Make Them Go Home: What the Letter to Philemon May Hold for our Immigrant Crisis Today

In mid-March, Christianity Today published an article  by Kate Shellnut on how President Trump’s initiatives concerning undocumented people were keeping people out of our Sunday worship experiences.  While fear of the hypothetical destruction of our country drove many voters to seek refuge in the bosom of our dear leader, fear of the actualized tearing apart of families have forced many into hiding, impacting churches with Latino adherents.  There is no sacred space anymore.


Consider the Elian Gonzalez quandary in the nineties.  The lasting image of a government agent pointing a firearm in the direction of a terrified and crying child is one that threatens to become more than just a memory.  As families are being torn apart, politics challenges the American church to evaluate how we determine the value of a post-birth individual.  Fighting for its core values, the many strands of the tapestry that is the American church  are struggling to identify what it means to be a royal priesthood and citizens of a spiritual kingdom while electing political leaders, fighting a culture war and defending an increasingly indefensible worldview .

While reading the facebook comments of the previously mentioned CT article, I came across the same kind of rhetoric that I normally hear on social media but never find it expressed in personal conversation:

“Doesn’t the Bible talk about us Christians adhering to the laws of our resident country? Jesus isn’t just in America.”  

“Teach your members to do the right thing, it’s wrong to get into someone’s country through the back door, go back to your country and worship God.”  

Whether expressed with a silver tongue or barb-wire verbiage, the idea is that if one converts to Christianity and is undocumented in the USA, he or she should immediately turn themselves over to the governing authorities and allow the chips to fall where they may.  If Trump wants them out, make them leave.  If Reagan wanted to grant them amnesty, let them stay.  So what posture is appropriate for the American church?  How do we balance being good citizens while affirming the basic dignity of all people?  My mind only came back to one name:  Philemon.  

The story of the slave Onesimus and his master Philemon is one that we have not given enough discussion to in our modern polivangelical™  sphere.  Most would make the connection between master and slave strictly to one of our nation’s ugliest scars and rightly so.  On a broader level, is there a correlation with the apostle Paul, his spiritual “child” and how we should interact with the undocumented today?    Yes!

One cannot deny that in order to bring peace, Paul did send Onesimus back to his master but not right away.  Paul had to be sure that Philemon would have had a receptive posture when he once again saw the slave who had wronged him.  Being set free by Christ, they were free to rewrite the social constructs that defined who they were.  Philemon was left to answer this question:  Am I a master with a servant or am I a servant to the Gospel?

If Paul was free to question the social constructs of his day, are we not free to evaluate the moral implications of conservative policy beyond a pro-life agenda?  One can be legally justified in seeking to restore order but that does not automatically put one in line with the Gospel.  Too often our spiritual and national identities are seen as being a completely overlapping circle rather than a venn diagram.  Perhaps it is time to look at the political system we have created and determine if we really are in the best place to tackle these issues.  I will make no claim to have the definitive answer to this situation, but as I examine Scripture, the following recommendations seem to fit right in line with the Gospel:

  • We must realize the potential for our political worldview to be defined by an “America-first” agenda and not a “Gospel for all people” mission
  • We must receive our undocumented brothers and sisters in Christ as brothers and sisters, not as infiltrators.  
  • We must reach out to those who have yet to hear the Gospel, knowing that its life giving message can bring justice and restoration to any situation with no clear answer.
  • We must reject the harmful rhetoric of our current political climate and affirm the humanity of ALL people
  • We must reevaluate howour government treats the undocumented and encourage our leaders to protect the dignity of all families.

I am calling for all those who consider themselves part of this fellowship, in whatever terms you want to put it, to place the Gospel front and center:  those who are “born-again,” those who have given their hearts to Jesus, those who consider themselves disciples, etc.  Let our mission not be defined by “at least our leaders are the lesser of two evils” but rather “Our king gives a freedom that no earthly leader can give us.”



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