Today’s policy debate over “immigration” draws heavily on beliefs we hold, whether implicitly or explicitly, regarding nationhood and national sovereignty. While the lessons we learn from ancient Israel’s hospitality laws undoubtedly pertain to today’s policy debates over immigration, pertinent lessons for Christian thinking start even earlier in the Bible. First, God giving the use and care of the earth to Adam and his progeny – the common ownership of the earth – has implications for national sovereignty, national borders, and immigration. Secondly, the account of the actual creation of the nations at Babel carries implications for today’s policy discussion as well. 

Two items of note before taking up implications of Adam’s and his progeny’s vice regency over the earth and Babel for today’s discussion of immigration. A brief caveat regarding the idea of “nations,” and a somewhat longer caveat regarding applications of ancient Israel’s hospitality statutes.

First, Christians – and moderns more generally – need to be wary of reading “nations” in the Bible as though the authors were speaking of modern nation-states. While not disconnected concepts, there can be considerable differences in the idea and use of the world “nation” in the ancient world relative to the concept and use in the post-1648 Westphalian framework. Moderns tend to think our Westphalian system is natural and transhistorical. Doing so invites anachronism as we seek to understand and apply the Bible to our times. That said, I pretty much tiptoe around this point in an already overly-long article.

Secondly, most of the substantive analysis in this article circles around thinking through implications of the common ownership of the earth and the creation of the nations at Babel. But given its significance in Evangelical policy arguments regarding immigration, I do want briefly to discuss aspects of ancient Israel’s hospitality laws.

As an initial matter, I take the hospitality statutes of ancient Israel to provide a picture and demonstration of the gospel. Christians today, like ancient Israel, are aliens and sojourners before God (1 Chronicles 29:15, Leviticus 25:23). Yet he welcomes us into his land and succors us with true rest, true drink, and true food. Because God’s grace succors us, we cannot deny it to others without denying it warp and woof, thus rejecting it for ourselves as well.

Secondly, while a fundamental equality united Israel and the stranger (“the stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself,” Leviticus 19:34), Mosaic statutes nonetheless required the stranger’s behavior to accord with Israel’s elect status before God. Consistent with that, Old Testament law imposed substantial limitations on the legal, economic and cultural prerogatives of strangers sojourning in Israel.

Before noting some of these limitations, we might note that contrary to the other nations, membership in which was identified around the closed class of biological relationship (Genesis 11), Israel’s nationhood was, with few exceptions (see, e.g., Deuteronomy 23:3), an open class. Biological relationship with Abraham was neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for membership in Israel: Individuals who descended biologically from Abraham would be cut off from the nation without covenant membership (Genesis 17:14), and individuals who did not descend biologically from Abraham, with the application of the covenant sign, could become as a “native of the land” (Exodus 12:48).

Membership in ancient Israel was a matter of covenant, not of blood. Styling this slightly differently, “race” in ancient Israel was defined by covenant and not by biological relationship (cf., 1 Peter 2:9).

Yet while Mosaic law stipulated a fundamental equality for aliens and sojourners in Israel, it also provided substantial distinctions between aliens and Israelites. Aliens could not (permanently) own land in Israel (Leviticus 23:25) except, perhaps, inside non-Levitical walled cities (Leviticus 25:32-33). (Perhaps, also, in land obtained by Israel outside of her original borders.) In a fundamentally agrarian society, this limitation would significantly limit the economic prospects of resident aliens who chose not to convert. 

So, too, aliens could sell themselves permanently into slavery, unlike Israelites (Exodus 21:2). Aliens could also be charged interest on loans (Deuteronomy 23:20). And while aliens could live freely in Israel without professing Yahweh as their Lord, the Law required aliens to avoid any number of religious practices – both public and private - inconsistent with the nation’s Yahwist culture (see, e.g., Leviticus 16:29, Lev 17:12, etc., although cf., Numbers 15:14).

So while strangers and aliens needed to be accorded fundamentally equal treatment under Mosaic law – indeed, Israelites needed to love the alien as they loved themselves – aliens would not be full participants in Israel economically, politically, or culturally, until they converted and assimilated into Israel. While these laws hold implications for the Church and modern society more generally, what these implications might be is a matter of sanctified discernment, sensitive both to the continuities and discontinuities in God’s relationship with his people through Jesus Christ.

Now to discuss some policy implications regarding immigration from Genesis 1-11.

