Struggle of law and grace

James K. Hoffmeier. The Immigration Crisis: Immigrants, Aliens & the Bible. Wheaton: Crossway, 2009. 174 pp. and M. Daniel Carroll R. Christians at the Border: Immigration, the Church and the Bible. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008. 174 pp.


左边的The Immigration Crisis是我所在的学校旧约教授所写,其中心观点是认为“寄居者”在圣经原文中有两个不同的词汇,一个是指合法移民,另一种是未经许可的进入者或是过路者。两者都需要顺服和尊重所在地的法律、习俗和规定,非法移民应当顺服所在地法律。另一本书是一位南美裔神学家所写,主要论点是美国移民法律的混乱、复杂和不合理,并呼吁基督徒善待寄居者和将每一个个体当作人来尊重。两本书的共同点是都提倡尊重每一个移民个体,无论他的法律身份是合法或是非法,他都带着神的形象,他不是概念上的“难民”、“淘金者”,而是活生生的人,应当得到尊重和对待,享有法律所赋予的权利(如言论自由、上诉权、自由行动权)和福利(各州/地区定义的基本福利不同,但至少保障学龄儿童受教育权)。不同的是,前者提倡非法移民按现行法律遣返,并透过合法渠道按着圣经推动移民法律改革,而后者提倡非法移民不“非法”而是移民法律违背圣经原则,号召基督徒起来照顾和关怀非法移民。

Immigration is a global issue that affects not only the United States, but also many other developed and even developing countries. In the People’s Republic of China, there’s another type of immigration from rural to urban that triggered a hot debate among city residents and Christians because of the Hukou system. Though I’m not familiar with the immigration problem in the United States, I think studying this topic can help me to understand the Hukou issue in China in a Biblical view since the Hukou system actually put at least the same strict restrictions as the citizenship system.

Both small books have the same number of pages, same title format, same foundation on the biblical text, and same focus on the Hispanic immigration problem. But they see the problem in different aspects. Dr. M. Daniel Carroll R. (Rodas) mainly argues that immigrants, regardless of their legal status, must be respected and welcomed, and the American government should seriously reconsider the current immigration policy. Dr. Hoffmeier emphasizes more the enforcement of the legal system and makes significant difference between “resident alien” and “foreigner” (undocumented immigrants) according to the Old Testament. Though not completely in contradiction with each other, the two books have different view on several issues.

First of all, both agree that immigrants are humans and every individual is created in the image of God. It’s a fundamental conviction for Christians to think about the immigration challenges today. Rodas says, “Immigration should not be argued in the abstract because it is fundamentally about immigrants,” and “they have an essential value and possess the potential to contribute to society through their presence, work, and ideas.” (67). Unlike politicians and sociologists who see the problem only from statistics and models, Christians see every immigrant with love and mercy and care for the whole wellness of both every immigrant and every native resident. Dr. Hoffmeier uses the inhumane treatment of Japanese Americans during World War II to warn readers that there’s a tendency for host nations to mistreat immigrants, and this tendency should be avoided. But he also extends the “image of God” to the expectations and obligations that God has put on us.

Secondly, both authors agree that the Old Testament gives us many clues on the Biblical understanding of the immigration issue because the purpose of the law is to show God’s people how to live as a redeemed people. However they have different interests in the Scriptures. Rodas put his emphasis on the Mosaic law of not mistreating the sojourner (Exod. 22:21; 23:9) and the charge to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18). Dr. Hoffmeier agrees with Rodas on the quotation of the OT law, but his contribution is distinguishing “resident aliens” from “foreigners” in a hermeneutical perspective. He argues that there’s significant difference between a “legal alien” (ger) and a “foreigner” (nekhar and zar) in the Old Testament and ancient near-eastern legal systems, thus the government’s differentiated treatment toward legal and illegal immigrants is legitimate. He reminds readers that even in the age of Abraham and the Exodus, the boundary of the countries is respected, and a resident alien must abide by the laws and traditions of the host country. Rodas also does mention these two different types of immigrants in his book (pp.99-101). But he seems to ignore the differences when it comes to the discussion of today’s implication.

Another issue raised by Dr. Hoffmeier is whether civil disobedience is allowed concerning the illegal immigrant problem. Some local governments declared their towns as “sanctuary cities” which means they will not cooperate with federal officials who want to arrest and deport aliens (p.22). The September 2012 issue of Christianity Today also has a cover article reporting similar movements among some Christians in Arizona to “save the sojourners.” He uses the famous Romans 13 to appeal for Christians’ submission to government authorities on the immigration issue. Rodas however quotes Acts 4:19 to support civil disobedience on immigrant issues and thinks the current American law on immigration issue is unstable and needs to be reformed. Both authors discuss the New Testament in their books, but I think Rodas missed the important book of Philemon in the New Testament. Enslavement in Pauls’ age is obviously evil and against God’s will because every human being is created in God’s image, however Paul didn’t encourage Onesimus to continue his disobedience but sent him back and asked for Philemon’s grace to release him. The disobedience in Acts 4:19 obviously has a scope but Rodas doesn’t dig deeper to find the scope. Without the scope, it can be used widely by Christians to disobey the law.

When it comes to the existing illegal immigrants in America, Rodas emphasizes the different concepts of law between Hispanics and Americans. He prefers to use the word “undocumented” instead of “illegal” which will introduce a negative sense (p.22). His argument is weak especially when Dr. Hoffmeier refers to the example of Abraham’s respect and obedience to local laws while purchasing a land for his wife Sara. Cultural differences should be understood, but it can’t be an excuse to neglect the law of the host country. In many East Asian countries, various types of corporal punishment for disobedient children are allowed. But when they move to America, many of those punishing methods are seen as child abuse and a few cases have been reported on the media. Can those parents ignore the American law and continue the Asian type of corporal punishment? Of course not! The customs and laws of the host country should be respected even if it makes no sense in an alien culture.

The first principle that every human being is created in the image of God and human rights must be respected regardless of their legal status is very important. Thanks to Rodas for putting a lot of effort on this topic in Christians at the Border. Even an illegal immigrant family is made of human beings, and they deserve the right be respected, to be helped, and to be educated. But just as Dr. Hoffmeier has differentiated in The Immigration Crisis, it does not mean that legal immigrants, illegal immigrants and local residents should have equivalence in all social benefits. Civil government is responsible to define the boundaries among them, and this governmental authority should be respected. Moreover, not only is the immigration law changing, all laws are changing. There are different means for Christians and churches to make requests for change if the law is against God’s will. Civil disobedience is the last resort and only applicable on certain issues, e.g. the prohibition of religious freedom (Acts 4:19) and taking an innocent’s life (Exodus 1:17).


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