Welcoming the Stranger Can Revive Tired Denominations

A review of They Are Us: Lutherans and Immigration by Stephen Paul Bouman and Ralston Deffenbaugh, Augsburg Fortress, 2009. 144 pages.

[1] A book this good is worth its weight in gold. Actually, the book weighs about nine ounces, which would make it worth over $9,000. However, although it's worth its weight in gold, it doesn't cost its weight in gold. To get one you either need to pay the cover price or visit Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, donate $100 on-line and receive a signed copy of the book. I recommend making the donation. By doing so, you support one of the best Lutheran ministries in the United States.

They Are Us: Lutherans and Immigration by Stephen Bouman and Ralston Deffenbaugh[2] Many Lutherans do not know that Lutherans are really good at refugee resettlement and immigration advocacy. This is unfortunate. Synods could do worse in terms of launching their Immigration Task Forces (all synods of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), by vote of Churchwide Assembly, are supposed to have such a task force, but not all do, see page 134) than to assemble a group of lay and clergy to read this book, then send the task force out to every congregation in their synod to tell the stories they read in the book.

[3] The specific work the book accomplishes for readers is to turn their customary thinking around. Although the common way of thinking about immigrants in our culture is to ponder the "problem of the immigrant," this book "takes the immigrants' humanity with utter seriousness — after which it is to work out proposals and policies" (xiv.) It then goes on to celebrate the "gift of the immigrant," a unique and gospel-centered perspective.

Policy and Theology
[4] Lutherans are very good at refugee resettlement and immigration ministries. Deffenbaugh and Bouman pack this book with stories of congregations and organizations that are good at this work (see especially chapters 6 & 7). Lutherans are also very clear on our advocacy talking points. So, in case you are wondering how Lutherans think ethically about immigration, here are the four questions that LIRS has chosen as its four criteria for weighing the spiritual value of immigration reform:

  • Does the proposal promote family unity?
  • Does the proposal promote human rights and worker rights?
  • Does the proposal enable those without status to come out of the shadows and live without fear?
  • Does the proposal provide a path to permanence as a full member of society?

[5] Bouman and Deffenbaugh argue that these four questions "provide a clear framework for the moral evaluation of both present and proposed immigration policies" (70). These four criteria undergird all of the ELCA's social policy resolutions and advocacy on immigration reform (in fact, if you would like to read the ELCA's most contemporary application of these criteria in it's November 2009 Social Policy Resolution, Toward Compassionate, Just, and Wise Immigration Reform, consider taking the time to read it).

[6] This is the policy side of the equation. Martin Marty, author of the forward of the book, offers a succinct and helpful law/gospel definition of Lutheran immigration ethics. "Any believers within the Old Testament tradition and responsive to the God of Israel learns from reading Scripture that anyone who was blocking the stranger or mistreating the alien — ancestors to today's immigrants — was committing one of the chief sins in the book: 'Remember, Israel, you were once aliens.' At the same time followers of the gospel of Jesus Christ get to welcome the stranger in his name, to practice hospitality, and to share in the gifts that come in the exchange with the stranger" (xiii.)

[7] Bouman and Deffenbaugh attend carefully to this law/gospel dialectic. They regularly offer examples of ways Lutheran Christians, and in fact all citizens of the United States and of the world, are expected by the law to ensure that migration will be "safe, positive, legal, regulated, humane, and hopefully one day unnecessary" (6). That is, they are not unrealistic about the legal and policy decisions that will need to be made to ensure that immigrants are treated ethically. In this "Kingdom on the Left" tradition, they offer four guiding principles for comprehensive immigration reform:

  • We recognize the need for homeland security but not at the expense of people's rights; harsh and punitive treatment is beneath the dignity of a nation of immigrants
  • We believe in family values and want immigration reform that protects families and keeps them together, reuniting them when they have been separated
  • We want to end the marginalization of the undocumented who huddle in the shadows, barely surviving in fear
  • We want a path toward permanence, a mechanism allowing those who contribute to our country's economy and society to live full and open lives.

[8] At the same time, their passion is in the "get to." We get to welcome the stranger in Christ's name. They believe that "compassion, solidarity, and generosity of spirit should come naturally to grandchildren of a wandering Aramean" (20). They make this point by offering story after story of congregations and groups that are on the road in mission, and standing in the breach for immigrants and refugees. This is the best way to present the gospel side of the law/gospel dialectic. The gospel is the story of what resurrection looks like, and these stories bear witness to resurrection embodied.

[9] Although the subtitle of this book is "Lutherans and Immigration," it could just as applicably be "Lutherans and Missional Theology." In the last chapter of the book, Deffenbaugh and Bouman convince us that if the ELCA recovers its first love (love for Christ, the gospel, and the people God loves), if the ELCA moves forward in mission, it will do so as a church that "embraces the stranger, welcomes all people, and has a vital mission in the increasingly global American community" (122).

[10] In fact, the most lovely sentence in the whole book may be this one: Welcoming the stranger can revive tired denominations. Bouman and Deffenbaugh see welcoming the stranger not as task but as gift. Or, in the language some are using in the missional conversation, the gift is a call and the call is a gift. The call is a gift, because "the strangers, our new neighbors, bring immense spiritual gifts with them.... Many of our new neighbors bring vibrant faith, love of Scripture, and deeply evangelical hearts. Immigration means spiritual re-enchantment" (5-6).

[11] This is the primary way Deffenbaugh and Bouman turn the immigration debate on its head. Rather than approaching immigration through zero-sum thinking, fear-mongering about what immigrants take away, how much they cost, and what a burden they are, they approach immigration through open-sum thinking, presenting the ways immigrants bring gifts with them, contribute to the local congregation and community, and are an asset and blessing for the communities where they take up residence.

[12] This is the kind of thinking that is truly missional. It is a vision for a new future that is grounded in our own past and story. "Remember, Israel, you were once aliens." "We are a nation of immigrants." "We are called, we get to be, a church that provides a haven for every refugee, advocates for jobs for every migrant, and finds a home for every immigrant" (7). This is a convincing case not just for the ethics of immigration, but for a definition of what Lutherans mean when they say revival.

Clint Schnekloth is pastor of East Koshkonong Lutheran Church, Cambridge, Wisconsin.




© February 2010
Journal of Lutheran Ethics
Volume 10, Issue 2