As Thanksgiving reminds us, we are a nation of immigrants. When the Jamestown and Pilgrim settlers landed on these shores, they launched a wave of immigration that has swept over this country through the Revolutionary Period, the era of Ellis Island, and the melting-pot influx of European migrants, down to our own day. It was, of course, the Pilgrims who shared that first harvest meal with the indigenous Pokanokets and Wampanoags (though the menu was more likely deer and seafood than turkey and mash). No immigration, no Thanksgiving.
Although the colorful paintings of that inaugural gathering suggest a felicitous harmony between the settlers and the Native Americans, it has to be said that, in the story of our present national borders, there are shameful, dark chapters that cannot be unwritten. Many today argue that current immigration policy is its own dark chapter in need of re-writing. There are even those who advocate open borders with unrestricted immigration. In the disquieting Netflix series, “Messiah,” the charismatic spiritual leader piously intones that where people are born is a matter of fate or chance, suggesting that national borders are spiritually indefensible.
Which of us wouldn’t do all we could to flee the poverty, persecution, and ravages of war faced by millions hoping for a better life in safer, more affluent nations? How can lines on a map justify ignoring the struggles of the less fortunate? Yet, despite protections for “the foreigners living among you,” God himself established the ancient nation of Israel, complete with borders. So, today, is international freedom of movement a moral imperative (and, if so, does it apply to the “haves” as well as to the “have nots”)? Is it a tenet of social justice that, while others must comply with legal requirements, illegal immigrants get a free pass? And if economic inequality demands universal asylum, how (on principle) could any underprivileged person be turned away from our own locked front doors? By open-border logic, everyone is entitled to what anyone else has. Or had, until the goose laying the golden egg is unceremoniously dispatched.
Whatever else anyone might have in mind by “America First,” there’s a legitimate humanitarian application, heard at the beginning of each airline flight: “Put your mask on first, then help others.” Unrestricted immigration would quickly eradicate the very peace, prosperity, and cultural cohesiveness allowing us to assist others. It’s a stark reminder that people are desperately fleeing failed economic and political systems that are now being championed by the same folks calling for open borders. If it’s idealism you’re after, how about extraordinary efforts to clone the American ideal so successfully in neighbor-states that no one would want to leave?
Surprisingly, the Kingdom of God itself doesn’t have open borders. You can’t just enter on your own terms. As Jesus assured Nicodemus: “No one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit.” At heaven’s gate, entrance is not guaranteed, only the universal invitation: “Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”
Say this sounds too much like “Be ye warmed and filled?” As we celebrate this Thanksgiving — likely both warmed and overfilled — may this reminder of the plight of countless refugees and those in hunger cause us to appreciate all the more the blessings we have in this country, and to treasure the spiritual roots that impoverished nations have either never known, or let slip. Wherever the Kingdom of God has flourished on earth, it’s a country no one wants to leave.
F. LaGard Smith is a retired law school professor (Pepperdine, Liberty, and Faulkner law schools), and is the author of some 35 books, touching on law, faith, and social issues. He is the compiler and narrator of The Daily Bible (the NIV and NLT arranged in chronological order), and posts weekly devotionals on Facebook, drawing spiritual applications from current events.