s Word and is not simply the parroting of political talking points. God’s Word should always be our source of truth and standard of authority, even when the topic is hotly debated and politically infused.
The Danger of ‘One-Verse’ Theology
As with many issues, we Christians are prone to letting our convictions form our theology rather than allowing good theology to form our convictions. We all come to the text of God’s Word with our biases, personal experiences, and formed convictions; but without the humility to allow God’s Word to form us, we often seek to find verses and passages that build our confirmation bias.
Some Christians look at the issue of undocumented workers and simply state that “they are here illegally. There is a legal way to enter this country, and if they don’t do it the right way, then they should be sent back.” Romans 13:2 is often cited to support this conviction that God has set up the government, and those that want to enter this country should do it the legal way: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.” Concerns of criminal activity, the transmission of illness, ‘anchor babies,’ stealing jobs, and a list of other concerns are noted as continued proof that if they don’t come the right and legal way, they shouldn’t be here at all.
Other Christians look at the issue of undocumented workers and recognize that many are in America without going through the proper immigration process but note that many are fleeing economic or political difficulties from their home countries. Some are under threat of religious persecution, and others are just trying to find the means to feed their hungry children.
1 Timothy 5:8 is often cited to support this conviction that we are called to care for our loved ones and provide their basic needs for survival: “But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” Concerns of malnutrition, religious persecution, and care for the vulnerable are noted as continued proof that America should be a place of refuge, as Lady Liberty welcomes those who are “tired and poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free”!
Both verses are in scripture and should be valued as we are under the authority of all of God’s Word. But to cite any one verse as an “end-of-all-discussion” proof text is neither faithful to the totality of scripture nor does it properly inform how God’s people should respond to those that are undocumented in this country. We need to take a longitude view of God’s Word that helps us see His standard throughout scripture and (if need be) should challenge us to not fall to one extreme or the other.
A Biblical Theology of Multiculturalism
To faithfully respond to a specific issue (like undocumented workers in America), we need to take a step back and see a bigger picture of God’s work as revealed in God’s Word. While the issue of undocumented workers touches on several topics (political, legal, economic, etc.), at its heart, talking about undocumented workers is about how we engage with the ‘other’ or with ‘them’. When we say ‘them’, we essentially refer to those that aren’t ‘us’, and ‘us’ can be defined in a myriad of ways. ‘Us’ can be a political group, a gendered group, an occupational group, or any specific identity that unites people together. With the issue of undocumented workers, ‘we’ (Americans) often must deal with the ‘them’ (Mexicans, Canadians, Egyptians, etc.). A biblical framework provides insight and guidance to help God’s people (us) respond with individuals from other places (them).
As with most stories, a good place to start is at the beginning. In the book of Genesis, God begins His story with humanity and places them in the newly created Heavens and the Earth. This is first ‘us’, and there is no ‘them’. It’s just us with God. There is no other group to contend with, no rivalry to push against, no worry about outsiders coming in, and there is no ‘us’ against ‘them’. In this creation, God creates humanity in His image and likeness to be His representatives who co-rule and serve with Him (Genesis 1 & 2).
But the story of origins is marred by the Fall of Adam in Even and their rebellion against God’s good design. In taking the fruit, they declare their desire not to be an image of God but their desire to be God. And in doing so, they plunge all of humanity into the disastrous effects of sin, death, and destruction.
This Fall is seen in stark reality at the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11). Their desire to build a “tower with its top in the heavens” is a bold and defiant rebellion against the glory of God and evidenced their insurgence in a desire to “make a name for ourselves”. When God “comes down” and sees their sinful motivations and behavior, He “confused their language” and “dispersed them from there over the face of the earth”. God comes down, and through language, divides.
This division of ‘us’ against ‘them’ started in the Garden (Gen. 3) and has continued throughout the story of the Bible. The Old Testament is a continuation of ‘us’ against ‘them’ and humans’ broken attempts to restore themselves to God and each other through Judges, Kings, and Prophets. But time and time again, humanity’s failed attempts only worsen our hopeless situation, all the while pointing out that we need salvation from someone else…someone outside of ‘us’.
