One of the most complex aspects of the immigration debate concerns what the law and public policy should be in this area. Join Scott for this stimulating discussion with Dr. Dennis Hollinger as he applies a Christian ethic to the public dimension of immigration.

More About Our Guest

Dr. Dennis Hollinger is President Emeritus of Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary and one of the leading experts in Christian ethics. He is also the Colman M. Mockler Distinguished Professor of Christian Ethics. He is also Distinguished Fellow with The Center for Bioethics & Human Dignity. He is the author of several books in Christian Ethics, including Choosing the Good: Christian Ethics in a Complex World. Head, Heart & Hands: Bringing Together Christian Thought, Passion and Action. The Meaning of Sex, The: Christian Ethics and the Moral Life.

Episode Transcript

Scott Rae: Welcome to the podcast Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith & Culture. I'm your host, Scott Rae, dean of faculty and professor of Christian ethics at Talbot School of Theology at Biola University. We're here with my longtime, won't say old friend, my longtime friend and colleague in bioethics, Dr. Dennis Hollinger, president emeritus of Gordon Conwell Seminary, longtime specialist in Christian ethics. We've been great colleagues and friends in bioethics and Christian ethics in general for a long time. So Dennis, it's great to have you on with us.

Dennis Hollinger: Well thank you, Scott. Great to be with you.

Scott Rae: Well, and especially, you're venturing into a new area of application, or a newer area of application for you, in the application of Christian ethics to the debate on immigration. And I so appreciate your willingness to wade into what I think is the hardest part of this discussion, which is the implications of the biblical teaching for public policy. And so I realize you're not a policy wonk. You're not a public policy specialist, you're not a politician. But wading into the details of what a public policy might look like, what the parameters are. I think it's one of the things that's missing in our discussion of Christian ethics related to immigration. So really appreciate your willingness to jump in there and tackle a very controversial area with a lot of skill and a lot of insight.

Dennis Hollinger: Well thank you. It's what we ethicists need to do. It's part of our calling. That is what our schools are paying us to do and what God had God is calling us to do.

Scott Rae: Now let me, let me ask you this to start out. You point out in some of your work that historically the record in the United States, the record on immigration is somewhat mixed. As you put it, we are inclusive and exclusive both at the same time. What do you mean by that?

Dennis Hollinger: Yeah. Well, of course we're a nation of immigrants, Scott. We need to remember that from the beginning. And many people have found great refuge in this country. And the Statue of Liberty, and the great inscription there welcomed hundreds of thousands of people over the years in wonderful ways, and a broad array of people. But there were people that were excluded from that. And so when we look at our record historically in the United States, there's some sad parts to it. For example, in the late 19th century, for a period of time, Chinese were excluded as immigrants. They could not come into the country for a period of 10 years. There was actually a Supreme Court decision which prohibited them from becoming naturalized citizens.

For a period of time, even Italians, and we had a great mass of Italian immigration, they were prohibited because they were Catholics. That was in the context of what was called the Know Nothing party, anti-Catholic political party. And so when we look at the history, I think we have to acknowledge it's been very mixed. We have welcomed and we had excluded. There's a very fascinating study that was just done by two political scientists, Christians, one from Wheaton College, one from Gordon College, who did a study on religious responses to immigration. And they found that evangelical Christians had the most restricted attitudes towards immigration. I should say, white evangelical Christians. And that's sad, I think, when we think about that.

Scott Rae: What do you think accounts for that?

Dennis Hollinger: Well, I think there are a number of things. I think a part of it, one of the things they find in this study is that whites in general have more hesitancy about immigration and refugee access. And evangelicals, they are studying really the white evangelical movement, they point out when you look at Hispanic and African American churches, the responses are very different. And of course we have to remember in our history, another sad part is we had a forced immigration of African slaves to this country. All of that colors the background in many ways for us.

Scott Rae: Okay. Now in our respective discipline of Christian ethics, there have been lots of folks who have weighed in on this in various points of the debate. But how would you summarize what you think Christian ethics has to offer to the discussion on immigration that maybe we don't see from our secular counterparts?

