I have greatly appreciated the thoughtful engagement my article on immigration that opened this conversation has received from my three respondents. It is impossible to neatly tie up the many threads of discussion that have been raised to this point in this concluding piece, but I wanted to comment upon a few key points that surfaced in the course of the discussion.
As I maintained in my initial article, we must distinguish carefully between a good or value of immigration and the right and prudential way to pursue this good, or the obligations that the good places upon us in specific cases. In my article, I made plain that showing hospitality to the stranger is a biblical expectation of us. However, no particular immigration policies straightforwardly follow from this: such policies require extensive prudential consideration of our situations. Immigration can be a source of considerable benefit to a nation or a destructive and damaging force. Our challenge here is that of moving from recognition of the good of hospitality to the alien and stranger into a clear understanding of the right thing that we ought to do.
Dr Rogers’ response clearly registered this crucial point:
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.
However, this crucial point seemed somewhat obscured in both Dr Heimburger and Dr Leithart’s responses, which both principally stressed the issue of the good of immigration, while only thinly addressing the question of the prudent ways in which we must pursue this good—the matter which I had foregrounded. The fact that immigration may sometimes have manifest benefits has never been at issue in this discussion.
I do not believe that Scripture provides as much direct light upon the question of the right as Dr Leithart seems to suppose. While there are evidently principles Scripture illumines that must factor into our judgment, such principles do not take us very far towards the sorts of practical determinations that immigration policies require. They are loose and limited examples. Besides, the passages that Dr Leithart identifies as potentially informing our immigration policies seem to speak more to the question of how to treat the resident alien or stranger in the land, rather than to questions of admission to or broader status the land in the first place.
Dr Rogers goes further in identifying some of the biblical principles that have more direct bearing upon the status of the alien or stranger. He notes the fact that the status of aliens and strangers differed significantly from that of native Israelites, limiting their rights of land-ownership and economic prospects, their religious practice, and their protections from slavery and indebtedness.
He describes Israel’s nationhood as ‘with few exceptions … an open class’: biological relationship with Abraham was neither necessary nor sufficient for membership. This is, however, a point that we should be careful not to overstate. While fleshly ancestry was not sufficient to make one an Israelite, Israel really was not as different from the other nations in this regard as he suggests. Israel’s life was structured according to tribes and clans. The nation, perhaps more than any other, found both its foundation and its imaginative purchase upon its present in the story of an ancestral biological family. While not everyone descended biologically from Abraham was a member of Israel, Israel was still to relate to Edomites as their brothers, for instance (Deuteronomy 23:7). Here a focus upon Abraham rather than Jacob may also be misleading: the nation is called Israel for a reason.
Dr Rogers’ passing reference to Deuteronomy 23 is the one mention of a key biblical passage that might have bearing upon questions of immigration. Within it there are further discriminating limits placed upon the participation of resident aliens in the civil life of Israel. Favourable treatment is given to Edomites and Egyptians, on account of natural kinship in the former case and an incurred duty of reciprocity in the latter. Ammonites and Moabites, as historic enemies, have their rights severely curtailed. Indeed, Israel is explicitly instructed not to show hospitality to those two peoples: ‘You shall not seek their peace or their prosperity all your days forever’ (Deuteronomy 23:6). In passing, we should note the way that this complicates any simplistic assumptions we might have about the political expression of a duty to show hospitality to enemies. Nothing is said about any other peoples, whom Israelite rulers were presumably expected to treat according to similar discriminating judgments.
Israel’s openness to aliens and strangers was one that followed principles of hospitality, distinguishing sharply between guests and hosts. Becoming fully naturalized as Israelites would probably take most peoples over a century and would require submitting to the life of the covenant and giving up any foreign gods. Having a firm stake of ownership in the land would probably further require intermarriage and assimilation. As I have noted, the law also distinguished between peoples on the basis of ancestral relations, historically incurred responsibilities, and cultural or national antagonisms.
Where such sharp distinctions between host and guest peoples exists and means of discrimination exist, principles of hospitality can inform our practice and the figure of the immigrant may be rather less threatening. Without such laws protecting a particular peoplehood and requiring either integration or assimilation to that people, however, immigration can function as a steady process of cultural dispossession, eroding any substantial peoplehood into a pluralistic and multicultural society, often primarily optimized for the expansion of the economy. [The ‘peoplehood’ I am describing here should not be thought of in terms of a monoculture: it is a shared social fabric that protects many variations within it, valuing them as the very specific differences that they are, rather than as some ‘diversity’ as such. For instance, the character of a place like the UK depends upon the differences between the English, Irish, Welsh, and Scots, upon numerous regional differences in such things as customs, cuisine, and accents, and upon the countless distinct forms of place preserved and developed within it.]
