Immigrant Neighbors Among Us Review

March 6, 2018
Title: Immigrant Neighbors Among Us: Immigration Across Theological Traditions
M. Daniel Carroll R. and Leopoldo A. Sanchez M.
Publisher: Pickwick Publications
Publish Date: 
September 11, 2015
162 pages (Paperback)
ISBN: 978-1625643766

If John Calvin and Martin Luther sat down to discuss U.S. immigration policy in the 21st century, how would they engage this ongoing and increasingly divisive public debate? In the collection of essays edited by M. Daniel Carroll R. and Leopoldo Sanchez, Immigrant Neighbors Among US: Immigration Across the Theological Traditions, six U.S. Hispanic authors (each belonging to a different ecclesial tradition) provide a theological and pastoral perspective on the immigration debates by engaging resources from each of their traditions. Immigrant Neighbors Among Us does not provide any easy answers to this contentious public debate, but rather, it aims to equip Christian clergy, educators, and lay leaders with the knowledge of how to engage the conversation within a biblical and theological framework.

The six essays offered in Immigrant Neighbors Among Us represent responses from a Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Reformed, Methodist, Pentecostal, and Independent Evangelical perspective, respectively. Collectively, these essays are designed to address what the editors perceive to be a dearth of serious theological argumentation about immigration, even as political ideology and partisan politics seem to frame most conversations about immigration in the church pews. This collection not only contributes to the conversation by offering a distinctive theological framework, it also accomplishes this through the voices of Hispanic pastors, theologians, and ecclesial leaders, voices too often forgotten or neglected in this debate.

For the purposes of this review, I will narrow my focus to the third essay in this collection written by Ruben Rosario Rodríguez and titled, “Calvin’s Legacy of Compassion: A Reformed Theological Perspective on Immigration.”

You have heard it said that the church ought to stay out of government affairs and be concerned only with the spiritual guidance of the people of God. This common line of argument can be heard around many church pews and often manifests itself as two seemingly disparate responses: 1) an unequivocal condemnation of undocumented immigrants as law-breakers paired with an unquestioning adherence to the state’s laws in adherence to Romans 13, or 2) a congregational commitment to welcoming and loving all immigrants paired with indifference or resistance to engaging civil officials or the government advocating for immigration reform.

Rodríguez’ opening argument shows that both responses are more representative of an Anabaptist view of church and state relations than of a Reformed stance informed by Calvin’s theological legacy in Geneva. By contrast, Rodríguez explains Calvin’s more nuanced view of the church-state relationship, which—while maintaining a separation between the church and state—nonetheless saw them both as needing “repentance and reform” and saw their cooperation as the condition for achieving Christ’s call to seek peace and justice in this temporal realm.

Having established the church’s responsibility to cooperate with the state in seeking earthly justice, Rodríguez moves to offer three loci of theological reflection on immigration that emerge from Calvin’s theology and ministry in Geneva.

In the first locus, Rodríguez brings attention to Calvin’s experience of displacement as a religious refugee in Strasbourg. While Calvin does not make any autobiographical references in the Institutes, Rodríguez highlights Calvin’s assertion that one of the marks of the church is her existence as “persecuted and dispersed”; the theologian’s repeated concern for a church and government that protect the resident alien is evidence of his own experience of displacement. However, the true impact of Calvin’s experience as refugee is perhaps felt most as one reflects on Calvin’s role in making Geneva a city that, as Rodríguez notes, not only harbored refugees, but also instigated the migration of many Christians across Europe—including famed Scottish reformer, John Knox.

Rodríguez’ second locus of theological reflection is the Genevan church’s cooperation with state welfare programs like the Genevan General Hospital. Rodríguez begins by noting Calvin’s classic separation of the ecclesial duties into four distinct offices, wherein the deacons are responsible for ministering to the poor and sick. For Rodríguez, Calvin’s vision for a distinct diaconal office establishes a legacy in the reformed tradition in which ministry to the poor, which often includes the resident alien, is “an inescapable corporate commitment” for the believer. This commitment was embodied through the Genevan church, which under Calvin’s leadership partnered with the state in administrating and managing the Genevan General Hospital. It would also be the Genevan diaconal ministry that began the French Fund as a public welfare program that served an increasing number of impoverished French immigrants seeking refuge in Geneva. Thus, Calvin sets precedent for the church’s role in cooperating with the state in establishing and maintaining social welfare programs as part of an attempt to remain faithful to the gospel.

In the third locus for theological reflection, Rodríguez points us to Calvin’s understanding of the Christian life as one of earthly “exile,” while believers wait to arrive in their heavenly eternal home. Rodríguez notices that a tension might exist with this claim, as it has often been interpreted as a justification to disengage from the pursuit of earthly justice. However, for Calvin, recognizing that perfect peace and justice will not be fully achieved in this temporal realm did not mean that Christians could avoid being faithful to Christ’s call to heal the sick and care for the poor. Thus, the hope of justice and peace in the next life, as God’s gracious gift, fuels the Christian call to works of justice and mercy in this temporal realm.

Throughout the essay, Rodríguez argues that for Calvin economic and social concerns are “inherently part of the proper worship of God.” Building on this Reformed theological insight, I would like to suggest that Calvin’s theology of the Lord’s Supper offers us another interesting locus for reflecting on immigration.

Calvin’s theology of the Lord’s Supper attempted to bridge the competing concerns between Reformed and Lutheran churches. Calvin envisioned the people of God gathered around the Lord’s table and then transported by the Spirit up to the heavenly throne of God, thus circumventing the question of Christ’s ubiquitous presence in the elements while affirming the real and transformative presence of Jesus Christ. An implication of Calvin’s theology of the Lord’s Supper is that all Christians who partake in the sacramental feast—whether documented immigrants or not—become Spirit-led migrants moved by God’s grace and able to cross eschatological boundaries of time and space. As such, like many immigrants, Christians partaking of the Supper experience an ambiguity about where home is, as they are caught up in a back-and-forth pilgrimage between God’s heavenly banquet and the Eucharistic table. Moreover, for Calvin, the only way this journey becomes possible is if we are united to Christ by the Spirit. As such, Calvin’s theology of the Lord’s Supper helps us to see that the mission of the Son and the Spirit is one which entails the Son and the Spirit as the church’s guides and trailblazers.

In the end, Calvin’s theology of the Lord’s Supper helps us to imagine how immigration in this temporal earthly realm can serve as an icon of the Eucharistic journey which Calvin envisioned for God’s people.


About the Author
  • Alberto La Rosa Rojas is a current doctoral student at Duke University and member of the Reformed Church in America.  Having emigrated with his family from Callao, Peru to the U.S. in 2001, his doctoral research reflects on how immigrant experiences of leaving home, crossing borders, and having “encounters on-the-journey” can illumine our reading of the Bible and provide insight into our theological understanding of the Christian faith.