God and the Illegal Alien

United States Immigration Law and a Theology of Politics

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Robert W. Heimburger
Law and Christianity
  • Cambridge, England: 
    Cambridge University Press
    , December
     256 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


EDITOR'S NOTE: This is a review of three books on Christian hospitality: the current title, and also Matthew Kaemingk’s Christian Hospitality and Muslim Immigration in an Age of Fear  and Judy Chan’s No Strangers Here: Christian Hospitality and Refugee Ministry in Twenty-First-Century Hong Kong.

In the 21st century, debates about the rights of immigrants and refugees and their admission to new countries have been amongst the most divisive and polarizing in many Western nations. Throughout this time, the work of economists, political theorists, anthropologists, and sociologists has dominated the conversation about immigration in the public square. Each field has sought to offer a description of the factors that lead to the displacement of millions of people around the world and the consequences of this mass displacement on receiving and sending communities. However, until very recently not many scholarly works have approached this global immigration crisis from the perspective of theological or religious ethics. This fact is surprising given the profound role that faiths play in the lives of migrants and in the reception of immigrants in various communities. Judy Chan’s No Strangers Here: Christian Hospitality and Refugee Ministry in Twenty-First-Century Hong KongRobert W. Heimburger’s God and the Illegal AlienUnited States Immigration Law and a Theology of Politics, and Matthew Kaemingk’s Christian Hospitality and Muslim Immigration in an Age of Fear are important contributions to the blossoming discussion among religion scholars about immigration. Each book makes a distinct effort to describe the role of religion in global migration as well as providing a distinctly religious response to the cultural and political challenges posed by global migration. Chan, Heimburger, and Kaemingk’s books, while taking different approaches and focusing on different global contexts, all gravitate around a single fundamental question: How can Christians faithfully respond to the immigrant in their midst?

In Christian Hospitality and Muslim Immigration in an Age of FearMatthew Kaemingk describes the crisis that has evolved in many European and North American communities due to the presence and influence of Muslim immigrants. In his first two chapters, Kaemingk describes the political and social response to the influx of Muslim refugees and economic migrants living in the Netherlands from the 1960s to the 2000s. Kaemingk offers vivid descriptions of the fearful response of Dutch politicians on the left and right in the aftermath of terrorist acts of violence linked to radical Islamic factions as well as the public polemic surrounding the Islamic gender dress code. The result of this clash between “Mecca and Amsterdam” was that the secular liberal Dutch government shifted from a posture of toleration and multiculturalism to what Kaemingk calls “muscular liberalism.” At the heart of this muscular liberalism was an agreement between Dutch natives on the left and right that in order to belong in Dutch society, Muslim immigrants not only had to abide by the Dutch law, they had to embrace a secular liberal moral tradition as their own. Kaemingk writes, “of course, Muslims are allowed to defend themselves politically and legally in the Netherlands, but their defense of Islam must always be articulated using the majority’s ‘secular language of autonomy and freedom and not in the religious language of moral reasoning that the minority uses’” (68). 

In view of the failure of the secular liberal state to secure the rights of Muslim immigrants to genuinely practice their faith in the public square, Kaemingk offers a distinctly Christian response through the theo-political tradition of neo-Calvinist theologian and former Prime Minister of the Netherlands, Abraham Kuyper. Kuyper’s political project of Christian pluralism was not a departure from Christian orthodoxy but rather an affirmation of Dutch Reformed theology which emphasizes the absolute sovereignty of God, the deep and comprehensive effects of sin, and the doctrine of common grace. Kuyper and Kaemingk’s Christian pluralism envisions a state where no ideology or faith can claim sovereignty over any other and where each ideology and faith is allowed to express itself and contribute with integrity in the public square in an effort to seek the welfare of all citizens. Thus, for Kaemingk, the Christian response to the Muslim immigrant ought not look like cultural or religious integration or assimilation; rather it should create the space for Muslims to practice their faith and establish the conditions for their voice to be of equal value as that of any other religion or ideology in the public square. At the heart of Kaemingk’s argument is a denial of the myth that to secure the full agency of Muslim immigrants it is necessary for Christians to compromise on the orthodoxy of their faith. Indeed, for Kaemingk it is precisely through participating in Christian liturgy and faithfully proclaiming the confessions of the faith (such as the absolute sovereignty of Christ), that Christians are enabled by the Holy Spirit to embrace and practice true Christian pluralism as a mode of Christian hospitality.