Here Dr Rogers’ remarks about the thinness of modern secular culture and its inability to assimilate people into a substantial culture and peoplehood should be stressed. In such societies, large scale immigration has tended to be dealt with, less through integration than through disintegration, as, rather than privileging and protecting an enduring peoplehood, the state and the market break all peoples down into the atomized flux of mass society. Where a historic peoplehood has been lost and, along with it, a sense of the government as that people’s just agency, governments and business will increasingly adopt the role of social engineers.
Much of the growing resistance to Christianity’s place in our cultures and the pressure to subject all persons to ever more invasive policing and indoctrination arises precisely from such dynamics. Where the traditional fabric of societies is largely lost, governments and businesses and their laws and systems will tend to substitute for the loss, coercively indoctrinating populations into an anti-culture, structurally opposed to any assertions of ultimate value. And, as I noted in my initial article, immigration has for some been pursued precisely in order to act as an acid upon traditional norms, to increase the political power of parties against traditional cultural values and a Christian peoplehood. Any who wish to maintain strong Christian practice should be very alert to the way that increased immigration has empowered the forces pushing us towards the cultural disintegration characteristic of contemporary liberal society (the way that even culturally conservative immigrant communities will put their political weight behind parties in favour of abortion, social liberalism, etc. is important to attend to here). The need to ensure effective diversity is the fuel of much aggressive secularization.
In order to foreground the issue of our understanding of our true peoplehood, Stanley Hauerwas has occasionally used the illustration of the Lone Ranger and Tonto. Surrounded by enemies, the Lone Ranger turns to Tonto and declares, ‘We’re in a tight spot!’ Tonto responds calmly, ‘What do you mean we, white man?’
Both Dr Leithart and Dr Heimburger press that Hauerwasian question of the identity of the ‘us’: do we instinctively identify with our nations, or do we think the Church as our primary peoplehood? This question is an important one, but in the context of the present debate, we need to be very careful about how it is deployed. For irrespective of what our first community is as Christians, it is precisely as settled nations and peoples that we must establish immigration policies. Having a robust understanding of the senses in which we can and do speak of an American or a British peoplehood, for instance—as things that constitute us as a ‘we’ with our compatriots—is necessary for any cogent Christian approach to politics.
As Christians we are united to brothers and sisters in Christ around the world in the Spirit, sharing in a kinship stronger than blood with them. We also enjoy a vote in democratic elections and can participate in popular and perhaps even public discourses, with whatever bearing they may have upon our nations’ immigration policies. We have these privileges as those who share in a national peoplehood. How we conceive of the relationship between these two belongings is very much at issue in this discussion. And implicit in all of this are contrasting approaches to ecclesiology.
It is by no means obvious what it means to focus upon the Church as the true ‘we’ when it comes to thinking about our nation’s immigration policies. Perhaps because of its greater concreteness, people would be much more alert to the confusion that could be caused by applying the same logic to the family. Although other members of Christ’s body could be spoken of as our primary family, we still clearly recognize the ‘we’ of the natural family that exists, the obligations that it places upon us, and the ways that a ‘we’ of the body of Christ can inform and relativize its relations without radically denying, displacing, or intruding upon them. Jesus himself condemned those who appealed to loyalty to God in a way that undermined their natural duties to family (Mark 7:9-13).
What does the ‘we’ of the Church or Christians mean in the realm of politics? Is the Church supposed to speak to prudential policy matters as if a single corporate entity? Is the Church or are Christians supposed to function as if a lobbying group relative to the government, pursuing its own partisan interests, rather than the common good of the nation? To what extent are ‘we’ assuming duties or imposing them upon our compatriots in such cases?
The ecclesiological questions—in which divergent understandings of the visible and the invisible Church are perhaps at play again—should be pressed further. One aspect of some historic doctrines of the invisibility of the Church that gets relatively little attention is the claim that the Church is invisible because no one can observe the Church from more than a very limited and localized vantage point. Yet there is an important point to be recognized here. The manifestation of the Church occurs, not as some unified universal ideological entity on the spectacular world stage, but in the obscurity of the tangled thickets of local networks of Christians, where only the smallest part of the universal Church can be seen, yet the reality of the one holy catholic and apostolic Church is nonetheless truly present and encountered.
In discussions of the visibility of the Church, a strong concern that the Church be visible to the world can lead to a much greater weighting of the Church’s unified social and political witness and shared ideological alignment. What can easily be neglected in such an approach is the very practical building up of the life of the Church on the ground in our local neighbourhoods. The visibility of the Church is a very modest visibility, one that situates us primarily as members of local communities of Christians, rather than as deracinated members of an international ideological movement of Christianism. It can be easy to fall in love with a relatively abstract Church rather than seek to be knit together with the awkward bunch of Christians God has given to us in our localities. The actual visibility of the Church that God has given us can be a humbling one, committing us principally to the practical and difficult service of actual neighbours than to fighting ideological battles or maximizing the strength of a highly visible yet abstract movement.