While “all theology is Christology,” as the saying goes, revelation prior to the Mosaic covenant, and prior to the Abrahamic covenant, has its own reflection in the New Covenant era. While traveling through Athens, for example, Paul starts with creation in explaining that all people need to repent. As part of his message, Paul explains,

The God who made the world and all things in it . . . made from one every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation (Acts 17:24, 26).

Paul suggests nations and their boundaries form part of God’s providential plan; God is ultimately sovereign over national boundaries, not men nor nations. 

Simply from the fact of Paul preaching this at Athens we get a glimpse of the nature of God’s providential superintendence over these boundaries: Paul was born and raised in Tarsus (in modern day Turkey), he studied in Jerusalem, was converted on the road to Damascus (in Syria), and sojourned throughout the Roman empire preaching the Gospel, including these words preached to those who lived in Athens, Greece. Paul sojourned.

God’s manifest providential will is that national boundaries change over time and are permeable, to some extent, during given times. This should not be a surprise given the Mosaic legislation pertaining to sojourners in ancient Israel – both transitory and long-term (multi-generational sojourning in Israel is anticipated in Numbers 15:14 and Leviticus 25:45-47) – but also given implications of the creation of the nations at Babel.

The sin at Babel derived not only from the desire of a united, monoglot humanity to pierce the firmament, worshipping and making a name for itself rather than God. Humanity’s sin at Babel also resisted filling the earth as God commanded; rather than spreading across the earth and filling it they would rather stick together in one location (Genesis 11:4, cf., 1:28). Humanity refused to sojourn and so fill the hearth. Hence, God forced them to spread out and to take up residence throughout the earth, to fill it. Aside from Israel, however, the Bible ascribes no intrinsic connection between land and any family/language group. 

The “right” of each nation spreading out from Babel to lay claim to any yet-unclaimed part of the earth would seem to be an implication of an even earlier event, the grant of common ownership over the earth to Adam and Eve and their progeny (Psalm 115:18, cf., Genesis 1:22, 29; 2:16; 9:3). This entails the so-called universal destination of the earth and of its goods (1 Chronicles 29:12,14, Deuteronomy 8:17-18, Psalm 24:1, etc.).

Importantly, the notion of humanity’s common ownership of the earth is not contrary to the notion of political sovereignty. Like private property and the universal destination of goods – private property is a primary means by which God allocates material goods to humanity – so, too, national sovereignty is a primary means by which God implements the common ownership of the earth. The point is that it is a means by which humanity exercises stewardship over the earth for God’s glory; national legal and political jurisdictions are modes that effectuate that stewardship.

Dividing the world into nations is a necessary part of subsidiarity. That is, the framework for caring for one another at the most personal, information-rich level consistent with the effective provision of care.  As I’ve written elsewhere:

Hence, the “especiallys” in the Scriptures. Paul writes to Timothy, “If anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” And in his letter to the church at Galatia, “While we have opportunity, let us do good to all men, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.”

Like private property, these commitments are a means of actualizing the universal destination of goods and the common ownership of the earth. Subsidiarity implies that we have a greater duty of care, an “especial” duty, for those closer to us relative to those farther away, for those who are our “own.”

These “especiallys,” are means by which God has provided to accomplish his purposes; they cannot be legitimately used to prevent or hinder achievement of those purposes. 

Part of the difficulty of thinking through issues like “immigration” today results from the reduction of the question of exclusion and permeability to the either/or dualism of open borders versus total border control by political authorities. But “immigration” is not an all or nothing proposition. Different responsibilities adhere to nations for admitting immigrants in response to distinct reasons for immigration.

Space does not allow a discussion of all the particulars, even if I had thought them all through.  Seventeenth Century Dutch juris Hugo Grotius serves as a useful interlocutor, however, not because he is necessarily correct in all the particulars, let alone orthodox in all his theology. Rather, Grotius provides us an accessible example of thinking through different cases through the lenses of both national sovereignty and humanity’s common ownership of the earth.

I’ll discuss a couple of exemplary cases.

First, in The Rights of War and Peace, drawing on the Biblical account of Israel’s trek to the promised land in the book of Numbers, Grotius argues nations cannot exclude a people from passing through their nation to get somewhere else:

A remarkable Instance we have of this in the History of Moses, who being to march through another People’s Country, offered first to the Edomite, and then to the Amorite, these Conditions, that for his Part he would pass by the King’s Highway, neither would he turn to the Right or the Left, nor enter any Man’s private Possessions, and if he should have Occasion for any Thing that was theirs, he would pay them the full Value of it; which being rejected, was a sufficient Reason for that just War2 he made on the Amorites. They refused him, says Saint Augustin, a Passage which could not do them any Prejudice; a Passage that, by the most equitable Laws of human Society, ought to have been granted him (Bk II, Ch II, XIII.2).

