Mark D. Roberts

Suppose you live in a country that is home . . . but not quite home. You find yourself fitting in to the culture of the place you live, but not quite. You embrace the values of your current home, but sometimes find yourself at odds with those values. You want to see the place you live flourish, yet feel a deeper commitment to another place and its well-being. Your heart is unsettled; your loyalties divided.

Am I describing the experience of undocumented workers and their families who live in the United States? Yes, I am, given what I’ve read, seen, and heard. Many who are in this country illegally love the United States, yet they feel a deeper loyalty to their homeland, the place of their people, their family, and their culture. Their situation is similar to many first-generation immigrants to the United States, though it may be exacerbated by the trials associated with being in this country illegally. I can understand why undocumented workers live with divided loyalties.

But I did not write the first paragraph of this post as a description of the experience of immigrants to the United States, either legal or illegal. Rather, I was attempting to illustrate the experience of Christians who, though at home in this world, are not at home here. In particular, I sought to describe what it’s like to be a Christian and an American, especially when considering issues where our divided loyalties are felt most strongly, issues like illegal immigration.

Dual Citizenship in Philippians

Scripture helps us understand our situation as Christians in terms of living in one place while being a citizen of another. In Paul’s letter to the Christians in Philippi, he contrasts those whose “minds are set on earthly things” with those who follow Jesus: “But our citizenship [politeuma] is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ” (Phil 3:20). Earlier in this letter, Paul urged the Philippians to live consistently with the good news of Christ: “Only, live your life [politeuomai] in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. . .” (Phil 1:27). The verb translated here as “live your life” actually means “live your life as a citizen.” In other words, Paul was exhorting the Philippian Christians to live their life in Philippi as citizens of heaven. (Photo: The Via Egnatia, a Roman road in ancient Philippi. Photo courtesy of Used with permission.)

philippi-via-egnatia-5.jpgIt’s not just an accident that this language shows up in Paul’s letter to the Philippians but not elsewhere in his writings (politeia, a related word, appears in Ephesians 2:12). People in Philippi were familiar with a kind of long-distance citizenship. Because Philippi was a Roman colony, its citizens were also citizens of Rome, a city on the Italian peninsula some 500 miles to the west. Citizens of Philippi were given all of the rights and privileges of Roman citizens, and thus felt a profound connection with the capital of the empire.

In a similar way, Christians belong to this world. We are residents of the places where we live, citizens of our countries. Yet, at the same time, we are citizens of heaven and are called to live our lives according to the values and vision of that citizenship. This means that Christians who live in the United States are, in a sense, dual citizens. But our primary citizenship, and that which should always govern our behavior, is our heavenly citizenship.

For most of us and for most of the time, we are able to exercise our dual citizenship without conflict. Because, for example, we are afforded exceptional freedom in the United States, we are able to practice our religion both in private and in public without fear of reprisal. Whereas millions of Christians throughout the world cannot be openly Christian without risking imprisonment or worse, we are free to live as citizens of heaven and citizens of this country.

But there are times when our citizenships pull us in different directions at the same time, forcing us to choose between our divided loyalties. Christian pacifists, for example, are never able to support American military efforts with their words or their participation. In the 19th century, many Christians who opposed slavery on religious grounds not only labored for a change in laws, but also helped slaves escape from their bondage. These Christians broke the laws of the nation because their heavenly citizenship trumped their earthly one.

When it comes to the issue of illegal immigration, most Christians feel a powerful tension between our citizenships. As citizens of the United States, we are concerned for the well-being of our country. We are distressed that so many people have broken and are breaking our immigration laws. We are worried that our porous southern border invites the influx of organized crime, and allows for the immigration of terrorists.

Yet, as citizens of heaven, we are deeply concerned for the well-being of undocumented workers and their families, not to mention our neighbors to the south who might seek to escape from poverty and oppression by entering our country illegally. We recognize that millions of so-called illegal aliens are contributing to the flourishing of our country through their work and their moral character. As Christians who are committed to marriage and family, we cannot imagine how it would be just, not to mention merciful, to divide families by sending undocumented workers back to their home countries. And as people who have a vision for the fruitfulness of each human being, we have no desire to maintain a social system that keeps people from flourishing.

Thus, when it comes to the issue of illegal immigration, Christians live with divided loyalties. There is no other way. But we cannot simply stand by and let injustice get a free pass because we can’t make up our mind on things. We have to think, speak, vote, and act. When we do these actions, we will feel an unavoidable tension between our citizenships.

I want to close with three interim conclusions. First, I believe it’s essential for Christians to admit this tension. Sometimes Christian on either side of the illegal immigration issue speak as if there is no such tension. This, it seems to me, is not truthful or helpful. Only when we can be honest about our divided loyalties will we be able to figure out how to work with them to forge a more just and godly society.

Second, I believe that our heavenly citizenship takes precedence over our earthly citizenship. If there is an irresolvable tension between the two, then we should go with God. This means, for example, that we must be committed to the flourishing of all people in the Americas, without undue regard for national borders. No, no, I’m not calling for an open border. But I am saying that God is not more committed to the well-being of someone who lives in El Paso, Texas than he is to someone who lives right across the border in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. As Christians, we must share God’s concern for and commitment to all people, regardless of national origin.

Third, as Christians seek a Christian perspective on illegal immigration, we must do so in community with other believers. All of us have the opportunity to learn from others, including and especially those with whom we disagree. It seems to me that when it comes to the matter of illegal immigration, the amount of genuine listening to folks who see things differently from ourselves adds up to about zero. Few issues bring forth such hard-headed and hard-hearted certainty as this one, even among brothers and sisters in Christ. Therefore, as we seek a Christian perspective on illegal immigration, we would all be
well served to keep in mind a key passage from Paul’s letter to the Philippians:

If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

    who, though he was in the form of God,
        did not regard equality with God
        as something to be exploited,
    but emptied himself,
        taking the form of a slave,
        being born in human likeness.
    And being found in human form,
        he humbled himself
        and became obedient to the point of death–
        even death on a cross.
   Therefore God also highly exalted him
        and gave him the name
        that is above every name,
    so that at the name of Jesus
        every knee should bend,
        in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
    and every tongue should confess
        that Jesus Christ is Lord,
        to the glory of God the Father. (Phil 2:1-11)

May God grant us the mind of Christ when it comes to illegal immigration. 

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