Every year my Christian ethics class at Southern Seminary ends with a final examination that amounts to answering a hypothetical question. The point is not to get to any particular answer, but to see how they get to where they get. Do they have the tools to think through ethical decisions with wisdom and discernment. Here is this year’s question. How would you answer it? Note: if you’re in the class, you may not read the comments to this post until after you’ve turned your exam in.
You find yourself far away from this ethics class, twenty years from now in your ministry, serving a church in south Florida. Pablo is a man you met, with his wife Hannah, after they attended a small-group Bible study in the home of a family in your church. Both of them, after hearing you explain the gospel, were convicted of sin and, after several weeks of conversation, both announced they were ready to confess Jesus as Lord and to follow him in baptism.
Before the baptism, though, Pablo approaches you to say that he’s not sure he meets the requirements for Christian baptism. He’s not sure he’s a repentant sinner. He sees himself as guilty, he is sorry for his sins against God and others, and he wants the forgiveness that comes through Jesus’ bloody cross, the new life that comes from Jesus’ empty tomb.
But there’s something that kindles fear in him.
Pablo tells you he is an undocumented worker, what some would call an “illegal immigrant.” Years ago he left conditions in El Salvador that, due to famine there, led him to near starvation. Moreover, he worked, like others in his village, for a multinational plantation where he was physically beaten and sexually abused. There were no other options for him, as the only employers in the country were made up of similarly exploitative companies. He slipped into this country undetected and has since lived with an artificial Social Security number he purchased on the black market, enabling him to work in this country.
Pablo’s employer knows his immigration status, but operates with a “don’t ask/don’t tell” policy when it comes to such questions about his workers. Indeed, several outside financial consultants say that, without such labor, this employer’s business would be financially unfeasible and would have to close, since there is not a sufficient employee base among native-born Americans willing to work in such a job.
The employer is Tyler Rogers, also a member of your church, one of your most Christlike people in the congregation, and he teaches the Bible in a large Tuesday night small group. It was at his family’s house that you met Pablo and Hannah, since he had been sharing the gospel with them for months and inviting them to hear more through your church.
The United States immigration policy is, if anything, more restrictive than it was when you were in ethics class at Southern Seminary. No longer can a green card be obtained by marrying a U.S. citizen, so Pablo’s marriage to Hannah is irrelevant to his immigration status. According to current law, if Pablo turns himself in, or is caught, he will face immediate deportation to El Salvador, along with a penalty making him ineligible to apply to entrance to the United States for no less than ten years.
Moreover, returning to El Salvador and applying for immigration is a process that takes, in the best of scenarios, ten years from start to finish. An admission of illegal status, plus a return to El Salvador, would mean crushing poverty, possible starvation, and almost certain bodily harm in dangerous working conditions. It would also mean being separated from Hannah for ten to twenty years.
Pablo and Hannah have three children: an eleven year-old girl, a six year-old boy, and a two year-old girl. Hannah is also pregnant with their fourth child, due next Spring.
Pablo has, since arriving in the United States, been sending a portion of his paycheck back to El Salvador, to his elderly mother who is caring for Pablo’s nieces and nephews since Pablo’s brother was killed due to the unsafe working conditions in the factory and his brother’s wife abandoned the children. Without this money, Pablo fears the children, two of whom are babies, and his mother would starve to death.
Pablo wants to do what Jesus would have him to do, to be a godly man. What do you advise him to do? If you advise him to turn himself in or to return to El Salvador, how do you square that with the biblical mandate that one who “does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Tim. 5:8)? Can you really, from that point forward, consider yourself “pro-family” or “pro-orphan” or even “pro-life”?
If you advise him to stay with his family, how is he keeping the biblical mandate to “obey the governing authorities” (Rom. 13:1)? How also is he avoiding the sin of bearing false witness, about himself and his legal status? Can you baptize Pablo? After all, is he really showing repentance from sin?
What do you do or say, if anything, about Tyler and his employment practices? If nothing, then why not?
How do you equip the congregation to understand how to deal with this situation, and what implications does it have for how you respond to the mission field where God has placed you, with a large and growing community of undocumented Latin American workers, many of whom need to hear and believe the gospel, and are watching how you respond to this family.
Walk through each step of ethical reflection, showing why you reject some options and why you embrace others. Ground your answer in Scripture, the gospel, the Christian tradition, natural law, and common grace. Think through the implications of your answer in each situation for unintended consequences, and show how those can be ethically resolved.