Here Grotius discusses events recorded in Numbers 20 and 21. In Numbers 20:14-22, Moses asks permission of the King of Edom to pass through his land. The King denies permission and Israel “turns away” to go another route. In contrast, when Sihon, King of the Amorites, denies permission for Israel to pass through his land, war breaks out, and Israel seizes the land, ultimately passing through it.

Not discussed by Grotius are additional instances of Israel passing through the land of Bashan (Numbers 21:31-35) and passing through Moab (Numbers 22:1ff). These passages do not record Moses requesting permission to pass through either of these lands.

So why the deference to Edom’s denial of permission to pass through that land but no deference to the Amorites? Related, why the movement through Bashan and Moab seemingly without asking permission at all?

Perhaps the different responses are simply a matter of rational calculation of the likelihood of successfully enforcing Israel’s just claim by recourse to armed conflict (cf., Luke 14:31-32). This theory recognizes that Edom’s refusal to allow Israel passage through its land was unjust, but Moses did not think Israel would likely defeat Edom in battle, or defeat it with tolerable costs. So he did not insist on Israel’s right of free passage by fighting for it. In contrast, perhaps Moses calculated – accurately, apparently – that Israel could defeat the Amorites and Bashan. And so he enforced its claimed right to passage with justified force in these cases.

Or perhaps after Edom’s refusal, passage through the land of the Amorites was all the more necessary. With no feasible alternatives but to pass through the Amorites’ territory after Edom’s refusal, the heightened necessity perhaps justified Moses taking the risk of conflict by insisting on passage.

Another possible explanation lies in the fact that Edom did not attack Israel while the Amorites did. That said, the passage suggests the Amorites’ attack came in an attempt to enforce its borders. Israel’s war against the Amorites, and the subsequent seizure of the Amorites’ territory, would be just only if the Amorites did not have the initial right to deny Israel passage through their land. This is perhaps clearer in relation to Bashan. The passage indicates Israel had already entered Bashan’s territory when Bashan attacked (Numbers 21:33). If in fact Israel had no right of passage, then Bashan would have been in the right in responding to Israel’s encroachment on its territory with force.

The examples in Numbers suggest what Grotius concluded, namely that sovereignty over territory does not extend to refusing passage through that territory.

A second case, although related, pertains to immigration derived from “necessity” and taking up “permanent residence” in a new nation. Grotius first notes the principle,

From whence it follows, first, that in a case of absolute necessity, that ancient rights of using things, as if they still remained in common, must revive, and be in full force: For in all laws and human institutions , and consequently, in that of property too, such cases seem to be excepted (Bk II, Ch II, VI.2).

Then his application to immigration and permanent residence:

Nor ought a permanent residence to be refused to foreigners, who, driven from their own country, seek a place or refuge. But then it is only upon condition that they submit to the established laws of the place, and avoid every occasion of exciting tumult and sedition. . . .  To drive away refugees, says Strabo, from Eratosthenes, is acting like barbarians; and a conduct like this in the Spartans was also condemned. St. Ambrose passes the same sentence of condemnation upon those powers, who refuse all admission to strangers (Bk II, Ch II, XVI.2).

Here we see the principle – borders must be permeable to refugees – but also the proviso that immigrating refugees, although admitted by right, must nonetheless obey the law of the land, avoid sedition and, most generally, “avoid every occasion of exciting tumult.”

Here we might read concerns about preserving national “culture” as well as economic consequences of immigration. Often the policy choice is presented as one of allowing immigration or not. But all or nothing answers – open borders or exclusion at the whim of a nation – are not the only feasible options. 

Consider Syrian refugees in Germany. It would be fair to say that the hundreds of thousands of refugees – all seeking escape from a vicious armed conflict in their home country – nonetheless “excite tumult” in Germany.

But options exist between turning off the spigot entirely versus opening it up full blast. For example, Germany could require cultural assimilation as a condition for the permanent residence of refugees who desired permanent residence. Those who do not desire to assimilate could be provided temporary residence, with the proviso of their repatriation at a proper point in the future. Or after a certain threshold, Germany could even deny admission for refugees who did not desire assimilation. The idea being that beyond some threshold the admission of additional refugees who do not desire assimilation would simply cause untoward “tumult” in the country.

