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Immigration reform seven years later: ‘The Nation and the Common Good’

Statements from bishops and other church leaders on issues of national or international importance vary both in their quality and influence. One statement that deserves to be better known is “The Nation and the Common Good: Reflections on Immigration Reform,” 2010), issued by the House of Bishops of the Episcopal Church. The statement is described as a “theological resource on migration and immigration,” distinguishing it from a pastoral letter or teaching. The text was drafted by a small working group before the September meeting of the bishops in Phoenix, and then adopted by them with minor revisions. As a member of the House of Bishops, I should note that I participated in the 2010 meeting but was not a member of the drafting group. My first exposure to the text was with the rest of the bishops.

The context surrounding the document should be noted. In April 2010, Arizona enacted laws that made it easier for local police to apprehend those suspected of being undocumented persons. In retrospect, these laws and others passed elsewhere heralded a new period of controversy in the United States. The setting of the House of Bishops meeting in Arizona, and the inclusion of these issues on the agenda of the meeting, created space for issuing this statement, perhaps even making it a necessity.

In our day the issues of migration and immigration have not gone away; in fact, they have become even more contentious. They formed one of the chief talking points for Donald Trump as a candidate for office, have surfaced in a notorious executive order and new directives early in his administration, and now (following the president’s address to Congress) promise to shape the legislative agenda of the Trump presidency. Almost seven years later, how does “The Nation and the Common Good” stand in a new context?

The first thing to note about our text is that it is addressed to the Episcopal Church. Though its description of the Church as a community unfortunately moves into the background God’s agency in authorizing the Church, it speaks of a Church rooted in Jesus’ death and resurrection and in the gift of the Spirit. The statement’s approach to immigration reform “shifts the focus away from advocacy to formation, from the voting booth to our prayer life” (1). At the same time, though “discipleship cannot be transposed into citizenship” (4), the Anglican tradition of establishment and the connection between church and state guarantee that “‘discipleship’ goes far to shape our sense of ‘citizenship’” (4). We begin with the Church and its members, but we are concerned with the nation.

A second feature is the statement’s use of Richard Hooker’s Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity to speak to immigration reform. The statement begins by noting that, in common with medieval and renaissance political theory, “Hooker argues that all political rule derives its legitimacy from an original compact (or covenant) among equals” (4). Government exists because people desire protection (4, citing Laws 1.10.4), but also because human beings by their nature desire fellowship. Each of us has a “natural delight … to transfuse himself into others, and to receive from others into himself especially those things wherein the excellency of his kind doth most consist” (Laws 1.10.12, cited on 6).

According to Hooker:

Civil society doth more content the nature of man than any private kind of solitary living, because in society this good of mutual participation is so much larger than otherwise. Herewith notwithstanding we are not satisfied but we covet (if it might be) to have a kind of society and fellowship with all mankind. (Laws 1.10.12, cited on 5)

The nation exists not only to protect us but also to make possible the fellowship and communion we crave. As the bishops note, Hooker’s evocation of “the law of nations,” the law shared by peoples throughout the world, invoked in his time in situations that fell between the jurisdiction of local laws (at sea or in time of war), points toward the obligations we owe to those who differ from us. According to the “The Nation and the Common Good”:

On the one hand, any legitimate government must ensure that national life be characterized by more opportunity for internal social exchange, not less. On the other, the government must encourage and support its citizens’ contact with the world beyond its borders by adhering to the basic tenets of the law of nations: keeping borders as open as possible, welcoming strangers, and promoting the circulation of ideas and material goods. (6)

According to our text, modern Episcopalians certainly don’t seek an established church, but that doesn’t mean that serving the nation is not a viable goal for the church in the United States. Our national life with its covenantal form can still be an example of that desire for fellowship that Hooker wrote about, and can still be characterized by both debate and collaboration, “where mutual respect is the political equivalent of love” (7).

This takes us to the final point to be noted, the moderating tone of “The Nation and the Common Good.” From the first paragraph, the statement balances our responsibility to witness on behalf of the undocumented with “our own complicity in injustice” and “our own obligation to fellow citizens who fear a more open immigration policy spells increasing danger and economic loss for themselves” (1). Immigration reform must consider “not only the human rights of undocumented immigrants, but also our obligation to fellow citizens who wish to stem the flow of illegal immigration” (2).

Supporters of immigration reform cite Leviticus 19:33-34’s admonitions against oppression of the resident alien, but the bishops’ statement acknowledges that this text does not really speak to citizenship as it does not envision incorporation of the alien into the People of Israel. “But since the command to love the resident alien assumes continuing exclusion, it cannot be identified with Jesus’ welcoming of the stranger” (3). Jesus’ ministry “has always called the church into radical openness,” but there is still the question of the meaning of this for the church’s response to undocumented immigrants, and still the question of what this means for our nation’s response to them (3). Apparently, God’s will in this case cannot be read off of Scripture simpliciter but requires further hermeneutical work and exposition.

The balanced and irenic tone of the statement continues in the concluding section. Because we are followers of Jesus, “we have an obligation to advocate for every undocumented worker as already a citizen of God’s reign on earth and one for whom Christ died. This must always be our starting point” (8). As members of the universal Church we have a global horizon, and must protest against racial profiling and the treatment of undocumented persons as criminals. Basic human dignity must be respected, and what does not respect it must be worked against.

“What may not be so obvious is how to pursue this witness in solidarity with the nation as a whole” (8). According to the statement, inhumane practices must be resisted whether that resistance commands support or not, but other issues — such as amnesty for undocumented workers and an easier path to citizenship — “require and deserve a different approach” (8). Many of our fellow citizens have concerns about these issues that cannot be dismissed out of hand, and the “national covenant” (9) that exists means that we have obligations not only to the vulnerable but also to our fellow citizens.

We do not discount the concerns of our fellow citizens regarding the threat that uncontrolled immigration poses to our safety and economic well-being. We insist, however, that these concerns be approached within the broader context of a national commitment and covenant to inclusion and fellowship across all lines for the sake of the common good. (9)

So how does “The Nation and the Common Good” measure up now, in a time of heightened political tension, in which migration and immigration are controverted issues? If the first casualty of war is truth, then certainly the first casualties of intense political controversy are clear thinking and civility. I can only applaud the measured, reasonable, and informed tone of the statement the bishops issued in 2010. If not exactly what I would have said myself, it was close enough and actually a better witness than anything a single bishop could have said. I’m glad we were able to say it together. I hope that our reflection on this issue and others will continue to be guided by the same tone and look to the same sources. Again, as noted by the bishops’ statement, “mutual respect is the political equivalent of love” (7).

I think “The Nation and the Common Good” was right not to discount our obligations to our fellow citizens. There were hidden dangers here. At least one line of reflection, post-election, sees our present situation as a result of political elites ignoring the concerns of part of the electorate. In this the bishops’ statement may have been prescient, perhaps not in forecasting events but at least in drawing attention to potential fault lines. At the same time, “The Nation and the Common Good” does not lose sight of the greater communion and fellowship that is also our right as citizens, and reminds us of it with some judicious passion.

The difficulty with our time is that political discourse in the new age we live in has a swagger and a Twitter-like rapidity that works against discourse, or cheapens it until it is unrecognizable. The posturing of one camp begets the super-heated rhetoric of the other, and the traffic moves in both directions. Yet is there really an alternative to discourse? The continued health of our society may depend upon our willingness to make our way as a church and as a body politic in this measured fashion, committed to discourse as well as to our life together as a nation.


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