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Observations On J. R. Edwards, Jr., "A Biblical Perspective On Immigration Policy"

by M. Daniel Carroll Rodas

Editor's note: This article refers to Center for Immigration Studies' report "A Biblical Perspective on Immigration Policy", September 2009.

There is much in "A Biblical Perspective on Immigration Policy" that requires a response. Sadly, it contains misinformation, caricature, and pejorative language-the very elements that do not lend themselves to constructive debate with a civil tone on such a sensitive and complex topic. This response is limited, however, to Dr. Edwards' biblical discussion. Instead of going point-by-point, the following offers a brief critique according to three general categories. My hope is that this presentation will be helpful to those who are advocates for immigrants, both documented and undocumented.

1. The Framework for the Biblical Discussion

As many who argue against a more open immigration policy, Edwards begins his discussion with Romans 13 (pp. 1-2, cf. 7-9). Put simply, the argument is that this passage says that government authorities have been established by God and that its citizens and outsiders are to submit to its laws. Unauthorized entry and residence in this country, therefore, cannot be supported. By grounding the discussion in Romans 3, several important points are missed.

  • Theologically, the idea of the sword (Rom. 13:4) harks back to Genesis 9:1-7. In that context, God delegates the authority to control human violence in a world where violence, death, and hubris reign (chs. 3-9). God's ideal is to protect and provide for life (chs. 1-2; 9:1, 7). In other words, a government is not solely about establishing order and demanding obedience to laws; it should be about the business of promoting human flourishing in its fullness-even its laws should be directed toward those ends. This would mean that the ultimate value within the divine paradigm is the human person (more below).
  • The Genesis account also communicates that the nations of the earth were born at Babel (chs. 10-11). At the heart of all nations, then, is arrogance and rebellion against God. Even as human history in a sense begins at Babel, it also ends with the final Babylon in the Book of Revelation, when once again the peoples of the world unite against God. It is no wonder that both the Old and New Testaments condemn human societies and governments for their multiple sins and shortcomings; and all, in time, are judged. To begin at Romans 13 has the potential to carry with it the assumption that the government is inherently good and should not a questioned, nor its laws challenged. Nor does this view take into serious consideration the role of the people of God vis-ŕ-vis the government. Today, as in many times in the past, the church may be called to be a prophetic voice before the authorities.
  • To begin the discussion on immigration with the creation of humanity in Genesis 1-2 is to start the conversation by focusing on the worth of immigrants as created in the image of God, their potential to contribute to society, and the physical needs that can be met within a land of more resources and opportunities (and here resurfaces the role of government to facilitate human flourishing). From this perspective, immigration policy at its heart is about helping the less fortunate as special creatures of God instead of that other framewor that is defined by a defensive stance towards those from elsewhere who are seen as a threat; it is about welcoming the one in need, not about emphasizing boundaries and exclusion.
  • This is not to say that the border should not be organized better; and, future laws should also take into serious consideration the many and difficult pragmatic effects of the presence of newcomers health care, education, etc.). Nor does it suggest that immigrants do not have responsibilities (the fact that they are made in the image of God presumes that they are responsible creatures). What this alternative starting point does, though, is reorient the purposes and goals of immigration policy, offers the possibility for a tone of compassion and mutual respect, and suggests that the country might review its mission as one of serving the vulnerable within the limitations of its possibilities.

2. Problematic Use of the Biblical Data
There are several problems with the treatment of the biblical material. I mention a few.

  • Anachronisms. In biblical times, boundaries, citizenship, and nations were not like today's realities. In the ancient world there were city-states, nomadic peoples, empires of various sizes, coalitions of small states with varying degrees of shared governance, and individual nations. Borders and jurisdictions did not function as they do now. Democracy did not exist; all governments were in some measure authoritarian, centralized, and inextricably interconnected with religious ideologies and rituals. People were concerned about borders, but one should be careful not to project how modern states control borders with how these may have been handled so long ago (pp. 3, 6).
  • Incorrect data. For example, on pp. 2-3 Edwards rightly says that there are several termsused to refer to 'aliens' (he says that there are two; there are actually more). The more positive term is ger (I will translate this as "sojourner"); some of the more negative are nekar/nokrî. He indiscriminately mixes these in his discussion. The former is provided for in several ways and given many privileges, because he/she has come in to live in Israel. The ger has committed to reside in Israel and become part of the community, unlike the nekar/nokrî, who are seen as outsiders and a danger.
  • Misapplied data. There is an appeal to Moses' asking for permission to cross Edom, Amorite territory, Moab, and Ammon on the way to the Promised Land (Numbers 20-25) as a precedent to respect borders (p. 6). There is a big difference, though, between Moses leading a people through other countries (with the need to eat from those lands as they marched or to secure food from the native populations) and the importance of getting their approval beforehand and the cases of individuals crossing modern borders looking for work and a better life. Of course, those other ancient peoples would have considered Israel to be an immediate military and economic menace; nor were they unaware of what had happened to the Egyptians.
  • Arguments from silence. Speaking of migrations in the Bible, Edwards says, "None appears to have involved illegality." Perhaps Abram had to go through Egyptian checkpoints along its eastern side (which we know did exist at times) to enter in (Genesis 12) and Joseph did officially engineer the entry of Jacob's clan (Genesis 46-47), but what about Ruth, when she crossed from Moab into Bethlehem, or the patriarchs in their movements across Canaan? Is the modern concept of legal and illegal crossing relevant in those cases? What is more, we have no evidence at all for Israel's policies at its borders (which often changed due to war). The text clearly does speak, though, of the divine demand to care for the sojourner.

