Matthew Soerens: Look for ways to get involved
Loving one’s neighbor means understanding -- and even advocating on behalf of -- immigrants, says a training specialist with World Relief.
June 5, 2012 | Many Christians support immigrants by welcoming them to church or donating to charitable groups, yet they stop short of advocating for change in U.S. immigration laws.
For Matthew Soerens, that’s an incomplete approach to an issue that he sees as among Christianity’s core tenets: loving one’s neighbor.
Soerens is co-author, with Jenny Hwang, of “Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion & Truth in the Immigration Debate.” He also serves as the U.S. church training specialist for World Relief, the humanitarian arm of the National Association of Evangelicals. He helps evangelical churches understand immigration and form responses that reflect biblical values.
While Soerens acknowledges that “advocating” is another word for political action, which makes many Christians uncomfortable, he suggests a simpler way to think about the issue: “If we love our neighbors as Scripture calls us to do, we have to speak out against structures that are harming them.”
Soerens spoke with Faith & Leadership about immigration and the issues facing American Christians. The following is an edited transcript.
Q: Why did you write a book about immigration for Christians?
Our goal for the book is to help Christians understand how immigration works -- to both understand the realities of what’s happening with immigration in the United States today and then be able to process that through a biblical framework.
Q: What do you see as the core Christian theology that’s pertinent to this issue?
God has a lot to say to his people, especially in the Hebrew Scriptures, about how they are to treat immigrants. In many, many circumstances, he tells his people that they are to love immigrants and that they are to seek justice for immigrants.
One reason is because the people of Israel were foreigners in Egypt for centuries, and God reminds his people of that repeatedly.
In Deuteronomy 10, God says, “I love those who are aliens” -- or “sojourners” or “foreigners,” depending upon your translation into English -- “and you are also to love them.” So that’s a command.
Another reason we are called biblically to care for immigrants is because immigrants account for the fastest growth in the American church today -- and sometimes, frankly, the only growth.
This means that a significant number of these immigrants are our brothers and sisters in the Christian faith. We’re told in 1 Corinthians 12 that if one part of the body suffers, every part suffers. That means we don’t have the option to say that this is not our problem.
For whatever reason, God has made it our problem.
And there’s also Jesus’ command to “go and make disciples of all nations.” The nations are showing up at our doorstep, and that’s a two-way street. Many of them come with a vibrant Christian faith and breathe new life into churches in this country. Others come without a faith in Jesus Christ, and that’s an opportunity to share the hope of the gospel with the nations, right in our own backyards.
Q: How do you navigate the tension between illegal and legal immigration?
For a lot of Christians, the conversation around immigration starts and then stops with Romans 13 -- that we should be subject to the governing authorities. And that gets condensed to, “What part of ‘illegal’ don’t you understand?”
It is important to note that most immigrants in this country have legal status, so you can’t use that verse to dismiss all the many passages about caring for immigrants.
But about a third of the immigrants living in the United States don’t have legal status, and Christians feel tension over how to reconcile the commands to love our neighbor with the command to obey the law of the state.
But there’s very little that I can do in relationship to my immigrant neighbor that is unlawful. If I hired them, if I employed them, that would be unlawful.
But it’s not against the law for me to teach them English. It’s not against the law for me to help their kids with homework. It’s not against the law for me to share the gospel with them, or for them to share the gospel with me.
And it’s not against the law to advocate to change a law; in fact, we do that in a democracy all the time.
For the immigrants themselves, it’s a harder question. I have friends who are undocumented who are strong believers and who say they are called to obey the law but also called to provide for their families.
First Timothy 5 verse 8 says that if anyone does not provide for his family, he is worse than an unbeliever, which is pretty strong language. A lot of undocumented Christians are really stuck in that tension.
They want to obey the Bible’s teaching to provide for their families, and many of them say that they could not do so if they go back to their country of origin.
I’m not totally sure of the right answer to that. What I am sure of is that we need a better system that doesn’t force people to choose between following the law and providing for their families, and that’s where advocacy comes in.
Q: What do you think the church should do?
First and foremost, we need to listen to what God’s word has to say about this, and we need to listen to the voices of the immigrants, including the undocumented immigrants, in our communities and in our local churches.