But how to consider the threshold and the possibility of assimilation? The practical problem with considering the possibility of immigrant assimilation in nations in modern-day Europe is that, as with Gertrude Stein’s old saw about Oakland, in talking about culture in modern Europe, “there is no there, there.” Modern secular German culture is simply too thin to induce, let alone require, assimilation relative to the (comparatively) strong beliefs of the refugees. As a result, it is German culture that gets assimilated to refugee culture.

The objection many Germans articulate to the presence of so many refugees in their country results from the weaknessand vapidity of modern German culture, not from its strength. Modern German culture, like modern European culture more broadly, is little more than a hollowed out core of a historically-distant Christendom. The irony is that Germany would be much better positioned to offer non-tumultuous hospitality to Syrian refugees were Germany’s “culture” religiously thicker. But because Germany has to a large extent shed Christian culture, it is now threatened with tumult from admitting refugees who are, nevertheless, in true and desperate need of refuge.

The “refugee” issue in the United States stems more from economic necessity than from flight from violent conflict. And here the cultural issue is linguistic rather than religious. Indeed, membership in the Catholic Church in the US has been propped up chiefly by Hispanic Catholic immigrants (even as many of those immigrants and their children convert to Evangelicalism).

As in Europe, however, it is the weakness of the political will to require linguistic assimilation in the US that motivates the blunderbuss of opposition to immigration in toto. Indeed, ironically, outside of the language issue, Christians and conservatives would find greater cultural sympathy for Christianity and intact families among Hispanic immigrants than they often do among the native Anglo population.

Similarly, protecting economic opportunities for poor Americans does not require the broad brush of all or nothing regarding open borders. 

The issue is not whether economic immigration increases the size of the overall economic pie in the U.S., or in any country for that matter. It does: Every worker must produce greater economic value than the salary or wage being paid, otherwise the boss could not make money by employing the worker. Classic growth models in economics generally show economic growth increases at least as the same rate of population growth, if not faster.

The economic problem is not that immigrants don’t more-than proportionally increase the overall size of the economic pie in the United States. The problem is that the benefits of the increasing size of the pie are not distributed in a positive-sum among all sectors of Americans. Specifically, because most economic immigrants are low-wage workers, increased competition among low-wage workers, both native an immigrant, tends to compete away the economic benefit of immigration to that sector of the U.S. population. As a result of the increased low-wage labor competition, the benefits of immigration tend to become redistributed to already-affluent capital owners and, more diffusely, to consumers. 

Solving the sectoral maldistribution of the benefits of immigration, however, does not require closing down the border. Less draconian alternatives exist. For example, part of the larger economic pie could be redistributed to lower-income Americans in the form of social insurance. Or the wages or employment of immigrants could be taxed, thereby decreasing the competitive advantage immigrants might hold over lower-income citizens. Or a combination of both, taxes and redistribution to the most affected part of the American population. The point is that flat prohibition is more broad than necessary to remedy those who are actually harmed. And there’s a cost to the overinclusivity of the across-the-board prohibition. It prevents the overall economic advantages immigrants bring to a nation. Policies can be tailored to make immigration a “win-win-win” situation, a “win” for poor Americans as well as wins for affluent Americans and immigrants.

There’s more that could be said; Grotius teases out any number of implications of the common ownership of the earth that could be usefully engaged by Christians and others who wish to think carefully, and in a principled fashion, about immigration.

The larger point, however, is this: There exists a rich Biblical witness that, while Christological, nonetheless holds implications for policy topics like immigration. These principles, however, are not self-executing, and real-life policy issues can seldom be addressed by proof texting. The prudential application of the Biblical witness often requires extended study and thought, and the exercise of contingent, and contestable, prudential judgment. This sort of discretion is at a premium in today’s overheated world of Manichean politics. But this is precisely how Christians could contribute positively to discussions today. Not by muting our Christian witness, but by running policy arguments through that witness, albeit in careful ways attuned both to nuances in biblical principles as well as attuned to nuances in the empirical world in which we live.


James R. Rogers, Ph.D., J.D., is associate professor of political science at Texas A&M University. He has published numerous scholarly articles in political science, law, and economics. He also co-edited one book, Institutional Games and the Supreme Court. He writes more-popular articles on a weekly basis for the Law & Liberty website (https://www.lawliberty.org/author/james-rogers/). Rogers also served as editor of the Journal of Theoretical Politics from 2006 through 2013.

