Friday, June 25, 2010

What Paul might teach us about illegal immigration

I have made a stumbling attempt in some prior postings about thinking, as Christians, about illegal immigration in ways that transcend the various political views that seem to dominate these kinds of discussions. So, after a phone call this morning with one of my daughters, I was inspired to consider how a very short letter in the New Testament might help with this conversation.

The letter of Paul to Philemon is quite short, and it's a wonder that it was ever preserved in the first place. Paul is in prison in Rome and he is appealing to a fellow Christian, a man named Philemon, to receive his slave Onesimus in a way that transcends the requirements of Roman law.

Most scholars would say that Onesimus was a runaway and had become a Christian in Rome, where he was somehow connected with Paul. Roman law permitted severe punishment for the slave when returned to the master, and strong penalties for those who had harbored such runaways. Paul was in a ticklish situation.

Paul's letter reorients the issue away from the requirements and benefits of Roman law to the requirement of love. Paul would have likely held in tension three strains of thought: Roman law (he was a Roman citizen), Jewish law (which allowed the harboring and protection of runaway slaves), and the new ethic of love based in Jesus Christ (which would shift all perspectives and transcend all other laws).

Not only would Philemon (and his church, also addressed in this letter) be called upon to live out the implications of Christian love in showing mercy to Onesimus, but he would also need to live in a reoriented relationship with his slave, receiving him as a brother in Christ. This theme is picked up by Paul elsewhere, where he speaks of a life in Christ in which there is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female (see I Corinthians 12:13, Galatians 3:28, and Colossians 3:11 for examples).

As Roman citizens, both Paul and Philemon could have taken politically-based opinions: Philemon could say that conforming to Roman law was an obedient action and therefore the right Christian response. Paul could say that Roman law was wrong and it should simply be violated. We don't know how Philemon responded, but we do know that Paul didn't take either route.

Paul not only doesn't challenge any sort of legal claim that Philemon might have, he also doesn't address the issue of slavery at all. He seems to accept it as a social reality. Instead, he calls upon Philemon to respond to Onesimus in a new, transformed way. Their reunion is not to be characterized by harsh punishment, but rather by forgiveness and love. Onesimus might still be a slave (we don’t know if he was an indentured servant or a spoil of war), but he would have a new relationship with his master because both had new relationships in Christ.

As we ponder our own contemporary issues, including illegal immigration, Paul's call to live out human relationships in the ethic of the kingdom of God is important to us. Our response has to transcend either the baptizing of our preferred political positions or the embracing of lawlessness. As followers of Jesus, we have to recognize that our relationships to other human beings cannot be limited by national borders or boundaries. Nation-states may be compelled to guard and secure their borders, and perhaps with good reason. But Christians are not in that business. We are not in the business of political/military power, of fostering fear, or of lawlessness. We are in the business of love.

Like the relationship between Philemon and Onesimus--master and slave, now brothers in Christ--we also have sibling relationships with people beyond our borders. Are there illegal immigrants in the US who are our brothers and sisters in Christ? Does that change anything for us? That is not to limit our love to only those who share our faith, but it should cause us to stop and reflect on how Paul might advise us in this situation.

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