Book Review: Christians At the Border by M. Daniel Carroll R.
M. Daniel Carroll R., Christians at the Border: Immigration, the Church, and the Bible (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008), 174 pp. $16.99. Paper.
Though the issue of illegal immigration is no stranger to America’s history, the perfect storm of 9/11, the war against terror, political parties struggling for identity, and an economy that is moving from recession to depression has brought the issue to the fore of not only American politics but also to the attention of the church. Though our country may struggle to identify the “ethical” answer to the political quagmire of “illegal immigration,” the church claims that her ethical standard, the Bible, is fixed for all times, peoples, and places. How does the church respond then to the issue of illegal immigration? Carroll seeks to answer that question in a winsome and compassionate manner in Christians at the Border.
Carroll is no stranger to the issue since every member of his family has immigrated or knows someone who has immigrated to the US. Recognizing that certain titles in the discussion can be politically and emotionally charged, he replaces “illegal alien” with “undocumented immigrant.” Carroll is convinced that many, including Christians, either consciously or unconsciously approach the issue of illegal immigration from “passionate ideological arguments, economic wrangling, or racial sentiment” (19). Though by no means exhaustive, Carroll endeavors to re-orientate one’s thoughts on the issue through a more biblical and theological lens.
Carroll sets the stage in chapter 1 by giving a brief history of Hispanic immigration focusing on two of the most hotly debated issue: national identity and economic impact. He successfully demonstrates that the issue is by no means simple. For example, many boldly speak out against illegal immigration while reaping the benefits of the cheap labor that such a reality brings. But matters become more complicated when one realizes that many “undocumented immigrants” are real confessing Christians. For this reason Carroll turns to the bible in chapters 2-4 in hopes of finding a “divine” answer to the matter.
Chapters 2 and 3 are devoted to the light that the Old Testament sheds on the matter of illegal immigration. Carroll shows how the image of God bears upon the matter and also shows that many of the characters in the OT were “foreigners.” Above all Carroll seeks to illustrate that foreigners are “human beings” and need to be treated as such. In chapter 3 Carroll deals with the “treatment of immigrant within the general ethos of hospitality that was common in the ancient world” and “the legislation concerning foreigners in Israel’s laws” (89).
In chapter 4 Carroll focuses on light that the New Testament may shed on the issue. He works through Jesus’ teaching as modeled specifically with his interactions with “outsiders,” the general NT theme of “Christians as sojourners,” and then briefly addresses the thorny issue of Romans 13 where Christians are commanded to “be subject to the governing authorities” (Rom. 13:1). Instead of starting with the lens of Rom. 13 and then reading the rest of the Bible, especially the passages about the “foreigners” in the OT in light of the Rom. 13, Carroll makes the OT teaching about foreigners together with Jesus’ teachings about hospitality and how to treat outsiders the starting point and then reads Rom. 13 in through that lens. Or, to put in another way, Carroll employs the analogy of scripture (i.e., the clearer passages govern the meaning of the more obscure passages) with a theology of compassion and hospitality for the foreigner as the clear scriptural default while the obedience to governing authorities is the more obscure passage.
Carroll is to be commended for moving the discussion forward. The bottom line is that there is not a simple answer to this issue. What is needed is an honest carefully nuanced position that takes as many scenarios into account as possible. It just won’t do for Christians to say that the Bible instructs us not to disobey the civil authorities without any qualification that addresses the ineptitude of the American government to uphold its own laws. Blanket statements often times fail to deal adequately with the issue at stake, and the matter of the church’s role in ministering to Christians who are illegal immigrants is no exception.
At the same time, though Carroll has made a valiant effort to push the conversation forward, his own treatment of the text leaves much to be desired. It seems to this reviewer that Carroll has quite possibly fallen into the same error as the proponents on the other side of the debate: that is, letting one scriptural issue or theme become the theological black hole that swallows every other objection. Given Carroll’s position, the political debate of immigration at the civil level almost seems to become a gospel issue. Now this is a very hard pill to swallow, but I’m not sure that the doctor prescribed it. To make connections between the Israelites treatment of the foreigner in the theocratic Yahweh-centered cultic-community and the church’s treatment of the illegal alien (whatever his/her ethnicity be) in the New Covenant era disconnected from any kind of church-state theocracy involves a necessary treatment of the relationship between the Old and New covenants. Carroll gives virtually no space to such concerns. Carroll points out that the United States’ laws on immigration are confused and contradictory concluding from this that they are unjust. Yet he doesn’t show, in any concrete way, how this is the case. Carroll must show that the United States does not, somehow, have the prerogative to make the immigration laws that it makes. This is a tall order.
The bottom line is that the church must have a biblical-theological answer to this pressing modern issue and Carroll has made an earnest contribution to that discussion; for this he is to be commended. May this book be a stepping stone to further discussion for the good of Christ and His Kingdom.
Joshua B. Henson