Death at the Border: A Theologian’s Perspective on Migration

Paul Giffiths’ Monthly Column on Politics and Society from a Christian Perspective

This short essay, the first of an occasional series for publication here, applies the conceptual resources of Christianity to a lively political problem of the moment: migration, or the movement of creatures across the borders of sovereign states. Subsequent essays will do the same for other political topics. That’s not to say these essays are only for Christians; if you’re not one, you can observe how one of them thinks, and that may have its own interest. I intend the essays as an invitation to political thinking for anyone who’d care to indulge: we live in a time when that activity is in unusually short supply, and when it’s much needed. I’ve no intention of convincing anyone of anything. I want only to show something, and I want to do that because, like most Christians, I delight in words exactly as doing that: they’re like little monstrances.

The thoughts of this first essay in it are in part provoked by T. C. Boyle’s novel of 2011, When the Killing’s Done; and in part by the occasional comments on the significant homologies between thought about human and non-human migrants in Barry Lopez’s Horizon, published in 2019.


Early in the twentieth century, Australians built a supposedly rabbit-proof fence across that continent. The thought was that an alien species, the European rabbit (oryctolagus cuniculus), having invaded and devastated the east, could be prevented from entering the west and doing the same. The rabbits remaining in the east might then be exterminated at leisure.

In 2016, a candidate for the presidency of the United States ran on a platform that included building a wall along that country’s southern border. The thought was that an alien horde of Spanish speakers from south of the border could be kept out by it. Those already here illegally might then be rounded up and deported at leisure.

During the first quarter of the second century, the Roman emperor Hadrian had a 73-mile wall built to mark the northern boundary of the Empire, a little south of the modern border between Scotland and England. The thought was that undesirable alien incomers, principally Picts, could thus be kept out, and those permitted entry be more easily observed and taxed.

The remains of Hadrian’s wall exist, as do those of the rabbit-proof fence; parts of the promised Trumpian wall are being built as I write. The thought behind each of these is the same: there are alien, dangerous, and unassimilable incomers, human and not, who don’t belong here and need to be kept out. Closely connected to that thought, probably present in each case, is another: that without those alien invaders, things here are stable, well-ordered, and sustainable; but with them here there’d be instability, chaos, and a situation that can’t be sustained; that’s why they need to be kept out, or if they’re already here, removed by any means possible, up to and including slaughter.

These thoughts are energetically advocated and acted upon across the political spectrum in the United States now, on the bleeding edges of both left and right; and the same is true in many other parts of the world. They’re unusual in attracting theorists and activists at both ends of the political spectrum at a time when few political ideas are shared in that way. They’re odd, too, in that their advocates from the right are typically unaware that they have counterparts on the left, and wouldn’t much like it if they knew, as is also true, mutatis mutandis, of their advocates on the left.

The left in the United States has these thoughts mostly about non-human migrants. Some among them – Ukrainian zebra mussels (dreissena polymorpha), Burmese pythons (python bivittatus), Japanese kudzu (pueraria montana) – are alien invaders bringing chaos, death, and extinction to an otherwise stable ecosystem. They must therefore be excluded by force, or erased by violence when here. The right thinks these thoughts mostly about human migrants. Some among them – those who speak the wrong language, have the wrong customs, the wrong skin-color, or the wrong god – are alien invaders who bring chaos, violence, and instability to an otherwise stable sovereign state. They must therefore be excluded by force, or erased by violence when here. And these shared intuitions are supported by laws, and, with varying levels of energy, by the executive agents of sovereign states.

Informing these thoughts is a distinction and two assumptions. The distinction is between locals, who belong where they are in such a way as to give them rights to judge who may join them there; and aliens, incomers who don’t belong, and upon whom lies the burden of proving that they should be allowed in. The first assumption is that things are stable and sustainable here, or at least stable enough, as they are, without incomers. And the second assumption, broadly epistemic, is that we are in a position to judge what the results will be of our attempts to constrain, control, and order complex systems.

