By Irvin Heishman
Philippians is a good resource for the church to consult as it ponders how to respond to undocumented people living in our country. The letter’s primary writer, the Apostle Paul, was not unlike many Mexican-Americans today. He was a citizen, but many of his people were not.
As a Judean Jew living abroad, Paul understood the immigrant experience. His people came from a “colonized and dispersed people” (“Believers Church Bible Commentary: Philippians” by Gorgan Zerbe, p. 51). Roman law made it so difficult to obtain citizenship that only the top 10 percent of the population enjoyed its benefits (Zerbe, p. 281).
Many members of the early churches were non-citizen slaves and “undocumented” working poor. Some though, especially in Philippi, would have been citizens with the social power needed to build a good life for themselves within the empire. Paul challenged these members instead to have the mind of Christ who “did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death--even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:6-8).
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Paul identified not with the citizens but with the slaves, thus honoring the humility of those in his churches without status. The letter opens this way: “Paul and Timothy, slaves of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:1).
Christians with citizenship were to declare their privileged status “rubbish” (Philippians 3:8). Paul did this but had to be careful to use coded words. After all, it was his Roman citizenship that was “keeping him alive by a thread” (Zerbe, p. 210). Declaring his Roman citizenship “rubbish” would have been suicidal (Zerbe, p. 210). So Paul spoke only of his Judean credentials when he declared, “Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ” (Philippians 3:7).
It was dangerous to shift loyalty from earthly to heavenly citizenship like this, no matter how carefully it was stated. Christ was a political rival to Caesar who proclaimed himself worthy of worship in Roman temples and festivals as the “son of God, savior of the world” (Zerbe, p. 308).
Citizenship laws in Christ’s kingdom create a markedly different kind of community from that of earthly empires. When we let heaven’s laws determine whom we welcome and offer refuge to in our churches, we may well find ourselves at odds with earthly authorities.
It is not the secular state that deserves our ultimate loyalty as Christians. A new political body, the church, is being formed with Jesus as Lord. As Paul said, “Our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ” (Philippians 3:20). This theme is picked up in Ephesians which declares, “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God” (Ephesians 2:19). This is the good news we have to proclaim as we invite those undocumented in the flesh to join the new political community of Jesus where they can receive their heavenly citizenship documents.
Following the examples of Paul and Jesus, Brethren today should humble themselves for the sake of Christ by reclaiming their identity as faith descendants of the first Brethren who were immigrants to the American colonies. As a migrant people, we Brethren must claim no earthly status that would rank us as more deserving of privilege than any other. No, our mission is to invite others to come and obtain heavenly citizenship with us.
Thus as “hermanos” and sisters we “stand...firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel” (Philippians 1:27).
— Irvin Heishman is an ordained minister and pastor in the Church of the Brethren, previously serving as a mission worker in the Dominican Republic.