Thinking Biblically About Immigration

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These are my notes for remarks given at an American Moment event in Washington, D.C. yesterday.

I must begin by thanking the organizers of this event for the invitation to speak to you all. It is an honor, and I am very grateful to be here.

My topic tonight is immigration and a biblical worldview, and I have decided to get off on the wrong foot by quoting Russell Moore. I trust that it will not be too distressing for you, and I promise to try to fix things a bit later.

“An evangelical Christian who despises immigrants is an evangelical Christian who is self-defeating and self-loathing because most of the Body of Christ on earth right now not to mention heaven is not white, is not middle class, is not American, doesn’t speak English.”

Russell Moore, 2019

This statement is an almost perfect misrepresentation of the concerns that many of us have about the state of the southern border. First, I would like to state those concerns a bit more accurately, and then follow it up with some theological observations about them. Along the way, I will make some brief observations about the state of our nation—the immigration crisis simply being one skin botch among many on a diseased body. And lest anyone despair, I will conclude with a glimmer of flickering hope.

Suppose you had a family that was taking care of three foster children, and suppose further that this couple was really gifted in how they would care for the children entrusted to them. Say they were good at it. Now suppose further that the town council where they lived decided to follow the progressive logic out to the utter frozen limit, and so one day some social workers showed up with 28 additional foster children, and forcibly installed them. Suppose also that about 5 more latch-key kids from the neighborhood decided to join the party, coming in as volunteer squatters. The father protested all of this vigorously, and a small controversy ensued.

In the midst of that controversy, let us suppose that Russell Moore wrote an editorial in The New York Times about how evangelical parents really needed to learn how to stop despising foster children. Evangelicals who despise foster children are not walking as Christ would have us walk, and so on. The father replied to this, but almost no one was listening to him by this point. He said that when the controversy first began, he was actually loving three foster children. Now he was dealing with 36, and was not really able to love anyone. He added that it was not foster children he despised—rather it was chaos he despised.

In short, Moore’s rhetoric simply poisons the well, assuming that disagreement over unrestricted immigration must be bad faith disagreement. He assumes it must be driven by a contempt for the immigrants themselves, and undergirded by a deep desire to ensure that Heaven will be as much like a whites-only restaurant in 1950’s Alabama as possible. Perhaps—and I merely make the suggestion—this is not a fair representation, and maybe we shouldn’t take it too seriously.

Now I just used the illustration of an individual family in order to make the point that it is possible to object to chaos without despising people. In fact, objecting to chaos is a way of loving people. So if a wife asks her husband if they should have the Smiths over this week, and he says “let’s wait, because we’ve had a lot of company this month,” suggesting that they might want to wait a couple of weeks, it would not be to the point for her to ask him why he despised the Smiths. He doesn’t despise the Smiths at all. He just wants everyone to have a pleasant time, and managing resources and time wisely is usually an important part of that.  

But there is a limitation to such illustrations, and I want to be sure to point it out. We need to be careful with them. This is because the progressive left tries to use similar illustrations, taken from everyday life, and in a way that I call the Good Samaritan Fallacy. This is the approach that glibly assumes that the duties and responsibilities of individuals can be transferred over to nations, straight across. If the Good Samaritan had a responsibility to help the guy who was beat up by the side of the road, then the United States has a responsibility to help Somalia whenever they get beat up, and with no mutatis mutandis about it. But a straight across transfer of individual Good Samaritan duties to nations entails a lot more than emanating niceness vibes. The end of that road would be the worst forms of neo-colonialism, which is not my topic tonight. But if you want to hear more, just put the nickel in. 

So while the morality that overarches us all is the same morality—nations and individuals both—the duties that we variously have under that morality can be quite distinct. A governor, or a president, is a public person, and he has much larger responsibilities than a private person has. One of the first duties of private persons is that of doing good to one another, lending a helping hand as the Lord gives opportunities. One of the first duties of the magistrate, a public person, is the prevention of chaos.

And it does no good to pretend that you are preventing chaos by calling it something else—and getting the kennel-fed media to go along. The current invasion at the southern border cannot properly be called immigration. As well call the collapsing dam upstream an experiment in new methods of irrigation. This might be technically true, in that the dirt in the valley did get wetter, but our attention would probably be drawn to other aspects of the whole episode.

So when we say that we have an immigration crisis, this does not get to the root of the matter. Immigration is simply the raw material of the crisis as it is manifested in a particular quadrant. Elsewhere the same fundamental crisis rides on different platforms—the crime crisis, the education crisis, the sexual disintegration crisis, and so on.

