by John Windsor, MDiv
February 22, 2016
The recent comments by Pope Francis to the effect that no one who supported a wall across the southern border of the United States could be Christian, and that "this is not the gospel," have already generated quite a lot of controversy. Perhaps it would be wise to see what, if anything, the Bible has to say regarding walls, borders, immigration and the like.
The biblical patriarchs were seminomadic. At some point after they entered Egypt, they were enslaved for some 400 years before they escaped. This event gave rise to a couple of Old Testament passages used by Christians who favor open borders and uncontrolled immigration:
Do not ill-treat an alien or oppress him, for you were aliens in Egypt. Exodus 22:21 (NIV)Several observations are in order here. The first is that both these commands were delivered shortly after the Israelites came out of Egypt, when the whole Israelite nation consisted of escaped slaves on the move who were looking for a permanent place ("the Promised Land") to call home. Israel was not at that time a settled people, but a band of nomads on the march. In such a fluid set of circumstances, there was really no need (or much common sense) in trying to formulate any kind of what we would call today an immigration policy. Immigration policy as we know it today is a feature of the modern nation-state, an entity that did not exist during the Bronze Age. Consequently, attempting to use passages such as these from the Old Testament to inform the current debate over the United States' southern border is like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.
The next thing that should be pointed out is a phrase common to both passages: you were aliens in Egypt. This part of the command provides us with an early version of what we now call the Golden Rule: do unto others as you would have others do unto you. Perhaps one reason for this command on treating aliens properly was to provide a very relevant and easy-to-understand example of how the Israelites were to live out this universal principle.
Again, when one tries to apply this to the United States, the analogy breaks down. Our present Constitution was drafted, crafted, written and ratified largely by white Europeans, most of whom cannot be said to have been aliens in another land. With the possible exception of Jews, by and large they belonged to the dominant ethnic groups in their respective nations and came to America for economic reasons as much as anything. The nearest analogy might be persons fleeing religious persecution in their homelands.
But in modern times, the vast majority of American citizens are descendants of persons who settled here some time ago; they are not now, nor have they ever been, aliens dwelling in the land of some other ethnic group. Thus the rationale given in the Old Testament for not oppressing or mistreating aliens again fails.
This is not to say that anyone in America today should be oppressing or mistreating aliens; but there are other reasons why we should not. Perhaps a very good reason, at least for Christians, is that Jesus articulated His own version of the Golden Rule (see Matthew 7:12). Even Americans who do not identify as Christian would nevertheless believe that we should treat aliens properly out of a common sense of humanity and decency. But all this is very different from the reason given in the passages in Exodus and Leviticus above.
Lastly, it should be noted that the Leviticus passage includes a statement the significance of which most modern readers may overlook: I am the LORD your God. This last sentence, which occurs throughout the Old Testament, serves the specific purpose of affirming a covenant relationship. This leads to the next logical question as to who the parties are between whom the covenant was made. Israel is obviously one; and the other, rendered in English as "LORD" (all capitals), is the Hebrew God Yahweh (perhaps better written as YaHWeH to indicate the Hebrew consonants, known as the Tetragrammaton). The use of this special Divine Name indicates a specific covenant relationship that exists between Yahweh and no other nation. Psalm 147:20 shows this attitude very clearly:
He has done this for no other nation; they do not know His laws.As per the understanding of the ancient Jewish community itself, the Old Testament Law is for Israel only; it was up to Jesus, centuries later, to take certain parts of it and extend their relevance to all of mankind.
One other Old Testament passage that deals with immigration (or, perhaps more properly, with migration) occurs in Numbers 20:14-21. The Israelites had reached the border of Edom, which according to the Old Testament had been founded by Jacob's (Israel's) older brother Esau. Israel was looking for a direct passage into Canaan, which lay just to the north; and had Edom allowed Israel to pass through, the settlement of Canaan might have been easier. However, Edom refused Israel passage, leading to the condemnation found in the text.
This account, dealing with the tribe of Edom, appears to justify a policy of open borders, but as we shall see presently, it actually does nothing of the kind. Once again, those who employ this text to argue against a policy of strong borders for the United States are trying to compare apples and oranges. As with the other accounts above, Numbers 20 describes the movement of a nomadic Bronze Age tribe, not the immigration of a group of people into a modern nation-state. But there is more. To put it into modern terms, what the Israelites were requesting of the Edomites was a collective transit visa; and the Edomites, possibly suspecting a ruse, refused to grant it. Modern America is hardly dealing with millions of persons requesting transit visas for Canada, although I wish we were (it would simplify the problem considerably); what we have is instead an uncontrolled invasion of illegal aliens who want to settle.
Having discussed the primary Old Testament passages (and we could discuss many others), I would like to turn to the New Testament. Due to the nature of its subject matter, the New Testament does not cover actual political issues to any great extent; but there are a number of relevant analogies that I would like to survey.
Perhaps the first New Testament passage for us to examine is the flight of Joseph, Mary and Jesus into Egypt (Matthew 2). Matthew tells us that this was to escape the wrath of Herod, who wanted Jesus dead.