The coming of God in human form is the ultimate good news of someone on the inside (us) coming to save those on the outside (them). The holy triune God of the universe was in perpetual joy and perfect fellowship, while we who had broken our fellowship with God through our sins were constantly in rebellion and deserved to be perpetually cast out of Eden. But God doesn’t give up on His creation. God is with us (Immanuel) and, in doing so, takes on our sin, our punishment, and our curse on Himself on the tree. And in three days, He defeats death and ascends to His Father to eternally advocate and mediate for us who have believed in His name.
While we rightfully understand that the Cross is the means to our personal salvation, God’s Word also declares the Cross of Christ is the means of bringing ‘others’ back to God AND that other things were accomplished at the Cross. Consider this statement as witnessed by the Apostle John: “You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals because you were slain, AND WITH YOUR BLOOD you purchased for God people from every tribe and language and people and nations.” (Revelation 5:9). As the Apostle John receives this vision of what was to come, part of the vision is a look back at what has already happened, namely at the Cross. The statement “and with your blood” directly references the death of Jesus on the Cross.
A declaration is made that one of the reasons Jesus died on the Cross was to bring to Himself a multicultural group of people from every tribe, language, people, and nations that will bring Him greater glory like the multiple instruments all harmonizing in a grand symphony. While we can joyfully see the triumph of our salvation that is secured through the death of Jesus on the Cross, we can also see how the death of Jesus secured a diverse group of people that bring glory to the Lamb.
The work of Jesus on the Cross is the payment of our sins that secures our personal salvation back to Him and is the foundation by which people from every tribe, language, people, and nation can come back to Him.
As Jesus ascended into Heaven, He promised that we would not be alone and that He would send the Holy Spirit as our comforter and helper (John 14:26).
The help and comfort the Holy Spirit brings is wonderfully seen as the disciples gather in Jerusalem on Pentecost: “And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.” (Acts 2:2-4). The filling of the Holy Spirit allows people from various nations and ethnicities to all “hear, each of us in his own native language” (v. 8) and conclude that “we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God” (v. 11).
In Genesis 11 we see the sinful desires of humanity to “make a name for themselves”, and the response of judgment from God: God comes down, and through language, divides. But in Acts 2, after the death, burial, resurrection, and ascension of our Lord, we see the plan of redemption and “the mighty works of God” unfolding through the Holy Spirit: God comes down, and through language, unites!
Don’t miss these truths! The mirroring of these ideas from Genesis 11 and Acts 2 is seen in ‘God coming down’, the use of ‘language’, and the result in either judgment or redemption. God desires to bring those that are on the outside into his family. What humans have corrupted through our sin (Gen. 3), God redeems through His Son (Rev. 5). And what judgment comes through sinful pride (Gen. 11), God will restore through multiethnic unity (Acts 2).
But the story doesn’t end there. While we labor in the strength that He provides to see His will done “on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10), we know that our greatest hope is found when the King returns and sets all things right again: “After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb” (Revelation 7:9).
It’s interesting to note that when the Apostle John relates his vision of what is to come as we gather to worship the Lamb, he doesn’t just say, “many people gathered before the throne and before the Lamb”. He echoes the same statement used just a few chapters before; “you purchased for God people from every tribe and language and people and nations.” (Revelation 5:9). It’s like John wants to go out of his way to describe the scene in glory as a multicultural and ethnically diverse community gathers to bring glory to the Lamb.
According to this verse, ethnic differences that are a reality here and now will be a reality for God’s people in glory. If you are an Asian in this life, you’ll be an Asian in glory. If you’re a person of color in this life, you’ll be a person of color in glory. If you’re an Indigenous person in this life, you’ll be an Indigenous person in glory.
God doesn’t remove our ethnic and cultural realities when we get to glory. In fact, they are essential to bringing the greatest glory to the Lamb! An ethnically diverse community brings greater glory to God since it shows the universe how the tremendous cost of Jesus’ blood (Rev. 5:9) is the only means to true racial reconciliation and multiethnic harmony. As the Sunday School song goes, “Red and Yellow, Black and White, they are precious in His sight, Jesus loves the children of the world”!
Building from a Strong Foundation
Developing a solid biblical foundation on the issue of multicultural ministry is essential if we are to have any meaningful discussion on how best to respond to undocumented workers. If God desires to bring to Himself a multiethnic community that will best reflect His glory, then we should be doing everything we can until then to be part of that work.
