Christians at the Border – book review


Christians border

I wrote this review a few years ago, but the topic of Immigration is very much in the news. This book is very thought provoking.  I recommend it.

Christians at the Border, M Daniel Carroll R., Baker Academic, 2008

Review by David Carlson, Pastor of Bethany EFC, Madison, WI

Summary Review:

Christians at the Border calls the reader to think biblically about Immigration.  Many Christians base what they believe on immigration more on their politics than on the Scripture.  “We must determine whether the place we choose to stand on the national debate will be based on the word of God….or whether we will defend our opinion on other grounds.”  (p. 23)  Carroll calls upon both the Christian citizen and the Christian who is undocumented to conform their lives to the Word.

The first chapter outlines the history of Immigration in the United States.  He raises this question:    “Is God bringing millions of Hispanics to the US to revitalize the Christian Churches here and to present to those who do not yet believe the opportunity to turn to Christ…?”  (p. 61)

My answer is “Yes!”  We have begun a Latino church planning movement in Wisconsin.  Many have been won to Christ.  We Anglos have learned about faith from our Latino brothers and sisters.

Carroll outlines passages and themes in the Old and New Testament that are relevant to the question.   He does not try to proof text or fabricate a simplistic answer.  Indeed the 140 pages are greatly enriched by thoughtful footnotes and resources; further study is available to you the reader.  He discusses: the Image of God; The experience of OT people as refugees and immigrants; hospitality; the Law and the sojourner (which calls for fair treatment).  In the New Testament he notices Jesus life as an alien and his treatment of outsiders and Samaritans in particular.   His discussion of Romans 13 is eye opening.

I recommend this book as a good entry point on the issue.  You will have to read and reflect to glean what is here.  The adventurous pastor may even find a sermon series.

Extended Review

Author:  M. Daniel. Carroll (Rodas) is Distinguished Professor of Old Testament at Denver Seminary and adjunct professor at El Seminario Teológico Centroamericano in Guatemala City, Guatemala.  He received his PhD from the University of Sheffield.

He describes himself as being both bilingual and bicultural.  He is the son of a Guatemalan mother and an American father, growing up in Houston.  His mother made a point of raising her children bilingually and bi-culturally, by involving them intentionally in Latin American culture.

In addition to his ongoing work in Guatemala, he founded a Spanish language training program at Denver Seminary called IDEAL.

Purpose of Book: (p. 19ff)  “My intention is to try to move Christians to reconsider their starting points in the immigration debate.  Too often discussion default to the passionate ideological arguments, economic wrangling, or racial sentiments that dominate national discourse.  Among Christians, my experience has been that there is little awareness of what might be a divine viewpoint on immigration.”

Defining Terms:  He discusses the terms “Hispanic” (Hispano-), Latino(a), immigrant, refugee, undocumented immigrants, illegal aliens.  He uses “Hispanic” because it is the more familiar term.  He prefers “undocumented immigrants” as it is less prejudicial.

Title:  “Christians at the Border” has a double meaning.  He will point out the number of Christians, or persons with Christian heritage among Hispanic immigrants.  He is also suggesting that Anglo Christians in the US are at a border:  Will we stand with the Word of God or will we defend our opinions on other cultural grounds?

Chapter 1 – Hispanic Immigration.

History: The majority of this chapter is a brief history of immigration in the United States.  He points out that immigration is always part of a global story of forces that push and pull people from one country to another.  The US has had a history of restrictions on immigration:  The Chinese immigration of the mid 19th C was feared and limited by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.  Chinese could not be citizens until 1943 when that act was repealed.  Irish and Southern European immigrants met prejudice – often because they were Roman Catholic.  This lead to the Quota Act (1921) and the Johnson-Reed Act (1924).  Africans were brought to America as slaves and were left largely disenfranchised until the Emancipation Proclamation (1863) and the passage of the 13th Amendment (1865), the 14th  Amendment (1868).

Hispanic Immigration did not begin until 1848.  At that time, large parts of the SW United States were ceded to the US by Mexico.  This means that there has been a large Hispanic presence in the US from that date.  When Chinese workers were restricted in the 19th C it resulted in more Mexican workers coming across the border.  Labor shortages in WWI increased this number.  Political conflicts in Mexico were a factor.  The US Border Patrol was begun in 1924.  With the Great Depression the pull of immigration was lessened and resistance was stronger.  The Bracero agreement in 1942 welcomed guest workers during WWII. This was scaled back during McCarthy era of 1954.  The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 preserved quotas – at a rate much lower than the reality on the ground.  In a986 The Immigration and Reform and Control act was passed and remains in effect – it granted 3 million “amnesty” if they could prove residency since 1982.  Since that time the number of immigrants has increased from all over Latin America.  Recent attempts at “Comprehensive Immigration Reform” have not passed Congress.

National Identity: Carroll segues here into a discussion of “Americanness”.  Hispanic population has more than doubled since 1990, to an estimated 35.3 million.  Some, such as Samuel Huntington (The Clash of Civilizations) and Congressman Tom Tancredo, as well as Pat Buchanan raise the fear that the cultural distinctives of the US might be under threat – among these are: individualism, private property, a market economy and a legal and cultural heritage from Western Europe.