The second assumption should be rejected by anyone who thinks for a moment. We’re bad at judging the results of our interventions in complex systems, and ought therefore, as a rule of thumb, neither advocate nor support nor oppose such interventions on the ground that we know what will happen if we undertake them, or if we don’t. And large-scale movements of creatures, human and not, are textbook instances of systems too complex to make it reasonable for us to think that we know what will happen if we try to stop putative aliens at the border or destroy them once they’re here. You don’t have to be a Christian to think this; you just need to be able to think, and to have some historical sense of how spectacularly bad we’ve been at assessing, in advance, the outcomes of our interventions in such cases.

But the grammar of Christianity does have something specific to say about the local/alien distinction, and about the assumption that stability and sustainability are possible and desirable. It’s not that the subliming into codified law and executive enforcement of that distinction and its associated assumption is or ought to be judged by Christians root-and-branch unacceptable. Such subliming, and the systematic violence that goes with it, is among the defining characteristics of the modern sovereign state. Rather, it’s that the distinction and the assumption are understood by Christians, or ought to be, as artifacts of the Fall, lamentable in their violence and incoherence; Christianity provides in this way an attitude toward local instances of laws constraining migration, both human and not.

Why does it do so? First, because of an understanding that being a local who belongs somewhere in the sense specified is in the gift only of the LORD, not of any human power, and that it is a gift almost never given since the Fall. Second, because Christianity is itself a migrant and migrating phenomenon, without any geographic home to which Christians might belong; the constraint of migration, both human and not, is therefore a matter of very particular lament for Christians. And third, because Christians ought, on the basis of specifically Christian commitments as well as ordinary rationality, have no commitment to or interest in the long-term stability of the places it finds itself in.

To the first. The gift of belonging to a place is made, in Christian thought, only to the Jews. Their presence in the land of Israel, which is to say Jacob’s land, makes it holy and they are made holy by it. Even that gift is damaged, by the Fall, by time, by chance, and by violence: there has been no Temple in Jerusalem for almost two millennia, and the quasi-Jewish state that is Israel today is oppressive in policy, practice, and attitude. But still, the land remains for the Jews and the Jews for the land. They belong to it and it to them in such a way as to make it proper for them to have the right to say who may and who may not share it with them.

But there is no other instance of this kind of belonging. Christians have no such gift. Neither do Muslims. And neither does anyone else, whether in virtue of long residence somewhere, or by way of deep adaptation to a place’s particulars – its geography, its climate, its food, and so on. Everyone else is where they are by contingency and by violence only: in a fallen world, location comes about only in those ways. You may be descended from indigenous people in China or Africa or Australasia or the Americas, which may mean that you have ancestors who lived where you now live for millennia; or you may have last week moved to a new place, where, so far as you know, no ancestor of yours has ever lived. But in neither case do you belong in the sense in play here. Your presence where you are is a product of chance and force, and of nothing more. As is the existence of every sovereign state and every set of laws attempting the control of the borders of such a state.

To the second. Christianity is homeless and migrant in the sense that its sacred places on this planet are temporary. When the sacramental economy, the movement of God’s grace through the church, is working as it should, Christians recognize their sacred spaces to be temporary, and love them as such. Christianity is also homeless in the sense that when we Christians find ourselves citizens of modern sovereign states, as, now, almost all of us do, we lament that necessity, while at the same time mustering the appropriate love for such damaged institutions. We lament especially, and also as a necessity, the attempts of sovereign states to constrain migration, both human and not. We understand these attempts to be based on a mistake about belonging, and to be irremediably violent.

