Home Opinion “Who Is My Neighbor?” The Moral Response to Illegal Immigration

“Who Is My Neighbor?” The Moral Response to Illegal Immigration


What does the Bible tell Christians about how to treat our undocumented neighbors who came to this country illegally? As a pastor in a community with a sizable population of illegal immigrants, this question has weighed heavily on my heart and mind for months.

There are two Bible stories that shed light on answering this question. The first is from the Old Testament and sets the stage for the birth of Moses. The Israelites had been living as slaves in Egypt for centuries, and the pharaoh saw their increasing population as a threat to the Egyptian way of life. Hence, he made a legal decree to kill any male born child of the Israelites. Yet the Egyptian midwives found this legal order immoral, and they illegally let the children live, lying to the Pharaoh in the process. God’s opinion on their actions was clear: So God was kind to the midwives and the people increased and became even more numerous.  And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families of their own.”

Then we have the story of a woman caught in adultery in the New Testament. A woman is brought before Jesus and thrown at his feet. The religious community tells Jesus that she has been caught in adultery, correctly informing him that the legal course of action is to stone her (mind you, by Roman law adultery was illegal as well). “Now what do you say?” they ask him. He answers not by legally condemning the woman, but by saying “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Once the question is connected to their own imperfect morality, the crowd realizes none of them have the moral authority to condemn the woman, even if the law grants them the legal right.

Finally, I want to highlight an instance from American history where the church took an illegal stand yet we consider it a moral victory: supporting The Underground Railroad. In 1850, congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act, legally compelling northern states to assist bounty hunters and federal marshals in retrieving runaway slaves. Yet many churches continued to play a pivotal role in The Underground Railroad, illegally relocating former slaves in free states, Canada, and even Great Britain.

These examples give us a glimpse of how God called believers in the past to respond to issues of morality and the legal system. In each case, a legal law was disregarded for the welfare of the people it was hurting (even when at times the victims had contributed to the problem), because of the moral imperative to “love your neighbor as yourself.”

Jesus made this teaching central to his message (second only to the first command to “love God with our whole heart, mind, and soul”). He said the entire Old Testament hung on those two commands, and everything we do as Christians is framed by them. Which brings us to the question: “Who is my neighbor?”

Jesus was kind enough to provide that answer by telling the story of the Good Samaritan. This story would have been an oxymoron to the Israelites listening, because from their perspective, Samaritans were living immorally in the land God had promised to them. Yet in answering the question “who is my neighbor?,” Jesus eliminates all prerequisites and qualifications for neighbor status.  It doesn’t matter what they have done, how they live, or who they are. If God brings them into our life, they qualify.

So that turns us back to the question at hand: What does the Bible tell us about how to treat our undocumented neighbors who came to this country illegally? Jesus’s answer: We are called to love them as ourselves.

I write this not to take a stand on one correct path of legislative action concerning the 11 million undocumented ‘neighbors’ living among us. It’s a messy, grey area, where no one comes out looking perfect: immigrants, immigration law, and even churches. Yet Christianity is based not on perfection but on grace and undeserved love. Because God choose not to cast stones, we no longer cast stones.

This is not an argument for pacifism nor a disregard for the law. Laws which protect the world from harm need to be upheld. Yet claiming that illegal immigrants take jobs or resources from US citizens is an argument from nationalism, not Christianity. Again, Jesus makes it clear there is no nationalistic qualification (or any other qualification) to who is our neighbor.

My prayer is that every Christian (and every other willing individual for that matter), would take time to get to know their undocumented neighbors. Learn their stories. Eat with them. Pray with them. Then, when the time comes for our country to decide how we legally want to proceed with our neighbors, we can do so morally and filled with love.