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  • Myles Werntz

Can Good Fences Make Good Neighbors?

Myles Werntz on the Theological Implications of Immigration

My own journey to thinking about the moral implications of immigration was relatively late; having lived in Texas for 14 years, I had to move out of state for two years to see what was always the case: immigration was bound up irrevocably with the place I had loved and called home. I had never seen it in the grocery stores I went to, or in the tacquerillas I frequented, or in the neighborhoods I lived in, in which Tejano floated on the fall breezes. Immigration undergirded me, went before me and behind me, to paraphrase the Psalmist, but I did not see it. But these days, immigration will not be ignored; it is laid open during every news cycle. Even for those who have been laboring in this area for years, the last two years have been a maelstrom of upheaval: no sooner is a response from immigration advocates constructed than the White House administration undertakes a different approach, reversing course, deconstructing decades-old norms, reintroducing old programs months later. If it is not the ban of Muslim-majority nations, then limits on H2-B visas; if not limits on HB-2 visas, then historic low caps on refugee resettlement; if not caps on refugee resettlement, then trauma-inducing policies which separate undocumented parents from children. For anyone trying to keep track of the changes, these are dizzying times, and the gnarled and scarred roots of America’s contradictory legacy around who belongs are being laid bare. With every successive attempt to limit migration, with each slash at the tree’s roots, the fruit of that legacy sours, withers, and falls to the ground to rot.

For Christians in particular, the challenges of immigration are vexing, in no small part because migration itself is a concern of the scriptures; scattered commands to welcome the stranger lie couched within much more dominant concerns, such as the nature of faith, or pastoral concerns over sex, money, and dissention. When it does appear, migration often occupies a secondary role, as a backdrop for understanding the nature of God, the dynamics of faith, and the geographical reach of the people of God, but migration is rarely itself the direct subject. This is not to say that the scriptures cannot or should not be read from the view of the migrant; reading the scriptures from this vantage point reveals how so many of the heroes of the Christian faith were themselves struggling with the same choices decried in the media. Abraham lies about his family status when crossing into Egypt; Joseph works the levers of power to feed his family; Jesus is taken across the border as a political refugee from a mad king. The stories are there, but placing these stories now into a constructive theology of migration requires more, though not certainly less, than viewing these stories in light of migration.

In three recent works, the obligations of immigration are lifted up, given new energy by one of the most famous questions posed to Jesus of Nazareth: who is my neighbor? If, in fact, our neighbors are the ones near us, the ones to whom we owe love and justice regardless of how they have come near, what does the Christian relation to the immigrant consist of? Answering this question requires passing through a troubled valley, for the neighbor encountered as the immigrant is a neighbor constituted by perceived differences. Understanding who our neighbor is requires us as Christians to come to terms with how we have learned to name those not from our lands. And thus, if Christians are to ask this question honestly, three unspoken dividers of one polity from another—religion, social life, and law—must be interrogated.

Robert W. Heimburger, God and the Illegal Alien: United States Immigration Law and a Theology of Politics, New York, Cambridge University Press, 2018, 260 pp., $25

Rob Heimburger’s God and the Illegal Alien: United States Immigration Law and a Theology of Politics excavates the notion of the foreigner as an “alien,” and what theologically must be said in light of this construction. The category “alien” in United States, Heimburger contends, carries a dual connotation, borrowed from English law: it refers to those who are not under the purview of the sovereign, and thus are not to be trusted, having no bonds to tie them to their neighbors. In an American polity, where sovereignty is not owed to a crown, but constituted by the people, the “alien” becomes one who is never safe, as alienation to the country is proliferated throughout society: the workplace, the bank, the courts, the roads.

