The Meilaenders on Open Borders


I am going to have to sit with this piece for a while.  I have already read it twice.

Writing at First Things, Gilbert Meilaender (Valparaiso University) and his son Peter Meilaender (Houghton College) offer a very thoughtful critique of open borders   It is worth considering for its intellectual depth and strong engagement with the Christian tradition.  Here is a taste:

Only because we feel loyalty to those bound to us in special ways can we understand why members of other national communities might have a similar loyalty to those with whom they share a history. And only then can we even begin to consider that our particular loyalties may have more than one purpose. They are intended, surely, to enrich our lives, but also to play a role in the education of our commitments. Without attempting to derive particular attachments from a cosmopolitan starting point, but also without making the obligations we have to all little more than a boundary-setting negative principle, we may come to see our special loves as a training ground in which we can learn just a little about what it means to care for any human being.

This third way—building up from particular loyalties to more universal ties—corresponds well to the teleological thrust of the overarching biblical narrative. Against the background of the loss of the peace of creation and the scattering of the nations, God begins with Abraham the long, slow process of gathering the nations once again into a single people. The culmination of this extends, of course, beyond history as we know it, but it is clear that what begins in very particular kinds of belonging has a universal dimension. “The princes of the peoples gather / as the people of the God of Abraham,” the psalmist says (47:9). Discerning the same divine intention, Jesus says (Matt. 8:11), “Many will come from east and west and sit at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.” Different loyalties are not obliterated, but they turn out to contain within themselves more expansive possibilities than we could have imagined.

To what degree those possibilities can be lived here and now is never easy to say. Still, the fact that they cannot be fully realized in human history, and that we would be profoundly mistaken to imagine otherwise, does not mean they should be ignored. Taken ­seriously, they will shape and reshape our sensibilities in ways hard to predict, ways that will not always lead in a single direction. To take this third approach, then, is to see our communities as always on the way—­never having fully established identities, but more than insignificant stopping points where we merely catch our breath for the rest of the journey. We must and should make distinctions among neighbors, but those distinctions will constantly be reworked and refined; they never have the last word. Good neighbors, we might say, make good—albeit porous—fences.

Read the entire piece here.  It is worth your time.

2 thoughts on “The Meilaenders on Open Borders

  1. Argh. So many issues (too many for a comments section, I realize….)

    First, the authors fail to acknowledge the fact that ancient culture (and thus Biblical writers) don’t really have the same idea of “nations” that we do. The word then meant something more akin to what we would call a “people group.” But when we use it, it refers to the modern “nation-state”.

    The idea of the nation-state is a relatively recent phenomenon that emerged out of the 18th/19th century claims that all people groups ought to have their own sovereign state – – and that the members of sovereign states should learn to think of themselves as “natural” extended families (or nations). This is a highly debatable notion, but it means the word “nation” today actually tends to describe what is actually best rendered in political science jargon as the “state”. Moreover, the type of state it describes is the centralized, bureaucratic fiscal-military state that has emerged between c. 1600 and today; an entirely different beast (a Leviathan, no less) to anything envisaged by Biblical writers.

    So when we come to talk about borders, we are really referring to the borders of sovereign modern states — not to some “natural” way in which people are grouped into “families”. To make this claim of the naturalness of today’s bounded territories and the “likeness” of the people who live within them is simply to repeat the dubious claims of 19th century nationalist thinkers who tried to “naturalize” the state.

    Thus the Acts 17 passage quoted at the start of the piece does not mean God created every nation-state, with its boundaries and political arrangements as we see them today. Indeed Paul’s speech at the Areopagus is not a lecture in geopolitics, in which he lays out his belief that God has ordained the bounded sovereign states of the world, but an evangelistic sermon meant to explain that the God of Abraham is the God of all people

    This tendency of this piece to naturalize the nation-state also ignores the reality that most modern bounded nation-states are actually multi-ethnic (and therefore even multi-national) conglomerations, with respective members not at all bound in familial harmony, but often in conflict and (as is the case in the USA) outright fratricidal habits. If history binds “us” together, then history should surely teach African Americans to secede and form their own nation state. The southwest of the United States may have a reason to do so too, moving the territory back to the “natural” family homeland of Mexico from which it was abducted in the 1840s. And so on.

    Even if we do want to make an argument about the theological importance of “belonging” to local families bound by common histories and place, there is no reason this unit of belonging should be congruent with the nation-state, rather than, say, our extended family, neighborhood, town, region or other political sub-unit (such as a US state or Canadian province) – or else with our trans-national identity as members of a guild, profession, club, political movement or religion.

    The article also confuses the idea of dropping border controls with abandoning the idea of bounded territorial states. Arguing for open borders does not mean arguing for no bounded states. A nation-state could still have defined, internationally-recognized borders, even if they could be crossed freely. It could still deliver its own mail, build its own Interstates, charge taxes for all resident within its bounds, put restrictions on citizenship, and provide social security payments to those who had paid into the fund. To argue otherwise is to argue the US was not a real nation until it introduced its major immigration restrictions (i.e. policed fences) in the 1920s.

    Finally, this whole piece carries an implicit assumption that the world is a nice collection of co-equal families living in a quiet suburban subdivision with nicely-painted fences neatly dividing their lots. In reality, the world is deeply unequal, with the fences often having been constructed as the result of conquest, coercion and war, and the unequal twists of historical fortune. It ignores the role in “fences” (real and metaphorical) in creating and sustaining inequality. I suppose if a Mexican Christians started arguing for the theological good of “fences”, I’d still have the same problems as above, but at least would drop my suspicion that this argument is a kind of self-interested defense of *us* having a fence on the US border (which I’m supposing, though it is never stated, it the policy that this piece is trying to support?)


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