Immigration and the (Christian?) Nation State

In his The Shield of Achilles: War, Peace, and the Course of History, Philip Bobbitt writes about (among other things) the transition from the Nation State to the Market State. During the Nation State era – roughly from the mid-nineteenth century until now – the legitimating feature of the State has been the State’s ability to care for its citizens and make them prosperous. Bobbitt interprets the major wars of this period as the conflict between Fascism, Communism and Liberal Democracy as they struggled for to exemplify the best model for the Nation State. The era now comes to an end – so Bobbitt suggests – with Liberal Democracy in the ascendancy.

If Bobbitt’s assessment of the purpose of the Nation State is correct, it’s clear that not all States have done equally well at taking care of their citizens. If we apply this model to the current debate about immigration we might say that millions of people from south of the USA have decided that the USA does a better job providing for its people than do their Nation States of origin. If this is what they are thinking when they come to the USA – by any means possible – their decisions are clearly rational.

But what does the USA do about it?

If the job of the Nation State is to take care of its citizens, that care is made easier to the extent that those citizens can take care of themselves. In the past generation, however, some have come to think that if their lack of ability to care for themselves, i.e., meet their own needs, comes from outside themselves (society, the environment, etc.), then the Nation State needs to step in and take care of them. After all, that’s the purpose of the Nation State, right? If I get into debt, the Nation State should have bankruptcy laws in place to enable me to unload some of my debt. If I get sick and can’t afford treatment, I expect the Nation State to have policies and procedures (and cash!) in place to pay for my treatment.

Let’s put something else into the mix – the commands of Jesus. Jesus tells his followers to love their neighbors as themselves. Jesus says, “Follow me,” and proceeds to demonstrate care and concern for the poor and outcast. Given Jesus – and the biblical tradition for that matter – it’s not surprising that Christians think it a good thing to care for the people around them.

But is Christian “care” the same as the Nation State’s “care?” If we find that we are a Christian Nation (State), then one might think these “cares” are one and the same. However, we find that the USA is constitutionally prohibited from being a Christian Nation (State). (It’s another matter whether the “constitution” of Christianity allows room for the USA or any other State to be a “Christian” Nation State, but that’s not today’s topic.) While I can’t help but think that the American ideal of “care” has been significantly influenced by the Christian ideal of “care,” they ought to be thought of as different things.


Lacking time for a complete answer, here are a couple of ideas.

  1. The Nation State’s practice of “care” is combined with the powers of the State to compel care. With the need for a large, impartial (and thus usually impersonal) system of care, the Nation State must compel funding. It gets expensive to care for so many – especially as the number of those needing care continues to rise. Most illegal immigrants are poor. As caring Americans, we assume poor people will have great need. If it is the Nation State’s job to care for these needy people, the Nation State will need our money to care for them. If the numbers of the needy rise uncontrollably, then we assume that the State’s need for our money will also rise uncontrollably. This kind of thinking can easily lead to the view that immigration – especially the unlimited immigration of needy people – is a huge problem for the rest of us.
  2. The leaders of the Nation State are elected by the citizens of that Nation State, usually on the basis of the citizen’s judgment of how well those leaders are taking care of them. If the leaders of the Nation State take better care of people in other Nation States (i.e., produce more prosperity for them – think here of some of the complaints about out-sourcing), the citizens might think this a good thing, but may be more likely to elect other leaders, whom they perceive as more able to provide for their prosperity. In less verbose fashion, Nation States have borders. Intelligent Nation States know that what they do beyond their borders influences the prosperity of their own State, but they also know the extent of their power and greatest responsibility lie within their borders. It’s not surprising that once a Nation State attains Super Power status it is loath to help others join the club.
  3. One reason I doubt there can be such a thing as a Christian Nation State is that Christian thinking about boundaries is very different from National thinking. Jesus commands us to make disciples of “every nation.” The relevant distinction for Christians, then, is not about nationality, but about disciple status – not “Are these folks from my nation,” but “Are these folks disciples (yet).” The disciple/not-yet-disciple boundary shapes our relationships with people. This boundary, however, is not a love/don’t-love boundary. If there were a Christian Nation State, and that State were at the top of the heap, i.e., were a Superpower, that State, inasmuch as it was Christian, would not aim to keep others down so as to maintain its status, but rather expend itself to bring others up.
  4. If a Christian Nation State existed and were counted as a Superpower, and as a Christian Superpower sought to bring other Nations upward also, one would think the notion of Superpower would need modification. As it now stands, a Nation that is a Superpower is first one militarily and secondly economically. If it were possible for a Christian State to be at the top of the heap militarily – and still be a Christian State, it would seem odd to want to multiply the number of States with militaries as strong as its own. An argument to the contrary might analogize from the benefits of having an armed citizenry. The more paranoid argue that citizens need to be armed so they can resist their own government when it turns evil. The less paranoid argue that citizens need to be armed to discourage their evil neighbors from perpetrating violence against them. The resulting picture would be of in increasing number of Nation States armed to the teeth practicing a version of MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction). While some might think this an improvement, I don’t. (Yes, I know that stating my desires doesn’t count as a rational argument. In my experience fear and paranoia, while they can be effective motivators in the short term, they don’t work well or tend to the health of a society in the long term.) If we flip the prioritization for defining Superpowers, so that the economic replaces the military, perhaps that would work better from a Christian point of view. This hypothetical Christian Nation State would them aim not merely to make its own citizens prosperous, but also to find ways to help citizens of other Nations achieve prosperity as well. While this sounds exceedingly good and noble, the history of foreign aid over the past fifty years shows it to also be exceedingly difficult.

What does all this have to do with the question of immigration? The purpose of the Nation State is to take care of its citizens. The purpose of the church is to inhabit, exemplify and propagate the Kingdom of God. The Nation State looks to geographical boundaries to define its span of care. The Church looks to people in need to define its span of care.

The clear advantage of the Nation State’s care vis-à-vis the Church’s care is that the former is eminently more reasonable. We have limited resources. Clearly can’t do everything. We must take care of our own first, then, if there’s anything left, we’ll share with others. Very logical. But does it sound like Jesus?

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1 Response to Immigration and the (Christian?) Nation State

  1. Excellent discourse on one of the hottest issues of the day.

    BTW, are you a little concerned about juxtaposing Jesus and logic?

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