In a democracy, then, the alien has no recourse beyond the sovereign will of the people; if the populace decides against a particular personage, there is no sovereign to appeal to. This dynamic was mollified in part by the 1965 revision of American immigration law, in which immigration standards were intentionally pluralized, giving new priority to diversifying American immigration. But this diversification came with an unintended cost; while Western Europe no longer received outsized attention in immigration, the United States’ natural connections to its southern neighbors were also minimized. Natural migration flows between the United States and Mexico were artificially shrunk in favor of an abstract vision of a plural American polity. The 1965 immigration law, then, by not corresponding to the ongoing migratory relationship between the United States and its southern neighbors, had the unintended effect of imposing alien status upon what had previously been natural relationships.

Christian theology counters this vision first by its recognition of polities as expansive, not protracted; polities live and die by expanding their welcome, not by hardening their allegiances to sovereignty. Karl Barth’s missionary vision, in which the Gospel transgresses national borders to invite in all comers, is coupled with a provisional respect for civic order found in the work of Martin Luther, albeit an order which is subject to God’s judgment. A civic order subject to Christ, Heimburger contends, is one characterized by mercy and forgiveness, weighing the common good (which includes what is good for the migrant) against the damage caused by deportation. Such a civic order seeks to draw in those who are near, making neighbors out of strangers and citizens out of aliens.

Heimburger’s depiction of immigration law can be seen either as capricious, subject to the whim of the people, or, viewed more generously, containing great prosecutorial discretion by design. As Hiroshi Motomura’s Immigration Outside the Law shows, prosecution of the undocumented has historically been subject to concerns for the common good, seen most clearly in concern for education for undocumented children. It is here that Heimburger’s work has the greatest promise, as it piggybacks on the weakness of democracy (democratic caprice), using its networks for good. Transitory migratory patterns become opportunities to establish lasting bonds; concerns for law and order are provisionally affirmed despite their over-zealous execution.

What is muted in Heimburger’s account, in attending to law, is the ways in which immigration creates its connections not according to law, but according to custom; recent debates over the “Dreamers” have turned on this notion, that those whose lives are embedded in a country would suffer injustice by being deported. It is here that we find Tisha Rajendra’s Migrants and Citizens: Justice and Responsibility in the Ethics of Immigration positioned. Rajendra builds a case for immigrant justice not on rehabilitating the legal frame of immigration, but by examining what is owed to migrants on the basis of our relationships to them, regardless of their legal status.

Tisha M. Rajendra, Migrants and Citizens: Justice and Responsibility in the Ethics of Immigration, Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2017, 179 pp., $25

In light of the law’s indifference, we are tempted to over-stylize migrants as innocent, swept up in faceless dynamics, but this does not do justice to the migrant experience, Rajendra argues. Migrants are neither simply making the choice to migrate as autonomous rational agents, nor are they pawns in global economic structures, but they undertake their journeys, Rajendra argues, because of the varied relationships they find themselves part of. These relationships, and what is owed to migrants because of these relationships, must determine what is just.

The relationships to which migration responds are both personal and structural, the family relations in a distant country and the economic powers that determine the existence of the migrants, so to deal justly with our neighbor requires understanding both of these relationships. In this definition of justice as responsibility to relationship, Rajendra deepens Heimburger’s critique of immigration law that neglects natural relations in favor of abstract versions of justice, be it “human rights” or “the option for the poor.” Migrants are to be attended to not because they fit a certain category, but on the basis of the particular drivers that influence their migration; by attending to both dynamics of family reunifications and the political and economic forces that are driving migration, we can have a more adequate understanding of how to address migration theologically.

The scriptures, Rajendra argues, demonstrate this ideal. The ger (the foreigner) in the Hebrew Bible was constituted by a variety of pressures, some interpersonal and some structural, giving modern readers a variety of case studies to draw from for wisdom. It is within the narrative structure of this relationship that justice is worked out, affirmed, and counseled. For Rajendra, this extra-legal approach to justice for migrants allows citizens to see that, in many cases, what is owed to the migrants among them exceeds what is owed to their fellow citizens, if only on the basis of what the migrant provides or on the basis of what the citizen’s country has done to the migrant.

