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Aliens and the Bible: Evangelical Protestant Approaches to the Undocumented

The author is a Catholic Worker at Casa Juan Diego, on sabbatical leave from Lamar University in Beaumont, TX

Christians at the Border: Immigration, the Church, and the Bible (2008) by M. Daniel Carroll R. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 174 pp., $16.99 (paper)

The Immigration Crisis: Immigrants, Aliens, and the Bible (2009) by James K. Hoffmeier Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 174 pp., $14.99 (paper)


These two recent books by evangelical Bible scholars reveal diametrically opposed positions on how Scripture views the undocumented. Carroll’s Christians at the Border: Immigration, the Church, and the Bible is very popular with progressive evangelicals. Hoffmeier’s book, The Immigration Crisis: Immigrants, Aliens, and the Bible, on the other hand, is rapidly becoming the favorite of evangelicals who are, as Publisher’s Weekly put it, “ looking for a biblical justification for strict federal en-forcement of immigration laws. 

Both authors are professors and bible specialists: Carroll is Distinguished Professor of Old Testament at Denver Seminary, an evangelical seminary with Baptist roots; Hoffmeier is Professor of Old Testament at Trinity International University, another evangelical institution. Both have personal experiences of what it means to be the outsider: Carroll is the son of a Guatemalan mother and American father and taught for many years at a seminaryin Guatemala City; Hoffmeier, the son of American missionaries in Egypt, became a refugee in Cyprus and later a legal immigrant to Canada.

Neither insists on interpreting the Bible literally; both take a broader view of Scripture as a historical document. Both try to establish a “biblical worldview” before attempting to apply the Bible texts to modern problems (Hoffmeier, p. 26). But their biblical worldviews could hardly be more different.

The Old Testament

As befitting Professors of Old Testament, both authors spend more time on the Hebrew Scriptures than the New Testament. The Old Testament is full of stories of immigrants, forced by hunger or oppression to journey to strange lands: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Ruth. The sheer number of texts shows just how important the topic was to the Hebrews, who never forgot that they were migrants themselves.

The Hebrew Scriptures use four distinct words for outsiders/foreigners. The one closest to the English term “alien” is ger , found 82 times in the Hebrew (Hoffmeier, p. 48). We will return to this issue of terminology, but for now, we will note that both authors concentrate on those passages that use the Hebrew term ” ger.

Carroll: Image and Likeness of God

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground. So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” Gen: 1:26-27.

Carroll insists that any discussion of migration begin with the Biblical teaching that immigrants, like all human beings, are of over-arching importance because of who God created them to be.

“The creation of all persons in the image of God must be the most basic conviction for Christians as they approach the challenge of immigration today. Immigration should not be argued in the abstract because it is fundamentally about immi-grants” (Carroll, p.67, emphasis in original).

“If one takes what the Bible says in Genesis 1 seriously, as revelation from God, then what it communicates about humans becomes a divine claim on Christian attitudes and actions towards those who have arrived in this country-irrespective of whether they are here with or without the documents the government might mandate. To turn away or treat badly one made in the image of God ultimately is a violation against God” (Carroll, p. 68).

The Exodus: For you yourselves were aliens . . .

“When an alien lives with you in your land, do not mistreat him. The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt. I am the LORD your God (Lev. 19:33-34).

The amount of attention the Hebrew Scriptures pay to migrants is easy to understand when we consider that the central event in their history was their experience as immigrants in Egypt and their subsequent escape from captivity. Both authors emphasize this. The God of Israel could not be clearer: exactly because you suffered from oppression when you were immigrants, you must not oppress the immigrants among you:

“Do not mistreat an alien or oppress him, for you were aliens in Egypt” Exod:22-21.

“And you are to love those who are aliens, for you yourselves were aliens in Egypt” Deut. 10:19.

Not only does the Old Testament forbid the Hebrews from oppressing their aliens, Old Testament law gives them basically the same rights, privileges and most of the obligations as native-born citizens (Hoffmeier, p. 74).

The community is to have the same rules for you and for the alien living among you; this is a lasting ordinance for the gener-ations to come. You and the alien shall be the same before the LORD. The same laws and regulations will apply both to you and to the alien living among you” (Num. 15:15-16).

The Hebrew Scriptures go even further: Aliens have special privileges specifically because they, like the proverbial “widows and orphans” were landless and without power. Along with the other unfortunates, aliens were allowed to harvest the gleanings on land owned by others and receive a share of a special tithe collected every three years (Carroll, p. 102-103).

