Friday, May 16, 2014
I wrote earlier about a working theory of citizenship in an essay I have written for the 2014 Christian Scholars Conference. The question for the session is whether and how Christian scripture and teaching could inform the policy of our present national debates on immigration reform. We are addressing the issue to discern whether Christian scripture and teaching would require a policy that includes citizenship for presently undocumented immigrants. This lightly edited excerpt includes some of my thoughts on the tricky project of deriving contemporary, civil policy from Christian religious teaching.
(Two notes, first, I write this essay from an explicitly Christian perspective for dialog at the Christian Scholars Conference. I do not believe that Christianity has an exclusive claim to wisdom, knowledge and conviction about love and justice, but that love and justice lie or should lie at the roots of all major traditions among people of faith. Second, I treat this project of theology and policy with greater depth in my article, Trifling Violence: The U.S. Supreme Court, Domestic Violence and a Theory of Love, 42 CUMBERLAND L. R. 65 (2012) )
This project of deriving legal policy from scripture is fraught with risks of interpretation. The Bible holds itself as many things, but rarely as a legal code, occasionally as case law, but never as a constitution. If we Christians are to shape policy after Christian ethics, we should look to the principles revealed in the narrative of scripture, not seeking direct analogs to contexts and circumstances essentially foreign to our present.
The principles that guide our policy must be those teachings that undergird the ancient, local policies; that is, love, human dignity, hospitality, service to the poor, advocacy for the oppressed, nourishment for the hungry. The principles guiding us are reflected in the codified Mosaic law, illuminated by Christ, described by Paul, and explored in every tradition and religion. They are the rule of love, the gospel of human dignity, the imago dei, agape and the Golden Rule. Deriving contemporary legal policy from the ancient sacred texts, specifically from the Old Testament and the New Testament, is an interpretative journey to discern whether and how to articulate love in the law.
Scripture does not provide a definition of justice, but it does give us many examples of justice in practice. Justice in the scripture, Jewish and Christian scriptures, is a function of power and privilege, as those in positions of relative power over others act righteously and in love. Justice in scripture rarely is getting what one deserves, but is the local and national use of power and resources for the benefit of the vulnerable and oppressed. Justice is making broken relationships whole, restoring those who have been abused, punishing those who abuse, and bringing all things to reconciliation. Justice in the Bible abhors divisions, caste and coercive hierarchy.
Injustice is the rich exploiting the poor for their own devices and profit. Injustice is the king taking a woman for his own and killing her husband because he can. Injustice is the subjugation of the people for political gain. Injustice is massing of wealth without sharing it with those who have need. Injustice is ostracizing the weak, afflicted and foreigner from the community.
Isaiah declares that God’s preferred fasting is “to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke. Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter?” (Isaiah 58:6)
James admonishes the wealthy in his epistle, “You have hoarded wealth in the last days. Look! The wages you failed to pay the workman who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty.” (James 5:3-4)
Jesus declares in Luke 4 that he is to fulfill Isaiah’s prophecy, “to preach good news to the poor. . . to proclaim freedom for prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed.” This is justice, that we seek to liberate the oppressed, to take up the cause of the weak and vulnerable. In Matthew 25 teaches that the Kingdom of God is those who visit those in prison, those who clothe the naked, those who feed the hungry. This is an explicit view of justice in scripture, and it flows from the two greatest commandments.
All the law and the prophets hang on two commands, to love God and to love our neighbors as ourselves. (Matthew 22:37-39) In Leviticus, Moses told the people to treat their fellows as themselves, and Jesus interpreted this expansively, teaching that everyone is our fellow, our neighbor. (Leviticus 19:18; Luke 10: 25 – 37) Loving neighbors as selves finds articulation in the Golden Rule from the Sermon on the Mount, that we ought to do to others as we would have done to ourselves. (Matthew 7:12) It is reflective and contextual: If I were an immigrant without status, what would have I done to make my plight just?
Jesus rejects the class distinction of the Samaritan when naming him a neighbor, worthy of love at the highest level. The Good Samaritan is a radical parable that destroys the barrier between the privileged citizen and the resident alien as a matter of theological principle. If that is to be the basis of our law, then Jesus would have us welcome the immigrant into full inclusion in our system and society.
