Theology of Immigration

Published June, 2024

First Things

Speaking to a gymnasium full of high schoolers in 2015, Angela Merkel sought to explain why Germany needed to close its borders to the tide of Syrian refugees. She was brought up short by Reem Sahwil, a refugee girl facing deportation. The girl’s tears accomplished what no lobbyist or newspaper could: a volte-face in Germany’s immigration policy. Soon the country was welcoming 10,000 refugees per day, stoking a heated political debate that continues to roil much of Europe. The same influx of newcomers helped spur Trump to victory in 2016, and with nearly 300,000 migrants per month trying to cross our southern border, it may well do so again in 2024. The debate over immigration is also likely to continue tearing the Church apart, as mainline congregations post signs declaring “Love has no borders,” while evangelical Christians demand a wall, the national guard, secession—anything to stop the flow.

In Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World, historian Tom Holland concludes his two-thousand-year narrative with Merkel’s encounter with Reem Sahwil. Nowhere is the impact of the Christian revolution so apparent, he argues. The willingness of Western nations to open their borders to the huddled masses at their doorsteps is imaginable only because of Christianity. Throughout human history, almost no one other than Christians has felt this way: Outsiders remain outside, and that is that. As a pastor’s daughter, however, Merkel internalized Jesus’s imperative: “‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ God loves not just German people. God loves everybody.” In this interpretation, Christianity has always offered a vision of radical hospitality; tearing down of ethnic boundaries was at the heart of St. Paul’s gospel.

Why then do so many evangelical Christians today intuit that something is wrong with Merkel’s reasoning? Is the call for control of the border simply a nativist reflex that we must stifle, a manifestation of sinful pride and selfishness that we must mortify? Or does the globalist war on borders constitute, rather, an idolatrous striving to transcend our finitude, to be as gods unbound in time or space?

In my estimation, secure borders, national sovereignty, and limited immigration are affirmed by traditional Christian moral theology. Of course, there is nothing sacred about lines on a map; they are human constructions, which serve human goods. But these goods—the goods of hearth and homeland—are not to be despised, for without them we would lose our humanity.

The language of “hospitality” is often invoked on the progressive side of the debate. Openness to immigrants, we are told, is a simple duty of Christian hospitality. We must welcome the stranger into our national home and see that he is clothed and fed. “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares,” admonishes the Epistle to the Hebrews. The notion of hospitality has much to commend it, and indeed the analogy between the home and the polity is almost as old as politics itself.

But does the appeal to “hospitality” entail a call to abolish or open our borders? To show hospitality in my own home, I must have a home—that is, a house with four walls and doors that open, close, and (ideally) can be locked. To invite people into this home, I must maintain a clear distinction between residents and guests. If every passing drug addict can crash on the couch, I may be running a worthy ministry, but I am not maintaining a home. In fact, if I have children (and it is striking how many of the progressive advocates of open borders do not—Merkel included), I will know instinctively that I must sometimes put their needs above the practice of hospitality. Some strangers will be too dangerous to allow into my home. Others may be safe enough, but they will compete for the limited temporal and financial resources that I owe to my wife and children before all others. Of course, a residence totally closed to neighbors and strangers would likewise be a travesty; it might be a beautiful house, but we would rightly hesitate to call it a home.

Hospitality, then, is an essential function of a home, and yet an unlimited, revolving-door hospitality would quickly destroy most homes. The lesson is clear enough: a nation, likewise, ought to be open to strangers, but it will soon have little to offer either residents or visitors if it does not establish appropriate limits. A nation without borders is no better than a house without walls. Common sense, therefore, shows us that, like every creaturely good, hospitality (whether by household or nation) is made possible only by recognition of its limits.

This intuition is fortified by Scripture. Israel is called to be a separate, bounded nation among the nations, and yet a nation for the nations, offering hospitality to “the sojourner.” The Israelites are repeatedly reminded, “You shall not wrong a sojourner or oppress him, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt” (Exod. 22:21).

The vision of hospitality made possible to a consolidated and bounded people is mirrored in the relationship of individual Israelite families to the land. Each family and tribe has its particular portion and inheritance, to be secured throughout the generations. Yet this possession serves a wider good. The surplus of each Israelite’s fields is “for the poor and the sojourner” (Lev. 19:10), as is the surplus of the whole nation (Deut. 26:12). Hospitality and charity are not boundless. Although naturalization is possible (for example, Ruth), ordinarily the sojourner remains a sojourner and does not receive a portion of the land. In his time of residence, the sojourner is expected to abide by Israel’s laws, both criminal (Lev. 24:22) and ceremonial (Num. 15:15).

