As thousands of migrants from Central America travel in a large caravan by foot through Honduras and across Mexico’s southern border, many Americans are citing the words at the base of the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
But for American Christians, another text — Genesis 1:26, in the first book of the Bible — should shape this often vitriolic debate. We should remember that all human beings, including immigrants, were created in God’s image. Followers of Jesus should lead the conversation by recognizing the humanity of those who seek to enter our country and should reject language that assaults their dignity. And we should be the first to speak up for the stranger. After all, our story is a story of people on the move, from Genesis to Revelation. And we are, in a spiritual sense, not yet home.
In the first book of Peter, we are told we are “foreigners and exiles” on our way to that city “whose builder and maker is God,” from Hebrews 11.
Admittedly, the United States cannot take in all the world’s most vulnerable, and our elected officials have a responsibility, according to Romans 13, to keep us safe and to set reasonable limits. But surely the wealthiest and freest nation in the history of the world can, in a time of economic prosperity, take in more than we do?
Let’s remember that this debate is not, after all, happening in a vacuum, but during a time of such massive displacement of people, due to civil war, unrest and religious persecution. According to the United Nations, 65.8 million people were displaced at the end of 2017. Will those who have lost everything find, in American Christians, an open hand or a closed fist?
Ultimately public policy will be decided by our elected officials, but politicians respond to what they hear from their constituents.
What is required, at this moment, are leaders with the courage to reject the politics of fear and division, who are willing to work together to fix an immigration system everybody agrees is broken.
Young children are separated from their families and, at times, are tragically unaccounted for. Christian brothers and sisters fleeing persecution and terror are turned away. And our process for giving asylum seekers the chance to make the case that the United States should grant asylum is deeply flawed. Not only does this mean our nation fails to live up to its best ideals, but also that our nation is less safe. We should urge Congress to pass meaningful reform that balances security and compassion.
What gives me hope is that offline, out of the headlines, and in communities across the country, ordinary Christians are caring for refugees and immigrants in big and small ways. In my own community in Nashville, churches are reaching across denominational lines to provide job training, English classes and financial assistance to help ease assimilation into a new country.
Deciding immigration policy demands courage and wisdom from our leaders. But more importantly, it is an opportunity for the people of God to live out the gospel by seeing the face of God in the faces of the vulnerable.
Daniel Darling is vice president of communication for The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. He is the author of “The Dignity Revolution, Reclaiming God’s Rich Vision for Humanity.”