Dennis Hollinger: Well, our Christian ethic is ultimately rooted in God's word. And for starters, Scott, when we go back to the word of God, we find, particularly in the Old Testament, the language of stranger, alien, sojourner, used to describe people who came into the land of Israel, into the Hebrews' land, and the way they were to be treated.

And so we have texts like Leviticus 19, "When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as a native among you." Very interesting language. And in Ezekiel, the 47th chapter, it talks about the division of the land and how they were divided according to the tribes. But then it says, "You are to make provision for the sojourner who resides among you and have had children among you." And of course then we have Jesus in his statement in Matthew 25, "I was a stranger and you took me in." The church itself is described with language of sojourner and alien, all language that goes back to the sojourner language of the Old Testament. And I think that's a starting point for us as we think about this issue. We recognize that the patriarchs were aliens, they were immigrants. Our Savior himself was an immigrant. All of that I think needs to inform our Christian ethics.

Scott Rae: Now that's a great observation because I think you can make the case for most of biblical history that people of God were a people on the move. Either out of desperation or out of mission. Because the early Church was basically kicked out of Jerusalem for the sake of the Church's mission. And so a lot of the Church has been on the move for a long time. Even though the nation of Israel settled for a period, for most of their history, they were on the move in one form or another.

Dennis Hollinger: And I think it's helpful to realize that the immigration issue, while there are now over 70 million displaced persons in the world today, this is not a new issue. All throughout history there had been migrations all over the world.

Scott Rae: Okay. So let's delve into the public policy part of this a bit. Maybe foundationally, how did you see the Bible impacting the public policy dimension of immigration?

Dennis Hollinger: Well, we're not a theocracy. And so we can't-

Scott Rae: What do you mean by that?

Dennis Hollinger: By that I mean we're not ruled civilly by the mandates of scripture. We're a pluralistic society, as most societies are. And so it means there's always a give and take process of a pluralistic culture, pluralistic world, when it comes to policies, in civitas, in the political situation. And so as Christians, we bind ourselves as one among many voices. But it's interesting that Jesus uses metaphors of salt, light, levin, which are not metaphors of domination. It assumes one small part in a larger piece of the pie, if you will. And I think they are metaphors of influence from within.

So I take that to mean that yes, we're going to have some Christians who were called into government, some who, to use your language a few minutes ago, are policy wonks and who will work very specifically at the issues. I think all of us as Christians in our voting, in our attitudes, in our interactions with people in general have an influence on the policies of our country. And so we make a distinction between the specific Christian ethic that says this is what the Church and the Christian is called to. And then a recognition that the political sphere will never be able to achieve all that that Christian ethic lays out for us. So it's very much a salt, levin kind of orientation.

Scott Rae: All right, so maybe to be a little more specific then, how does the scripture understand the role of government in all of this?

Dennis Hollinger: Yeah. I talk about three main purposes of government. Lot of times we become fixated only on one. And I think government was ordained by God for three purposes. The maintenance of order. Secondly, to provide freedom for individuals for people. That will mean even in bad choices that people make. And thirdly, to procure justice. Now there are different spheres of justice, different definitions of justice. I argue that a healthy government is the one that maintains those three purposes in a creative tension. That whenever you get fixated on one to the exclusion of others, you really run into a great deal of problems. And so as I think about that with reference to the immigration issue, I think a healthy public policy ought to incorporate all three of those. We need to give attention to order, we need to give attention to freedom issues, and we need to give attention to justice. And hold those together as we forge a public policy in terms of the technical solutions or strategies.

Scott Rae: Okay. Now I understand why you started with Romans 13 in the discussion, in some of your written work about the role of government. But in the immigration debate, I've heard enough discussions that start with Romans 13 and then they end there. And there's not much else. I had a student tell me when we were talking about this and he said, "Romans 13. What part of illegal don't you understand?" And then he presumed that was the end of the discussion. I understand why you started there. How do you keep that discussion from ending there?

