Last week in our new series, Answers to Tough Questions, we tackled the maze of LGBT issues. The outcome was a simple principle which, while not necessarily answering every question people ask about it, did give us a clear path forward. This week, we tackled the immigration debate. Like last week, you won’t find clear and concise answers or policy prescriptions here. Rather, we clarify yet another foundational principle that should guide all of our thinking about it as followers of Jesus. Read on to find out what this is.
One more thing: I will be in class all this week learning about law enforcement chaplaincy. While I am most excited about this opportunity, it means this will be the only blog post for this week. Stay tuned. I’ll be back in a week with your regularly scheduled program. Thanks for your faithful readership.
You’re Not Like Me
Moving into a new place for the first time is always just a bit scary…especially when it’s in a new town. When Lisa and I moved from Denver, Colorado to Church Road, VA in 2008, we were living somewhere neither of us had any connections at all. We had a house—the parsonage—but we didn’t know anyone. We had a wonderful church family, but that was the extent of our local support network. Specifically, we didn’t know if we could trust our neighbors. Fortunately, one man in the church we had come to trust gave us the assurance that we could and so began a relationship with Bobby and Frances Wilson. They were wonderful. They took us—and our boys as they arrived into the world—on as simply an extension of their own family. We adopted them as a set of grand and great-grandparents who were living next door instead of several states away. They were the best neighbors—and friends—we could have possibly hoped to have.
Then they moved out so they could live in an active adult community where they would have a little bit easier time getting around than they did in the home they’d had for longer than either of us had been alive at the time. After that, the house sat vacant for a long time as their kids cleaned it out, cleaned it up, and sold it to someone looking to have an investment property. That meant that after a while, we got new neighbors.
Did you know there are different levels of red neck? There’s red neck. And there’s Red neck. And there’s RED NECK. These guys were just a little beyond that. When they moved in they brought four or five broken down cars and set them around the yard…just for ambiance near as I could tell. The family included dad, mom, grandma, grandpa, two kids about the same age as our big boys, and a rotating cast of other characters of varying ages depending on which weekend it was. Oh, and dogs. Several dogs. But not hunting dogs like you might be thinking. No, they had three or four mean, little yappy dogs that seemed to spend most of their time outdoors terrorizing whoever happened to be outside in our yard. Needless to say…they were not like us. At all. Oh, we were friendly to each other…until one of their dogs bit me and then I wasn’t probably as nice as I should have been. But of all the things we missed leaving there…they didn’t make the list.
It’s tough having to be around people who aren’t like you, isn’t it? It’s tough when they aren’t like you, but you know they have a right to be there—our neighbors were paying to rent that house; we couldn’t do anything about it. It’s tougher when they’re not like you, but you’re not so sure they do. It’s even more difficult when they’re not like you and you’re sure they don’t. This morning, I want to spend a few minutes talking about what we’re supposed to do with people who often get put in one of those last two categories. These folks often get put in one of these last two categories, but what we should do about them is the subject of an enormous cultural debate. This morning I want to talk with you about immigration.
Today we are in the second part of our new teaching series, Answers to Hard Questions. For the next few weeks leading up to Easter, we are together wading neck deep into some of the biggest debates going on in our culture right now. We are wrestling with some questions that unbelievers often set before professed followers of Jesus and demand that we answer, only to ridicule us or worse when our answers don’t fit the boxes they’ve already marked off in their minds. The whole idea for this series is simple: If you are a follower of Jesus, I want you to be equipped to have an answer when you find yourself in the middle of one of these cultural debates. I don’t want you to ever have to be in the place where everyone around you is looking to you to give the “Christian” response to the issue and you don’t have anything to say. What’s more, when you do take up that position and get challenged on it, I don’t want you to have to fold because you can’t defend what you’re pretty sure you believe. There’s one more purpose to this as well: Because professed followers of Jesus are all over the map on most of the issues we’re going to cover together, I want to make sure you have a solid grounding in the Scripture in your own thinking about these things. While we may not be able to find perfectly clear and concise answers there, what we will find is truth along with some principles that will give us a good path forward so that we don’t lose sight of what’s most important as we go. That, if we’re being honest, is more important than answers.
Last week we started with what is perhaps the biggest debate of them all: LGBT issues. If you were here, you know that it was a hard, but good conversation. Part of what makes responding to the LGBT debate so difficult for followers of Jesus is that so many of us have someone we know and love, or at least alongside whom we have to work, who is directly affected by it. We know individuals who locate themselves somewhere on that spectrum. And, the thought of telling them they’re wrong or that they can’t have what we might be enjoying ourselves without making a change that strikes right at the heart of who they understand themselves to be is excruciating to even try and process. But, just because it’s hard given the state of our culture and of our relationships with the people around us doesn’t mean the truth is any less clear. Sexual intimacy outside the bounds of marriage is sinful no matter how you frame it, and gender is something given by God in our creation and is fixed no matter how we might feel about that. That’s simply the position followers of Jesus who are committed to the authority and reliability of the Scriptures hold on the issue.