And to the third. The establishment and policing of borders is typically predicated upon the view that if only the aliens can be kept out, things will be stable and sustainable here, as they are now. The ecosystems of the Great Lakes will flourish self-sustainingly without zebra mussels, as will that of the Everglades without burmese pythons, and as will that of the United States without (so many) Mexicans and Hondurans. And so on. So, anyway, some think. But Christians know better. There is no sustainability or stability in the long term, only, occasionally, time for a breath, and not a long one, between one bout of massive disturbance and another. Sustainability is an illusion, imagined by those without a long view of our planet’s violent past and without a just appreciation of the extent of human violence. Laws written in the service of an illusion and violence used in its support are bad laws and useless violence. Slaughtering the zebra mussels, myxomatosizing the rabbits, and imprisoning and deporting the Mexicans, are all alike in respect of their imbrication with an illusion and their use of violence in its support.

This brief exploration of the Christian grammar of migration doesn’t yield policy proposals for citizens of the United States or the United Kingdom (I am both). Neither does it yield clear positions on policies on these matters presently in place in those sovereign states. And it certainly doesn’t suggest, much less require, the utopian thought that sovereign states as they presently exist might stop attempting to control migration, both human and not. They won’t do that because it’s integral to their definition and self-understanding to do it. Asking them not to would be like asking an obligate carnivore to stop eating meat. What it does yield is a lens through which migration proposals and policies can be observed. That lens disposes the Christian political imagination toward open borders for humans and others, and toward the renunciation of the use of violence in attempts to keep them closed. The extent to which such proposals move toward opening the borders, and the extent to which they renounce violence in policing them, is the extent to which we ought celebrate and support them. And the extent to which they oppose those things is the extent to which we should lament and oppose them.

The lens can provide something more than those generalized guidelines. It can provide something specific to advocate to those who make and enforce the laws in whichever sovereign state you’re a resident of. Here are two instances.

First, with respect to human refugees: your sovereign state ought minimally to be actively trying to provide a safe haven and eventual citizenship (if wanted) for the same proportion of those who need refuge, worldwide, as its GDP is of world GDP. The USA, for example, accounts for about 15% of world GDP; the global number of those needing refuge in 2020 is likely in the vicinity of 1.5 million (that figure is from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees); the USA ought therefore to be actively seeking to provide refuge for more than 200,000 refugees during 2020. It is very far from doing that. The latest proposal by the Trump administration is for a ceiling of 18,000. (There are complex problems here because of definitional questions; but however those are resolved, the upshot is that the USA is very far below its proper goal.) The properly Christian response to this aspect of is one of vociferous criticism. Go to it.

Second, with respect to non-human migrants. Your sovereign state ought minimally to abandon attempts to eradicate incoming species in the name of benefiting indigenous ones or of safeguarding local ecological stability. Policies governing these matters in the USA are administered by the Environmental Protection Agency, and are currently directed by Executive Order 13751, issued in December 2016, during the last days of the Obama administration. That order, together with its predecessors, mandates the coordination of various systematically violent policies to exclude and eradicate invasive non-human species. The order appeals to the need to control threats to indigenous species, and to minimize costs generated by alterations of balance in local ecosystems. This Executive Order, and its like, are, from a Christian point of view unacceptable. The properly Christian response to all this is one of vociferous criticism, and one kind of criticism that might carry political weight with supporters is exactly to do what this essay does, which is to point out the exact parallel between the rationale for policies of this kind, and that for policies constraining human migration. Go to it.

We Christians know that sovereign states are especially disposed to confusion and violence – to the confused use of violence – in matters of migration, and that, for the most part, they won’t be able to help themselves. We lament their necessities, and ours in collaborating with them. Christianity, at least, helps to clarify for us what we ought lament and what we ought celebrate, and in that way guides us in thinking about how to make and respond to policy proposals about migration, both human and not. Another way to put this is to say that some policy proposals in this area are, for Christians, more beautiful than others; and that it’s easier to assess the degree of a proposal’s beauty than its likely outcomes. It’s a disadvantage of democracy, for Christians, that public discussion of political proposals in that language is largely unavailable.

Paul J. Griffiths was the Warren Professor of Catholic Thought at Duke University. He is now retired from academic life and lives in the mountains of Western North Carolina, where he reads, writes, and hikes, in approximately equal proportions. He is a contributing editor for The Marginalia Review.