Dennis Hollinger: I think one way is to help people understand how the State is viewed throughout scripture. And I often like to describe it this way: we have in the Bible two images of the State, the State as servant in Romans 13 where order is the focus, and the metaphor of beast in Revelation 13 where the State is this bestial enemy of the Christian Church. You clearly have times when believers disobey or even make derogatory remarks regarding the State. Jesus on one occasion said, "Go tell Herod, that fox." Very negative view about a government official. You have the early Church refusing to acquiesce to the local government's demands to stop proselytizing, to stop evangelizing, in Acts 5, and should we be, we need to obey God rather than men. And so they're equating their government as being a very human enterprise, even though it's ordained by God.

And so I think for starters, we have to help people understand that the State is not just a servant that always does right. And we know this historically. We know this of all governments historically, that they have done good and they have done wrong. And so I think you start with a more [inaudible] biblical understanding of the State. I started with order simply because that's the thing that's uppermost in people's minds. And so you always start where people are in the communication process. It doesn't mean that I prioritize order in any way over the other two dimensions.

Scott Rae: Right. Yeah. That's clear from reading your work on this. But it is troubling to me how often the discussion starts and ends. It's not where it starts, it's where it ends with order that is the issue. I could see somebody who, say, watching the way immigration has happened in Europe, I could see that being a little different scenario than here. Because it seems to me most immigrants who come to the US from various parts of Latin America, which majority come from, are essentially Catholic. They share a theistic view of the world. Yeah, there are some bad apples in there. But for the most part, even though they're Catholic, have a very strong Protestant work ethic. And are fairly high character people from out of that religious worldview.

Whereas in Europe you get, I think the majority of immigrants who have come into Europe in the last decade or so, come from a worldview that's quite different than that. And some have actually suggested they come from a worldview that's quite alien to many of the Western traditions that our democracies hold dear. Would you see a difference between how immigration law ought to be done in the US as opposed to in Europe, given perhaps maybe the threat to order might be different in Europe than here?

Dennis Hollinger: I think the threat to order may be different in different contexts, but there's always a potential threat to disorder. I think the threat is far more in our imagination than it is in reality. And we have studies that demonstrate this. For example, undocumented immigrants among us actually have a very low rate of crime. And so we have a lot of false assumptions out there. I think in the European context, obviously they are needing to accommodate because many are coming from African countries, a large number of Muslims. And then of course the whole crisis in Syria has led to mass migrations. It simply looks different, but it seems to me that the Christian call is still the same in the European context and in the United States context. Whether people are coming from a "Christian background," an animistic background say of parts of Africa as you have, or a Muslim background.

Scott Rae: Okay. Let's take that distinction between the moral mandate and the public policy issues. How would you distinguish between the Church's moral obligation to migrants and what the public policy ought to be? Because I listen to some people who are very compassionate and basically say a neighbor is anyone whose need you can meet. That sounds a lot like an open border policy, that we just let in whoever needs to come in and we're obligated to care for them. I take it you don't hold to an open border public policy. So how do you balance the mandate morally with good common sense public policy?

Dennis Hollinger: Well, the Church doesn't have a responsibility for maintaining order. It has a responsibility to call the State to encourage order. I think that's an important distinction.

Scott Rae: That's a very good point.

Dennis Hollinger: The Church, hopefully and gladly, Scott, doesn't have an army. It doesn't have border guards. And so our mandate is really at the personal level and at the church level to show mercy and love and acceptance. And I want to add, the opportunity to share the good news of Jesus Christ. Immigration has an incredible opportunity for evangelism. Now let's not forget that. And there are wonderful stories that are beginning to merge out of some of the horrific stories of immigration, where churches are reaching out and showing the love of Christ.

And let's remember when people come, they're often in desperate straits. They're leaving either very significant poverty or violence, war, hostility in their own country. They're coming into a context where they don't know the language. They're coming into a setting where the food is different, the culture is different, everything is different. And in the middle of that, to have a people who reach out to them and care for them and love them, even though some at the same time they're saying to the government, "Yes, make sure that order is one aspect of the public policy." Even though they're doing that simultaneously, they're showing the love of Christ and reflecting the Gospel in their ministry to people.

