TEXAS FAITH: How to balance compassion with justice in the immigration debate?

William Lawrence, dean of SMU's Perkins School of Theology, Mathew Wilson, political science professor at SMU's Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences and William Noakes, adjunct at SMU's Cox School of Business and Perkins Theology student, comment on balancing compassion with justice in the immigration debate.

By Wayne Slater

Conservative evangelicals have become unlikely allies in pressing for the establishment of a path to legal status and citizenship for 11 million undocumented residents. We published a story about that last week. People of faith have long been an integral part of the immigration debate. But it’s the increased involvement of conservative evangelicals with unquestioned social-conservative credentials that is worth noting as Congress and the White House consider immigration reform. Groups like the Evangelical Immigration Forum have sought to bring together a diverse coalition around the biblical injunction to welcome the stranger.
Wilshire Baptist Senior Pastor George Mason, a Texas Faith panel member, was quoted in the story:“Circumstances culturally and politically have thrown evangelicals back on their biblical authority, to ask what does the Bible really say about this. There may be lots of political positions that differ on how we accomplish it, but they want to be on the side of God in their minds. Otherwise, they feel they will be in some way accountable to God for their failure to be obedient.”
But what does the Bible say about immigration? The Bible does encourage kindness toward the outsider and the alien. But it also specifically says we are to follow the laws and obey civil authority. Millions of immigrants have broken the law. And we are a nation of laws.
At the heart of the political debate over immigration is the tension we often find in Scripture between justice and compassion. How do we reconcile that tension? How do faith-based people in a civil society do what’s both moral and just? Can we be both fair and right? Or do policy debates like immigration inevitably force us to take sides between two competing views — both of which make claims in our faith?
Considering the debate over immigration, what does your faith say about bridging justice and compassion?...

WILLIAM LAWRENCE, Dean and Professor of American Church History, Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University
Among the most ancient and enduring texts that Christians revere are those in the first five books of the Bible. Within them are clear messages about the way a believer should view an immigrant. There is Exodus 23:9, “You shall not oppress a resident alien.” There is Numbers 15:16, “You and the alien who resides with you shall have the same law and the same ordinance.” There is Leviticus 24:22, “You shall have one law for the alien and the citizen.”
While it is unassailably true that some immigrants have reached the United States in violation of our nation’s laws, the relevant Biblical texts make it clear that one legal standard is to apply to the alien and the citizen. If we have in place certain legislation that distinguishes between an alien and a citizen, then the Biblical standard seems to require not that the alien be arrested or deported but that the law be changed.
This is not a matter of compassion. It is a matter of justice. It is not a matter obliging those of us who have something (citizenship) to show kindness to those who lack it. Rather, the Biblical affirmation of human community emphasizes the equitable and just relationship that binds us together.
MATTHEW WILSON, Associate Professor of Political Science, Southern Methodist University
In dealing with the issue of immigration, it is important to distinguish between the civil law and the natural law.  In many cases, they are identical–our civil statutes prohibiting murder, rape, theft, and the like clearly embody fundamental, immutable principles rooted in the nature of man.  In other cases, however, the civil law is more prosaic and arbitrary, not based on transcendant morality.
Once upon a time, the speed limit on Texas highways was 55 miles per hour; now, in some places, it is 85.  Which of those laws reflected “justice”?  Does the definition of justice change at the whim of civil authority?  I would argue not, and that the speed limit, like border control, is a case of civil law where it is hard to discern absolute principles of justice.
The question stipulates that “millions of immigrants have broken the law, and we are a nation of laws.”  This is true, but in some ways beside the point.  Virtually every one of us has broken the law.  If I fail to report the proceeds from my garage sale on my income taxes, I have broken the law.  If I come to a rolling stop at an intersection, I have broken the law.  If I remove a mattress tag, or sell a 20-ounce Coke in New York City, I have broken the law.  Do these acts, however, undermine justice in any serious way?  Do they mean that I deserve to be consigned to the shadows of society, to have no legal recourse if I am cheated of my just wages, to live in constant fear that I will be seized and separated from my family?
This is exactly what the millions of undocumented–or, if you insist, “illegal”–immigrants face every day. There are cases that present real tensions between justice and compassion, but I just don’t see immigration as one of them.  Undocumented migration is a victimless crime.  Those who seek a better future in this country intend no harm to anyone.  Indeed, this country’s economy could not have functioned over the last twenty years without significant numbers of illegal migrants, who worked very hard at menial jobs that Americans didn’t want and contributed to the solvency of programs like Social Security and Medicare from which they never expect to benefit.
I do feel for those who have waited their turn and “played by the rules”; they, however, have been victimized not by the undocumented, but by a dysfunctional, unduly restrictive American immigration policy that refuses to address honestly our nation’s labor needs.  This is why the Catholic Church has long sided with the immigrant, providing pastoral care and fighting for a liberalization of America’s immigration law; I welcome and applaud evangelicals’ increasing embrace of this position.

WILLIAM NOAKES, Attorney and Adjunct Professor, Cox School of Business and M.Div. Student, Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University
Christian evangelical leaders, long opposed to immigration reform, have recently swung around to argue in its favor. What caused such a turnabout? Biblical scripture, they say. Is that so? Just what does the Bible say about this modern-day controversy? Even if it does not specifically support immigration reform, can it be a way to call on notions of Christian justice and compassion such that we can civilly discuss the issue?
Those who assert the Bible as authority in favor of immigration reform often cite the Gospel of Matthew: ...