Christian Faith and Immigration

Dana Wilbanks
October 23, 2006

This article was originally submitted to Pacific School of Religion as part of Progressive Christian Witness, a 2006 initiative of PSR designed to bring voices of progressive Christianity to churches nationwide. 

In Christian Scripture, the obligation to extend hospitality to the stranger is a key requirement of faithfulness. Who is the neighbor whom we are to love? Frequently in the Bible the answer is the stranger. In fact, right at the center of Christian faithfulness is the challenge and the opportunity to love the stranger as ourselves, to love the stranger as God loves the stranger, to love the stranger as one with whom Jesus explicitly identifies.

This biblical teaching does not tell us precisely what U.S. immigration policy ought to be. But it does require us to ask-in the midst of our debates about immigration-what it means for Christians and Christian churches to be bearers of the tradition of hospitality today. I believe it means three things: we must practice mercy, establish justice, and seek transforming relationships.

First, practice mercy. The stranger is often characterized by the condition of vulnerability. The stranger, by definition, is an outsider. As such, she or he may be excluded from the networks which insiders rely on for the satisfaction of their daily needs. Christian teaching about hospitality, however, insists that strangers be treated the same as insiders. Indeed the outsiders become our neighbors. They are created in the image of God. They are valued by God no less than others of us. As such they have certain basic rights that they do not have to earn. From a Christian standpoint, they have these rights simply by virtue of their humanness.

Some of the immigration legislation currently proposed would deny basic services to undocumented workers, and in fact would make it a crime to provide such assistance. Many Christians have responded with outrage at these proposals. They fly in the face of elementary decency much less the mercifulness of Christian hospitality. A good society will ensure that the basic needs of all people living within its borders will be met, documented or not. For Christians the vulnerability of strangers reminds us of the dependence all of us have on the generosity of God.

Second, establish justice. The stranger is often treated unjustly. In many cases the stranger does not have structures for addressing injustices. Certainly this is the case with undocumented workers. They are an underground work force who must seek to remain invisible in order to keep working. The injustice is compounded when these workers are blamed for a whole host of problems in the United States. The bitter irony is that they are doing work American employers need. They are providing goods and services upon which the rest of us rely. They are contributing members of their communities. Yet instead of recognizing and appreciating their work, many people would deny them a path to legalization and citizenship.

Hospitality to strangers, therefore, requires the establishment of justice. Particularly, given the vulnerability of undocumented workers, the public advocacy of churches on behalf of justice for them is crucial. God calls us to be particularly attentive to the ways the voiceless and defenseless are treated. Surely justice would seem to mean that those who are engaged in work our communities value should be given the opportunity, under reasonable conditions, for full membership in these communities.

Third, seek transforming relationships. One way to view the stranger in the biblical tradition is as a "herald." The stranger, the sojourner, brings news. If we don't grant hospitality, we don't get the news. We miss something that we need to know. In the book of Hebrews, the writer tells us that in giving hospitality to the stranger we may be welcoming an angel without knowing it. In the stranger, God calls us to new horizons of opportunity and responsibility, beyond what we are able to generate out of our established environments. In this understanding, hospitality to the stranger is necessary in order that the church may be faithful to God.

What is morally significant about the stranger? Often we emphasize that human beings are basically alike. In some respects this is certainly true. But it is also true that human beings are different. Immigrants are often regarded as "strangers" in this sense. They are different from "us." Difference becomes a justification for keeping them out of our communities or treating them harshly if they are already here.

In Christian teaching, to welcome the stranger, the immigrant, is to receive gratefully the gifts of the "other." We need the stranger to open us to possibilities of transformation God has in store beyond what we might have previously recognized. In the history of the United States there is no question that immigration changes both residents and immigrants. We are mutually transformed. While facing squarely the challenges of immigration, and they are real, the Christian ethic of hospitality must lead our churches to emphasize not the threats but rather the gifts and the possibilities for the creative multicultural communities that immigrants bring to us.


About the Author

Dana W. Wilbanks is professor emeritus of Christian ethics at Iliff School of Theology, in Denver, CO, where he served on the faculty from 1968 to 2005. His primary academic interest is relating Christian thought to questions of public policy. Most recently his work has focused on immigration and refugee policy.


Wilbanks, Dana, "Christian Faith and Immigration." The Progressive Christian Witness. Berkeley, CA: Pacific School of Religion, October 2006.

This essay was written for The Progressive Christian Witness and is used by permission of the author.

Copyright © 2006 by Dana W. Wilbanks.