However, this move to Egypt was quite a bit different from that which took place when the Old Testament patriarch Jacob moved his family there. By the time Jesus was born, Egypt had been incorporated into the Roman Empire and formed part of the Pax Romana, the relatively peaceful period of early Roman rule throughout the Empire. For several hundred years, a Jewish community had existed in Alexandria, Egypt, and at nearby Nag Hammadi (where the tradition of the Eastern Church places the Holy Family during their stay). The flight into Egypt thus would have more nearly resembled a move from Minnesota to, say, Wisconsin, rather than a crossing of a national border.
And last, let us not forget that the stay in Egypt was only temporary; Herod died soon afterward, following which Joseph took his family through Judea and into Galilee, where he took up work as a carpenter.
Most other New Testament passages that touch on the question of borders, walls and immigration do so indirectly. Nevertheless, the concepts do appear in a number of places. Let's begin with the Gospels.
A major theme in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke is the kingdom of heaven. Naturally, a kingdom possesses certain characteristics: a government (particularly, a king), laws, citizens and subjects, and boundaries. Many of these characteristics appear in the parables that Jesus told.
The Parable of the Wedding Feast
One prominent parable that illustrates these is the Parable of the Wedding Feast, found in Matthew 22:1-14. (In Luke, this appears as the Parable of the Great Banquet, to appeal to Luke's Gentile audience). The historical context of this parable is the rejection of Jesus as the Messiah by the Jewish religious leaders and his acceptance by the masses (including, later on, by the various groups of Gentiles).
The first thing for us to observe here is that attendance at the wedding feast is by invitation only, i.e., no one has a right to attend. This view clashes directly with the one insisted on by some in our own day (including the pope, apparently) that there exists some fundamental, universal human right to come to the United States (and, supposedly, to any other nation). Instead, when the king's original guests snub him, he crosses them all off his list and turns to others.
Following this is a particularly powerful incident when the king himself finds one of the guests without proper wedding clothes (verses 11-12): "Friend, how did you get in here without wedding clothes?"
If this verse had been penned today, it might well read, "Friend, how did you get in here without a green card?"
Proper wedding clothes served to identify a guest; hence, if someone sneaked in uninvited, he would be instantly spotted. The exact problem with the guest in verses 11 and 12 is debated by scholars; some think that he would have been supplied with wedding clothes to wear, so that if he had none, he himself was at fault.
We are not told exactly why the man had none. Perhaps he had forgotten them (a highly unlikely occurrence, given the prominence that a wedding has in Middle Eastern society); but it is much likelier that he actually had not been invited and had entered unbidden, perhaps to help himself to the food (which, as a member of an Arab church myself, I can tell you is really, really good). He thus would have been not only an intruder and trespasser, but also a thief; and as a thief, he was bound both hand and foot, and cast into the outer darkness. Whatever the significance of this punishment may have been at the time, the parable suggests that it was particularly horrible.
The Parable of the Ten Virgins
The next parable that I would like to discuss is the Parable of the Ten Virgins (Matthew 25:1-13), the historical context of which concerns the Second Coming. In this parable, as per Hebrew custom, a number of virgins are awaiting the arrival of the bridegroom (in this case, Jesus). Five of them, lacking enough oil for their lamps, go away to buy more; and while they are away, the bridegroom comes.
Upon returning, they find that the other five have already met the bridegroom and have entered the wedding hall along with him. Jesus says, "The virgins who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet. And the door was shut." [Verse 10; italics added] Although there is no wall, there is a door; access is not granted automatically, but only at the proper time, and to those who possess the proper credentials.
Naturally, the five foolish virgins go up to the door and knock, demanding to be let in [verse 11]; but instead of being let in, they are told by the bridegroom, "I tell you the truth, I don't know you [verse 12]." As the parable ends, they are literally on the outside looking in, unable to take part in the wedding.
Related Teachings in Luke
Luke also includes a number of Jesus's teachings dealing with this theme. Luke 13:22-30 in particular provides a great deal of good material. The context of this passage is Jesus's final journey to Jerusalem.
Someone asked him, "Lord, are only a few people going to be saved?" He said to them, "Make every effort to enter by the narrow door, because many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able to. Once the owner of the house gets up and closes the door, you will stand outside knocking and pleading, 'Sir, open the door for us.' "But he will answer, 'I don't know you or where you come from.'" [Verses 23-25; italics added]Let's keep in mind that these passages deal with the main theme of Jesus's ministry, the kingdom of God. Again, we see a recurring theme: entry is not automatic, there are requirements and conditions that must be met, and the consequences of not meeting them are quite severe. In verses 23-25, the exclusion is passive, similar to Donald Trump's proposed border wall; but in verse 28, the exclusion becomes active, to the very point of expelling those who are technically "in" the kingdom but who fail to meet its conditions and qualifications. It is crystal clear that inclusiveness is not a primary feature of the kingdom of God.
