Theology and Border Walls

Theology and Border Walls

Perhaps American Christians cannot think clearly about homeland security, borders, and immigration for the same reason Americans cannot think clearly about anything else. As Christians we have rich, intellectually credible traditions and frameworks for ethical reflection at our fingertips, and yet, as Americans, we suffer from a historical amnesia.

What we need is a historically-attuned theological framework that can lay the foundation for our debates and political deliberations. Without one, we risk acting in ways that contradict the Gospel that we profess. To jump, as we tend to, from Plato and Aristotle to Locke and Hobbes is to ignore crucial periods in which the Christian tradition of moral philosophy developed (and for many Baptists, the jump from the Apostle Paul to Wayne Grudem is even worse for ethical reflection). In a perhaps surprising place, the just war tradition, we find key insights that should guide and moderate our discussion of borders and homeland security.

While the just war tradition has typically focused on international conflict, occasionally turning to the ethics of police force and violence, just war logic has rarely been used to analyze the ethics of border security. This failure to apply just war teaching to border enforcement is to our detriment. If we think through American debates about borders and border enforcement with the logic of the just war tradition, our debates will be all the richer and all the more Christian in their character.

Using the logic of the just war tradition, I want to make a specifically Christian case for securing our borders: constrained by the bounds of just war thinking, securing our borders can be an instance of Christian enemy love. To make this argument, I will proceed by summarizing the Christian core of the just war tradition, apply its principles to our border security debates, draw out several policy implications for Christians to mull over, and conclude with some further reflections on thinking with tradition, particularly the just war tradition.

Love at the Core

The just war tradition, at its best, has always been an ongoing debate over the place of the state, its prerogative over coercive force, and the possibility of Christians using lethal violence as agents of the state. Its logic has always been rooted in love for one’s neighbor and love for one’s enemies. (N.b., this logic is distinctly different than Enlightenment philosophers’ emphasis on self-defense as the most basic justification for violence. While you will find some justification of self-defense in theologians like Thomas Aquinas, it is not nearly at the same pitch that it later takes on.)

Paul Ramsey, one of the premiere ethicists, captures the logic of neighbor love at the heart of the just war tradition:

It was a work of charity for the Good Samaritan to give help to the man who fell among thieves… By another step it would have been a work of charity, and not of justice alone, to maintain and serve in a police patrol on the Jericho road to prevent such things from happening. By yet another step, it might well be a work of charity to resist, by force of arms, any external aggression against the social order that maintains the police patrol along the road to Jericho.[1]

If the just war is to remain particularly Christian, the welfare of the aggressor—enemy love—must also be kept close at hand. As Augustine cautions in his letter to Boniface, “even in waging war, cherish the spirit of a peacemaker, that, by conquering those whom you attack, you may lead them back to the advantages of peace… Let necessity, therefore, and not your will, slay the enemy who fights against you.” If force is to be used, it is not unilaterally on behalf of one party to the detriment of another; it is to be used to bring all, including the enemy, “back to the advantages of peace.”

With this emphasis on enemy love as well as neighbor love and care for the vulnerable, Christianity cannot be confused with a cowboy ethic of the good people killing the bad people for the sake of the weak people. While Jesus is for the poor and powerless, the way of Jesus Christ is not the way of the Lone Ranger; Christ died to save his enemies. The Lone Ranger and celluloid cowboys like him live to fight and bring justice to their enemies. Unlike stories of the Wild West and other incarnations of our American obsession with vigilantism, the just war tradition is founded on Christ’s enemy love. To cast just war as a cowboy western would be to cast the Christianity out of the tradition.

One way this enemy love has manifested itself in the tradition is through the refusal to cross certain lines. If love is the principle that justifies the use of force, then love must also be the principle that limits the possible uses of force. For example, the just war tradition has always held the targeted and intentional killing of noncombatants to be inexcusable. (This is one reason why then-presidential candidate Donald Trump’s initial remarks about torturing the families of terrorists should have been cause for outrage in the Christian community.[2])

There is no space for love or reconciliation between enemies when war is total and absolute. As the Apostle Paul writes, love “always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres” (1 Cor 13). Love places moral limits, even amidst something so terrible as war.

Borders and the Just War Tradition

In this brief outline of the tradition’s core, we can already begin to see the way in which the Christian duty to love the neighbor and the enemy could guide a basis for walls and border security. We can imagine how walls and border security might prevent thieves from having ever set upon the Good Samaritan’s patient in the first place and how this could constitute an act of love. But what if the Good Samaritan’s patient were an immigrant outside the walls?

Those protected by border security may be Americans as well as immigrants. According to Ashley Feasley, a policy expert at the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, unaccompanied alien children (UAC) are “particularly vulnerable to trafficking and exploitation as they are often recruited to be drug mules.” UACs and women are also at high risk of sexual assault as they travel across countries and territories without civil order. Doctors Without Borders states that almost one-third of the women they surveyed “had been sexually abused during their transit through Mexico.”

