A Third Choice: Covenant as a Better Ethos for Immigration

It is a truism to say that the United States is a nation of immigrants. John F. Kennedy echoed these words when writing A Nation of Immigrants, a publication that attempted to reform the old immigration system based on national origin quotas in 1964. As in the days of JFK, immigration has been a relevant topic of debate in every generation since the founding of the United States. On one side, there are those like John F. Kennedy, who affirm that the American identity is essentially an immigrant one. On the other, there are people and communities who seek to protect the homogeneity of what it means to be American. What we find in the middle is a gulf of failed attempts to have a consensus on the issue. Due to this excluded middle, legislation on immigration fluctuates in reflection to the zeitgeist of its generation. Throughout history, public opinion and legislation have varied from extreme protectionist views to, at times, complete deregulation.

Perhaps more influential than the zeitgeist itself is the process by which the national mindset regarding immigration is formed. A brief survey of our history shows that favorable or unfavorable public opinion which shapes legislation often coincides with the boom and bust cycles of our capitalist economy. Whenever the economy prospered, immigrants, especially labor migrants, were valued and welcomed into the country. During times of economic boom, cultural differences were overlooked as long as immigrants greased the cogs of the capitalist machine. Social thinkers call this “the pull factor” of an economy. The extreme opposite effect took place whenever the national economy entered into a “bust” cycle. This in turn is known as “the push factor”. During times of economic bust, the collective mindset changed and immigrants often received red-flag labels such as “influx”, “flood” or “hordes”. What follows is usually a public outcry for containment and deportation, often at the cost of social justice such as in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.

Informed by the very principles of capitalism along its history, the United States has developed an approach to immigration that is at the same time individualistic, contractual and utilitarian. By associating the immigrant population with “cheaper” labor during times of economic boom, we have automatically produced a low view of the “other”. In the capitalist system, immigrants have become an “it”, only valued if they can prove to be beneficial the overall state of the economy and national well being. This low view of immigrants tends to change if the migrant individual or community assimilate to the guiding capitalist ideals of what Miguel de la Torre calls, “The Myth of the American Work Ethic”. By producing an objectified “it” view of immigrants, the United States has also maintained an “I” view of self, whereby injustices are often overlooked for the sake of the greater good. History shows that both liberals and conservatives subscribe to this objectified view of migrants. Although migrant labor is part of the economic globalization tapestry of our days, there is a need to better define the place of the immigrant within our social structures.

Allow me to preface my post by first sustaining what I am not proposing. It is not my intention to analyze, criticize or praise recent policies and legislation regarding immigration in the United States. A historical analysis on the issue would go beyond the pages of this post. It is also not my purpose to defend or condemn individuals and communities that are a part of the current undocumented immigration movement. Above all, it is not my intent to propose “the right” legislation or policy. This post is an attempt to gain perspective into this very important issue through the scope of covenantal ethics. My mission here is to provide the reader with a fundamental understanding of Covenantal Ethics and how it can inform our view of the other within the current immigration debate. The implementation of praxis is left to the responsibility of the reader.

Covenant in Scripture

Covenant is a motif permeating all of Scripture. It is the relational framework God uses to relate to all of creation. It is also the standard set by God for interpersonal and person-to-God relationships. Throughout Scripture, we find that divine covenant is both individual and collective. God establishes a pact with individuals (e.g. Noah, Abraham, David) but also with God’s people (e.g. Israel and the Church). Through a covenantal framework, God reveals God’s-self within a relational scheme of trust, freedom and reciprocity. Covenant also serves to organize God’s own community of people. For example, the Exodus covenant ordered Hebrew society through legislation brought forth by God through Moses. Thus, covenant not only guided human-divine interaction, but it also become a model for interpersonal relationship by establishing a moral code.

Writing on the importance of covenant, the ethicist Joseph Allen explains, “covenant is a central theme in the Bible… and can shed considerable light upon biblical understandings of God’s actions and of the moral life. It provides a unifying theme in the midst of the multiplicity of the Bible”1. As one of its main characteristics, we find that Scriptural covenant is always divinely initiated, which in turn empowers a response from humanity in reciprocity. Joseph Allen proposes that the divine covenant is unlike human to human covenants of equal status. Rather,

“God initiates each covenant and sets its terms; they are not negotiated. Each covenant is therefore a reflection of God’s power and grace-God’s power, I that nothing external to God’s will requires the covenant or dictates its terms; instead, in covenanting God creates a new thing, a covenant community where none existed. God’s grace is present in that though nothing requires covenanting, God nevertheless sees fit to create a covenant, to the benefit of the people”.

