Once more on the Bible and “Illegal Immigrants”

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by Neil Godfrey

Hector Avalos has updated his chapter “The Bible Is Not a Friend of Immigrants”  in The Bible in Political Debate: What Does It Really Say? and posted a link for its PDF version to be downloaded from The Bible and Interpretation.

Once more on Romans 13:1-7. Avalos’s chapter contains the following comment:

Romans 13:1-7 could be used by authoritarian regimes to justify their rule, and we might have to repudiate our Founding Fathers for their rebellion against Britain.

True. Yet was not the passage written to justify the authority of none other than imperial Rome, an authoritarian regime that treated rebels with the utmost cruelty.

Avalos concludes:

The Bible is too morally contradictory to be a friend to immigrants. For every immigrant-friendly prooftext, someone else can find one that says the  opposite. . . . .

It is very difficult for Christian biblical scholars to criticize what they worship. Christian biblical scholars are, in general, worshippers or admirers of Christ. Jesus is definitely one character who is “protected” from moral criticism, and one can see it today on immigration issues. He is portrayed as uniformly the friend of immigrants, when his portrayal in the Gospels is far more complicated and contradictory.

The result of these religionist approaches is the perpetuation of a textual imperialism that retains the authority of the Bible. More importantly, the denunciation of “bad” or “illegitimate” interpretations of the Bible, when based on theological rationales, continues an orthodox-heterodox model of biblical interpretation that has caused so much conflict and violence throughout Christian history.

Most biblical scholars I have seen comment on the current family separation crisis are more involved in a sectarian war about biblical interpretation than in a battle against using the Bible to debate immigration issues.

We certainly need biblical scholars who will publicly challenge bad interpretations of the Bible, whether they be from Jeff Sessions or Jesus. But we also need more biblical scholars who will help this world move beyond the very idea that the Bible should be a moral, social or political authority at all.

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Neil Godfrey

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9 thoughts on “Once more on the Bible and “Illegal Immigrants””

  1. The Bible is a collection of the writings of people in a wide variety of situations over perhaps 1000 years. Avalon is certainly right that it is inappropriate to pick out particular texts to support a particular political or moral position, especially to interpret that position as the will of God.

    And yet the Bible is first and foremost an extended moral discussion, and without according it any divine authority, one can recognize the great themes of social justice and mercy being developed by ethical “prophets” from Amos and Hosea, through Paul and the writers of the gospels. We can trace the evolution of a harsh code designed in part to distinguish God’s “chosen people” from the dangerous and despised “others”, into a universal ethical system encompassing gentiles as well as Jews, and consciously defending the weak against the strong and the poor against the rich. It is in this sense that I believe it is still appropriate to seek lessons from the Bible in addressing current political and moral issues. For all the contradictions and anomalies, the teachings of Jesus as conveyed in the gospels do convey s coherent moral message that remains relevant today.

    1. Check out Avalos’s article. Certainly, the themes you have presented are very much part of the cultural cache of our Christian heritage. But Avalos cites numerous other sections of the Bible and scholarly interpretations of them that demonstrate there is a lot of racial and religious prejudice detrimental to “the other” throughout, too – even in the words of Jesus as per the gospels. Have a look at his article/revised chapter.

      1. I did read it before I commented. I agree that the Bible is full of racial and religious prejudice. But isn’t such prejudice against the “other” universal, and probably deeply evolved in our genes, due to the survival value of in group loyalty? In the Bible, we can trace a cultural evolution toward a more universal concept of moral obligations. The cultural overlay remains weak and liable to be overcome by primitive instincts, especially in times of stress and danger. But it is because of such moral reasoning (and I’m not claiming any exclusivity for the Bible in this respect) that we have made some steps toward such things as abolishing slavery, enhancing the status of women, developing the concept of equal rights under the law, and adopting codes of human rights.

        1. The bible is not a collection of stories and situations that through the need to resolve them laws were created. The bible is a collection of laws written through stories. The evolution in the bible is a tool to explain the reason those laws were active around other people who have nothing to do with those stories (the use of the so-called noahide laws by the bible proves that this was a tactic of the writers). There are no contradictions in the laws of the bible, contradictions are raised when the stories are used out of context to support a political agenda. Avalos in his article proved that this is the case even today.
          And “abolishing slavery, enhancing the status of women, developing the concept of equal rights” are not supported by the bible, neither are ideas that were raised by the bible, those are ideas that were been exploited by political entities who used the bible out of context. Those “steps forward” were made when the authority of the church over the laws of the nations, ceased.

          1. Yam, I’m not saying that the abolition of slavery, equal rights for women, etc are advocated in the Bible, and I agree that the impetus for these things came with the secularization of society during the enlightenment. But these things were the result of a long tradition of moral advocacy for social justice and mercy that was heavily influenced by the Hebrew prophets, culminating in Jesus.

            Most of The leaders of the anti-slavery movement were devout Christians, in spite of the fact that the Bible nowhere condemns slavery.

            1. I think we have here an argument for causation based on correlation – the same false reasoning that leads some to see Islam itself as a cause of terrorism.

              Yes, Christians played a significant role in the anti-slavery movement, but what we need to ask is why did those Christians oppose slavery at the time and place they did. Christianity was not as a general rule historically opposed to slavery itself. We find the anti-slavery movement emerging at a particular time and place in history and it is not an explanation to say that the movement arose because of inspiration from the Bible. The Bible was found to be an inspiration at that time — but why? What led some people to find in the Bible passages that opposed slavery when the faith based on that same Bible had not seen those “anti-slavery” passages there before.

              That suggests to me that the use of the Bible in the anti-slavery movement is not a simple cause-effect thing but is itself a viewpoint/interpretation that needs historical explanation.

  2. “And yet the Bible is first and foremost an extended moral discussion”

    I strongly disagree.

    First, as an aside, what do you mean by “the Bible”?

    Regardless of which of the three choices you make, I strongly disagree.

    Every Abrahamic religion is all about establishing a power hierarchy– a state– that is permanent and cannot be questioned. Morality and ethics are secondary, if not tertiary. It’s the laws that must be obeyed that matter.

    The Bible, whatever you may consider it to include (Old T, New T, or both) is among the most immoral documents ever published, both in terms of content and intent. The morality the Bible apes existed before the Bible, which never fully embraced that morality except as a means of control.

    1. I only quoted some of the words of Avalos’s conclusion. To know what he means by “the Bible” check out his full article itself — he discusses that.

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