But, what is nearly as important as clarifying what the Scriptures teach on the matter is how we should approach folks who don’t agree with us. The principle we clarified here applies not just to this issue, but every issue. When we walk along the way of Jesus, there are going to be many people who don’t agree with us, some rather vigorously. No matter how vigorous their dissent may be, the way we approach them is fixed. It was fixed for us by Jesus Himself. The way of Jesus leads to life, but we still love those who don’t walk it.
The folks who identify themselves on the LGBT spectrum may not be like us, but we love them anyway because that’s what Jesus did. The remarkable thing about Jesus is that He liked people who were nothing like Him, and people who were nothing like Him liked Jesus. But can we just go ahead and acknowledge one more time that it’s tough to like those folks who aren’t like us? The real challenge of this fact nowadays is that there are people who aren’t like you and aren’t like me all around us. What’s more, the number of people around us who aren’t like us seems to be going up all the time. There are a number of reasons for this, but one of the biggest is immigration. It is immigration and as a nation, we don’t really know what to do about it.
Let’s just start with some facts. Our nation, more so than any other in the world, is built on the back of immigrants. Yes, there were folks here when most of our ancestors started arriving by boat from Europe (or forcibly from Africa), and no, we didn’t always (or often) treat them well, but the vast majority of our citizens today are the children of immigrants. We are a nation of immigrants. We became who we are today on the backs of immigrants. Our whole economy and culture are the result of immigrants collected together under the banner of a set of really big ideas.
Now, we are not as immigration-driven today as we once were, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t still a nation of immigrants. Let me put some numbers behind that. In 1960 there were about 9.7 million immigrants living in the U.S. Today, that number is 44.4 million. That’s roughly a 400% increase. Each year we allow roughly a million immigrants into our country legally. Perhaps unsurprisingly, most of our immigrants come from Mexico. China is second over the past few years with Cuba rounding out the top three. India is also high on the list. Although many immigrants arrive here legally, many do not. There are somewhere in the neighborhood of 10-11 million immigrants living here without legal permission to do so. About 4 million of those are here with their legal resident children. And although the highest percentage of immigrants are generally thought to be from Mexico or further south from there, a growing percentage—27% in 2019 to be exact—are from Southeast Asia. The percentage of our Asian population is on pace to overtake our Hispanic population in the near future. That means if you want to learn a foreign language most useful for the future, Mandarin is probably a wiser choice than Spanish.
When it comes to religion, the vast majority of immigrants—both lawful and unlawful—are professing Christians. As a matter of fact, the percentage of unlawful immigrants who are Christian is even higher than the percentage of lawful immigrants who claim such a mantle—83% versus 61% as of 2012. This means that if we want to have more people who think and believe like we do in our communities, we should be all for immigration because most of them do. Also, though, when Christians express opposition to immigrants—not immigration, but immigrants—we are mostly expressing opposition to our brothers and sisters in Christ.
And that realization helps point us in the direction I’d like to take us this morning. How should we as followers of Jesus approach the immigration debate? Now, let me say right at the outset here that I don’t have any kind of a policy prescription I’m going to propose this morning to you. I’m not that smart. The fact is, people a whole lot smarter than me have given this a whole lot of thought and most of them aren’t sure what to do. They certainly can’t agree with each other—especially if they happen to be divided from one another by a political aisle. We’re not going to solve the issue this morning. But then, that’s not the question we’re asking. The question we’re asking is, again, how should we approach the debate as followers of Jesus? I’m not interested right now in what the best thing for the country is, although that certainly matters. I’m interested in how we who would claim Jesus as Lord should even enter into conversations about that. The reason for this more focused approach is simple: If we don’t get this right, we’re not going to get any of the rest of what follows right. If we don’t enter with the mind of Christ on the matter, we’re not going to come up with any solutions that ultimately honor Him. And that’s a problem about which we should be most concerned.
If we are going to answer this question, we are going to have to go straight to the Scriptures. We are going to take a look together at a couple of different passages this morning, one from the Old Testament and one from the New. We’re going to start with that one from the Old Testament. It comes out of Deuteronomy. Deuteronomy is one of those books you’ve heard of, perhaps read some verses out of, but you may not know all that much about it. The book is basically the farewell address Moses gave to the people of Israel. It has the form of an ancient treaty between unequal parties. In it, Moses reviews the story behind the Law, reviews the Law itself including a complete restatement of the Ten Commandments, and lays out the blessings they can expect for keeping it along with the curses that will come with failing to do so. Along the way, Moses gives the people instructions on what they need to be doing in light of what God had done for them. We find one of these little interludes in chapter 10. Find that with me.
