[FT] Immigration: What Does the Bible Say?

Joe Ginder joe.ginder at lbfc.org
Sat Jun 5 10:42:35 PDT 2010

I don't know the answer.  I haven't counted, but I would guess that most of
my friends - certainly my close friends - are either immigrants or children
of immigrants.  Some of them came to this country illegally, though I use
that word "illegally" with some reservation because our immigration laws are
so strange and even contradictory at times that it is hard to know just what
is legal on occasion.  Other times, a person enters the country without
permission and just stays.
I think using Mosaic law to understand how God told his people Israel to
treat strangers and foreigners, with proper understanding of context, is
quite a good and reasonable aid to forming a way forward for God's people
today.  And certainly Jesus had a lot to say that is even more directly
relevant to us.  Mostly, the Mosaic law and Jesus' teaching seems to be
claimed by those who advocate for immigrants, legal or illegal.  Those who
are concerned about illegal immigration often land on "we're supposed to be
For those who proclaim that the Mosaic law mandates good treatment of
foreigners, I agree.  I also know enough to understand that foreigners were
essentially not allowed to own land in Israel and could be enslaved under
some conditions with no recourse to being set free on the 7th year.  All
land belonged to God.  He allowed the families of the tribes of Israel to
hold parcels in trust that reverted back to those families every 50th year
even if they sold that land.  In between such years of Jubilee, kinsmen were
to not allow the family land to fall into the hands of others due to
indebtedness or foolishness, but instead to redeem it for the family if at
all possible.  If not, then when the year of Jubilee was reached, it
reverted to the family anyway.  So where's the space for immigrants to own
land?  There was none, if the Mosaic law was followed.  The only option was
to convert to being a member of God's people and marry into an existing
family.  So while I agree that there is much precedent for treating
foreigners and aliens well - hospitality - there were also precedents in the
Mosaic law that cut both ways.  Let's be careful not to just proof-text our
own positions.
There are some observations that I hold in tension and do not find it
straightforward to resolve.  I will admit in advance that they are perhaps
so abstracted as to never be 100% true in practice.
It is only natural to expect that those who live in an area where it is hard
to make a life will want to go to a place where they expect things to be
better.  While there's a part of me that has grown to be an advocate of
staying put and fighting for justice, I come from a long tradition of
Quakers who moved westward many times with utopian dreams of building better
communities.  Today's immigration is less idealistic (or perhaps more
practical), but there are valid reasons to move on and seek a better place.
Christians should show compassion on those who simply want a reasonable life
for themselves and their families.
It is only natural to expect that those who work hard to build a community
should want to protect it from the encroachment of those who have not worked
long and hard to build that community.  It is not justice when a community
is overwhelmed by those who want its benefits without paying its costs, or
overwhelmed by those who want to change the fundamental nature of the
Somewhere in between is the realization that we are all visitors living on
God's land but also image bearers of God who were made to belong here.  It
is always the case that I am receiving the benefit of those who came before
me, and it is always the case that I feel more "ownership" of where I am and
what I have than perhaps it is really just for me to feel.  And yet, it's
not ok when my neighbors dump their trash over the fence into my yard, or
steal my relative's bike out of the yard.  What is the proper function of a
border?  Can a follower of Jesus maintain borders?  When and how is this
righteous and just?  Is there any stream of community whose hands are clean
when it comes to respecting those who came before them or even just treating
others with justice and compassion?
I have much to do yet today, so I'll end with these questions.
--Joe Ginder
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