Guest post by Mark Nenadov
“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.” (Leviticus 19:33-34, ESV)
In his 1867 speech in Boston, Frederick Douglass said:
“If we would reach a degree of civilization higher and grander than any yet attained, we should welcome to our ample continent all nations, kindreds, tongues and peoples…The outspread wings of the American eagle are broad enough to shelter all who are likely to come.”
Christians don’t speak with one clear voice on immigration policy. Our exegesis, political theory, experiences, prejudices, vocations, and economic situations seem to guarantee that. And that is OK.
At a bare minimum, though, I believe Christians should share something of Douglass’ optimism. It ought to be grounded not so much in trust of human nature as trust in God’s sovereignty and His graciousness to the nations in Jesus Christ. We North Americans have an “ample continent” which can welcome many “outsiders” and we will have no claim on being “exceptional” if we don’t make our place welcoming. In theologically conservative circles there are sadly few who possess such optimism. The shrill voice of the “nativist alarmist” is raised in every generation. And it is ugly.
I have no desire to tell you how to vote or what concrete policy positions to support. I’m just sharing thoughts which will hopefully help you think “Christianly” in this area. Before proceeding, let me tell you something about myself. It doesn’t make me any less or more of an authority on this matter, but perhaps it will interest you. I’m a first generation Canadian, the son of immigrants from the former Yugoslavia. My dad left his country illegally because it was about to arrest him for his religious principles.
1. Don’t forget your past (or your status)
In my mind, at the root of the problematic thinking on immigration that is so prevalent among theologically conservative Christians is a basic forgetfulness.
First, there is forgetfulness about our indebtedness to (and dependence on) God’s gracious disposition in our direction. That’s when pride and a sour nationalism creeps in.
Second, there is a forgetfulness of the basic dignity which is tied to the fact that humans are made in the image of God.
Third, it is easy for us to forget how tenuous our “nativist” identity is. Even if your family was here “going way back”, you might be surprised to learn how marginal and “outsider” your roots really are. It’s often not hard to find a “break” in a “nativist” pedigree.
Fourth, it is easy to forget how non-mainstream and marginal our religious or cultural affiliation really is. For example, as a Baptist, I must always remember how Baptists were once been regarded as outsiders. In the early 19th century, several states imposed “dissenter” taxes on Baptist ministers. Baptists also couldn’t hold public offices at times. And that’s just the situation in North America. Baptists often did not fare very well in Europe, either. Historical research is a great antidote against ignorant and boastful nativism.
2. Beware of sensationalistic statistics and slogans
I was once researching old newspapers from my town here in Ontario, Canada, and I found a political ad from the 1920s. It said: “Canada is for Canadians…stop the alarming tide of immigration.” With a touch of humour, the competing politician observed that the majority of immigrants were actually from the British Isles. While I am sure some things have gotten worse since the 1920s, I’m glad for progress in this area. Canadian politicians do not feel free to be so overtly xenophobic today. Though, I must say when I survey North American political discourse, I’m still amazed at how free politicians still feel to play the “nativist” card!
Let’s dig into U.S. history a bit. In 1845, the U.S. Nativist Party spoke of a troubling “onslaught” of Irish Catholics — 1.7 million Irish Catholic immigrants who “crowded the shores of the United States.” Similar anecdotes could be shared regarding fears of Jewish, Italian, Japanese, Chinese, Mexican, or German immigrants. Of course, such “concerning” statistics seem laughable today. Especially in light of how many millions upon millions of people have immigrated to North American since then. However, we would do well to recognize the extent to which we are confronted with thinly veiled messages which, while perhaps a bit more sophisticated, convey the same spirit. In each generation, the alarmists know how to dress up statistics and platitudes to spread fear and xenophobia.
Of course, it is not wrong to use immigration statistics. In fact, they can be genuinely alarming in that they call out serious logistical, policy-making, or humanitarian challenges. However, they should never propel us to hatred or “tight-fistedness.” We need to keep up a healthy optimism. God created a glorious world and He is in control. He didn’t create a zero-sum world. The world is full of God’s wondrous works. Don’t let fear-mongers fool you into wasting your time with foolishness which leads to slavish fears.
3. Beware of common but false assumptions
Not everything that is popularly repeated is true. Nor is everything that is intuitive. Nor is everything that aligns with our anecdotal experiences. Here are two common but false assumptions about immigration:
A. “Immigration is bad for the economy”
On the contrary, economists generally believe that immigration leads to increases in productivity and growth for all parties in the economy. For more information on this, review Building a Wall around the Welfare State, Instead of the Country. 60% of the top 25 technology companies have been founded or co-founded by first or second generation immigrants. Who knows what other amazing developments will come at the hands of immigrants in the future!
B. “Muslims are taking over the West and are not assimilating”
This is a pervasive myth, and one with a certain amount of plausibility. However, Doug Sanders’ work has shown that many of these “popular assumptions” are either inaccurate or exaggerated. Though I reject the Islamic religion and its truth claims and hate the “political correctness” that shuns the critique of religious beliefs, I must say that many of the commonly held fears about Muslim immigration are based more upon anecdotal evidence than any sort of trustworthy analysis. Muslim birthrates are rapidly falling. Doug Sanders suggests that even if the immigration rates stay constant, Europe is unlikely to surpass a 10% Muslim population. And while Muslim immigrants often initially have differing views than their host countries, their opinions tend to converge with those of their new neighbours. Generation by generation, they’re assimilating quicker than many assume. Sanders also notes that about 40% of American Muslims have University degrees–about twice as many as the overall national average.
Whatever we might make of Sanders’ findings, I believe Christians ought to have an evangelical optimism about Muslim immigration. Many Muslims who can’t (safely) hear the gospel in their homelands, through immigration, now have an opportunity to hear the gospel. If North American Christians will take it to them, that is. Personally, it is disturbing that some are so consumed by a Muslim “threat” that they seem unable to even rejoice in (let alone participate in) this gospel opportunity. For instance, a PCA minister recently claimed that mass conversion of Muslims is “not Biblically doable” (his article, in Charisma News, has been subsequently taken down).
We would do well to remember the prayer of the RCA minister Samuel Zwemer:
“Father, the hour has come; glorify thy Son in the Muslim world, and fulfill through him the prayer of Abraham thy friend, ‘O, that Ishmael might live before thee.’ For Jesus’ sake. Amen.”
Some final thoughts
Whether or not you agree with everything I’ve said here, I hope that this article will help you think through these issues.
Let us remember that God’s people, in many seasons of history, have been and are pilgrims and strangers, and so our treatment of others should reflect sensitivity to those in the same situation.
We need to do some serious thinking on the immigration issue on a level that is more basic than merely that of a policy discussion. No matter what policies we may wish to support, we Christians must proceed under the Lordship of Christ. Why should we be concerned about the immigrant? As John Calvin said, it is “the image of God, which recommends him to you” (Institutes, 3.7.6).