Biblical Israel is an imperfect analogue for modern nation-states. Its national boundaries were defined above all by circumcision, not border checkpoints, and justice was administered by elders at the gate, not by centralized courts and bureaucracies. But the Bible’s account of Israel’s norms for treating strangers tells us at least that the call to hospitality does not abolish property lines or territorial distinctions.

What about the New Testament? Understandably, given that its contents were written by and for small and disempowered communities of believers, it provides little direction for the conduct of states. But the analogy between polity and household allows us to draw wisdom about statecraft from its teaching on private property.

Interpretation of the New Testament’s statements about property is famously vexed. Christian socialists have pointed to Christ’s direction to the rich young ruler, and to the sharing of goods within the Church in Acts 4, as evidence that believers are called to live without private property, giving in accord with capacity, taking in accord with need. However, much of the rest of the New Testament takes ongoing inequalities of property for granted (e.g., Acts 5:4; 1 Cor. 9:1–12; 1 Tim. 5:8). Possessing wealth is permitted, so long as property is ordered toward the goods of hospitality and charity.

As is the case with many questions in social ethics, we cannot resolve the biblical status of private property by exegesis alone; we must frame it with reference to basic theological categories. Is private property a necessary evil, a response to the Fall’s disordering of human affections, which the community of the redeemed is called to overcome? Or is it a God-given good, a natural feature of created humanity?

In our answer to this question about property, we will have our answer to the question of national borders. For the doctors of the Church and later medieval theologians, who debated the issue fiercely, recognized that private property and political authority evoke the same theological question: In a world made up of divine image-bearers, equally sons of Adam and daughters of Eve, by what right could some humans ever claim to limit, exclude, or command other humans? By what right could a householder say, “This is my property; if you want to use it, you may do so only on my terms”? And by what right could a king say, “This is my territory; if you want to live here or pass through, you may do so only under my laws”? The word for both kinds of authority is the same: dominium, lordship.

The Church Fathers, for the most part, took a more pessimistic line on dominium. In a world without sin, there would be no occasion for either private property or political authority. In the Garden of Eden, all the good gifts of creation were available to all in common, and, untainted by greed, each human being freely shared with one another as each had need. There was no distinction between meum and tuum. In Edenic innocence, no one would ask for anything unless he really needed it, and no one would withhold anything in the face of such need. Thus, there would have been no occasion for governments to apportion goods or mediate disputes.

The Fall destroyed this primordial harmony of affections, pitting men against one another. It also introduced scarcity into the equation. Man must toil, and the cursed ground fails to yield fruits sufficient for our ever-expanding wants. Prone to squabble and steal, fallen men were thus led to stake exclusive claims to their own little patches of the earth and to submit to the rule of strong men who could enforce and adjudicate these claims. By this necessity, caused by sin, private property and public government came into the world, hand in hand. Individuals exercised exclusive dominium over pieces of the world to ensure the survival of their households, while representative rulers exercised exclusive dominium over much larger pieces of the world to ensure the survival of their nations and the many households within them.

In time, however, a more optimistic framing emerged. Summarized by Thomas Aquinas, this perspective argued that both private property and political authority were natural goods, healthy developments of man’s created potential that might well have taken shape even in a world without sin (although of course they were now tainted and transformed by the Fall). Aquinas’s argument for private property (see Summa Theologiae IIa-IIae, Q. 66) proceeded along these lines.

First, he affirmed with the older Christian tradition that the natural law prescribed common ownership, but he argued that it did not thereby proscribe private ownership. Private ownership, then, although not natural, was not unnatural; rather, it was a legitimate and (perhaps) necessary development and augmentation of the natural law. In this development, the institution of private property was still governed by the prior right of common use. Aquinas thus introduces a distinction between the “use” of property and “the power to procure and dispose” of it (potestas procurandi et dispensandi). The use of external things is given to all men in common, and yet, in order that the goal of common use may be best achieved, it is generally more effective that individuals be given the right, or perhaps better, the responsibility, to administer a certain portion of the world’s goods for their own use and that of others. Private property thus serves the greater end of overall prosperity and well-being for all.

Aquinas gives three reasons for the fittingness of exclusive ownership: (1) our tendency toward laziness and abdication when caring for common property, (2) the confusion that results from the attempt at common administration, and (3) the quarrels that arise when each tries to claim his just share of the fruits of the common property. Though the first and third of these issues might only arise in a world of sin, the second is simply a function of our finitude.

