Romans 13 and the immigration crisis

By Félix Cabrera
Jul 24, 2014

For the last two weeks, we have been working together with the National Latino Evangelical Coalition (NALEC) and the Evangelical Immigration Table to create strategies to help the more than 50,000 Hispanic children who have crossed the border in the last few months. The U.S. government has asked for help from the church and from humanitarian organizations to work to solve this crisis. Here in Oklahoma, they are detaining more than 1,200 children within the military facilities at Fort Sill in Lawton, and we have been granted permission to visit them and serve them.

Unfortunately, I have seen media reports of politicians who have reacted angrily toward this situation. Much to my surprise, many religious leaders have responded likewise. I heard one pastor say, “They are breaking the law, so why should the church help these criminal children?” I confess that hearing this response surprised me, saddened me, and upset me.

Crossing the border between Mexico and the United States without the proper permission certainly violates the law, and we must not ignore this fact. We are not encouraging parents to send their children to the United States. It is not only illegal, it is also dangerous, putting their children’s lives at risk.

However, we need to ask, “Why do these parents feel the need to send their children to the United States?” The answer is not simple. We must understand that in many Latin American countries violence is rampant and governments are corrupt. Too often, parents cannot find sufficient work, and there is not enough food to feed their children. Drug trafficking and usage have created unstable and insecure conditions. Parents are desperate for a better future for their children. A Christian can find purpose in God and solace in the midst of adversity, but among the majority who do not have Christ, some see migration as a means of salvation.

Understanding Romans 13

The principal New Testament text relating to government authorities is Romans 13. Does Romans 13 give unlimited power to the government to do what they want? History tells us that many notorious dictators and abusive governments have used Romans 13:1-5 out of context to abuse the power entrusted to them.

So what is the line or the limit for the Christian? Christians must subject ourselves to the government so long as the government does not require what God condemns nor condemns what God requires. Rights are not conferred by the government but by God. The government protects and ensures but does not bestow the rights that God has established. Romans 13 does not mean that Christians should subject themselves to laws that contradict what God has established. We always need to obey the law of the government when it does not conflict with the law of God, but obeying government unthinkingly leads to tyranny. The authority of the government is subject to the higher law of God.

As a church, we are not called to condemn or to despise these children, even if they have broken the law. From my humble point of view, these children should be treated as refugees. For those of us who call ourselves Christians, the Bible tells us to welcome the stranger.

“You shall not wrong a sojourner or oppress him, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt” (Exod. 22:21).

“For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who is not partial and takes no bribe. He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing. Love the sojourner, therefore, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt (Deut. 10:17-19).

This is not only a political matter; this is a biblical matter. It is about how we apply the gospel to this problem and recognize what Jesus expects from us.

“For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me” (Matt. 25:35-36).

Against Conscience

Martin Luther, at the crucial moment when he was told to retract his teachings against the Roman Catholic Church, said, “My conscience is held captive by the Word of God. And to act against conscience is neither right nor safe.”

Like Luther, I cannot act against my conscience. My conscience is captive to what God tells us in his Word, and he hopes that we receive, help, and present to our foreign-born brothers and sisters something better than the American Dream: we should offer them Jesus.

For that reason, the questions should not be, “Are we just allowing illegal entry?” Based on what God establishes in his Word, as a church and as Christians, the question should be, “Are we welcoming the stranger?”

Do not forget that, as Christians, our citizenship is not of this earth. One day, instead of being in the United States, we will be in the presence of God, where no one will be a foreigner but all wil enjoy citizenship in God’s eternal kingdom (Eph. 2:12-14).

NOTE: This article was originally published at The Gospel Coalition.

Further Learning

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