Next Conversation

Today’s policy debate over “immigration” draws heavily on beliefs we hold, whether implicitly or explicitly, regarding nationhood and national sovereignty. While the lessons we learn from ancient Israel’s hospitality laws undoubtedly pertain to today’s policy debates over immigration, pertinent lessons for Christian thinking start even earlier in the Bible. First, God giving the use and care of the earth to Adam and his progeny – the common ownership of the earth – has implications for national sovereignty, national borders, and immigration. Secondly, the account of the actual creation of the nations at Babel carries implications for today’s policy discussion as well. 

Two items of note before taking up implications of Adam’s and his progeny’s vice regency over the earth and Babel for today’s discussion of immigration. A brief caveat regarding the idea of “nations,” and a somewhat longer caveat regarding applications of ancient Israel’s hospitality statutes.

First, Christians – and moderns more generally – need to be wary of reading “nations” in the Bible as though the authors were speaking of modern nation-states. While not disconnected concepts, there can be considerable differences in the idea and use of the world “nation” in the ancient world relative to the concept and use in the post-1648 Westphalian framework. Moderns tend to think our Westphalian system is natural and transhistorical. Doing so invites anachronism as we seek to understand and apply the Bible to our times. That said, I pretty much tiptoe around this point in an already overly-long article.

Secondly, most of the substantive analysis in this article circles around thinking through implications of the common ownership of the earth and the creation of the nations at Babel. But given its significance in Evangelical policy arguments regarding immigration, I do want briefly to discuss aspects of ancient Israel’s hospitality laws.

As an initial matter, I take the hospitality statutes of ancient Israel to provide a picture and demonstration of the gospel. Christians today, like ancient Israel, are aliens and sojourners before God (1 Chronicles 29:15, Leviticus 25:23). Yet he welcomes us into his land and succors us with true rest, true drink, and true food. Because God’s grace succors us, we cannot deny it to others without denying it warp and woof, thus rejecting it for ourselves as well.

Secondly, while a fundamental equality united Israel and the stranger (“the stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself,” Leviticus 19:34), Mosaic statutes nonetheless required the stranger’s behavior to accord with Israel’s elect status before God. Consistent with that, Old Testament law imposed substantial limitations on the legal, economic and cultural prerogatives of strangers sojourning in Israel.

Before noting some of these limitations, we might note that contrary to the other nations, membership in which was identified around the closed class of biological relationship (Genesis 11), Israel’s nationhood was, with few exceptions (see, e.g., Deuteronomy 23:3), an open class. Biological relationship with Abraham was neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for membership in Israel: Individuals who descended biologically from Abraham would be cut off from the nation without covenant membership (Genesis 17:14), and individuals who did not descend biologically from Abraham, with the application of the covenant sign, could become as a “native of the land” (Exodus 12:48).

Membership in ancient Israel was a matter of covenant, not of blood. Styling this slightly differently, “race” in ancient Israel was defined by covenant and not by biological relationship (cf., 1 Peter 2:9).

Yet while Mosaic law stipulated a fundamental equality for aliens and sojourners in Israel, it also provided substantial distinctions between aliens and Israelites. Aliens could not (permanently) own land in Israel (Leviticus 23:25) except, perhaps, inside non-Levitical walled cities (Leviticus 25:32-33). (Perhaps, also, in land obtained by Israel outside of her original borders.) In a fundamentally agrarian society, this limitation would significantly limit the economic prospects of resident aliens who chose not to convert. 

So, too, aliens could sell themselves permanently into slavery, unlike Israelites (Exodus 21:2). Aliens could also be charged interest on loans (Deuteronomy 23:20). And while aliens could live freely in Israel without professing Yahweh as their Lord, the Law required aliens to avoid any number of religious practices – both public and private - inconsistent with the nation’s Yahwist culture (see, e.g., Leviticus 16:29, Lev 17:12, etc., although cf., Numbers 15:14).

So while strangers and aliens needed to be accorded fundamentally equal treatment under Mosaic law – indeed, Israelites needed to love the alien as they loved themselves – aliens would not be full participants in Israel economically, politically, or culturally, until they converted and assimilated into Israel. While these laws hold implications for the Church and modern society more generally, what these implications might be is a matter of sanctified discernment, sensitive both to the continuities and discontinuities in God’s relationship with his people through Jesus Christ.

Now to discuss some policy implications regarding immigration from Genesis 1-11.

