Member Article: Jesus and an Atheist Plea For a US Pathway to Citizenship

By Dr. Kristi Winters

This is my plea to Christians who would cite US immigration law as moral justification for opposing a pathway to citizenship. I will show how a teaching attributed to Jesus can be used by Christians and non-Christians alike to support a view that morally requires a pathway to citizenship.

During an August town hall meeting Congressman Rep. Scott DesJarlais (R- Tenn) was asked a question by 11 year-old Josie Molina, whose undocumented father is facing deportation. “I have a dad who’s undocumented, “she said. “What can I do so he can stay with me?” The Congressman thanked her for her question. He responded ‘the answer still kinda remains the same: we have laws and we need to follow those laws, and that’s where we’re at” (Lee, 2013).

After the media picked up on the exchange Congressman DesJarlais gave a statement which read, in part, “I felt I owed Ms. Molina an honest answer to her question. We are a nation of laws and breaking those laws have consequences. While this country has always had a generous immigration policy, we simply cannot condone individuals coming here illegally” (Marginol, 2013).

Later I saw this coverage on the Rachel Maddow show (Maddow, 2013). A crowd protested at a detention facility demanding the temporarily stop to all deportations while a pathway to citizenship is debated. After the protest finished a bus began to exit the facility. The crowd realized the bus carried people for deportation and the protestors spontaneously decided to sit in the road to stop the bus.

I was struck by the instinct of the protestors who empathized with the suffering of the families of those strangers on the bus. Their suffering was a direct result of the application of the laws that Congressman DesJarlais used as his moral justification. In that moment realized that Jesus and I shared a common view of how people should see the law. I would now like to show how Jesus and an atheist can find common ground on interpreting the law.

The teaching is found in Mark 2:27-28 (also Matt 3:1-8 and Luke 6:1-5).[i] Jesus and his disciples are walking through a field and some of his disciples began to pick the heads off grain, presumably to make food.  Some Pharisees are also hanging out near these fields and they question Jesus as to why his disciples are doing something unlawful on the Sabbath.  Answering a question with a question, Jesus asks them about King David and his companions who, when they were hungry, took the Bread of Presence and ate it even though that was unlawful for anyone but the priests. Jesus then says, “The sabbath was made for people, not people for the sabbath. Therefore, the son of man is lord even of the sabbath.”[ii] [iii]

I want to focus on these sentences: “The sabbath was made for people, not people for the sabbath. Therefore, the son of man is lord even of the sabbath.” I will first present a Christian theological interpretation, and then I will look at the passage from an historical Jesus perspective. 

In Christian theology one purpose of this passage is to establish Jesus’ right to interpret the Law. The other conveys that Jesus’ interpretation of the Law focuses on the spirit rather than the letter. I quote here from Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology entry for ‘Sabbath’:

‘…by stressing that the Sabbath was made for humankind and not humankind for the Sabbath (Mark 2:27) Jesus gives an indication as to its true meaning. That is, he places it against the universal horizon of God's intent that it benefit all creation and not just Israel’ (Elwell, 1996). What I want to highlight here is that the sabbath, as part of the law, was meant to benefit humans, not harm them.

How does this relate to immigration in America?  It goes to the use of the law as moral justification for tearing families apart. If American Christians look to the Bible for their guidance on how to interpret laws, what they will find is Jesus demonstrating an interpretation of Jewish law that promotes human good. I don’t think anyone, Christian or non-Christian, could watch this video and think that putting family members on opposite sides of a wall is good (Unitedwestand, 2013).

I also want to explore this passage from an historical perspective. Professor Bart Ehrman, an expert in the New Testament, points to this passage as one that scholars think very likely goes back to the historical Jesus. His argument is very compelling: this passage actually makes more sense in Aramaic than it does in the Greek translation.

“The sabbath was made for people, not people for the sabbath. Therefore, the son of man is lord even of the sabbath.”  Ehrman (2012) points out the confusing inclusion of ‘therefore’ which means ‘as a consequence’ or ‘as a result’ (Random House, 2010). He writes, ‘I sometimes tell my students that when they see the word therefore in a passage, they should ask, what is the therefore there for?’ (p. 89). The problem is solved by translating this passage back into the language of Jesus: Aramaic. Aramaic uses the same word, barnash, to mean both “man/human” and “son of man.” We can re-write the passage to get closer its original version: “The sabbath was made for barnash, not barnash for the sabbath. Therefore, barnash is lord even of the sabbath.” 

The ‘therefore’ now makes more sense.  Humans are lord of the sabbath because it was created for them; humans were not created to be slaves to the law. This interpretation puts the moral responsibility on humans to interpret the law in life-affirming ways.

These two interpretations, one based in Christian theology and one from an historical approach, converge on the same moral point: the law (or the sabbath) is meant to promote what is good for people; it is not a good in and of itself.  If questions arise as to how to interpret the law (or the sabbath) then we must be guided by the knowledge that it was made for humans, and it should be interpreted in a way that furthers human good.

Our laws are there to protect people, not to harm them.  When our laws are harming more people than they are helping, Jesus prods those who follow him to examine their hearts and conscience. I therefore cite Jesus in my plea to Christians and ask them to consider the moral consequences of opposing a pathway to citizenship. Is the law doing more harm than good when thousands of Josie Molinas are parted from their mothers and fathers? 

Hiding behind the law will not protect us from the moral responsibility of supporting policies that result in children and parents reaching out to embrace through the walls of a fence. As an atheist, I stand with Jesus on this issue. Do what is good for human life, for families and for the well-being of so many children. Support a pathway to citizenship.


Ehrman, Bart (2012) ‘Chapter 3: The Gospels as Historical Sources’ Did Jesus Exist? Harper Collins E-pub edition. Pp. 69-92 of 365 pages.

Elwell, Walter A. (1996) Baker's Evangelical Dictionary. Baker Books: Grand Rapids, MI

Lee, Traci. (2013) ‘Crowd cheers as GOP rep. tells girl her dad should be deported’ Martin Bashir, MSNBC.

Margolin, Emma. (2013) ‘GOP rep insists 11-year-old’s undocumented dad has to go’ Thomas Roberts, MSNBC.

Maddow, Rachel. (2013) ‘New generation of activists fight rights abuses’ The Rachel Maddow Show, MSNBC.

Random House Kernerman Webster's College Dictionary. (2010) ‘Therefore’

Unitedwedream (2013) ‘Operation Butterfly Reunion at the Border’ YouTube.

[i] Mark is the earliest of the four gospels, and therefore the closest in time to the historical Jesus.

[ii] I do not use modern practices of capitalization such as ‘Son of Man’ since these do not appear in the earliest and best manuscripts.

[iii] Webster Bible Translation.