Remember Your Past
A critical aspect in developing our convictions is knowing where we came from to understand better where we’re going. God would continually remind His people how to deal with those ‘others’ within their community in the Old Testament. Often referred to as ‘sojourners’, those ‘non-Jewish’ individuals within the community of Israel were to be treated with care, respect, and love. The standard for caring for sojourners was made in remembrance that at one time, the nation of Israel was also once a sojourner in a foreign land: “When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.” (Lev. 19:33-34).
The nation of Israel would be encouraged to remember their time as slaves within the land of Egypt, and to note that their time as sojourners in that land was not a pleasant or encouraging time. God calls on Israel to remember the difficulty they had in Egypt as a reminder to not recreate that hardship on others that may be sojourners within their land. If Israel didn’t like it happening to them, then they shouldn’t do it to others.
The Apostle Paul will echo this line of reasoning to the Church in Ephesus, not in light of their political or national origins, but in light of their spiritual origins: “remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.” (Eph. 2:12a) What a grim situation for those in Ephesus, and for us today! But even though they (and we) were “alienated from God and were enemies” towards God (Col. 1:21), we “consequently are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of His household.” (Eph. 2:19) What good news! We once were on the outside, but now, because of God’s grace through Jesus Christ, we are on the inside!
These verses are not meant to be a direct answer on how to deal with the issue of undocumented workers. They have nothing to do with ‘them’ but have everything to do with ‘us’. These verses, both for the nation of Israel and the Church in Ephesus, are attempts to remind God’s people that we are to be quick to recognize that we all start as ‘strangers’ to God and that we should develop a heart of compassion and empathy for anyone that finds themselves as ‘strangers’ to any situation…including those that are undocumented workers. Does this ‘fix’ the immense problems of undocumented workers in this nation? Probably not. But like any issue, the first step is not to look at the problem of ‘them’, but to ask God to change the heart of ‘us’, so we can adequately respond to them.
Show Concern for the Vulnerable
While much can be said about some undocumented workers coming into our country to cause problems, the vast majority of individuals that come into America are coming out of a sense of great need, not out of a sense of great excess. Many undocumented workers are just that, workers. They come seeking jobs that will provide them the opportunity to work and pay bills, support their families, and escape situations that are causing them harm and injury. Much debate is often focused on whether these undocumented workers are ‘stealing’ jobs away from Americans. And while this is an important debate in the economic and employment opportunities of our citizens, the reality for most undocumented workers is that they are trying to make a living and are in a situation of dire need.
God’s Word has much to say to God’s people regarding how we should be responding to individuals that are in such need: “He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing.” (Deut. 10:18). The heart of God is constantly advocating for those that are the most marginalized, and that we should be a voice for those that don’t have a voice of their own.
But while God’s heart is to care for the vulnerable, His expectation is that this care is executed through His people: “When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, you shall not strip it afterward. It shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless and the widow.” (Deut. 24:19021). How does God execute care for the most vulnerable? He does it through His people being intentional in caring for the most vulnerable in their communities. This includes the fatherless, the widows, and the sojourners.
New Testament writers only confirm this heart of God and expectation for God’s people to care and minister to the most marginalized in our communities: “Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction,” (James 1:27).
While there is much debate regarding the legality of undocumented workers in this country, one thing that is often missed is how vulnerable and needy these individuals are. There is no one easy answer in how to care for all these marginalized individuals. Still, the consistent appeal from God to His people throughout scripture is that we are moved to be a voice for the voiceless and provide care and compassion to those most in need. That may not solve the border problem, but we don’t have to solve that issue to show love to those that need it most.
Practice ‘Real’ Hospitality
Suppose you asked most Christians what comes to mind when you say the word ‘hospitality. In many cases, it’s common to hear people talk about Sunday lunch after Church, setting a beautiful table with the ‘good plates’ and silverware, and the enjoyment of a home filled with family and friends. While this description is not incorrect in terms of hospitality, it needs to be expanded and perhaps challenged by a deeper and more robust biblical definition.
While hospitality can include opening your home to friends and family, the way scripture often presents the idea of hospitality is not usually to those you know, but more often towards those you don’t know. The actual etymology of the word ‘hospitality’ means ‘love of strangers’ and is rooted in the idea of showing care and goodness to those outside of your everyday relationships.