While “all theology is Christology,” as the saying goes, revelation prior to the Mosaic covenant, and prior to the Abrahamic covenant, has its own reflection in the New Covenant era. While traveling through Athens, for example, Paul starts with creation in explaining that all people need to repent. As part of his message, Paul explains,

The God who made the world and all things in it . . . made from one every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation (Acts 17:24, 26).

Paul suggests nations and their boundaries form part of God’s providential plan; God is ultimately sovereign over national boundaries, not men nor nations. 

Simply from the fact of Paul preaching this at Athens we get a glimpse of the nature of God’s providential superintendence over these boundaries: Paul was born and raised in Tarsus (in modern day Turkey), he studied in Jerusalem, was converted on the road to Damascus (in Syria), and sojourned throughout the Roman empire preaching the Gospel, including these words preached to those who lived in Athens, Greece. Paul sojourned.

God’s manifest providential will is that national boundaries change over time and are permeable, to some extent, during given times. This should not be a surprise given the Mosaic legislation pertaining to sojourners in ancient Israel – both transitory and long-term (multi-generational sojourning in Israel is anticipated in Numbers 15:14 and Leviticus 25:45-47) – but also given implications of the creation of the nations at Babel.

The sin at Babel derived not only from the desire of a united, monoglot humanity to pierce the firmament, worshipping and making a name for itself rather than God. Humanity’s sin at Babel also resisted filling the earth as God commanded; rather than spreading across the earth and filling it they would rather stick together in one location (Genesis 11:4, cf., 1:28). Humanity refused to sojourn and so fill the hearth. Hence, God forced them to spread out and to take up residence throughout the earth, to fill it. Aside from Israel, however, the Bible ascribes no intrinsic connection between land and any family/language group. 

The “right” of each nation spreading out from Babel to lay claim to any yet-unclaimed part of the earth would seem to be an implication of an even earlier event, the grant of common ownership over the earth to Adam and Eve and their progeny (Psalm 115:18, cf., Genesis 1:22, 29; 2:16; 9:3). This entails the so-called universal destination of the earth and of its goods (1 Chronicles 29:12,14, Deuteronomy 8:17-18, Psalm 24:1, etc.).

Importantly, the notion of humanity’s common ownership of the earth is not contrary to the notion of political sovereignty. Like private property and the universal destination of goods – private property is a primary means by which God allocates material goods to humanity – so, too, national sovereignty is a primary means by which God implements the common ownership of the earth. The point is that it is a means by which humanity exercises stewardship over the earth for God’s glory; national legal and political jurisdictions are modes that effectuate that stewardship.

Dividing the world into nations is a necessary part of subsidiarity. That is, the framework for caring for one another at the most personal, information-rich level consistent with the effective provision of care.  As I’ve written elsewhere:

Hence, the “especiallys” in the Scriptures. Paul writes to Timothy, “If anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” And in his letter to the church at Galatia, “While we have opportunity, let us do good to all men, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.”

Like private property, these commitments are a means of actualizing the universal destination of goods and the common ownership of the earth. Subsidiarity implies that we have a greater duty of care, an “especial” duty, for those closer to us relative to those farther away, for those who are our “own.”

These “especiallys,” are means by which God has provided to accomplish his purposes; they cannot be legitimately used to prevent or hinder achievement of those purposes. 

Part of the difficulty of thinking through issues like “immigration” today results from the reduction of the question of exclusion and permeability to the either/or dualism of open borders versus total border control by political authorities. But “immigration” is not an all or nothing proposition. Different responsibilities adhere to nations for admitting immigrants in response to distinct reasons for immigration.

Space does not allow a discussion of all the particulars, even if I had thought them all through.  Seventeenth Century Dutch juris Hugo Grotius serves as a useful interlocutor, however, not because he is necessarily correct in all the particulars, let alone orthodox in all his theology. Rather, Grotius provides us an accessible example of thinking through different cases through the lenses of both national sovereignty and humanity’s common ownership of the earth.

I’ll discuss a couple of exemplary cases.

First, in The Rights of War and Peace, drawing on the Biblical account of Israel’s trek to the promised land in the book of Numbers, Grotius argues nations cannot exclude a people from passing through their nation to get somewhere else:

A remarkable Instance we have of this in the History of Moses, who being to march through another People’s Country, offered first to the Edomite, and then to the Amorite, these Conditions, that for his Part he would pass by the King’s Highway, neither would he turn to the Right or the Left, nor enter any Man’s private Possessions, and if he should have Occasion for any Thing that was theirs, he would pay them the full Value of it; which being rejected, was a sufficient Reason for that just War2 he made on the Amorites. They refused him, says Saint Augustin, a Passage which could not do them any Prejudice; a Passage that, by the most equitable Laws of human Society, ought to have been granted him (Bk II, Ch II, XIII.2).

