I always experience a little burp of bile whenever I see or hear the Bible quoted by political talking heads. Without fail verses are quoted selectively, out of context, and to score political points. Like socks thrown into a washing machine or dryer, biblical truth comes out discolored, shrunken, or mysteriously missing.
The problem isn't the truthfulness of the Bible on controversial issues; it's the truthfulness of those who misquote the Bible on controversial issues. And lately, few political issues have been more controversial and resulted in more Bible verses being tossed around than the issue of immigration reform.
Jim Wallis, president of the liberal Christian organization Sojourners, in an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times called for "a moral and religious conversation about immigration reform-not just a political one."
But such a conversation must take the Bible seriously, acknowledging the complexities of applying biblical principles to modern problems, such as immigration reform.
For people of biblical faith, the command is clear: "Love your neighbor as yourself" (Leviticus 19:18). The question is, "Who is my neighbor?" The answer is found a few verses later. "The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God" (19:34).
The command to love the "stranger," however, is not open ended. The Hebrew language of the Old Testament uses three words to describe strangers, aliens, or immigrants. Two words basically mean the same thing: nekhar and zar refer to foreigners whose allegiance remained with their native country. These people were denied the benefits of citizenship in Israel, and are not in view in Leviticus 19:34.
On the other hand, the Hebrew word ger, often translated "sojourner" or "stranger," as in Leviticus 19:34, is a person who had immigrated to Israel legally with the intention of becoming a citizen. Israel was to treat these immigrants as if "native" born, granting them benefits of citizenship, including the right to glean fields (Leviticus 19:10; Deuteronomy 24:19–22), to receive a portion of the special tithe collected every three years for the poor (14:28–29; 26:12–13), to be paid in a timely manner (24:15), allowed to rest on the Sabbath (5:14), and to receive fair treatment in legal cases, without discrimination (1:16–17) or being taken advantage of (24:17–18; 27:19).
But when applying biblical truth to immigration reform today we need to keep in mind that America is not Israel. The Old Testament law distinguished God's redeemed nation from surrounding nations in order to testify to the greatness and grace of the living God, thereby fulfilling God's promise to Abraham-that God would make him a great nation and a blessing to the world (Genesis 12:2; Deuteronomy 4:5–8).
This is not America's purpose.
To make matters more complicated, the New Testament offers little help on the question of immigration reform.
Many love to quote Jesus' words in Matthew 25, believing them particularly relevant to the discussion of immigration reform because of the use of the word "sojourner" or "stranger" (Matthew 25:35, 38, 43–44). These folks interpret the idea that we should care for "the least of these" as a parallel to the command that we should love our neighbor. Therefore, they conclude, it's clear teaching from Jesus to accept any who come to America. But this passage deals with judgment at the end of the future tribulation in which Jesus separates the sheep (righteous individual Gentiles-followers of Christ) from goats (unrighteous individual Gentiles-followers of the antichrist), based on their treatment of His "brethren," the Jews . . . not immigrants.
Christians should care for "the least," but Matthew 25 is not teaching that truth. And even if it were, it's a misapplication that America should accept any and all comers.
And while Christians are commanded to love their neighbor, we must never let love become permission for lawlessness. This is where modern notions of Christian love for immigrants runs afoul of biblical notions of love for sojourners.
Many liberal Christians and politicians, and a few conservatives, would have us love-that is, accept-every immigrant that enters our borders, whether legally or illegally. But that was not the case in the Old Testament. Sojourners were accepted and given certain legal rights because their intention was to become full-fledged members of the nation, learning the ways and language of Israel, and respecting its laws, taboos, and customs.
Beyond that, Jesus' teaching in Matthew 25 and the repeated command in the New Testament to love our neighbor (Luke 10:27; Galatians 5:14) is directed to individuals, not governmental authorities whose responsibility is to make, administer, and adjudicate laws.
This doesn't mean that immigration policy should be draconian, denying the dignity of the immigrant. But it does means that what is required of individual American Christians as a matter of obedience is not necessarily required of the American nation as a matter of law.
The state, biblically speaking, is commissioned to provide social order (Judges 17:6), preserve human dignity (Genesis 4:9–15), protect peace (Jeremiah 9:27; 1 Timothy 2:2), promote justice (Psalm 82:2–4; Daniel 4:27), and punish evil and praise goodness (Romans 13:3–7; 1 Peter 2:13–14)-both for the immigrant and the citizen.
Any conversation about the Bible and immigration reform must separate the responsibilities of the individual from that of the nation, taking into account a comprehensive view of biblical truth, not just a few selected verses quoted out of context and sloppily applied by political talking heads.