Isaiah prophesied of a day when the divisions established by the Mosaic Law would dissolve. (Isaiah 25:6-9) There, on the mountain of the Lord, were no Hebrews, Assyrians, Egyptians or Philistines; they were just God’s people at God’s big table.
These principles of love flow from the imago dei, the idea, rooted in the creation narrative, that every person bears the image of God. Every human is in the image of God, and Jesus made the incarnation real, sealing the lesson that God is with us and is in us.
Thus, if we are to seek guidance for legal policy in scripture, the answer is not in the code of the old law. The guidance does not come from treating scripture as case law. Rather, the guidance comes from Jesus’ descriptions of the Kingdom of God. In the Kingdom of God, every human bears the image of God, so every human should be dignified as an image bearer. Every human is to love every other image-bearer as they would love themselves. Every person should seek justice, where the rich and powerful related and live with the poor and exposed as the rich would have done in their place.
If legal policy is to flow from the Bible, from religious precepts and ethics, then all the law hangs on love. Love is the root of the law, and love is the Golden Rule. The instant issue of immigration then must be whether we citizens of this Republic would treat the migrant laborer as we would be treated. If we are serious about deriving civil law from our religion, then we must consider how we would be treated by the state if we were driven by poverty to seek sustenance, shelter, opportunity, education and hope for our families.
Reinhold Niebuhr suggests that the “love ideal” might be too aspirational to find purchase in real policy but that we should strive toward it:
The love ideal which Jesus incarnates may be too pure to be realized in life, but it offers us nevertheless an ideal toward which the religious spirit may move. . . . Real religion transmutes the social impulses until they transcend the limits set them by nature (family, race, group, etc.) and include the whole of human community. . . . The fight for justice in society will always be a fight. But wherever the spirit of justice grows imaginative and is transmuted into love, a love in which the interests of the other are espoused, the struggle is transcended by just that much.
(Reinhold Niebuhr, The Ethic of Jesus and the Social Problem, in LOVE AND JUSTICE: SELECTIONS FROM THE SHORTER WRITINGS OF REINHOLD NIEBUHR (D.B. Robertson, ed., 1957)(originally published in Religion in Life, 1932)).
Paul Ramsey provides a test by which we might measure our civil, political and legal progress toward the metric of love:
Christian love formulates social policy by taking into account every concrete element in the situation which determines how in fact some actual good may be done for the neighbor in the state of civil society and the relationship among people existing at present.
. . . .
Whether conforming to the old or helping to create a new mode of conduct, a Christian . . . subjects everything to this imperial test: let every [person] now consult [the] neighbor’s need. This may call for respecting the tried and tested ways of doing things. When however we observe how these have failed in so many ways to keep pace with the world in which we and our neighbors live, who can doubt that Christian love today requires of us willingness to take some new departure? Even the humblest Christian .... must rapidly become willing to have the structures and customs of [the] world otherwise than they now are.
(Paul Ramsey, BASIC CHRISTIAN ETHICS 341, 342-43, 345-46, 351 (1950)).
The best framework for a Christian legal policy is not command, example or necessary inference or reading the Bible as constitution. Rather, the policy should arise from the Golden Rule. If we were in their place, how would we treat ourselves? Very likely, we would like the hope of citizenship in our adopted land, to participate fully in the life in the nation, to make our investment count.
The Torah may have permitted resident aliens, and the gospel may be silent on the policy. The gospel is not silent on the necessity of love. The gospel is the constant expansion of inclusion into the Kingdom, the reduction of barriers among the people. From Abraham’s clan, to the People of Israel, to the coming of Christ, to the inclusion of the Gentiles, to Paul’s declaration that there are no divisions of gender, race, nationality and economics in the church, the arc of history bends toward inclusion, dignity and equality. Paul describes our ministry of reconciliation, through which all people are drawn together as they are drawn to God. Jesus and the gospel, the coming kingdom, intentionally and expressly include those who are on the margin, the perimeter, the outside, the weak, the vulnerable, the abused, the poor, the outcast.
If our American immigration policy is to conform to the gospel, then we have little choice but to welcome the immigrants into citizenship among us who enjoy it by the privilege of our birth.
Reckoning the minimum amount of justice to be done in policy is extraordinarily difficult, and it should not be our objective. Rather, we should seek expansive justice, justice that empowers, embraces and welcomes the poor to our prosperity. We should honor those who would risk so much to leave their homeland to find peace, sustenance and hope among us.