For reasons like these, Feasley calls for more trafficking screening at the border, something which would require devoting more money and expertise to Customs and Border Patrol (CBP). If human traffickers believe they can slip past the border without impediment, they will become even bolder as we are able to identify and rescue even fewer children caught up in their abuses.

Policy Implications

What then does this basic outline of the just war tradition mean for our debates over national security, borders, and immigration? How can Augustine and the tradition’s insights help us to think more clearly about American domestic policy?

First, the question, How does this political position allow me to show love for the other, the foreigner, or the enemy? has to be at the forefront of any Christian endorsement of violent force. If we are going to voice support as Christians for maintaining our national borders, even forcibly, we have to be able to give an account of how this willingness to use force comes from the Christian imperative of love. If we cannot give such an account, we dare not justify the use of force as Christians.[3]

To speak practically, this means that any kind of xenophobic rhetoric or rationale ought to have no place among Christians discussing immigration and borders: whipping up your political base against the “unwashed masses” of migrants is not a Christian thing to do.

We should also consider whether our border and immigration laws prevent us from exercising Christian charity toward the detained or vulnerable Two recent real-life scenarios can help us think through this more concretely:

(1) The troubling deaths of two Guatemalan children apprehended at the border. We have a duty to care for and preserve the life of those we have taken into custody, regardless of whether they have broken the law. Part of our conclusion about just and Christian immigration policy should probably involve demanding more funding to CBP for meeting basic human needs.

(2) Four women were charged with crimes for leaving food and water for illegal immigrants in the desert. While these women were formally charged for illegally entering a protected refuge and leaving litter, video footage shows border patrol going out of their way to destroy the supplies, which suggests that the charges had more to do with removing vital support for illegal immigrants. This seems to me to be antithetical to Augustine’s insistence on leading the enemy “back to the advantages of peace” and “letting necessity and not your will” be the cause of anyone’s death.

Thinking With The Great Cloud of Witnesses

In conclusion, I want to return to the point I made at the beginning of this article: as American Christians, we lack clarity in our moral thought. We need to trade the haze of our age and insular thinking for what the author of Hebrews calls the “great cloud of witnesses” (12:1).

It is the Christian tradition that preserves and mediates to us many of the voices in that great cloud of witnesses. It is through these voices, through faithful Christians like Augustine, that we learn to “run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith” (Hebrews 12:1-2). Only in the presence of such a great cloud can we learn to think clearly about what it means to follow Christ in the world.

It is the clear, careful thought of Christians who lived before us that the Lord uses to set us free from the shackles of our time and our party politics. It is in this great tradition that we learn to see the world—and issues as complex as immigration—aright with Christ’s eyes.


John Schweiker Shelton works in the United States Congress covering policy issues relating to homeland security, immigration, judiciary, tax, trade, telecommunications, and veterans’ affairs. Before working in politics, John studied theology and ethics at Duke University (MDiv) and the University of Virginia (BA).

Photo Credit: US Army 104th Engineer Construction Company, 62nd Engineer Battalion, 36th Engineer Brigade arrives at the Nogales DeConcini Port. The Nogales Arizona Port of Entry on Grand Avenue has been in existence since the early twentieth century. It connects Interstate 19 with Mexican Federal Highway 15. The soldiers are reinforcing security provisions with concertina wire in support of Operation Secure Line. The operation took place on November 6, 2018. Customs and Border Protection photo by Jerry Glaser.

Further suggested readings from the author:

  • From Irenaeus to Grotius: A Sourcebook in Christian Political Thought, 100-1625 by Joan Lockwood O’Donovan and Oliver O’Donovan
  • Letter 189 (To Boniface) by Augustine
  • Summa Theologica by Thomas Aquinas, especially II-II.Q40 (On War) and II-II.Q64.A7-8 (On Murder and Intention in Killing)
  • The Just War: Force and Political Responsibility by Paul Ramsey
  • The Just War Revisited by Oliver O’Donovan
  • Just War as Christian Discipleship: Recentering the Tradition in the Church Rather Than the State by Daniel M. Bell

[1] Ramsey, Paul, et al. The Essential Paul Ramsey: a Collection. Yale University Press, 1994, p. 62.

[2] For more on this, see: https://foreignpolicy.com/2016/03/04/trump-flip-flops-on-promise-to-torture-suspects-kill-families-of-terrorists/

[3] I for one think such an account is feasible, especially if we abandon unhelpful Niebuhrian juxtapositions of love and justice. The God whom we worship is perfectly just and loving always at the same time. There is no contradiction between these things in God and neither should there be in our policy.

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