Constantine’s Legacy: Preserving Empire While Undermining International Law
Slotte, P., & Haskell, J. (Eds.). (2021). Christianity and International Law: An Introduction (Law and Christianity). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/9781108565646
29 Pages Posted: 18 Nov 2021
Date Written: May 1, 2021
The 1951 Refugee Convention attempted to resolve one of the critical failures of international law prior to and during World War II. Although international law recognizes the right of persons to leave a nation, sovereign nation-states retain the right to preclude entry of non-citizens. As Hannah Arendt pointed out, millions of persons fleeing persecution or death found little or no protection once they left their native lands when they were refused entry to a new nation. Similarly, even if they entered another nation, they were often deprived of rights granted to citizens increasing their vulnerability. Through the Refugee Convention, nation-states agreed to provide a legal process to discern whether persons fleeing persecution could be given asylum or other lawful status to protect them until the fear of return subsided. Individual nations could specifically design the process to meet their needs, but the overarching concept applied to all nations: a nation should not return a refugee to persecution. The United States agreed to this principle by adopting the 1967 Protocol to the Refugee Convention. Congress included this principle in domestic law by enacting the 1980 Refugee Act.
Today, as refugees seek safety, they find nations erecting walls of steel interlaced with legal strategies that undermine the international protections forged from the tragedy of the Holocaust. The 2016 presidential election fostered intense debate on whether the United States should continue its commitment to asylum-seekers or, instead, build walls and expedite deportation of asylum seekers. Part of the electoral impetus that favored such anti-immigrant and anti-refugee rhetoric stemmed, in part, from white evangelical Christians. Subsequently, when administration officials implemented new executive orders or policies restricting access to asylum, some officials and their allies cited biblical references in support of such restrictive policies.
This chapter explores the interlocking struggle between Christian hospitality toward the outsider and Christian refusal to offer that hospitality in support of national security. Christian beliefs that encourage submission to governing authorities and prioritize the nation undermine international law to the detriment of not only refugees, but also citizens and the world community. The chapter first explores Christianity’s transition from persecution to establishment after Emperor Constantine’s conversion to Christianity. Some of the seeds planted in such a transition contributed to later religious wars and eventually flourished in the nations-states that developed after 1648. Next, the chapter argues that many of the executive orders and federal policies established after 2016 have undermined the commitment to refugee protection established by international law. It then explores the scriptural and theological positions that have influenced the post-2016 federal policy. Specifically, the chapter examines the policies of deterring applicants for asylum, expanding immigration detention, permitting untrammeled Immigration Customs Enforcement and Border Patrol enforcement, and undermining the rule of law. Although the First Amendment to the Constitution precludes Scripture from determining law, citizens debating the merits of refugee and immigration policy may rely on Scripture to inspire policy choices. The chapter presents an alternative interpretation of Scripture to fulfill the goal of protecting asylum seekers and those requesting assistance when approaching a nation’s borders while simultaneously reinvigorating the protections promised by international law.
Keywords: Refugee Convention, Refugee Act of 1980, asylum, refugee, international law, evangelical Christians, Hannah Arendt, Border Patrol, Department of Homeland Security, Emperor Constantine
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