Similar reasoning underlies Aquinas’s argument for the role of civil authority. If many individuals living in community are to pursue one finite set of goods together, someone will have to coordinate their activities. The need for authority of this sort would obtain even in a world without sin. Add sin to the equation, and confusion easily becomes open conflict, rendering both the division of private property and the institution of civil authorities “necessary to human life,” says St. Thomas.

Even under conditions of sin, property continues to serve the goal of common use, and political authority the goal of the common good. What does this mean? If common use is the final end of private property, does that mean that I have to make my couch available to every passerby, or turn my family’s kitchen into a soup kitchen? No, not ordinarily. In extraordinary situations, cases of “manifest and urgent need,” as Aquinas puts it, the imperative of common use overrides the right of private property. Governments can exercise eminent domain in order to secure the public good. When life is at stake, an individual may justly help himself to another’s property. Jean Valjean was not wrong to steal that fateful loaf of bread. But these are the exceptions that prove the rule. And the rule is as follows: “There are many who are in need, while it is impossible for all to be succored by means of the same thing, [thus] each one is entrusted with the stewardship of his own things, so that out of them he may come to the aid of those who are in need.”

The “common use” of property is not limited to cases of charity. Market exchanges enable private property to serve common use, by directing the fruits of the earth to those most keen to use or consume them. As the Protestant reformer Philip Melanchthon explains in his 1521 Loci Communes:

Since it is a condition of human affairs that there is need of at least some sharing of property because by nature things ought to be in common, it has been decided that their use be shared, for instance, through contracts, buying, selling, leases, rents, etc. . . . One must not look for any other model of a well-constituted state than that state in which it is possible to observe the rule that friends must share. Thus contracts have been devised through which the goods of each are shared by the many so that there may be at least some sharing of things.

In this fashion, a multitude of owners privately administer their own parcels of the earth, but the fruits of each find their ways into the hands of all. Only when markets fail to deliver the goods or individuals are excluded from markets by no fault of their own, does charity take over; and only in the direst of cases are individuals permitted to take charity into their own hands, as it were, helping themselves to the surplus of others.

How, then, does all of this illuminate the question of national borders and immigration?

Political authority, like private property, arises first as a response to human finitude and plurality, to solve problems of coordination, and then as a response to human sin. It solves the problems of selfishness and conflict over the earth’s resources. And like property, political authority requires the establishment of physical boundaries or borders—at least for non-nomadic societies. Boundaries define an inside and an outside, citizen and foreigner, a commonwealth and those who do not share in it. And just as the owner of the farm may need to ward off trespassers in order to prevent his crops from being trampled, so the ruler of the polity may need to enforce borders to protect the body politic. The right to exclude immigrants is inherent in the right to exercise political authority.

The need to enforce borders does not license disregard for non-citizens. Nations, like private property, exist for the benefit of all, not just for their own residents. Each nation is called to serve not only its own common good, but the common good of humanity. Ordinarily, it does this through commerce, bringing forth wealth within its territory as a farmer brings forth fruit from his land, and making its surplus available outside by means of international trade. If global markets are not functioning well, commerce may not suffice, and wealthier nations, like wealthier individuals, may be called to help their neighbors, either by sending them aid or by inviting the needy in as migrants. As with private charity, such measures are meant to assist one’s neighbors to stand on their own two feet. This goal is not served well by turning one’s home into a homeless shelter or one’s nation into a refugee camp. Only in cases of extreme necessity can individuals help themselves to the private property of others—or help themselves to the hospitality of a nation as an undocumented immigrant.

A nation, like a family, exists not for itself alone but for the sake of all. And yet, because of human finitude, to exist for others, a nation must first exist for itself; it must cultivate a commonwealth, just as a family must secure private wealth. A nation must define the boundaries that distinguish between residents, who enjoy a primary claim to its resources, and neighbors, who have only a secondary claim. Just as a family that never opens its home to others less fortunate has failed to understand its calling as a family, so a nation that offers no hospitality to outsiders would be rightly judged xenophobic. Yet in both cases that hospitality must be carefully measured out, lest the family or nation dissolve under the burden of too many guests, and those welcomed become dependent in a way that corrupts their characters.