Carroll quotes these texts and many more from the Prophets to make a point: since God is especially concerned for migrants, for the undocumented, we should be, too. He states, “ The most serious incentive to care for sojourners was to be found in the person of God. In reminding Israel of its history and the obligations that stemmed from it, the Lord explains that the redemption from their horrific experience as immigrants also revealed something very important about his own person: he loves the helpless, among whom he lists sojourners. Israel, too, is to love sojourners, because God does” (Carroll, pp.104-105).

Hoffmeier agrees, with a twist: he argues that the ger , the aliens beloved by God in the Old Testament were, fact, legal aliens, permanent residents, the ancient Hebrew equivalent of green-card holders. Hoffmeier’s equation would be ger = legal immigrants = special to God = good guys. To Hoffmeier, the Old Testament good guys obeyed the local immigration law, deferred to the authorities of their new country, worked hard, learned to speak English, excuse me, Egyptian, and assimilated into their new country (p. 45).

The idea that God was talking only about legal immigrants when he is describing his special love for the alien is the most innovative, controversial and, to me, most interesting part of Hoffmeier’s book (pp.48-52). Now, Carroll was careful to state that God’s special love for the alien does not mean that modern governments have to let in everybody who wants to come, or prevent a nation from taking prudent steps to control its borders (p. 69), but Hoffmeier is going way beyond that. He never specifically advocates hunting down the “illegals” and kicking them out, but it is easy to see that those who advocate exactly that have a champion in Professor Hoffmeier.

The New Testament

Unlike the Old Testament, the New Testament contains no explicit teachings about aliens or migration (Hoffmeier, p. 131; Carroll, p.114). Hoffmeier skips the Gospels and moves on to the book of Romans in order to discuss what he really wants to talk about: the duty of Christians to obey the law. Carroll, on the other hand, looks to the life of Jesus, to see if we can discern Jesus’ attitude towards the alien by his example. ” . . . a Christian approach … to Hispanic immi-gration will not come from detached objective analysis, cost-benefit calculations, effi-ciency quotients, and cultural arguments. The decisions that are made and the courses of actions that are recommended should be commensurate with the life of Jesus – his actions, his teachings, his cross” (Carroll p. 139).

Carroll: The Example of Jesus

Carroll finds his example in the way Jesus treated Samaritans, the unwanted and hated aliens in Israel. Luke 10:30-37 is universally called the parable of the “good Samaritan,” but in the time of Jesus, there was no such thing as a good Samaritan. Blame me, not Carroll, for the following analogy: the closest New Testament equivalent of how anti-immigration extremists look at undocumented Mexicans in the U.S. today is how the Israelites saw Samaritans in Israel. As Carroll describes the consensus of the Israelites, “The Samaritans were a loathsome people” (p.117).

But when Jesus met the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well (John, chapter 4), he asks her to serve him water. This request, which would render him ritually impure, astonished her. Yet, despite the fact that all Samarian women were considered ritually unclean from birth, and that this particular Samaritan woman was, as Carroll puts it, of “questionable repute,” (p. 118), Jesus reveals himself to her as the Messiah.

If you can imagine Lou Dobbs befriending an unclean, undocumented Mexican pros-titute and using her to announce that he is running for President, you have a better imagination than I do, but you also have some idea of how shocking Jesus’ actions would have been to the people of his time.

The story of the “good Samaritan” had to have been equally astonishing and offensive to the anti-immigrant crowd of his day. When the good church people, the priest and the Levite, step right over the wounded man, who is the one who binds his wounds and pays for his care? Had Jesus made the good guy a normal, regular Jew, a layman, he would have been making a statement about the hypocrisy of the religious establishment of his time, one of his favorite topics. But a Samaritan? Outrageous! (In my imagination, I can see Hoffmeier sputtering, “But, but, . . . he’s illegal .”)

Carroll concludes that, although Jesus did not preach on how to treat immigrants, his life shows his teachings. Specifi-cally in regards to the most unwanted of immigrants, his actions and his stories con-cerning Samaritans speak clearly to those with ears to hear.

Hoffmeier : the Importance of Obeying the Law

“Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Conse-quently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves”(Rom 13:1-2).

Hoffmeier interprets Paul’s statement to a group of Christians in Rome as God’s unequivocal command to Christians today everywhere. “Clearly the person who fears God . . .will be motivated by conscience to follow the edicts of the state unless there is very clear conflict with the teachings of Scripture” (p. 142), Carroll, on the other hand, argues that we should not rigidly apply the Romans text to all edicts of today’s governments (pp. 131-134). It is in this discussion that the unbridgeable differences between the two become clear. Hoffmeier specifically mentions his disagreement with Carroll’s interpretation of both Genesis and Romans:

“One recent example of dismissive treatment of Romans 13 is found in a book by M. Daniel Carroll R. He argues that the starting point on the status of illegal immigrants in America should not be the legal one that is resolved by appealing to Romans 13, which requires submitting to the law. … For Carroll, the starting point is that the immigrant should be viewed as being made in the image of God regardless of whether he or she has the proper legal documentation. Certainly any nation should treat visitors, legal or otherwise, with dignity and respect. … However, that does not mean that because people are made in the image of God … a government official or authority should look the other way when a crime has been committed. There is no basis in Scripture for such a stance” (Hoffmeier, p. 144-145).