Kaemingk provides an insightful account of how religious ethics, particularly Christian ethics, is equipped to provide a vision of radical hospitality that secular liberalism promises but ultimately has failed to deliver. However, Kaemingk does not give a thorough enough account of how this vision of Christian pluralism might be put into practice by contemporary Christian communities or how it can be used by Christian citizens to wisely elect leaders or influence legislation on immigration. In order to apply his vision of hospitality, Kaemingk would need to first consider at least these two important contemporary obstacles to Christian hospitality: (1) the ongoing effects of European and North American colonialism and its epistemological, cultural, and geopolitical impact; and (2) the way in which legal descriptions like asylum-seeker, refugee, illegal alien, and economic migrant influence not only how Christians show hospitality to the stranger but articulate which voices and whose agencies can or ought to be permitted to play a role in the public square. 

Judy Chan’s No Strangers Here: Christian Hospitality and Refugee Ministry in Twenty-First-Century Hong Kong fills in some of the gaps in Kaemingk’s account of hospitality through her rich and careful account of the historical development of and scholarly debates surrounding the practice of hospitality. The first chapter of No Stranger’s Here describes the various ancient contexts from which Christian hospitality emerges as a religious response to the possibility of divine visitation, as a practice of gift exchange and reciprocity, and as an inherently dangerous and unstable negotiation of friend-enemy relations. In chapter 2, Chan looks at the practice of hospitality as it appears in the early Christian church in continuity with antiquity but now also reinterpreted in light of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. At the heart of her account is a tension within the early church between Christians’ identity as strangers on earth set apart for heavenly citizenship and the divine call to be gracious hosts who recognize that the stranger at the door could be Jesus Christ himself. In chapter 3, Chan acknowledges the ways in which the Christian tradition of hospitality requires new application given the contemporary realities of global migration. In this chapter she also begins to narrow her focus to contemporary Christian responses to refugees and asylum seekers as those strangers to whom Christians owe a special duty of care in light of their extreme vulnerability. Throughout these three chapters, Chan provides a fantastic glossary of debates, definitions, people, and concepts which is an excellent resource for anyone starting to reflect on the practice of Christian hospitality. 

In the second part of the book, Chan describes how these various themes and debates take on flesh in the Hong Kong church’s ministry to refugees and asylum seekers. For Chan the presence of refugees and asylum seekers is both a gift and a challenge to the Hong Kong communities and churches. While the people of Hong Kong have always had mixed feelings toward incoming immigrants, the hospitality shown to refugees from Vietnam (1975-2000) and refugees from mainland China (1945-54) helped to develop Hong Kong into the flourishing and dynamic “global city” which it is today. Nevertheless, Chan acknowledges that an increase in informal and economic migration in the 21st century has led to compassion fatigue among the people and government of Hong Kong. It has thus become the role of the church in Hong Kong to minister to refugees and asylum seekers who are falling through the cracks of the legal system and who experience rejection and marginalized from the larger community. Chan describes how through this ministry the church in Hong Kong has learned that what refugees and asylum seekers need most is to feel a sense of belonging to their communities and to regain a sense of agency and independence. Chan notes that the church in Hong Kong is particularly suited to provide for both these needs through inviting refugees to participate in the ecclesial community and by partnering with other legal and public institutions in advocating for the rights of refugees. 

Chan’s spotlight on the church’s ministry to refugees and asylum seekers in Hong Kong reveals that the needs of refugees and asylum seekers extends beyond the provision of life’s basic needs; refugees also need friendship and to belong and participate actively in the new communities in which they find themselves. This has been a task which the international community has often failed to understand and one which the church has the capacity to fulfill. However, a question which Chan engages but provides no clear answer for is how churches can provide hospitality to refugees and asylum seekers of other religious commitments without encroaching on their beliefs but equally remaining committed to the Christian mission of bearing witness to Christ. Perhaps this is an area where Kaemingk’s work on Christian pluralism can provide an important insight for Chan. Applying Kaemingk’s vision of Christian pluralism not only to the state but to the ecclesial community provides an interesting route for Christians to literally “create the space” for their Muslim immigrant neighbors to practice their faith freely, by for example offering their buildings to be used for prayer. Such a revolutionary act of hospitality is perhaps the best way to bear witness to the sovereign Christ of Christian confession. 

