Electing Citizens and Aliens: A Theology of Migration, Borders, and Belonging

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Ashworth, Justin Parrish


Jennings, Willie J

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This work offers a theological reading of and response to migration restrictions in the United States of America, focusing on their instantiation in the U.S.-Mexico border and on the discourses and practices of citizenship and alienage that support these arrangements. Unlike most works in Christian immigration ethics, this work not only highlights the negative effects of migration policies, but also unearths the basic assumptions grounding these policies, all while displaying the racial and theological imaginaries grounding them.

The first part of this work argues that the assumption grounding all migration policies is “the preferential option for one’s own people,” that is, the view that citizens not only may but must prefer or prioritize the life of fellow citizens over that of non-citizens. The first chapter draws on French theorist Michel Foucault and decolonial intellectuals to offer a reading of three non-theological arguments for migration restrictions, namely, security, economics, and culture. In short, those who believe the U.S. must have migration restrictions believe that aliens may threaten the security, economy, and culture—in short, the life—of citizens. The second chapter interrogates theological arguments for national borders, the most visible way of restricting migration, showing that ultimately theologians assume the legitimacy of Westphalian nation-states. The third chapter offers a theological reading of the concrete effects of border practices on “illegal aliens,” arguing that national borders will continue to exist as long as citizens assume both that “our people” means “fellow citizens,” and also that they may and must prefer and prioritize their life over that of others. The latter assumption is particularly troubling because it implies that the insecurity, poverty, and cultural denigration that aliens face—though perhaps saddening—is ultimately just. The central argument of the second, constructive part of this work is that Christians (and others) should not prefer or prioritize fellow citizens over non-citizens. Chapter 4 discusses the nature and task of citizenship in light of the parable of the Merciful Samaritan in Luke’s Gospel, and chapter 5 employs Hispanic theologians to articulate an alternative account of faithful citizenship with undocumented Latina/o migrants.

The doctrine of election holds the dissertation together theologically. The first part shows that the preferential option for one’s own people—even when proclaimed by a theologian—is a secularized performance of the doctrine of election: citizens elect themselves for life and belonging, but in so doing they damn the undocumented to death and anxiety. The second part shows that God’s election of the Jews, favor for the poor, and destiny of fellowship for the world sets Christians on a trajectory of border-crossing solidarity that opposes the preferential option for one’s own and de-borders belonging.


Doctor of Theology




Ashworth, Justin Parrish (2015). Electing Citizens and Aliens: A Theology of Migration, Borders, and Belonging. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10161/10572.


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