It is here that the flexibility of Rajendra’s approach runs into a particular difficulty. Like Heimburger, her account of what is owed to migrants plays off existing political commitments, namely, liberal commitments to particular relations. As we saw with Heimburger, this kind of polity is flexible and accommodating, but also arbitrary. As such, naming exactly who owes what to whom becomes easy in relational instances, but much more difficult in corporate instances; in what way, for example, do I owe something to this particular migrant, on the basis of a corporate system that I have participated in? Rajendra notes that this ethic of responsibility works in tandem with, and indeed requires, other moral norms as a backstop, but it is unclear that, when getting down to administering justice, this gets us closer to an answer. Rajendra’s approach provides a thick account of how to see and understand the interconnection of migrant to citizen, but offers this description in place of a legal framework that would more clearly adjudicate competing narratives about what is owed to whom.

Both Heimburger and Rajendra’s accounts draw from the goods of Christian tradition to bring clarity to vexing questions of migration and justice, but both of them preeminently see religious commitment as providing positive support for the immigration reform of liberal democratic societies. In both cases, there is a common framework (law and relationship) that draws together migrant and citizen, a framework supported by religious wisdom. But one of the most vexing forms of immigration in recent years has called this framework into question: what if thick religious commitment actuallycomplicatesimmigration questions? Matthew Kaemingk’sChristian Hospitality and Muslim Immigration in an Age of Fearexplores the ways in which religious resources can indeed aid our responses to immigration, but only if they are held in substantive form, and not in support of liberal proceduralism.

Matthew Kaemingk, Christian Hospitality and Muslim Immigration in an Age of Fear, Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2018, 296 pp., $28

Kaemingk’s book, which explores Muslim immigration to Western Europe through the lens of the Netherlands, demonstrates both the possibilities that Christian theology has for sustaining neighborly relations with the stranger, but also the dangers of what occurs when religious commitments are one-sided. In the case of the Netherlands, Muslim immigrants were first accepted with open arms, until the substantive commitments of the migrants clashed with the secularism espoused by the Dutch. Both Heimburger and Rajendra are addressing primarily Christian audiences seeking to participate in public discussions, but in both of their works, the governing language of law (Heimburger) or relationship (Rajendra) may be motivated by Christian commitment, but does not require articulation in Christian verbiage to be workable public solutions.

Kaemingk’s book problematizes the framework underlying their works, by proposing that immigration is not a problem that can be resolved apart from recognizing religion not simply as a motivator for action, but as the public form that the migrant’s life takes, in ways which may very well disrupt neighborly relations between strangers. Put differently, if the migrants understand themselves to be thoroughly shaped by their religious commitments, their narrative of what they are owed may be incommensurable with their new neighbors (Rajendra) and their understanding of what constitutes a just law may be incommensurable with their new country (Heimburger).

Turning to the work of Dutch Reformed theologian Abraham Kuyper, Kaemingk proposes not a unity between citizen and migrant rooted in a common legal framework, but one rooted in thick pluralism, in which neighbors trade in a common language or set of civic commitments for (on the Christian side) a trust that God is working in and through the particular lives of one’s neighbors. Because Christ alone rules history, Christians are able to bear witness to Christ’s work without requiring that their neighbor be unified with them by any means that would replace their religious commitments with the ones of procedural liberalism. What is needed more than reliance upon the obligation of law is the formation of hospitality, the difficult process by which we welcome religious and cultural others into our lives, trusting that God is the provider and sustainer of all life.