In order to apply the helpful accounts of Christian hospitality which Chan and Kaemingk offer to a context like the United States, one significant obstacle looms large: How ought Christians negotiate adherence to the law of the land that the Bible commends with the radical call to offer hospitality to the stranger, when in fact the stranger’s presence in the land is unlawful (that is, he or she is an undocumented immigrant)? Robert W. Heimburger’s God and the Illegal Alien: United States Immigration Law and a Theology of Politics aims to answer this question in two steps: first, by giving an in depth account of major shifts in US immigration legal history, and second, by providing a theology of politics which allows Christians to judge immigration law according to the demands of the gospel of Jesus Christ. 

God and the Illegal Alien is divided into three parts, each of which covers a major development in US immigration law. Part 1 engages the legal determination of immigrants as “aliens” in contrast to “citizens.” Heimburger traces the development of the legal term “alien” back to its 17th century roots in English common law and to its current usage in US immigration law. Heimburger argues that the term “alien” has been used to denote someone to whom the state holds no “allegiance” and therefore someone who is distrusted by the state and its citizens. Part 2 traces the legal determination of aliens as “unlawfully present.” This legal determination goes back to the 19th century US Supreme Court’s ruling that Congress had the constitutional right to expel non-assimilating Chinese immigrants living in the US and the right to ban new Chinese immigrants from entering the US. The logic behind the ruling was that a nation reserves “the right to exclude and expel aliens rested on the sovereignty, self-preservation, and self-defense of the nation” (94). Finally, in part 3 of the book, Heimburger describes how the 20th century elimination of racially discriminatory immigration policies inadvertently led to migrants from near-neighboring nations to the United States, like Mexico, being treated no differently from immigrants of distant countries. The effect of this was that many Mexican nationals who had been working and living on the US side of the US-Mexico border for decades were immediately declared unlawful residents with little to no hope of gaining legal status. 

At the heart of Heimburger’s political theology is the need to render human laws contingent and provisional such that they must neither be demonized nor baptized by Christians. Instead, all human laws must be judged according to their purpose and effectiveness within a finite and fallen world. Thus, Heimburger resists the urges of many on the left to utterly vilify and disregard immigration law, labeling it a work of colonial oppression. Similarly, Heimburger resists the urges of those on the right who wish to baptize and blindly obey immigration laws. In part 1, Heimburger challenges the concept of “alien” as someone outside the state’s allegiance (and therefore to be distrusted) by offering as an alternative Karl Barth’s theological distinction between near and distant neighbors. In Barth’s analogy of near and distant neighbors, allegiance and a certain level of trust is owed to all humans in view of their all being creatures of the same God. While this does not do away with distinctions between peoples and even the provisional establishment of territorial rule by a people, nevertheless the eschatological vision of a single people of God demands that Christians reject “alien” language that renders certain humans as subjects of distrust to whom no allegiance is due. In part 2, Heimburger engages the question of a nation’s right to self-preservation through the theology of Martin Luther, arguing that while the Bible teaches the need to “guard places,” the Bible also teaches that God is the one who ultimately guards and protects places. As such, a nation’s right to self-preservation is contingent on that nation’s willingness to obey God’s command to offer hospitality to the vulnerable stranger in its midst. Finally, in part 3, Heimburger presents philosophical and theological arguments to suggest that the United States has a special duty of justice as a “neighbor” to Mexico and other nearby nations. This justice is grounded among other things on the long history of the dependence of American people on the manual labor of Mexican nationals. Heimburger thus concludes that the immigration legal system need not be discarded, but Christians must advocate for a reform which reflects more faithful, loving, and just ways of neighborliness. 

Kaemingk, Chan, and Heimburger each provide a distinct contribution to the ways in which Christian theology plays and could play a role in the debates surrounding immigration. While these books primarily address Christian scholars, pastors, and activists, non-Christians will also find them insightful on how to approach the growing immigration crises around the globe. One area of inquiry still remains largely unexplored in these texts and in the field in general. All of these texts present ethical responses to be taken by host peoples in an effort to welcome the stranger. However, questions are not asked from the perspective of the stranger or the migrant herself, such as:  Are there wise ways and reasons for migrating? What do immigrants, economic immigrants, and refugees alike have to contribute to the discussion about immigration? How might the experience of Christian discipleship from the perspective of the immigrant shape the church’s political theology? This further field of inquiry remains ripe for serious scholarly reflection.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Alberto La Rosa Rojas is a doctoral candidate in Religious Studies at Duke Divinity School.

Date of Review: 
May 23, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Robert W. Heimburger is Associate Chaplain with the Oxford Pastorate, Associate Researcher at the Fundación Universitaria Seminario Bíblico de Colombia, and Editor of IFES Word & World.


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