And let’s not forget the environmentalist crisis, and no, I don’t mean the environmental crisis. We have plenty of resources. But we do have an environmentalist crisis—way too many of those guys, clogging up our woodlands, our waterways, our atmosphere, and our pristine coastal beaches. But I got distracted again.

Underneath all of these is the foundational crisis—everywhere we look, we see the breakdown of order, discipline, standards, structure, the rule of law.

Think of it this way. If there were some food fights in a junior high cafeteria somewhere, one on Monday, and then another one on Thursday, we would describe both of those food fights in terms of a breakdown of discipline and order. If we were investigating the root causes, we would likely look at the superintendent’s approach to discipline. That is where the problem actually is. We wouldn’t describe the first one as a “meat loaf crisis,” and the second one as a “macaroni and cheese crisis”—even though those were the dishes that were being thrown on their respective days.

Now I am going to ask you to follow me closely here, because there is a subtle theological point I would attempt to make. I do not wish to trespass upon your patience, and so I will try to come straight to the point. The nuanced theological doctrine that I would like to persuade you of this evening is this. The prevention of chaos by the magistrate and the fomenting of chaos by the magistrate are not the same kind of thing.

The prophet Isaiah put it this way:

“Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil; Who put darkness for light, and light for darkness; Who put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter!”

Isaiah 5:20 (NKJV)

But we are living in a time when God has struck our rulers and leaders with a judicial stupor. We live in demented times, and the chaos on the southern border is simply one more seizure in a long train of seizures. We can say of our rulers what was said of ancient Israel when they fell into the blind stupidity of disobedience.      

“And you shall grope at noonday, as a blind man gropes in darkness; you shall not prosper in your ways; you shall be only oppressed and plundered continually, and no one shall save you.”

Deuteronomy 28:29 (NKJV)

The various seizures present differently, and in different places, but all of them are manifestations of the same disease. That disease is that we have forgotten God. This secular affliction began in earnest at the end of the Second World War when we demonstrated our prowess by splitting the atom. That is how it started. So how is it going? We are no longer able to split up the boys and the girls for a junior high school dance.

Nebuchadnezzar really was a great emperor, but his pride reduced him to the level of a moo cow. And if a prophet came out of the wilderness and threatened us with a similar fate because of our insolence and pride, we are so far gone we would not worry about the loss of wisdom involved, but would rather be concerned about our contribution of additional methane.

So let us return to the question of immigration. I do not know of any sensible conservative who would object to legal and orderly forms of immigration. The father in my first illustration did not object to foster children. He had three of them. The objection is to turmoil on the southern border, all of it overseen and governed by rioting emotions.

There is more wisdom for us to be found in Deuteronomy 28. When Israel obeyed the law of the Lord, and followed Him, one of the blessings of this was that she would be the “head, and not the tail” (Dt. 28:13). And when ancient Israel disobeyed the law of the Lord, forsaking the God of her covenant, the end result was the reverse of this. The foreigner shall be the “head, and you shall be the tail” (Dt. 28:44).

There are many scriptural descriptions of judgment falling on a nation. One of them is when your streets fill up with a language or languages that you don’t understand. It is of course a challenge to be a stranger in a strange land. It is more of a challenge to find yourself a stranger in your own native land. It is a challenge reading street signs in a foreign country. It is completely different kind of challenge, and heart ache, when you can’t read the signs in the town you grew up in.

“For with stammering lips and another tongue He will speak to this people . . . that they might go and fall backward, and be broken and snared and caught.”

Isaiah 28:11, 13 (NKJV)

So then, let us come back to our out-of-control immigration again. Our central problem is not the presence of strangers in a strange land, but rather our rulers in a strange frenzy. Our big problem is not so much dreamers in our streets, but rather daydreamers in our corridors of power. Our great problem is not illegal aliens in our midst, but rather illegal miscreants in authority. I am less worried about Mexicans in Texas than I am about the Klingons in the District of Columbia. We won’t solve the former problem without first solving the latter one.

The problem is lawlessness on our southern border, and the lawless rulers who make that lawlessness and chaos possible. Those responsible to maintain order there are either too feckless and inept to do anything about it, or they are fomenting the chaos deliberately. Either way, they are not fit to govern, because the first duty of governance is to maintain the shape and contour of that which is being governed.