Here in Deuteronomy 10, Moses starts out by reminding the people how they came by the tablets with the Law on them in the first place. Coming out of this, look at what he says starting in v. 12: “And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God ask of you…”? In other words, what does God expect of you in light of what He’s done for you? Now, we often think in terms of God asking a lot from us. We think in terms of religious activities as ultimately pleasing to God. But is that what God says here? Look at this: “And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God ask of you except to fear the Lord your God by walking in all his ways, to love him, and to worship the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul?” Do you see anything about religion there? I sure don’t. It seems to me that the thing God is asking of them in light of what He had done for them (namely, to free them from generations of slavery), was to simply be faithful to Him and to reflect His character in their lives.
Keep listening now because what comes next is amazing. Verse 13 now: “Keep the Lord’s commands and statutes I am giving you today, for your own good.” God wasn’t giving them commands just because. He had their best interests at heart. As Jesus would later clarify, God didn’t make us so that we could follow His commands, He gave the commands with us in mind. In fact, that’s exactly what Moses goes on to tell them: “The heavens, indeed the highest heavens, belong to the Lord your God, as does the earth and everything in it. Yet the Lord had his heart set on your fathers and loved them. He chose their descendants after them—he chose you out of all the peoples, as it is today.” In other words, God could have chosen anybody. The whole world was His for the using. And He chose Israel.
“Therefore, circumcise…” Aha! There is it! There’s the religious activity we were waiting to see. God wants them all to have surgery as a display of their devotion to Him. Not so fast. Let me finish the verse. “Therefore, circumcise your hearts and don’t be stiff-necked any longer.” That is, quit trying to play tough like you didn’t really need Him and therefore don’t have to do what He says. He’s God and you’re not. “For the Lord your God is the God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, mighty, and awe-inspiring God…” Okay, well here it is, then. God is great and mighty and He’s going to smite them if they don’t do what He says. It’s all about power and force with Him. Right? Again, not quite. Remember, Moses is justifying to the people why they should do what God says. His reasoning? He is “the great, mighty, and awe-inspiring God, showing no partiality and taking no bribe. He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the resident alien, giving him food and clothing.”
Wait, what? His greatness and might and awe-inspiring-ness are demonstrated in…His goodness? Are we sure this is really in the Old Testament? Are you starting to get a sense of what Moses is telling the people? God is good. He’s done great things for you. He has your best interests at heart. It just makes sense to follow Him. Nobody else is like this.
Now, what God was doing with Israel was something special. He was fulfilling His promise to Abraham to bless the world through his descendants. That was ultimately going to happen in Christ. But, in order for Jesus to make any sense at all to anybody, He had to have a context. Having a context like that doesn’t happen overnight. In Israel, God was creating a cultural climate that would give form and substance to Jesus’ mission and message. He was using them to put a whole number of pieces in place like a master chess player thinking several moves out ahead of where he is currently playing. In creating this culture, He knew it had to be protected from being diluted by the nonsense happening in the world around them. As a result, He gave them a number of commands aimed at keeping their worldview and bloodlines pure and clean from foreign intrusion. The result was a certain amount of xenophobia that grew up in Israel over time. By the time Jesus was doing His ministry, the Jews knew they were better than the rest of the Gentile world. Their moral and cultural and religious and political superiority was simply the water in which they swam.
But, just because God was doing something special with them and took measures to make sure it was able to happen, and just because the people of Israel grew to look down on foreigners over time because of it, doesn’t mean God thought any less of outsiders. Did you catch that last part of His character there? He loves the “resident alien”—that is, the immigrant—and provides for him.
Well, at this point, Moses gives the people yet another command in light of who God is. And what might you think this command would be? Perhaps reflect God’s concern for the orphan and the widow? Certainly the people are told explicitly to do that in other places. But not here. Look at v. 19: “You are also to love the resident alien…” Think about that. The only aspect of God’s character the people are called to mimic here in light of everything He had done for them is His concern for the immigrants in their midst. Why? “…since you were resident aliens in the land of Egypt.” In other words, “There are some people who for whatever reason have to live not in their home. You used to have to live not in your home too. Watch out for them.” Actually Moses’ language is stronger than that: The people are to love them.