While we share a spiritual kinship with Christians elsewhere in the world, we do not have the same duties to them as we do to the Christians in and others in our nearer neighbourhoods. The good of the Church is focused on local contexts in ways that unavoidably situates the good of various churches in their wider neighbourhoods, preventing us from becoming a sectarian movement. As those grounded in local communities, the gravity of context will give our politics a more prudential and less ideological character. It will also tend to limit any unified political voice of the Church, as the expression of Christian faith in society will tend to be heard in more diverse and local voices.
While we are supposed to recognize and express their kinship with other churches and Christians around the world, the Church has a highly differentiated existence, refracted through countless discrete localities. Christians can travel and visit churches in various countries, strengthening our sense of the international unity the body of Christ, a unity discovered in the traversal of distance, not its collapse. However, the mass emigration of Christians from some parts of the world, while filling more pews in greying churches in the secular West, has sometimes led to the near eradication of churches elsewhere in the world.
We beware of treating the condition of the uprooted immigrant as paradigmatic. As Christians, who are committed to the universal value of Christ, we can easily succumb to the distorted universalisms of the modern world, a universalism that resists the humility of particularity. Gottfried Leibniz expressed the modern liberal ideal of the universal human subject: “I am indifferent to that which constitutes a German or a Frenchman because I will only the good of all mankind.” As I have written elsewhere:
Although participating in a common life and having a place are universal human goods, these can only be realized in the particular yet variegated forms of specific societies, through which they are refracted. Liberalism’s undervaluation of particularity encourages it to think in terms of abstract right-bearers and of mere space. The paradigmatic person of liberalism is a displaced one: the universal human subject. As one might expect, the result of the liberal vision has often been the breaking down of particular communities and places into interchangeable territories, rendering all increasingly ‘placeless’, both in the social, historical, and material order.
Finally, Dr Leithart advises that I ‘stay in the story’. However, his suggested approach to staying in the story seems more confusing than illuminating. Having argued that welcoming strangers can have a ‘net positive effect,’ he turns to our inability to welcome newcomers on account of our lack of a strong common society. He writes:
When we stay in the story, we can discern the Lord’s hand also in this. God erases nations by obliterating boundaries and sending invaders in. Should we be surprised God is breaking apart nations that defend abortion, the ultimate act of inhospitality?
The analysis of the situation here seems quite questionable to me. At the outset, the turn to an account of immigration as punitive in Dr Leithart’s account is striking, especially seen against the backdrop of the positive assessments Dr Heimburger and Dr Leithart both generally have of immigration. The problems of a culturally weak society and the sin of abortion both seem to be strengthened rather than weakened by mass immigration. As I have already pointed out, mass immigration has been a force wielded against traditional Western culture and its Christianity.
The startling shift between a very positive presentation of immigration as benefiting us to one presenting it as ‘breaking apart nations’ makes me wonder whether there are submerged commitments that account for such apparently contradictory rationales. Could the notion of ‘staying in the story’ be part of the problem here? The particular story that we are in is very seldom obvious—it certainly is not obvious in this case. Yet assumptions about the story we are in, about destiny, or the necessity of certain events or realities can constrain our imaginations and our ability to pursue different ends.
Governing historical narratives shape and constrain our understanding of events. Whiggish history, which sees history as a process of inevitable progress and improvement, finds it difficult to imagine reversal or the radical failure of progress, for instance. It seems to me that a comparable concealed narrative of historical destiny may be playing out behind Dr Leithart’s argument, one in which the mass movement of peoples and collapse of boundaries is a divinely determined period of ferment for our age, which we should be careful not to oppose. Whether it benefits our nations or whether it tears them apart (within which scenario support for mass immigration is the adoption of a fatal strategy to accelerate the collapse of our society), the important thing is that assent to this destined process may be what ‘staying within the story’ requires of us.
But I am not seeing this particular ‘story’ anywhere in Scripture. There is a real danger of moving from the responsible action informed by ethics and prudence to the doubtful prognostications of various narrative paradigms for history, to which speculations we can sacrifice our true historical agency. Among other things, the call of responsible Christian politics must be a call to profound wariness of all such ‘stories’. We exercise prudence informed by the biblical narratives, but we must be exceedingly wary of spinning our own quasi-prophetic narratives that invest contingent historical events and processes with all the force of divine purpose.
Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham) is adjunct Senior Fellow at Theopolis and is one of the participants in the Mere Fidelity podcast. He is also the contributing editor of the Politics of Scripture series on the Political Theology Today blog. He blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria and tweets using @zugzwanged.
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