What they have done is bring all the stability of a San Francisco Walgreens to El Paso. What they have done is reduce a once stable border to a shambolic and inchoate mess. Whether done through staggering incompetence or treacherous evil, or a daring mixture of both, the result is Yeats’ beast, moving its slow thighs, slouching toward Bethlehem to be born.

This is what happens when the center does not hold—the perimeter collapses. How can we have defined edges when we have lost the center?

A refusal to define and defend the center is how you lose the circumference. And a refusal to define and defend the circumference is an excellent way of revealing how you have already lost the center. To put it in crude terms, you cannot identify where the Mexican/American border is if you don’t have any idea of what Nebraska is.

Common sense Americans continue to exist, although many are in hiding. Back when it wasn’t a thought crime for them to speak, they were able to just look at a line on a map and say, “that’s the Mexican/American border.” But they were only able to say something like this because they still had a center. That center involved a knowledge of civics, an understanding of history, affection for a constitutional republic, a grasp of the rule of law, and most importantly, they had not forgotten God.   

What is the alternative? As one wit put it in the waning days of British might, everything was at sea except for the fleet. Eliot called it in The Hollow Men—it ends, not with a bang, but with a whimper. There is no denying our condition any longer. Our republic has a serious case of the staggers—we are a spavined nation. Black smoke ascends from all our secularist altars, but the gods are no longer answering. They are not even pretending to answer. That’s the problem with the gods of formal agnosticism—they love to play hide and seek. The priests don’t have much to say for themselves either.

The secular promise was that we could govern ourselves reasonably and responsibly without reference to the transcendent. There was a time when this at least had a superficial plausibility—in the Eisenhower years. The prodigal son didn’t run out of money his first weekend away from home. But we have now seen how well this “transcendence-free” experiment is going. I have said for years that all of our cultural battles—all of them—are battles for editorial control of the dictionary.

And because the current editorial board appears to have collectively lost their minds, we can no longer plainly define, first, what a sovereign national border even is, second, where it is, and third, what an American citizen is. We are now having to deal with those who seriously argue that a refusal of voting rights to undocumented—insert-non-offensive-collective-noun-here—is voter suppression. It is a violation of human rights, human dignity, and human flourishing.

“Great. So what’s a human then?” we then ask. Surprised them with that one, we did. They weren’t expecting any tough questions.

Without understanding humanity as bearers of the image of God, male and female, our globalist principalities see us all as nothing other than teeming herds of carbon-on-the-hoof that plainly needs reducing, and which they have the right to move around as they please. We are living near the conclusion of C.S. Lewis’s great book, The Abolition of Man. For myself, I am not looking forward to the drive to Abilene.

The psalmist laments those who would “frame mischief with a law” (Ps. 94:20). When the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do (Ps. 11:3)? At the end of the eighth chapter of Proverbs, Lady Wisdom is speaking, and she says quite plainly, “all who hate me love death” (Prov. 8:35-36).

Unless we return to the center, until we recover our faith in the Word, the Lord Jesus, we are going to continue groping along in the current kultursmog, unable to define anything. Not only will we not be the head anymore, not only will we have become the tail, we also will have been so far reduced that we can’t even define head or tail. But in the grip of our relativistic and postmodern choose-your-own-adventure crisis, we will console ourselves as a tail that identifies as a head. Delusions do have their compensations.

Now I am aware that some of this may seem pretty bleak to you. Perhaps you are unsure of just how much more of this biblical hope and encouragement you can take. You might want to take a moment after this event to thank the organizers for inviting such an upbeat pastor.

But I really am optimistic, and for a number of reasons. There is the medical reality. This high fever must break, or the patient dies—and I don’t believe the patient is going to die. I have reasons for wanting to make application of the words of Jeremiah.

“For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, says the Lord, thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give you a future and a hope.”

Jeremiah 29:11 (NKJV)

To give a future and a hope. Although this is application, not exegesis, there is comfort to be had right there.

Or to borrow a phrase from our friends in the climate cult, in the long run, stupidity is not sustainable. Or take the formulation found in Stein’s Law—anything that cannot continue on indefinitely, won’t. Nine miles of bad road can seem like a really tedious forever business, but then you find yourself on a freshly paved freeway and a sensible speed limit. And Fourth Turnings always seem like the new permanent reality, until they suddenly aren’t.

“For His anger is but for a moment, His favor is for life; Weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning” ().

Psalm 30:5 (NKJV)