The political pluralism that Kaemingk advocates is one rooted in practices of hospitality, both on the macro and micro levels. In turning to hospitality, he is able to sidestep the questions raised by Rajendra and Heimburger, by affirming Christ’s sovereignty over history and work among divergent cultural groups, allowing disagreements to stand rather than be unified. Drawing on a bevy of Reformed divines, Kaemingk provides a multi-faceted depiction of practical Christian wisdom for implementing this kind of thick pluralism. Practices of patience, service, and hospitality are commended as a roadmap, learned in the context of a worshipping community. Buried in Kaemingk’s work is a skepticism that political liberalism can deliver on its promises for inclusion, as seen in the example of the Netherlands; in the case of the Netherlands (mirrored in various other instances), tolerance of cultural and religious “others” has trouble with cultures that do not wish to assimilate to political and cultural norms. As such, Kaemingk’s focus is not on legal parameters for immigration’s success, nor on the networks of relationships, but on the ways in which cultures encounter and respond to one another. Rajendra’s observation that attention to relationships requires other discourses to function is an important rejoinder to Kaemingk. For Kaemingk is right to point to the ways in which people are not actually enabled by law or freed in relationships to attend to migrants, but formed and trained to do so; the freedom of liberal democracies to be open in principle toward migrants is not the same as a people having the capacities to be hospitable toward migrants. And yet, a well-trained and welcoming congregation will have no opportunity to exercise their training if exclusionary laws remain, or if we naively misapprehend our actual relationships to migrants by not attending to macro-dynamics that have created the encounter of cultures.

These three books can be seen as a kind of triptych, panels in a work of art that call our attention to three different dynamics: law, relational dynamics, and practices of hospitality. Without attention to law, there is no recourse for migrants beyond the goodwill of citizens. Without attention to relational dynamics, our attention to migrants will be naïve and partial, imposing a false narrative on migrants. And without practices of hospitality, our legal inclusion and relational dynamics will remain at the level of analysis, for we are creatures who need to learn how to love. Immigration is threaded through the Christian scriptures, undergirding the ways in which God encounters the world, and the topic requires our attention in ways that combine the rigor of law, the sensitivity of relationships, and the piety of hospitality.

The term “wicked problems,” coined by Willis Jenkins, refers to the way in which not only are certain moral questions seemingly intractable, but certain moral questions are often inadequately conceptualized by the sciences. Immigration debates, dominated by the pragmatics of border security, struggle to name what role measures that slip past economic and demographic metrics might play. Immigration is one of the preeminent places in which metrics reduce the value of humans to their measurable contributions, making room for immigrants by means of their economic, political, or social contributions. Such approaches are dangerous, in that the value of people is scaled to their fiscal and political value, and these approaches forget that immigration policy is to serve the human, not vice versa.

Notably, all three of the proposals emphasize non-metric-based approaches to immigration, not because Christian theology and ethics are opposed to evaluation, but because evaluative approaches of human activities—when taken in isolation from their effect on human life—are abominably immoral. But to take on such a “wicked problem” as the flow of humans from one place to another, these approaches must be taken together, and then added to. Absent from their discussion is consideration of the causes of migration; ample attention is given to the ends of migration, but little space is devoted to the causes or what a just migration would consist of. I take this not to be a liability to the works under discussion, as together they comprise a cohesive account of the care and attention to migrants. But this focus on the ends of migration, to be complete, must be brought together with questions of ends and means as well.

Addressing migration in an age that is increasingly hostile to migrants of all kinds will require more than pious wishes of cosmopolitan unity. Addressing migration must delve deep into questions of polity, into how our communities are constructed, and whether—in the pursuit of a good life together—the desire for safety and stability have not become pathological idols. As philosopher Thomas Nail argues, migration is not simply a political construct, but a cosmological reality undergirding life both human and non-human; to ignore it or stifle it artificially is to invite its resurgence in other ways, as we are seeing on the Southern U.S. border in spades. These authors demonstrate that what sustains our lives together is not simply what is among us, but that which is coming among us as well. It remains an open question whether America will recognize this truth before our communities decay not from what is outside, but from the biases, fears, and vices that are rotting them within.


Myles Werntz is the T. B. Maston Professor of Christian Ethics and Practical Theology at Logsdon Seminary, Hardin-Simmons University. He is the author of Bodies of Peace: Nonviolence, Ecclesiology, and Witness (Fortress Press, 2014), and the editor of four books in theology and ethics. 


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