A Gospel-Shaped Attitude to Immigration

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This is an expanded version of a pastoral passage of the same name, and was published in CCCNZ‘s Rongopai magazine, Winter 2019, and can be accessed here.

Cultural diversity is a fact of life in 21st century New Zealand. Cultural unity, is not.

For some New Zealanders, immigration is something that raises anxiety. The mosque shootings on March 15 highlighted the worst side of this attitude toward immigrants. “They Are Us” countered this, by asserting a common heritage of all who live in New Zealand: Whether by waka, sailing ship or passenger jet, we are all immigrants to these islands.

This is a well-meaning claim, but doesn’t change the fact that many people feel some level of unease about large numbers of new people moving into the country. Concerns about immigration are not unreasonable, and working through these concerns together is what is needed to have a diverse and unified nation. “They Are Us” is a commendable plea but it appeals to a basis for unity that is insufficient to actually unify.

True Power to Unify

The gospel has sufficient power to unify a culturally diverse society. But it needs to conform attitudes into its image first. As Christians the gospel should shape our values and perspectives on all things. But too often we are shaped more by the values of our culture or our own desires.

Paulus Orosius was a Christian thinker and historian who lived during the early 400s AD, when the western part of the Roman Empire was beginning to crumble under the barbarian invasions and mass people movements were happening all around the Roman world. “Immigration” was a very big issue of his day. It is evident that he valued his culture and took no pleasure in his civilization’s decline. But for him, that was not the most important thing.

Here is what he wrote:

“If only for this reason have the barbarians been sent within Roman borders, that the church of Christ might be filled with Huns and Suevi, with Vandals and Burgundians, with diverse and innumerable peoples of believers, then let God’s mercy be praised—even if this has taken place through our own destruction.”

These words display an astounding attitude. Hearing the reports of unchecked invasions, he asks: Perhaps God is behind this? He detects purpose may be in play—that people could come into the Christian faith who would never have heard of it otherwise. He acknowledges the cost: life as his civilization knows it is coming to an end. His response to this might be surprising to us; he does not complain angrily or fall into despair. Instead, he celebrates—rejoicing that the mercy of God can extend where it had not before.

Is the Gospel Calling us to go Further?

Do we ever suspect that the gospel might call us further than we are prepared to go? That it might ask us to change some of our most cherished assumptions about life? I once shared this statement of Orosius with a young Christian and avid Trump supporter. We had been discussing Trump’s policies on immigration. He immediately understood the implications of Orosius’ words and confessed that his faith was not ready for this. Orosius’ attitude toward immigration was indeed molded and shaped deeply by the gospel.

Orosius’ words provide reason to look past the fear of difference, or of loss, or of change that can foster unkind attitudes toward immigrants. In the events of his time Orosius saw possible providence and certain opportunity.

He was less concerned with what immigration might cost the “us” of his day, and more concerned with how immigration might benefit the “them”. He recognised that in this there was the opportunity to fulfil the obligation (Rom 1:14-15) of all of Christ’s people—to share the priceless spiritual treasure that is the gospel.

Even if it interfered with one’s rights and privileges.

An Attitude of Hospitality

This is one way the gospel fosters an attitude of hospitality and welcome rather than fear and exclusion. It is, of course, an attitude that comes from Jesus himself, and it is one that all his people should seek to emulate.

A gospel-shaped attitude can build the kind of unity a culturally diverse society like New Zealand needs. With Jesus as our common centre nations really can be united. That is how the vision of Revelation 7:9-10 comes about. That vision is not only a future or heavenly reality but one that is to be made present now, and is one that Paul worked to make happen in the churches he served and shepherded (Eph. 2:11-22; Col. 3:11; Rom. 10:12).

The best basis for unity a progressive secular culture can call upon is that of our common humanity. We who are Christ’s call upon a stronger basis for unity. Ours is based not on creation but on redemption—a common Saviour.

As redeemed people we are called to imitate our Redeemer in generosity and self-sacrifice in order to extend this welcome to others.

Saved to Serve

The gospel is bigger than our personal salvation. It is the power of God for salvation, but the gospel first saves and then creates a new way of life among those who are saved. We find that the boundaries that might naturally exist between us are erased since we share a common spiritual life grounded in and bestowed by the triune God.

Many immigrants to New Zealand already share in the Christian faith with us. These are our brothers and sisters in Christ. As for those who are not and where the boundaries still exist, a gospel-shaped attitude will have us see these boundaries as frontiers that our gospel requires us to cross.

Is the gospel we believe strong enough to do this today? Do you believe this gospel wholeheartedly enough to let it move you to reach over the barrier of race to offer friendship and welcome in the name of Jesus? To welcome others to share in the benefits of living in a civilization like ours?

If it does, even despite misgivings you might have on immigration, then the mindset spoken of so splendidly by Paulus Orosius lives in you. It is the mind of Christ.

I know a man who does a lot of ministry with immigrants to New Zealand. He has said that most of the people he works with have never been inside a Kiwi’s home, let alone been invited in to come share a meal with them. After saying ‘hello’, perhaps such an invitation might be a great place for you to start. That is how the gospel has the power to bring about cultural unity in a diverse nation like New Zealand.