We see examples of this in scripture when Jesus Himself equates the care and welcome extended to strangers as a means of showing the love of Jesus: “For I was hungry, and you gave me food. I was thirsty, and you gave me drink, I was a stranger, and you welcomed me” (Matthew 25:35). The author of Hebrews expects that this type of love and care will characterize followers of Jesus to strangers, recognizing that those strangers may be heavenly visitors: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares” (Hebrews 13:2).
If genuine biblical hospitality is not just providing a meal to those that we know but is more plainly followed when we show love to those that we don’t know, then showing love and care to undocumented workers would seem to be a natural and clear opportunity for Christians to be ‘biblical’ in their hospitality. The command for Christians to love strangers like undocumented workers should not be conditioned on the legality of their immigration status. Rather, the call of hospitality is rooted in showing the love of Christ to those that are on the fringes of society and most often are considered strangers to most of us.
Take Care of Your Own
While Christians should seek out those ‘strangers’ in society to show Christ’s love, we are also called to love those within our own ’family of faith’ and care for those we call our fellow brothers and sisters.
In his book, ‘Welcoming the Stranger’, Matthew Soerens cites research that highlights an interesting fact for the Church in America: “Research by Todd Johnson of Gordon-Conwell Seminary suggests that immigrant congregations are already accounting for American evangelicalism’s fastest growth, which means that immigration issues are not an issue out there: but something we have to face with the church.”
This news is both incredibly encouraging and necessarily convicting for us today. Encouraging in seeing that one of the greatest sources of evangelistic growth is with those that are coming to this country seeking a better life for themselves and their family. Not only are immigrants finding freedom from state persecution, but they are also finding freedom in Christ. Not only are immigrants finding a means of employment and financial security, but they are also finding personal meaning and spiritual security in Jesus. This truly is good news!
But this is also very convicting for the Church in America. Immigrants are not only coming into our country but also becoming part of our churches. Christians need to realize that this issue is not just the constant debates regarding the legal status of undocumented workers, but of priority, how we care for our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ.
When the Apostle Paul encourages the Christians in Rome to “Share with the Lord’s people who are in need” (Romans 12:13), we should not first check their immigration status to see if we can care for them. Instead, we should rejoice that God is bringing men and women into faith and should look forward to sharing our blessings with our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. If we first (and sometimes only) look at undocumented workers as those ‘illegals’ we may find it challenging to show Christ’s love and miss out on the joy of sharing with those that have “called upon the name of the Lord” (Romans 10:13).
First Christian, then American
On Wednesday, November 21st, 2018, I, along with dozens of other immigrants, had the joy and privilege of standing in a room together, and with our right hands raised, repeated an oath to become an American citizen. Part of that oath declared the following: “I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state or sovereignty…”. I happily said those words, and with thanksgiving, was given the right to call myself an American citizen. But even as I recall that day and type those words out into this article, I see myself holding my right hand up before all but holding my other hand behind my back with ‘crossed fingers’. I’m happy to ‘renounce’ all allegiance to any foreign prince in this world, but I will not, and I cannot renounce my allegiance to my Heavenly King.
Even as I joyfully recited those words that day, I still recognize that my ultimate allegiance is not to the Stars and Stripes but to the Lamb that was slain. That means that I view my convictions, affections, and behaviors through the priority of my faith that is brought under the authority of God’s Word. That doesn’t mean I can forget or dismiss the laws of our land, but that does mean that the Laws of God and His Word must be considered first and of priority.
Too often, the debate of undocumented workers has fallen into the polarization of either side based on immigration status, economic issues, or concerns of criminal activity. As mentioned before, these are all important aspects in the debate on undocumented workers. But for Christians, our first allegiance is not to the legal issues of the state but to the gospel issues of God’s Word. To properly engage with all the various facets of the debate, Christians need to take a step back from the political debate and examine our hearts to ensure we are first responding out of God’s truth. Perhaps we can be known not as what we’re against, but what we’re for, and be known as people that can love the stranger just as Christ loved us.
Ben Mathew is a professor of Counseling Psychology at Emmaus Bible College and serves as the Chair of the Counseling Department. After Ben graduated from Emmaus with a degree in Biblical Studies he went on to get an M.A. in Biblical Counseling from Dallas Theological Seminary and then a Ph.D. in General Psychology from Northcentral University.