Related Teachings in John
John's Gospel includes a brief statement relevant to our topic. In John 10, Jesus speaks of the man who enters the sheep fold some other way than through the gate, where the watchman would have been keeping guard. Here we see echoes of the wedding banquet in Matthew 22, where the man without a wedding garment, who presumably sneaked in unbidden, is summarily and unceremoniously ejected from the event.
John's Gospel employs much the same imagery:
"I tell you the truth, the man who does not enter the sheep pen by the gate, but climbs in by some other way, is a thief and a robber." John 10:1, NIVCould not this verse have been written in current-day America? Is this not exactly what Donald Trump is proposing by building a wall along the southern border? The only way to enter America from Mexico will be to pass through a legal checkpoint; anything else will probably constitute a criminal offense. So, if the pope has a problem with a wall along the Mexican border, he should also have a problem with Jesus's imagery here regarding the kingdom of God.
The Book of Revelation
Revelation, the last book of the New Testament, is replete with symbolic imagery. In this respect, it is interesting that the last scene depicted (Revelation 21 and 22), that of the New Jerusalem, includes a wall: "It had a great, high wall with twelve gates, and with twelve angels at the gates." -Revelation 21:12
It would seem that a great, high wall would be intended to keep unwanted persons out, much like the wall surrounding Vatican City. And why are there twelve angels - one for each gate? Are not the angels reminiscent of the cherubim in Genesis 3:24, who were placed at the east end of the Garden of Eden after Adam and Eve had been expelled "to guard the way to the tree of life"?
Compare this with Revelation 22:14-15: "Blessed are those who wash their robes, that they may have the right to the tree of life and may go through the gates into the city. Outside are [a list follows of various classes of persons who are unworthy to enter]."
Quite obviously, this wall around the New Jerusalem is not incidental. The very existence of the wall is essential to contrast the separate fates of the righteous and the wicked.
Government and Governmental Authority
Let's move along from the more specific subjects of borders and immigration to the more general one of government and governmental authority. Probably the foremost statement on the Christian view of government is found in Romans 13:1-7 (I will limit my own discussion to verses 1-4):
Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you. For he is God's servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God's servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.Tomes and treatises have been written on this passage, which the Apostle Paul penned around the year 57 AD, early in the reign of the Roman emperor Nero. The points I wish to make briefly here are that (1) civil government is regarded as having been instituted by God, (2) it has been instituted by God for the preservation of law and order, and (3) those who transgress its laws should reasonably expect to suffer the consequences, whether they are citizens or not.
If government is to preserve law and order, then it surely possesses as a necessary means to that end the ability to regulate and restrict the population over whom it must watch. Anyone keeping up with the "migrant" and "refugee" crisis in Europe is observing firsthand the collapse and disintegration of European society as it caves under its utter inability to control the inflow of aliens through its borders. In the current situation, no European citizen is safe, and the largely disarmed European civilian is now reduced to living in a state of perpetual fear.
In this regard, it should perhaps be pointed out that Reformed Protestantism, following Calvin, has devoted a great deal of effort to expounding Romans 13. Among those Reformed scholars who did so was the Scottish divine Samuel Rutherford (1600-1661), who authored Lex Rex, a work that earned him the death penalty (which, by the way, he managed to cheat by dying first of natural causes). As many of the Founding Fathers and the Framers of the Constitution were Reformed Protestants of one stripe or another, it should come as no surprise that the Constitution reflects to a great extent their own understanding of Romans 13. Thus, Article I assigns to Congress the power "to create a uniform rule of immigration and naturalization" for the admission and assimilation of aliens; and in 1790, Congress passed the very first Immigration Act, which was quite restrictive.
Can Congress build a border wall? Article I also assigns to Congress the power "to do all things necessary and proper" to carry out the other duties specifically mentioned. Being able to control the fields of immigration and naturalization would of necessity imply the ability to construct a border fence to prevent the unregulated entry of unwanted persons into the United States. And let us not forget that our forefathers were not only biblical scholars, but also students of history; it has been widely held that one of the main reasons for the collapse of the Roman Empire four centuries after Paul wrote Romans was the inability of the Roman imperial government to control immigration into the Empire by the various Germanic tribes living along Rome's borders.
Most governments exercise this very normal and expected function. Ironically, Mexico patrols its own southern border much more strictly than we do ours - and shamefully mistreats the illegal aliens who do manage to cross over. The Mexican government has even printed a comic book for the benefit of its citizens (and others) who want to enter the United States.
I could go on at length about this subject; but as the pope has now retracted his earlier remarks to a large degree, perhaps this whole discussion will now fade into the background as other issues begin to take on greater importance. Anyway, I hope this position statement proves to be helpful in laying out the understanding of the biblical authors on borders, walls and immigration.
Mr. John Windsor was raised in a political family. He holds a bachelor of arts degree in political science and a master of divinity (M.Div.) degree with a concentration in New Testament Greek. He has studied New Testament Greek for over 40 years.