Carroll makes these points:  increased controls of undocumented immigrants only serves to keep them from assimilating into American culture; immigration is a worldwide phenomenon and research shows that the world is becoming ‘transnational’; Latinos themselves feel the pull of two cultures, and their children are forming a new culture; different cultures have their strengths to contribute to our culture (such as putting a high value on family); American identity has never bee static, and we are going though another periodic transformation.  He concludes “These developments are an opportunity for an enhancement of national identity, not a threat to be warded off at all costs.” (p. 48)

Economic Realities:  There is an argument that all these immigrants are a net drag on our economy because of the various social service costs involved.  Carroll cites Congressman Tancredo’s book (In Mortal Danger) as an example.  Carroll then cites alternative research to suggest another way to view this issue.  When the Hispanic contributions to our economy, the need for Social Security for young workers to pay into it, and the need for service sector workers are added to the conversation it is not nearly so negative.

The story or Remittances, or monies sent from Hispanic workers to the home country or village is mixed.  Carroll wants us to realize that all of the Americas are affected by this and “simplistic solutions do not work.”  He goes on to discuss NAFTA and its effects.

The Christian Faith:  The Christian faith is vibrant among immigrants.  The 2/3 of immigrants who are Roman Catholic are matched by the increased numbers of protestant Hispanic churches that are being established in out country.  After some discussion of these developments, Carroll notes that it is part of the “browning” or the “globalizing” of the faith.  We need to “[appreciate] the breadth and power of what God is doing in the world today.”  He asks: “Is God bringing millions of Hispanics to the United States to revitalize the Christian churches here and to present to those who do hot yet believe the opportunity to turn to Christ in their search for a new life?  Many Hispanics and pastors sincerely believe that God has led them here for a purpose:  to play an important role in a revival of the Christian faith in this country.” (p. 61)

  1. Of Immigrants, Refugees, and Exiles: Guidance from the Old Testament, Part 1.

            This chapter is a thematic exploration of Old Testament texts that might shed insight into a Christian framework of the issue.

The Image of God, Genesis 1:  That is to say, we need to remember that it is people, created in the image of God, who are in view.  This means immigrants have value as persons.  Human rights are a logical extension of this idea.  He cites Exodus 34:6,7; Joel 2:13; 4:2; Psalm 145:8-9.  This message is also for the immigrant believer – emphasizing worth as well as responsibility.

Experience of the People of God:  This line of thought is more suggestive than declarative.  One asks “how did these people find themselves where they lived?”   Abram and his family migrated repeatedly, only owned a gravesite, and was called a sojourner.  Isaac and Jacob moved based on famines.  Ruth transferred her life and faith from Moab to Israel and Israel’s god.  The book of Ruth has to be read against the backdrop of O. T. Law (Dt. 25:5-10; Ex 6:7; Lev 26:12) Joseph was forced into exile, where he accommodates to Egyptian life but maintains faith in the LORD, and is seen as part of a larger plan of God’s.  Daniel was also in exile and dealt with cultural accommodation and faithfulness.  Moses was an escapee from Egypt, David had to run from Solomon.  Israel lives as aliens in Egypt. They were Deportees who went to Babylon after 586 BC.   Some were Escapees who returned under Ezra and Nehemiah.  Ezekiel lived among the exiles and Jeremiah wrote to them on how to live there (Jer 29). The story of Esther takes place in Persia.  All of these stores show the various dynamics of immigration, cultural accommodation, and developing boundaries for culture and for faith.    Carroll suggests that they show that immigration is a part of biblical history and ours, they add a human face to the issue, and such movements seem to add “creative space” to the lives of those who have been disrupted from familiar patterns.

  1. The Law and the Sojourner: Guidance from the Old Testament, Part II

            This chapter differs from the previous in that it discusses particular O. T. legal texts.

Hospitality to the stranger is a virtue – both in the narratives (Gen 18, Exodus 2, 2 Kings 4 and I Kings 17) in other writings (Job 31:32, Isaiah 58:6-7 and perhaps Psalm 23).  “The theme of hospitality is relevant to the immigrant debate.  The biblical text can gently prod believers in the majority culture to a greater mind-set of hospitality and to actions of hospitality toward the strangers who are Hispanic immigrants.”  (p. 94)

Carroll emphasizes that the purpose of the Law was not for the people to earn salvation, but to learn how to live as the redeemed people of God.  (Ex 19,20).   Genesis12 indicates that Abraham’s seed were to be a blessing to the nations.  Deuteronomy 4:5-8 indicates the law was a blessing and a witness.