Why is the conclusion that we may (and perhaps must, given judgments of prudence) limit immigration so hard to voice in polite company? Why, in many churches, are arguments for enforcing borders greeted with an appalled gasp? Conservatives bear some of the blame for the righteous rage. An uncharitable and godless brand of nativism comes easily to fallen humans. Just as we are often subject to grasping greed that zealously guards our property, so we are liable to shut the door against every refugee on our national doorstep, keeping our wages up and our streets pristine. “Behold, the tears of the oppressed,” exhorts the Preacher (Eccle. 4:1); Angela Merkel was not wrong to be moved to compassion by the tears of Reem Sahwil. We should repent of our hardness of heart if we are not similarly moved. Compassion is not the only virtue, however; in fact, it frequently blinds us to the hard task of prudential judgment, to which we are constantly called.

Ultimately, the progressive demand for open borders partakes of the progressive refusal to exercise judgment. Judgment demands the forgotten virtue of discrimination, which is “by conceit of mind to sever things different in nature, and to discern wherein they differ,” as Richard Hooker reminds us. Our culture today refuses to discern that a marital union differs from casual sex, or that a man differs from a woman. To insist on the boundaries between girls’ and boys’ sports is now deemed sheer bigotry in many circles. Why? Because any boundary, any limit, is experienced as an intolerable barrier to our exercise of the transcendent, godlike freedom that modern man demands. Today’s mindset regards the retention of national borders as unbearably retrograde. It stands as an indecent reminder that we remain finite—bounded—beings in a finite world.

It is easy to imagine the retort: The boundaries between men and women may be natural, but who can deny that the southern border of the United States is a purely artificial line in the desert, an arbitrary barrier between the haves and the have-nots? Again, the analogy of property clarifies. The line between my land and my neighbor’s is arbitrary—it is the product of human choice, or perhaps of the accidents of history. It was not placed there by God when he created the heavens and the earth. At some time, my ancestors and someone else’s ancestors, with the aid or even the initiative of local governments, fixed the line there and not somewhere else. However, whereas every particular division of property is arbitrary, property itself is natural. The same holds for the division of the earth into different nations and political jurisdictions: The borders themselves may be arbitrary, but we can hardly live without them.

In a world of fallen men, all borders will reflect a checkered history; they were not drawn by angels. But as finite creatures we must live in accord with them. “Sufficient for the day is the trouble thereof,” Christ warns those who wring their hands about the future. The same warning applies to those who wring their hands about the past. Our Christian duty is to use the goods God has given to us, and the commonwealth he has given us, to care as best we can, first for our own, and then for our neighbors and the needy of every society.

Only prudence can determine the appropriate degree of hospitality. How often should the professor have college students over for dinner? Should a family take in a foster child—or even adopt? Even for my own family I cannot answer questions such as these in the abstract. The answer now may be different five years hence. Just so, each nation must decide how many visitors or immigrants to admit, weighing its own need for security, prosperity, and cultural cohesion. Even the most philanthropic soul must consider limits. In order to offer the best home for native-born and immigrants alike over the long term, strict limits on the number of newcomers may be necessary.

In 2024 America, it is hard to argue against the prudence of tighter borders. Migrants who do not know our laws or our language are flooding in at a rate higher than any in history. And yet, at the same time, the reminder that we must care first for our own children cuts both ways—for many Americans are no longer having children. The time may come when prudent political leadership decides that our southern neighbors should be welcomed in large numbers to fill the gaps left by childless and self-absorbed North Americans. But let us wait before giving up on the possibility of reproducing ourselves.

The call to accept our finitude and work within the constraints of prudence can easily be misheard as a call for moral resignation, a throwing up of the hands in the face of too many evils. But it is not. Rather, it asks us to open our hands to the gifts and burdens that Providence has placed upon us. In a world without God, we are apt to think that every good and every evil under the sun is the product of our own decisions. But shouldering such an impossible moral burden is not humility, but pride. The meandering line in the desert that marks our southern border was placed there not only by human treaty, but also by God, the disposer of all human affairs. It marks the contours of the particular task to which God has called us as a distinct nation: the task of governing well. The debate over immigration will continue among American Christians, and it should. But it will bear fruit in actionable policy only if conducted with a grateful acceptance of the homeland God has given us to steward.

Brad Littlejohn, Ph.D., is a Fellow in EPPC’s Evangelicals in Civic Life Program, where his work focuses on helping public leaders understand the intellectual and historical foundations of our current breakdown of public trust, social cohesion, and sound governance. His research investigates shifting understandings of the nature of freedom and authority, and how a more full-orbed conception of freedom, rooted in the Christian tradition, can inform policy that respects both the dignity of the individual and the urgency of the common good. He also serves as President of the Davenant Institute.

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