Scott Rae: Yeah, that's a great point. So to see that as an opportunity. Sometimes I think we forget though that there are some countries that are sending immigrants as missionaries to the West.

Dennis Hollinger: That's right.

Scott Rae: And it's not uncommon, as you know, for people who are on the move into the United States to bring a very vibrant Christian faith with them. And then I think there's...We have a lot, the majority of the country I think has a lot to learn from the immigrant church. Because it seems to be pretty vibrant and alive in most cases. So-

Dennis Hollinger: And I was just going to say on that point, Scott, that my understanding is that in Great Britain, for example, and you had been the more industrial sector of Great Britain, the middle part Manchester and so forth. In that area of England, you have a large number of Muslims who have come, which you also have significant numbers of Christians who have come from African countries. And the turning to Christ in the Islamic community there is by and large through the African missionaries in the UK.

Scott Rae: Yeah. All right. Let's be a little more specific. Going back to your order, freedom, justice, what does that leg on the stool of justice look like in terms of public policy for immigrants coming into the US?

Dennis Hollinger: The difficult thing about justice is we have different definitions of justice. And here I'm talking about the [inaudible] sphere of justice. That is, what are the rights, goods, opportunities that we distribute to people in a society? You have three basic definitions. One is merit. The justice has to do with what is owed people. So a merit definition says you are owed in accordance to what you merit by your actions, by your abilities and so forth. You merit what you receive. Second is the definition of equality, an egalitarian model. Some will go as far as saying equal outcomes, but most egalitarians want equal access. Equal access to jobs, to pay, to housing, to opportunities within society. All people, regardless of their religion, regardless of their race, regardless of their gender, their sex, they have a right to equal access of the various opportunities in a given society. That's an egalitarian model.

Then there's a third definition, it's called need justice. And it's picking up on some of the Old Testament commands regarding showing justice to the poor, to the widow, to the sojourner, to the downtrodden who are among you. So what is owed is on the basis of a need. Now, my contention is that there's a biblical basis for all three. For example, on the merit side, if a person doesn't work, they shall not eat, in Thessalonians. You have Jesus' Parable of the Talents, where a person is rewarded for taking the two people in the parable and rewarded for taking what they have. And from it, investing and developing more. The one who went and hid and didn't do that is judged. And so you have their sense of notion, of merit. And so when it comes to immigration, I think we could say this: people who obey the laws and the procedures and follow the procedures ought to merit a priority over those who don't. Who, say, come into the country illegally.

Now, life's never quite so clear and pure as all of that. And so we have to also make sure that we have an egalitarian aspect. And I think you can make a case for equality, or we're created in the image of God. There's just all kinds of things that point...I think even the story of the Exodus becomes a paradigm for freedom out of spiritual darkness, but also a kind of individual personal, even civil freedom that we grant to people. And so you have the egalitarian aspect in which we are not going to discriminate on the basis of what country they come from, color of their skin, their religion, etc. And then you have need justice, which means that we also give special attention to those who are coming from context where there is great oppression. Where people are fleeing from persecution, where they are fleeing from warfare, and they come as desperate, desperate people. And we're not simply moved by our mercy in that, but there's a principle also of need justice.

I think that public policy, we ought to say, how can we incorporate those three? Now that's not easy to do, granted. But it seems to me there's a place for you to assess.

Scott Rae: Some may conflict.

Dennis Hollinger: And they may conflict through time.

Scott Rae: We may have to make choices.

Dennis Hollinger: And we do that all the time in ethics and we do it in public policy. We realize there are multiple goods and sometimes there are multiple evils and we have to choose between them. That's simply part of the murkiness of this fallen world we live in.

Scott Rae: So that any public policy on immigration is not likely to be perfect.

Dennis Hollinger: It's not going to be a kingdom-built policy, that's for certain.