Hold that thought and come with me to 1 Peter. The apostle Peter’s first letter was to a whole group of churches who were facing a rough time. The culture around them wasn’t Christian in any sense and wasn’t terribly tolerant of their publicly exercising their faith. As a result, they were experiencing a fair amount of persecution and expected more in the future. In other words…their situation wasn’t so different from ours. It makes Peter’s letter one that is particularly worthy of our attention today. The gist of his counsel to them was to double down on their faithfulness to the character of Christ and endure the persecution they faced with courage and grace. Eventually, God was going to sort things out. That’s all worthy of our attention another time. For this morning, I want to draw your attention to the very first thing Peter says, to the title he gives these believers. Listen to this from 1 Peter 1:1: “Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ: To those chosen, living as exiles dispersed abroad in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through the sanctifying work of the Spirit, to be obedient and to be sprinkled with the blood of Jesus. May grace and peace be multiplied to you.”
Now, you could write a book on just these two verses in terms of the amount of stuff to talk about here. Let’s focus in together on one little part this morning. Peter calls these believers “chosen, living as exiles dispersed abroad.” Various other translations phrase that bit like this: “God’s elect exiles scattered throughout the provinces of” those other places; “the pilgrims of the Dispersion;” “the elect who are sojourners of the Dispersion;” “those who reside as aliens, scattered throughout” the territories; and “those temporarily residing abroad.” Are you getting the picture? Peter calls these believers foreigners. Why? Because they were. They may have been citizens of whatever nation they happened to call home, but as followers of Jesus, that wasn’t their ultimate home. They were living somewhere that wasn’t their home. And what do we call those kinds of folks today? Immigrants, right? Listen: Peter said this in reference to believers almost 2,000 years ago. He could have written it today and said the exact same thing changing only the names of the places. He could have written his letter to “those temporarily residing abroad in Oakboro, Stanfield, Red Cross, Locust, Endy, Aquadale, Albemarle, and Norwood.”
Do you see what I’m getting at? Let’s connect some dots. When Moses was giving the people some commands from God in light of everything He had done for them, one of the commands was for them to love the foreigners, the immigrants, in their midst because they were former immigrants themselves. The apostle Peter, writing almost 2,000 years later, called followers of Jesus immigrants no matter where they happened to reside in a given moment. Another 2,000 years later that characterization hasn’t changed. Now, the Law of Moses was fulfilled in Christ. We are not liable to it. But God’s character hasn’t changed. His expectations of those who profess to follow Him in light of His character haven’t changed either. If anything, they’ve become higher because of the abiding help and presence of the Holy Spirit that Moses’ audience couldn’t have even imagined. All of this means that our attitude toward immigrants should be the same as what God expected of Israel 4,000 years ago. We’ve talked a lot since I told you what that attitude was. Should I remind us all? “For the Lord your God is the God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, mighty, and awe-inspiring God, showing no partiality and taking no bribe. He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the resident alien, giving him food and clothing. You are also to love the resident alien, since you were resident aliens in the land of Egypt.” We may not have ever been exiled in the land of Egypt, but if you are a follower of Jesus, you are an immigrant in this world. What’s more, you and I are immigrants who will never become citizens of our current home. Our citizenship is fixed and permanent in the kingdom of God.
Here’s what all of this means for us: When it comes to the immigration debate, the foundational assumption that we as followers of Jesus bring to the table no matter what aspect of it is being discussed is that God loves immigrants, and so should we. God loves immigrants, and so should we. Everything else about the issue flows from there. It determines how we treat our legal immigrant neighbors. It determines how we think about the care of unlawful immigrants in our communities. It should profoundly affect the kinds of policies and laws for which we advocate. It plays a significant role in the kind of votes we cast for both politicians and ballot measures when it comes to this issue. Everything about the immigration debate as far as we who are followers of Jesus goes must begin here: God loves immigrants, and so should we.
Now, does this tell us how many immigrants we should allow into the country? No, but it does tell us we should love the ones who are here. Does this answer the question of whether or not we should build a wall along our southern border with Mexico? No, it does tell us how we should treat those folks living in a truly awful state of limbo just on the other side of that border while waiting to find out if they’ll be let in legally or not. It tells us that we should show compassion for those folks we suspect might be here illegally if they happen to be within our sphere of influence and impact. Does it mean we should advocate breaking the law with regard to current immigration policies as a nation if we don’t deem them sufficiently loving? That’s a decision we need to make between us and God and only when we are ready and willing to pay the price for breaking the law, for although the Scriptures do lay a foundation for making such a decision (a foundation beautifully described by Martin Luther King, Jr. in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”), they offer us absolutely zero coverage for doing so in terms of paying the legal price. After all, Dr. King’s letter was written from a Birmingham jail. But, it does mean we can and should advocate for their being treated justly if the current laws are not doing so (especially if they are our brothers and sisters in Christ). It does mean we advocate actively for those individuals and families who are the victims of a system that is broken. When it comes to the complex issue of immigrations, the simple matter for followers of Jesus is this: God loves immigrants, and so should we. This doesn’t answer every question, but it does tell us how we approach finding an answer. God loves immigrants, and so should we. My challenge to us is this: Figure out how, and start putting it into practice.