Four terms are used for outsiders:  (ger, tosab, nokri and zar). The first receives the most attention.  Numerous laws regulate the relationship of Israel and it’s resident aliens: as workers (Dt 24:14, I Chron 22:2, II chron 2:17-18); gleaning law (Lev 19:10, 23:22; Dt 24:19-22, Ruth 2), tithe for poor (Dt 14:28-29, 26:12-13), fair wages (Dt 24:15), Sabbath rest (Ex 20:10; 23:12; Dt 5:14), fair legal treatment (Dt. 1:16-17; 24:17-18; 27:19).  The Prophets defended them against abuse (Jer 22:3; Exek 22:7, mal 3:5, cf Ps 94:6).  The reasons behind these laws is that they had been aliens themselves (Lev 19:18, 24).  God himself defends the alien (Dt 10:17-19, Ps 146:6-9, Dt 24:14-15).

In addition there are provisions for assimilation, participation in the Sabbath, the Day of Atonement, Passover, Weeks, Tabernacles, Firstfruits, forgiveness of unintentional sins and cities of refuge.  They were to be present at the reading of the Law (Dt 31:10-13).  They were subject to criminal penalties, dietary restrictions, sexual taboos and prohibited form the worship of other gods.  (I have not cited every scripture here, but enough to give a sense of the whole.)

He concludes, “…the importance of caring for the sojourner is also binding today.  At the very least, this ethical commitment should resonate with the people of God in the majority culture.  It ought to be demonstrated in specific measures that respond to the needs of the immigrant.”  (p. 109)   He also notes that “…the arrival and presence of sojourners were not a threat to Israel’s national identity; rather their presence was fundamental to its very meaning.” (p. 109-110).  And “The Old Testament law makes clear that there are expectations for the sojourner, just as there are demands on Israel.” (p.111.)


  1. Welcoming the Stranger; Guidance from the New Testament.

In this chapter Carroll looks at themes and particular texts.


Jesus the refugee.  The Christmas story contains the account of the flight to Egypt (Matthew 2).  This “locates the Jesus story within a movement that spans history, of people desiring a better life or escaping the threat of death.”  ( p. 116)

Jesus and outsiders.  Noting that there were divisions and conflicts in 1st Century Palestine, Carroll review how Jesus treated the outsider.  Jesus did not share the anti-Samaritan attitudes of his disciples (Luke 9:51-56).  John 4 shows Jesus encounter with the woman of Samaria, were geographic and cultural borders were crossed in Jesus conversation by the well.  Luke 17 shows that only the Samaritan leper returned to offer thanks.  In Luke 10, Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan to answer the question: “who is my neighbor?”  Matthew 25 speaks of the “stranger.”

There are no direct teachings on immigration in the teaching of Jesus.  However, “Jesus actions and attitudes transcend cultural identity; they also help define what it means to be his follower.” (p. 125).

Christians as Sojourners.  Citing I Peter 1:1 and 2:11, and linking the passage to Genesis 23:4 he says, “This Old Testament allusion connects the experience of these Christians back to the ancient patriarch.  Their sojourning is not unique.  The history of the people of God is the pilgrimage of faith of whose who are alienated from the world.” (p. 127)  Carroll does not suggest that the majority simply accept the immigrant, rather that both recognize their status as sojourners, and accept rejection if necessary.

The Call to Hospitality.  Carroll focuses on the Jesus’ teaching in Luke 14 as an imperative to offer a gracious welcome to those who can not repay us. (Rom 12:13, Heb 13:2, I peter 4:9, I Tim 3:2, Titus 1:8, I Tim 5:9-10)

What about Romans 13?  In this section Carroll suggests that we need to back off and take a wider view of this passage and the current context of immigration.  It is not enough, he says, to simply say, “obey the law.”  “It is my conviction that there are a series of prior considerations that must be dealt with before introducing issues of legality. One must treat legal matters eventually.” (p. 131) Such factors as the call to “not be conformed to the world” in Romans 12, and the stated need by our government that the laws need to be somehow changed, suggest this wider view.  “Discussion on legality cannot be limited just to questions about complying with the present laws.  If the laws are problematic theologically, humanely and pragmatically…the call to submit to the authorities in Romans 13 can be processed in fresh and constructive ways.”  (p. 134).

  1. Where do we go from here?

Carroll indicates in a variety of ways that his purpose is to get Christians to think more carefully and more biblically on this issue.  We need to move away from ideological or political convictions and think scripturally.  “Christians at the Border above all else strives to motivate believers of the majority culture and Hispanics to begin thinking, talking and acting as Christians in regard to immigration.  What I have written here is a starter, a primer.”  P. 138

Reviewer’s Evaluation:

I believe that Carroll has accomplished the purpose of widening our view of the historical context of immigration and the larger biblical context.  He goes beyond proof-texting, and lays a great deal of emphasis on biblical themes.  This makes sense in that there is very little specific to borders and immigration law in the Bible. Nation states with guarded borders are a modern reality, not one from the Ancient Near East.

Carroll, bring himself bi-lingual and bi-cultural is clearly pulled by his background when he comes to Romans 13.  I appreciate fully his desire to broaden our reading here.  However this will be the sticking point in the discussion.  He is persuasive to those (like me) who think as he does, but to the more strictly textual minded, his answer will seem vague.

Christians at the Borders is an excellent guide into thinking biblically about Immigration.  His bibliography and extensive footnotes possibly the best part of the book.