Here Grotius discusses events recorded in Numbers 20 and 21. In Numbers 20:14-22, Moses asks permission of the King of Edom to pass through his land. The King denies permission and Israel “turns away” to go another route. In contrast, when Sihon, King of the Amorites, denies permission for Israel to pass through his land, war breaks out, and Israel seizes the land, ultimately passing through it.

Not discussed by Grotius are additional instances of Israel passing through the land of Bashan (Numbers 21:31-35) and passing through Moab (Numbers 22:1ff). These passages do not record Moses requesting permission to pass through either of these lands.

So why the deference to Edom’s denial of permission to pass through that land but no deference to the Amorites? Related, why the movement through Bashan and Moab seemingly without asking permission at all?

Perhaps the different responses are simply a matter of rational calculation of the likelihood of successfully enforcing Israel’s just claim by recourse to armed conflict (cf., Luke 14:31-32). This theory recognizes that Edom’s refusal to allow Israel passage through its land was unjust, but Moses did not think Israel would likely defeat Edom in battle, or defeat it with tolerable costs. So he did not insist on Israel’s right of free passage by fighting for it. In contrast, perhaps Moses calculated – accurately, apparently – that Israel could defeat the Amorites and Bashan. And so he enforced its claimed right to passage with justified force in these cases.

Or perhaps after Edom’s refusal, passage through the land of the Amorites was all the more necessary. With no feasible alternatives but to pass through the Amorites’ territory after Edom’s refusal, the heightened necessity perhaps justified Moses taking the risk of conflict by insisting on passage.

Another possible explanation lies in the fact that Edom did not attack Israel while the Amorites did. That said, the passage suggests the Amorites’ attack came in an attempt to enforce its borders. Israel’s war against the Amorites, and the subsequent seizure of the Amorites’ territory, would be just only if the Amorites did not have the initial right to deny Israel passage through their land. This is perhaps clearer in relation to Bashan. The passage indicates Israel had already entered Bashan’s territory when Bashan attacked (Numbers 21:33). If in fact Israel had no right of passage, then Bashan would have been in the right in responding to Israel’s encroachment on its territory with force.

The examples in Numbers suggest what Grotius concluded, namely that sovereignty over territory does not extend to refusing passage through that territory.

A second case, although related, pertains to immigration derived from “necessity” and taking up “permanent residence” in a new nation. Grotius first notes the principle,

From whence it follows, first, that in a case of absolute necessity, that ancient rights of using things, as if they still remained in common, must revive, and be in full force: For in all laws and human institutions , and consequently, in that of property too, such cases seem to be excepted (Bk II, Ch II, VI.2).

Then his application to immigration and permanent residence:

Nor ought a permanent residence to be refused to foreigners, who, driven from their own country, seek a place or refuge. But then it is only upon condition that they submit to the established laws of the place, and avoid every occasion of exciting tumult and sedition. . . .  To drive away refugees, says Strabo, from Eratosthenes, is acting like barbarians; and a conduct like this in the Spartans was also condemned. St. Ambrose passes the same sentence of condemnation upon those powers, who refuse all admission to strangers (Bk II, Ch II, XVI.2).

Here we see the principle – borders must be permeable to refugees – but also the proviso that immigrating refugees, although admitted by right, must nonetheless obey the law of the land, avoid sedition and, most generally, “avoid every occasion of exciting tumult.”

Here we might read concerns about preserving national “culture” as well as economic consequences of immigration. Often the policy choice is presented as one of allowing immigration or not. But all or nothing answers – open borders or exclusion at the whim of a nation – are not the only feasible options. 

Consider Syrian refugees in Germany. It would be fair to say that the hundreds of thousands of refugees – all seeking escape from a vicious armed conflict in their home country – nonetheless “excite tumult” in Germany.

But options exist between turning off the spigot entirely versus opening it up full blast. For example, Germany could require cultural assimilation as a condition for the permanent residence of refugees who desired permanent residence. Those who do not desire to assimilate could be provided temporary residence, with the proviso of their repatriation at a proper point in the future. Or after a certain threshold, Germany could even deny admission for refugees who did not desire assimilation. The idea being that beyond some threshold the admission of additional refugees who do not desire assimilation would simply cause untoward “tumult” in the country.