Scott Rae: That's, I guess, a good way to put it. So would you say that the Church then has moral obligations to needy immigrants regardless of whether they are documented or not?

Dennis Hollinger: I think so. Here we get into some of the very serious discussions. Should the Church, for example, be a sanctuary?

Scott Rae: That was my next question.

Dennis Hollinger: Let's just talk about that for a little bit. And I think that's a tough question. I think to some degree you have to look at the specific context that you're in and try to understand what is actually going on. What is the threat to people's life by agents who are tracking them down and so forth, deporting them, and where are they being deported to? We have to look at that.

Scott Rae: That's a great question. We don't often think about that.

Dennis Hollinger: We forget, for example, that additionally we rejected Jews during the Holocaust initially. Fortunately we finally turned around, but there was a period of time in the very earliest days where we responded, "No, you cannot come to these shores." And we know what happened when they weren't allowed. We don't want the same thing to happen. I think there, our sense of both justice and mercy have to kick in. And so I think there comes situations when we look at the context and we say, yes, there is grounds for, I'm going to use the language of a civil disobedience. Understanding exactly what we're doing. Not out of disrespect for the government, not out of disrespect for the policies, but because of a larger commitment to justice. And if you will, a kind of witness to the State that says to the State, "We need to be attentive to the circumstances that are driving people into these very unfortunate migrations that are taking place."

Scott Rae: All right. Now I know this is an unfair question, so bear with me. But let's assume for the moment that there's a lot of our immigration law that's broken today. If you could write some of the laws, what kinds of things would you like to fix in our public policy on immigrants? I'm not asking for something comprehensive. Give me some examples of some things you'd like to fix.

Dennis Hollinger: Let me just say that immigration is not a single issue. We have border issues. We have issues regarding what are the proper procedures by which a person comes into the country. We have deportation issues. When people have come illegally, how do we handle that? We have issues surrounding children, people who were brought here by their parents through no choice of their own, who were born here to undocumented. And of course the whole dreamers situation, which we've got to give attention to. And the current politicization is really unfortunate because we've got to address that. And the politicization is keeping both sides of the aisle from addressing.

So I think as we look at this, if I was able to in some way put something together, I don't have technical expertise. What I would do is draw key people who have knowledge in each of those spheres. So it would be lawyers who understand the legal process. It would be guards who were on the border, who every day are looking at what is happening there on the border, who would bring the expertise from the various spheres that relate and say to them, "Given our commitments to order and to freedom and to justice, recommend to us the best possible solutions we can possibly find."

Scott Rae: Okay. Now one final question. What would you say to the Church about their obligation to the immigrants in their midst, documented or not?

Dennis Hollinger: Well, God always people into our midst for such a time as this. And we are in a time when we have people at our doorsteps. And I think we have to say that even though they have come for very unfortunate reasons, out of the destitution out of the violence in their own home country, even though they have sometimes come illegally, and some have come legally, some are here through no fault of their own, it's an opportunity for us to really demonstrate the love and mercy of Christ. And at the same time, bear witness to the larger government of a better way.

Scott Rae: Dennis, thank you. I so appreciate your willingness to delve into some of the weeds. Not all the way in the weeds, but to start talking about how the Bible relates to our public policy on this. Because we've had a lot of good discussion on the issue. Not a lot of it has been focused by people who care about the scripture, but who also care about good public policy too. So I appreciate your willingness to wade into that. This has been so helpful, so insightful. Thank you so much for being with us. And that immigration debate will be ongoing. It'll be interesting to compare some of what you suggest, to hear about freedom, order and justice with how the different political parties and platforms deal with immigration going forward.

Dennis Hollinger: Well thank you for having me and thank you for addressing this issue in your podcast.

Scott Rae: This has been an episode of the podcast Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith & Culture. To learn more about us and today's guest, Dr. Dennis Hollinger, and to find more episodes, go to That's If you enjoyed today's conversation, give us a rating on your podcast app and be sure to share it with a friend. Thanks so much for listening. And remember, think biblically about everything.