More Thoughts on Immigration Policy


I am not a political activist – my activism is “in the trenches”, building up the community of Christ rather than than trying to lobby the government.

But as a citizen in a democratic country who pastors the same, and as an amateur political scientist, I do think about policy on occasion. Right now I am wrestling with two sets of policies: immigration and environmentalism. I hope to write on each of these at length in the coming months, but let me share a couple of thoughts on immigration today.

What brings this issue onto my radar is my participation in the Rhode Island Council of Churches (RICC) “Faith and Order” commission. The charter of the latter is to provide theological guidance to the RICC on various matters. In the 2007-2008 year is was the authority of the Church. This coming year the topic will be immigration. The RICC, like the National Council on Churches, tends to approach and frame issues in a way that is both theologically and politically liberal. As an Orthodox priest, I am theologically traditional. As a citizen, I favor solutions that do not increase the size and scope of the government and more than absolutely necessary. This occasionally put me at odds with my brothers and sisters in Christ in the Council.

I have just begun researching immigration, but I have yet to find much of a voice that provides a theologically traditional position on the issue. By far the loudest Christian voices are those that use the “social gospel” to protect the interests of all immigrants, whether legal or illegal (they call them “undocumented”); and to attack any attempts to control immigration for whatever reason. This prophetic voice is useful, but it (like the pacifist voice in debates over national and international security) needs to be balanced with something. There is no doubt that the obligation to “welcome the stranger” is operative. I think it is also paramount. But it is not the only obligation we have.

I’ll get into this more as I research it, but the voice that is missing is one that comes straight out of the Orthodox witness: the state should not be anthropomorphized and treated as if it had the same obligations of any “ordinary” Christian. The state has a very specific role to play with regard to its inhabitants: to provide a safe place in which its people may pursue godliness (see, for instance, the prayers for the government in the Orthodox morning prayers and Divine Liturgy). This means that it has a blessing and obligation to do things that Christian persons do not. This can and has includes things like using violence, extorting money (e.g. taxes), and [perhaps] even turning away needy people at the border. The government does not have carte blanche to do whatever it wants, but the examples of saintly Christian rulers shows that there are times when things can and must get ugly. This is a fallen world, and it is the government’s duty to protect its citizens against the worst of this fallen world’s fruits.

While this position is provocative, let me share two implications that are even more so. First, we have an obligation to obey the law. If you don’t believe this, go back and read St. Paul’s letters (especially Romans) again – this has been a Christian teaching from the beginning. We cannot protect criminal behavior simply because we disagree with the law. Sanctuary parishes and cities violate this Christian obligation.

Second, in a democratic country we are the rulers. We are the ones obligated to protect the interests of our subjects (Nikolas Gvosdev treats the issue of Christian citizenship at length in his excellent book, Emporers and Elections: Reconciling the Orthodox Tradition with Modern Politics). We have obligations as Christians cum rulers that Christians who are not rules do not. This additional burden does not alleviate us of the responsibility to care for the stranger, but rather that we find a way to balance that with security. Those who make and execute the law should feel the tension between their Christian obligations to the stranger and their Christian obligations to their subjects. The trick is to struggle with this tension rather than pretend that one or the other obligation does not exist.

On this side of the eschaton all choices may contain the taint of sin. But remember that sin is as much disease as the consequence of breaking laws; and that we live in a quarantined world. This is why every Christian, be he/she king/queen, citizen, soldier, or simple peasant, must regularly spend time in the Great Hospital for the treatments of Confession and Communion.

As for immigration, it may be the case that Christians on all sides of the issue should lobby and vote for less restricted immigration policy. This is where I am leaning; I was already convinced that this was the best way to treat immigrants; the CATO Institute convinced me that this would satisfy my duty as citizen. Until then we have an obligation to uphold the law in as compassionate a manner as possible. Willfully breaking the law is not something any Christian should countenance in all but the most restricted and dire circumstances (and we’re not even close; but see Bishop Tobin’s letter). In either case, “the Doctor is in.”


A Follow Up:

A good friend (an Orthodox Christian with a precise legal mind) pointed out some problems with my presentation, especially that I seemed to suggest that the State (and its executors) were outside of Christianity and immune from Christian morality. I do not believe any such thing, so I appreciated the opportunity to clarify my thoughts. Here is an excerpt of our conversation (his remarks are in blue):

Your post on immigration was interesting. In particular, I was struck by what you said regarding the proper role of Christian influence on policymaking. I haven’t read the book you mention on democratic citizenship, but I worry about an implication of what you said [about the obligations of the state vs. the obligations of Christian persons]:

First, in a democracy where the state is (in theory) nothing but a collection of the preferences of its citizens (who do have the obligations of, say, ordinary Christians), isn’t it proper to demand that Christians not exercise un-Christian preferences in their plebiscitary behavior (for example, shutting out to a greater degree than necessary orphans, widows, and men who seek work to keep their families from becoming such)? Isn’t there something different about modern democracies (compared to St. Paul’s very distant empire) that breaks the separation between the moral accountability of the citizen and the moral accountability of the state? We have no emperor to take on dirty hands so that ours might remain clean–it’s just us and the leaders we ourselves have imbued with power.

Second, if we need not demand that the state fulfill something like Christian obligations but rather accept that it merely “provide[s] a safe place . . . for the existing citizenry now and into the future,” I see the following difficulty. Suppose it is true, as Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt have argued, that the increased number of abortions in the 70s are responsible for the drop in crime rates in the early 90s. Better yet, let’s take the strongest possible version of that argument: if we allow abortion on demand, there will be no violent crime. If we need not take into account the interests of the unborn (as would arguably be the case if the proper democratic policy turned on “what is best for the existing citizenry”), then the absence of violent crime would undoubtedly be great for the existing citizenry (let’s assume that abortions have no ill effects on the mothers themselves). Can Christians then in good conscience vote for policies or politicians that would enable abortion on demand? If not, is the immigration question really all that different?

I think what you said in your email is quite different from what the post says–but perhaps the statements are more compatible than I realize.

Here is what I said in my e-mail (which does clarify my position) “The ‘stranger’ rule [i.e. that we must welcome the stranger] would seem to be the guiding [rule], modified only to satisfy the obligations of the state to provide a safe place for us to pursue perfection. This creates a tension. As caesars ourselves, I think we should feel this tension inside us rather than attempt to resolve it by removing one of the sides.

Big thanks to B___ for reading and, more importantly, helping me clarify my position.

P.S. We are in the midst of studying this issue on Wednesday nights at my parish. Last week we went over the Old Testament. The evidence there is ambiguous (at least on its own): God urged the Jews to protect sojourners, even describing ways in which they can be assimilated; but the Old Testament also includes strong references for the idea of nations having their own interests which must be protected. Christians understand the Old Testament through Christ. Because of their exclusive focus on the “Social Gospel” of Christ, many Christians see only the first part of the message as remaining in effect. They are backed in this by the declaration that there are no “Jews or Gentiles” in the Church [an aside; it is amazing folks pick and choose from St. Paul’s teachings]. I wonder if the issue is as clear as they suggest. Orthodoxy still seems to accept the idea of nation, while completely recognizing that in Christ such differences are insignificant. Again, it is a question of tension and balance. You can’t solve an equation by multiplying one side by zero.!

This week we will study what the New Testament says about immigration (which is primarily the fact that we must welcome strangers!) and what our Tradition teaches. Soon, we hope to host Nick Gvosdev (the author of the book I referenced above) so he can explain more about being a Christian Citizen.