But how to consider the threshold and the possibility of assimilation? The practical problem with considering the possibility of immigrant assimilation in nations in modern-day Europe is that, as with Gertrude Stein’s old saw about Oakland, in talking about culture in modern Europe, “there is no there, there.” Modern secular German culture is simply too thin to induce, let alone require, assimilation relative to the (comparatively) strong beliefs of the refugees. As a result, it is German culture that gets assimilated to refugee culture.

The objection many Germans articulate to the presence of so many refugees in their country results from the weaknessand vapidity of modern German culture, not from its strength. Modern German culture, like modern European culture more broadly, is little more than a hollowed out core of a historically-distant Christendom. The irony is that Germany would be much better positioned to offer non-tumultuous hospitality to Syrian refugees were Germany’s “culture” religiously thicker. But because Germany has to a large extent shed Christian culture, it is now threatened with tumult from admitting refugees who are, nevertheless, in true and desperate need of refuge.

The “refugee” issue in the United States stems more from economic necessity than from flight from violent conflict. And here the cultural issue is linguistic rather than religious. Indeed, membership in the Catholic Church in the US has been propped up chiefly by Hispanic Catholic immigrants (even as many of those immigrants and their children convert to Evangelicalism).

As in Europe, however, it is the weakness of the political will to require linguistic assimilation in the US that motivates the blunderbuss of opposition to immigration in toto. Indeed, ironically, outside of the language issue, Christians and conservatives would find greater cultural sympathy for Christianity and intact families among Hispanic immigrants than they often do among the native Anglo population.

Similarly, protecting economic opportunities for poor Americans does not require the broad brush of all or nothing regarding open borders. 

The issue is not whether economic immigration increases the size of the overall economic pie in the U.S., or in any country for that matter. It does: Every worker must produce greater economic value than the salary or wage being paid, otherwise the boss could not make money by employing the worker. Classic growth models in economics generally show economic growth increases at least as the same rate of population growth, if not faster.

The economic problem is not that immigrants don’t more-than proportionally increase the overall size of the economic pie in the United States. The problem is that the benefits of the increasing size of the pie are not distributed in a positive-sum among all sectors of Americans. Specifically, because most economic immigrants are low-wage workers, increased competition among low-wage workers, both native an immigrant, tends to compete away the economic benefit of immigration to that sector of the U.S. population. As a result of the increased low-wage labor competition, the benefits of immigration tend to become redistributed to already-affluent capital owners and, more diffusely, to consumers. 

Solving the sectoral maldistribution of the benefits of immigration, however, does not require closing down the border. Less draconian alternatives exist. For example, part of the larger economic pie could be redistributed to lower-income Americans in the form of social insurance. Or the wages or employment of immigrants could be taxed, thereby decreasing the competitive advantage immigrants might hold over lower-income citizens. Or a combination of both, taxes and redistribution to the most affected part of the American population. The point is that flat prohibition is more broad than necessary to remedy those who are actually harmed. And there’s a cost to the overinclusivity of the across-the-board prohibition. It prevents the overall economic advantages immigrants bring to a nation. Policies can be tailored to make immigration a “win-win-win” situation, a “win” for poor Americans as well as wins for affluent Americans and immigrants.

There’s more that could be said; Grotius teases out any number of implications of the common ownership of the earth that could be usefully engaged by Christians and others who wish to think carefully, and in a principled fashion, about immigration.

The larger point, however, is this: There exists a rich Biblical witness that, while Christological, nonetheless holds implications for policy topics like immigration. These principles, however, are not self-executing, and real-life policy issues can seldom be addressed by proof texting. The prudential application of the Biblical witness often requires extended study and thought, and the exercise of contingent, and contestable, prudential judgment. This sort of discretion is at a premium in today’s overheated world of Manichean politics. But this is precisely how Christians could contribute positively to discussions today. Not by muting our Christian witness, but by running policy arguments through that witness, albeit in careful ways attuned both to nuances in biblical principles as well as attuned to nuances in the empirical world in which we live.


James R. Rogers, Ph.D., J.D., is associate professor of political science at Texas A&M University. He has published numerous scholarly articles in political science, law, and economics. He also co-edited one book, Institutional Games and the Supreme Court. He writes more-popular articles on a weekly basis for the Law & Liberty website (https://www.lawliberty.org/author/james-rogers/). Rogers also served as editor of the Journal of Theoretical Politics from 2006 through 2013.

-->

To download Theopolis Lectures, please enter your email.

CLOSE