Carroll, of course, never suggested that the laws not be enforced, but rather that they be changed to more accurately reflect the will of God. Hoffmeier, an intelligent man, can understand on an intellectual level that unjust laws exist. He has, however, a strong, emotional reaction against breaking the rules, a reaction that colors his whole book.

What part of “illegal” don’t you understand?

“Sanctuary was never intended as a place to avoid the law but to allow the law to take its proper course . . . While both Israelite citizens and aliens qualified for sanctuary, being an illegal alien was not a criterion for such protection. Consequently, American cities and churches who offer sanctuary for illegal immigrants cannot claim to be following the practice described in the Bible. Rather they are twisting biblical statutes and subverting federal law” (Hoffmeier, p.84).

It gnaws on Hoffmeier that these illegal aliens broke the law. Its even worse that church people were supporting this rule breaking. After all, what about all the good people who obeyed the law, who did the right thing, who did not break the rules? People like, well, like Hoffmeier himself?

“In the 1970’s, my parents moved to Canada, but first they had to go through lengthy procedures to obtain legal immigrant status there. I did, too, including a physical exam, a check of medical records, filling out countless forms, and then waiting months to hear the outcome” (p. 143).

At this point, I expect some readers are shouting “But what if you had to wait ten years !” But I do not think it would help much to explain to Hoffmeier that his experience with Canadian immigration law really does not apply to the broken system in the U.S. Some people, mostly conservatives, have a deep, visceral, negative reaction to rule breaking. It just bothers them, whether or not the rule has any legitimacy or makes any sense. The misleading term “illegal alien” plays right into this emotional reaction. For example, Hoffmeier says of the image of God language in Genesis:

“But this ethic does not mean that Christians turn a blind eye to those who violate the law, whether the issue is immigration, robbery, identity theft, or other transgressions of the law” (pp. 180-181).

Well, few of us are in favor or robbery or identity theft, so equating immigration violations with these crimes has an emotional effect on the reader very different than if we changed the quote to reflect the fact that most immigration violations, such as overstaying a visa, are civil, not criminal:

“But this ethic does not mean that Christians turn a blind eye to those who violate administrative law, whether the issue is immigration, health privacy violations, using unapproved life preservers, providing inadequate stock prospectuses, or other violations of federal regulations.”

Either way, Carroll and other supporters of the undocumented are not arguing that we should turn blind eyes to violations, or that unauthorized immigration is somehow a good thing, or that those who break the rules should be encouraged. They are arguing that the present system is so dysfunctional that it neither protects the borders nor shows compassion for the defenseless. They are advocating comprehensive immigration reform, now.

Hoffmeier, to the contrary, is happy with the current system. He specifically denies that current American immigration laws are unjust (pp.145-146) and concludes “I see nothing in Scripture that would abrogate current immigration laws” (p. 146).

So, in the end, our authors disagree radically, not so much because they interpret the Bible differently; they interpret reality differently. Hoffmeier looks at the world and sees an immigration system that would be working just fine if only people would obey the rules like they are supposed to. Carroll looks at the same reality and sees a horror that cries out to Heaven for justice.

Depending on how the question is asked, some 25-45% of Americans describe themselves as “evangelical” or “born-again”, but the question of who is, and who is not an evangelical is a matter of lively dispute. Often the term is used more or less synonymously with born-again to refer to conservative Protestant Christians in order to contrast them with the more liberal “main-line” Protestant denominations. The term is also used to differentiate evangelicals from the even more conservative Protestant “fundamentalists.” To complicate matters further, about 20% of evangelicals are “liberal” in terms of social and political thought (think President Jimmy Carter). For our purposes we will define an evangelical as one who claims the title, which includes both authors.

The Catholic approach to the issue can be studied in the many articles on the subject published by the Houston Catholic Worker ( https://cjdengp.wpengine.com/paper/gration.html ).

Those sympathetic to the plight of the undocumented, including Carroll, tend to avoid the term “alien.” I use it because it is the term used in U.S. immigration law and in many translations of the Old Testament.

The translators, however, are not consistent. The also render ger as “sojourner” or “stranger.”

Scripture quotations are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version . The NIV is now the best-selling translation in the United States and a favorite of evangelical churches.

To be fair, some people, mainly liberals, have the opposite emotional reaction – they are attracted to breaking the rules.


Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XXX, No. 1, January-February 2010.