On Thursday, February 18, 2016, Pope Francis claimed that Donald Trump was not a Christian because Trump wanted to build a wall on America’s southern border with Mexico. The Pope made this statement on a flight returning to Vatican City following a trip to Mexico. Perhaps the Pope should have remembered that the home to which he was returning, Vatican City, is a sovereign Nation-State surrounded by a wall and guarded by the colorful Swiss Guard, the subject of countless postcards sent from the Vatican post office each and every day by tourists from around the world.
The irony of Pope Francis’s pronouncement is overwhelming. The Roman Catholic Church had lost vast estates in Italy at the end of the nineteenth century. In 1929, the fascist dictator Mussolini recognized a small portion of land in Rome, Vatican City, as the sovereign property of the Roman Catholic Church. (Mussolini also allowed the Vatican to have a train station and a post office, the source of all those colorful postcards of the Swiss Guards.) From that day forward, the Vatican has been the smallest Nation-State in the world.
This Nation-State, we must remember, is surrounded by a high wall and is guarded by the aforementioned colorful Swiss Guard. However, citing the words of the current Pope, any national leader who calls for a wall surrounding his nation is not a Christian. Therefore, according to his own definition, Pope Francis, as the sovereign ruler of the walled nation of the Vatican, is not a Christian.
Now, this article is not intended to make the point that Pope Francis is not a Christian. Nor is it intended as a defense of the spiritual condition of the current President of the United States. Instead, this article simply seeks to make the point that every Nation-State has the right to establish its own borders and to defend them. In fact, the very existence of a wall around Vatican City seems to make it a prima facie case that nations have the right to determine and defend their own borders.
Despite the anecdotal evidence from the example of the Vatican, that nations have the right to determine and defend their borders, there is also good biblical warrant that walls not only serve a legitimate defensive purpose, but that walls also reduce the temptation of attack from one’s neighbors. In fact, the lack of walls, or borders, might be seen as a provocation to bad actors to take advantage of the lack of such basic security measures.
When the children of Israel returned to Jerusalem after their exile in Babylon, they first set out to rebuild the ruined temple of the Lord (Ezra chs. 1–6). However, when Nehemiah received word from the inhabitants of Jerusalem that the walls of the city had not yet been rebuilt, his countenance was downcast. Nehemiah understood that a city with no defenses was a shame before its neighbors and a possible invitation to attack. Artaxerxes, King of Persia, recognized Nehemiah’s distress and his concern for his home country (Neh. 2:1–3). Artaxerxes therefore commanded Nehemiah to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the walls of the Holy City of the Lord. Although Artaxerxes was a pagan king, he recognized the shame that would follow if a capital city had no defenses.
Another incident from the history of Israel may add clarification to the questions of borders and immigration. After Joseph had risen to preeminence in the land of Egypt due to God’s blessings upon his work there (Gen. 39–41), Joseph sent for his family who were suffering because of a famine in Canaan. When his family arrived in Egypt, Joseph presented them before Pharaoh (Gen. 47). Pharaoh gave his approval for the children of Israel to settle in the land of Egypt. Joseph’s actions in presenting his family before Pharaoh assumes that kings, sovereigns, or ruling bodies have the right to determine who is allowed to live in their domains.
Perhaps one might raise the objection that borders are a human invention and that God views humanity as one race, one people. On this premise then, borders are divisive and undermine God’s perspective that all humans are equally the children of Adam. (This seems to have been the basis of Pope Francis’ condemnation of Donald Trump.) However, in his sermon on Mars Hill in Athens, the Apostle Paul declares that God has determined the boundaries of the habitations of the peoples of the earth (Acts 17:26). Therefore, boundaries are not merely a human invention. They have God’s own approval since God, in His providence, is the one who has established them.
Furthermore, in his letter to the Church at Rome, the Apostle Paul commands believers in Christ to submit to the authority of their rulers in all things lawful since God Himself ordains such rulers (Rom. 13:1–6). This command is certainly an endorsement of the idea that Christians are to submit to the rule of law. Therefore, if America’s immigration laws are just and not contrary to God’s laws, then all Christians should submit to the legitimate authority of these laws.
In June of 1987, President Ronald Ragan stood before the Berlin wall and issued a demand to Mikhail Gorbachev: “Mr. Gorbachev, Tear down this Wall!” Just a few years later the Berlin wall came crashing down. The Berlin wall certainly was a symbol of oppression. It was erected on the pretense of keeping out the fascist influences of Western society. However, everyone knows that the only people who lost their lives on that border were people seeking to escape the Communist oppression of East Berlin.
Perhaps a similar demand could be made of Pope Francis: “Pope Francis, tear down this wall!” However, since the wall surrounding Vatican City is not the work of a totalitarian government intent on subjugating its people, but rather a wall designed for the defense of a sovereign Nation-State, such a call would reject the biblical concept that sovereign Nation-States have the right to determine their own borders and to enforce those borders. The Pope has every right to defend the borders of Vatican City. Perhaps the Pope should recognize that President Trump has the same right to define and defend America’s borders.
Kevin D. Kennedy, Ph.D.