3. Reversing Conclusions
There is a number of statements in Edwards' paper that seem to point in the opposite direction of what the text actually is intending. Once more, a few examples will suffice.

  • The motivation to care for the sojourner is not "equal justice under the law" (p. 2), but rather compassion towards the outsider who, because of the lack of an extended family and the difficulty of acquiring land in that peasant economy, was at the mercy of the Israelites for provision and protection. The motivation given in the Law is that Israel must not forget its mistreatment as aliens in Egypt (historical memory; e.g., Exod. 22:21) and that God himself loves the vulnerable-the widow, the orphan, and the sojourner (ger; Deut. 10:17-19). The issue is love and compassion more than legal rectitude (though this was important). In fact (and Edwards mentions this passage!), the love of neighbor is connected to the love for the sojourner (Lev. 19:18, 33-34).
  • The laws underscore care for the sojourner, not the principle that "foreigners were to comply with Israelite laws, such as the Sabbath observance (e.g., Deut. 16:9-15)" (p. 3). Besides the error of citing the wrong passage (the Sabbath law appears in Exodus 20:8-11 and Deut 5:12-15; Deuteronomy 16:9-15 concerns the Feast of Weeks), the motivation behind the Sabbath law was to grant the sojourner rest. Then, as now, foreign labor could be exploited: little rest and unjust pay. The Law called for this regular rest, as well as a fair and timely wage (Deut. 24:15). The permission to allow the sojourner to participate in the joy of Israel's feasts also demonstrated that God desired for his people to open up to others that which they cherished most and what gave them their particular identity: their religious faith. Of course, to participate the sojourner would have had to learn the ways of Israel and its language, and that is part of the process of outsiders integrating into their new world. But note that the ideal was inclusiveness.
  • Commenting on various biblical cases, Edwards states that these "do not provide modern?day immigration or refugee policy prescriptions. They simply exemplify times in which ancestors of Christ sought humanitarian help and God provided it through governing authorties" (p. 7). Is this not what immigrants seek: "humanitarian help" in the form of jobs and the chance for a better life? Can not the U.S. be considered one of those "governing authorities" that takes in, as it is able, those in need?
  • In light of the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), these words are odd: "In the context of members of nations, one's neighbors are those people who share one's citizenship, patriotic allegiance, and sacred duty to the body politic." (p. 9) Jesus' point was that the Samaritan, who was of a different and despised people, was the model to be followed. Here and elsewhere, Edwards makes clear distinctions between the government's purpose and individual ethics. But these are the kinds of statements that must be reconsidered in light of the church's mission in the world. To reduce that to not questioning government policy can lead to a certain kind of patriotism trumping gospel faithfulness. He never considers how the church's posture might differ from the government's, how the church might influence policy, or how the mission of the church to love the neighbor might be different than what he perceives to be the role of human government.

There is a lack of biblical expertise, theological scope, ecclesiological awareness, or consideration of the sacrificial call of Christ to serve the needy. His paper, however, does serve as a challenge to those who are speaking and acting on behalf of immigrants that they should handle the text well ad deepen their theological understanding. Of course, the rants themselves is another topic to be explored.

About The Author

M. Daniel Carroll Rodas who celebrates his heritage from both Guatemala and the United States, joined the faculty in 1996. He currently is Distinguished Professor of Old Testament. He is affiliated with the Evangelical Theological Society, Institute of Biblical Research, Society of Biblical Literature, Society for Old Testament Study (Great Britain), Fraternidad Teológica Latinoamericana, Latin American Studies Association, and Evangelicals for Social Action. He has authored several books and his latest is book is Christians at the Border: Immigration, the Church and the Bible is a biblical-theological orientation to Hispanic immigration and was recently translated into Spanish.

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ILW.COM.