Good Friday Breakfast

In this file photo, Lee Barrett, Lancaster Theological Seminary professor, is shown speaking at the Lancaster Family YMCA's 66th annual Good Friday Breakfast in April 2019.

It’s no secret that Christians in this country are divided over the issue of immigration.

Some cite biblical passages asserting that immigrants must follow the laws of the land. Others point to  passages telling them to welcome the stranger.

What’s a Christian to do?

Addressing an assembly of patrons and faculty at Lancaster Theological Seminary on Tuesday, professor Lee Barrett said it’s a matter of what is in a person’s heart.

“How we interpret our faith in regard to these matters says more about who we are spiritually than it does about the Bible and the history of Christian doctrine,” he said.

With more than 68.5 million people currently migrating across borders, the world faces a global immigration crisis. Many scholars refer to this era as “the new age of migration,” comparable to the movement of tribes in the third  to fifth centuries.

While much has been written about the social, cultural, political and economic dimensions of the immigration debate, he said, few have addressed it from a theological perspective.

Professor Lee Barrett speaks during a seminar at the Lancaster Theological Seminary's Schaff Library.

Lee Barrett

“This is odd,” Barrett said, “for in Christian theology, the theme of immigration saturates the scriptures,” from the Hebrew exodus from Egypt to Israel’s wandering in the desert to Jesus, who, in Luke 9:58, says “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”

Barrett said Christians on both sides of the immigration debate offer valid, ethical arguments to support their views.

“Christianity is a funny thing,” he said. “Its most fundamental principles can be construed differently.”

Barrett offered arguments for each side of the debate.

Anti-immigration Christians

Those he referred to as “anti-immigration” Christians often cite Bible passages such as Deuteronomy 28 that refer to foreigners entering  Israel “as a curse” or “punishment” upon disobedient Israel. They worry that undocumented people will take people’s jobs, refuse to assimilate and bring chaos to a lawful and orderly nation. They believe the nation has an obligation to first take care of its own.

His research shows that anti-immigrant Christians recognize “that we should be concerned with the well-being of others, regardless of citizenship.” But that comes with a caveat: They generally do not believe undocumented people should enjoy the protection of regulations pertaining to wages, labor or housing, nor should they receive the benefits of social services such as taxpayer-paid education and health care.

“They conclude that Christian compassion that would turn a blind eye to illegal immigration is misplaced, for it confuses the roles that God gave the church and the state,” he said.

Pro-immigration views

“Pro-immigration” Christians hold equally fervent views. They cite passages in Leviticus that instruct people “to not only tolerate and protect but also to care for the stranger in the land” and that the laws of the land should apply equally to the stranger as well as to the citizen.

Pro-immigration Christians, he said, support “the doctrine of the inherent dignity and worth of every human being based on the common possession of the image of God ... in every human person.”

To them, the spiritual and moral health of the nation “is gauged by how well the most vulnerable are treated, and how well the image of God in them is respected.”

They also point to the central doctrine of the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ.

“God in Jesus,” he said, “crosses the biggest border of all — the border that separated divine life and human life. In the incarnation, God migrated into human territory” and therefore became a refugee.

Core Christian issues

These issues are at the heart of the Christian faith.

“As we look to the Bible and tradition for guidance, the ultimate question is ‘What kind of people do we want to become?’ ” he asked.

“Do we devote our lives to staving off chaos with the tools of civil law or do we follow in the promptings of the spirit of universal empathy.”

In the final analysis, he said, “how we interpret the Bible and how we respond to the global immigration crisis is a matter of our hearts and  what we want to be in it.”