As the government shutdown enters its fourth week, questions of morality, immorality, theology, and what God favors have erupted to once again frame the context of the ongoing debate over President Trump’s proposed border wall, beginning with Nancy Pelosi’s claim that the wall “is an immorality.”
Is it, really? It should be noted that Pelosi didn’t say that any wall, per se, is immoral—town hall interview with Joy Reid. Context, as always, is important. She began her discussion on immigration reform by referring to Ronald Reagan’s 1989 farewell address, which she paraphrased as saying “the vital force of America’s preeminence in the world is every new generation of immigrants coming to America, and when America fails to recognize that, America will fail to be preeminent in the world.”
Pelosi’s summary isn’t a totally accurate portrayal of what Reagan said, confusing what he saw as causes and effects. But leave that aside for the moment. She then specifically said that Trump’s Wall is an immorality because “it builds walls in people’s minds about who should come here, and the rest. It’s a very sad thing that he’s doing to instill that kind of fear of newcomers to our country.”
Reagan, in that Farewell Address invoked biblical language from Matthew 5:14 where Jesus specifically says His followers are a “shining city on a hill.” Then, borrowing from Puritan John Winthrop’s sermon to apply this language to America itself, Reagan said,
I’ve spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don’t know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, windswept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That’s how I saw it, and see it still.
Reagan applied more Biblical language from Revelation 21 regarding the walls of the Heavenly City, but in his vision the walls of America, like heaven, has doors that are open to the nations who strive to get here. That isn’t a brief for open borders—it’s a view of a nation with an open heart and open arms in its disposition toward newcomers. Pelosi gets to her verdict about Trump’s wall being immoral because his vision is so decidedly different from Reagan’s when it comes to immigrants and foreigners.
So, let’s dig into Pelosi’s argument here a bit: Is a border wall in general immoral? Or is there something about Trump’s Wall, in particular, which is an immorality? Because these distinctions are important.
Let’s start with first things: No, a border wall is not immoral.
But, motivations matter and the anger, fear, divisiveness, and degrading rhetoric hurled toward poor migrants seeking asylum is immoral. Increasing border security, which includes a wall in places, to keep out drugs, crime, gangs, terrorism, human trafficking, and illegal immigration is not immoral. Using that Wall as a symbol of fear and rejection of migrants in general, however, is immoral.
In other words, the border wall itself is neutral. How it’s used is not.
After Speaker Pelosi made her comments, Rev. Robert Jeffress, the pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas and a devoted Trump supporter, went onto Fox News to give his opinion. When asked if “walls are immoral” he responded:
Well, it’s absolutely absurd. You know, the Bible teaches that the primary responsibility of government is to maintain order and keep its citizens safe, and there’s nothing wrong with using a wall to do that. I remind people that God used a wall, he told Nehemiah to build a wall around Jerusalem to keep citizens safe. The Bible says even heaven itself is going to have a wall around it. Not everybody’s going to be allowed in. So, if walls are immoral, then God is immoral.
President Trump seemed to have picked up on this language in his Oval Office address on January 8 when he begin talking about the need for a wall in humanitarian terms. (Previously, the administration’s main thrust involved security and keeping Americans safe from reported terrorists, rapists, murderers, and invading hordes of migrants.) But, in both the president’s address and in a conference call that Vice President Pence had with over 200 faith leaders on January 9, the new messaging included a humanitarian call for a moral response, which was predicated around the construction of a Wall.
Trump said in his Oval Office address,
Some have suggested a barrier is immoral. Then why do wealthy politicians build walls, fences, and gates around their homes? They don’t build walls because they hate the people on the outside, but because they love the people on the inside. The only thing that is immoral is the politicians to do nothing and continue to allow more innocent people to be so horribly victimized.
Trump gets something right here: America is now deep in the throes of a moral and spiritual discussion: What kind of people are we? Who gets to join us? How do we best live life here together? What is our source of truth? Who gets to decide? These are deeply spiritual questions about morality, truth, meaning, values, and how we best live life together. The idea of a wall is part of this colloquy.
Since Trump’s defenders are now appealing to morality and using the Bible and theology in their arguments about border security and immigration, we should probably understand what the Bible really says.
When Jeffress said “heaven has walls,” he was referring to Revelation 21:9-21 in its description of the Heavenly City of New Jerusalem. While it is true that the Heavenly City has walls, if Jeffress had kept reading he would have seen a very different story emerge than the one he is telling:
22 And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. 23 And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb. 24 By its light will the nations walk, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it, 25 and its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. 26 They will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations. 27 But nothing unclean will ever enter it, nor anyone who does what is detestable or false, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life.
This describes a Heavenly City with walls that have gates that never close and are open to the nations and all those who belong to Jesus. How does one enter the city? In Revelation 22:14, Jesus says that all whose robes are washed and who enter by the always open city gates may come in. He’s talking about those who believe in Him and have been cleansed of their sins.
And to whom is this invitation to believe extended? Verse 17 says,
The Spirit and the Bride [which is the Church] say, “Come.” And let the one who hears say, “Come.” And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price.
This is a key component of the Gospels. Salvation is offered to all who hear the message of grace and forgiveness and who come by the Gate (which is actually Jesus Himself per, John 10:9). He is always open to whoever is thirsty and desires him. There is no cost to His salvation. And, unlike our immigration system (to push the analogy out to where Jeffress took it), there is no waiting in line and no skills-based merit system. It doesn’t matter who your family is, or what nation you are from, or if you win a diversity visa lottery, or if you have something to offer, or if you’ve lived a perfect life. The nations will come in to the Heavenly City by gates that are always open, free of charge and they will bring their worship. Gratis. Grace.
All of which is to say that Jeffress gets heaven very wrong and then distorts the Gospel by comparing it to an immigration system that essentially makes it impossible for poor migrants from Central America to come here “the right way”—unless they end up qualifying for asylum. Which is exactly what many of the recent migrant families are trying to do. (Applying for asylum is legal, by the way.)
This isn’t to say that our immigration system must be like heaven. Precious few earthly institutions are. But it isn’t anything like heaven and any analogy that compares the walls of heaven to Trump’s border wall is fatally flawed from the get-go.
To give you a sense of just how flawed Rev. Jeffress’ use of Scripture was, it sparked a reaction among some conservative evangelical pastors:
Ray Ortlund, that pastor of Immanuel Church in Nashville tweeted, “This invalid use of the Bible (1) absolutizes a debatable human argument, (2) pressures other believers to agree, (3) links the name of Christ to a problematic leader, and (4) silences the glorious truth the Bible really is asserting…”
Dean Inserra, pastor of City Church in Tallahassee, Florida tweeted, “Wanting a wall: not an unreasonable position. Wrongly using the Bible (especially when you know better) to make your case for why is inexcusable.”
Ed Litton, pastor of Redemption Church in Saraland, Alabama tweeted, “To use heaven having a wall as justification for a wall and not talk about the gates of entrance to heaven is a clear sign we have forgotten the Gospel we are called to proclaim.”
Perhaps Speaker Pelosi was right, in a sense, by suggesting that we look to President Reagan’s vision of an America that was protected and strong, but that was also welcoming. And to get there, maybe we ought to reflect better on the Heavenly City of Revelation 21-22 and its message of free salvation for all who are thirsty and desperate.