In the same framework of the covenantal process, Dr. Hak Joon Lee defends, “It is God’s grace and trustworthiness rather than human moral rightness that lays the foundation of the covenant”. In doing so, Dr. Lee argues, “Grace is the power of God that nurtures us to be a faithful covenantal partner with God imitating God’s character. By participating in the covenant, our life ultimately becomes the graced (or grace-filled) life.”2 Covenant is therefore an incubator of grace and gratefulness, which in turn leads to an increasingly sanctified human existence. Guided by these ideals, humanity is called to participate in God’s covenantal relationship of love by responding to God’s invitation of grace.

Covenant and Ethics

In the covenantal scheme, the response to God’s invitation of grace is not only spiritual, but also moral. By being rooted into grace through covenant, human beings are progressively transformed into God’s image, seeking to do God’s will in gratitude. Grace and gratitude thus become the power that fuels moral agency. Within this dynamic exchange, Dr. Lee explains that, “Through our life in the covenant, our life gradually patterns after God’s character (imitatio Dei) fulfilling God’s creational intention for us (the imago Dei)” (Lee n.d.). Therefore, covenant acts as a framework for a holistic Christian ethos.

Covenant establishes a relational paradigm that is indispensable for both spiritual development and moral agency. It frames an ethos focused on relationships that value the other, which “presupposes that every aspect of life is lived out of our belongingness with others in the human community” (Lee n.d.). Relationality puts us into a dialogical process with the other, which extends vertically to God, horizontally to fellow human beings and internally with self. Walter Brueggemann3 explains the intricacies of this dialectical relationship,

“With God, covenanting requires complaint and hymn, assertion of self and abandonment of self. With neighbor, covenanting requires joy and sorrow, truth in love, upbuilding in the midst of freedom. With the self, covenanting requires the readiness to receive scattering and the freedom for gathering a self that is unlike the old one, a process we often term conversion or transformation.”

Christian ethics under covenantal guidelines lead us to reject individualistic, contractual and part-whole models of the moral life. Covenant projects a view of people who are essentially social, but that are also individuals in bearing their own particularity and agency. More importantly, God’s covenant creates a moral community where human agency and moral decisions are empowered by joy and gratitude. This model expresses the sociality of human existence as well as the unique worth of each individual, all the while projecting what Joseph Allen calls the historical fabric of the moral life. The covenantal model shows that individuals are never interchangeable units, as they would seem to be within an individualistic and contractual framework today. For Allen, “Our history accompanies us throughout the moral life, revealing our identities as moral selves. It is because history is morally significant in a covenant model that the moral life has continuity over time” (Allen n.d.).

The Covenantal Scheme has immense ethical implications for immigration in our world today. It communicates that, as with the Godhead, humans are social beings, who belong to each other and are indebted to each other with their lives and resources. Reciprocity and mutuality are demonstrated through grace and gratefulness, nurturing equality and human worth. Above all, covenant displays the characteristics of the Christian moral life that is grace-based and gratitude oriented. Covenant reveals that we are primarily partnered with God, who loves all of mankind regardless of ethic-cultural background.

In addition, covenant provides a framework where divine action and human response are closely related to each other. By adhering to divine norms, the moral agent does not project his/hers individualistic ideals. Nor does he/she simply obey a capitalistic contractual agreement at its simplest terms. Rather, the moral agent begins to participate in God’s overarching story of redemption and renewal, extending covenantal grace and love to the entire human community. Covenant sets the boundaries of grace, which when experienced by individuals, stimulates the imitation of God’s character towards the thriving of life through justice and shalom in God’s creation. In the next page, I explain how the Eucharist as a model for covenantal ethics of immigration.

Footnotes

  1. Allen, Joseph. 1995. Love & Conflict: A Covenantal Model of Christian Ethics. Lanham: University Press of America.
  2. Lee, Hak Joon. n.d. “Christian Ethics.” Fuller Moddle. Accessed April 24, 2014. https://moodle.fuller.edu/pluginfile.php/192516/mod_resource/content/1/Covenant%20I%20%2801-25-14%29moodle.pdf
  3. Brueggemann, Walter. 1999. The Covananted Self: Explorarions in Law and Covenant. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.
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