Changing Minds


Ben and Leslie Roth

An overarching theme of Carroll’s books is that the Bible calls Christians to recognize and treat immigrants with hospitality. They are fellow humans created in the image of God. Therefore, welcoming the stranger—the foreigner—is more than a theme in the Old Testament, it is a biblical mandate. Carroll’s assertions do not seem controversial on the face of things. No Christian will question whether immigrants are human, for example. And regardless of our inattention to the use of the word “alien” or “foreigner” in the Bible (an oversight that is inexcusable after reading Carroll), Christians will generally acknowledge that all people are objects of God’s love and deserving of our love and compassion.

If this is the case, why is it necessary to write a book on the biblical treatment of immigrants? Carroll addresses this question from a theological perspective, and other posts to this blog have largely reinforced his theological argument. In this post, we briefly explore the question above from a different angle—from the perspective of social sciences.

(De)Humanizing immigrants

Carroll suggests that a biblical view of immigrants would affirm their human-ness. Social science research indicates that humanizing immigrants is more than a question of sensitivity training, however. We are products of a society that sees immigrants with suspicion, and our brains have adapted by dehumanizing them. Therefore, according to Susan Fiske, a psychologist in the field of social neuroscience, the very neural pathways that structure how we think and feel about immigrants need to be rewired.

Fiske and her colleagues suggest that our stereotypes of immigrant groups can be plotted in a two-dimensional social space along the axes of warmth (vertical axis) and competence (horizontal axis) (see figure below). Using fMRI imaging, they charted which areas of the brain are activated when research participants see stereotypical images of certain immigrant groups. Their findings show that we view some immigrant groups with greater degrees of compassion (they are deserving of our compassion) and respect (they are viewed as being competent).

Immigrants from Europe and, more generally, immigrants who are documented (those who come “the right way”) register in the quadrant of the accepted “in-group” (high warmth and high competence). In the lower-right quadrant are those who are seen as competent but less deserving of warmth and compassion (Koreans and Japanese immigrants, for example).

Fiske’s research suggests that immigrant groups in the quadrant on the lower left (low warmth, low competence) are more despised. Those who are the most detested are undocumented immigrants. Alarmingly, they do not register as individuals who merit compassion or respect. That is, neural cognition treats undocumented immigrants are seen as barely human.

While Carroll makes the case that the Bible calls us to re-humanize all immigrants—including those who are undocumented—Fiske’s findings suggest that this will require more than a minor change to our reading of the Bible. It demands a fundamentally rewiring of our neural pathways themselves. This is more than politics or ignorance. Our bias against some immigrants has become biologically ingrained.

Closer proximity, newer behaviors

There is no single approach is to changing how we think about immigrants. One place to start, however, is to begin with changing how we live. Building on the science described above—and the field of cognitive behavioralism—altering our behavior can lead to altered cognition. At the most basic level, this behavioral change should involve (1) intentionally seeking more social contact with immigrants and (2) creating opportunities to listen to their narratives as fundamentally human stories.

Roth Diagram AMEN

Social proximity to immigrants—regardless of legal status—will not eliminate bias, but it will begin softening the us/them boundaries which reinforce it. Unfortunately, racial/ethnic segregation in schools, neighborhoods, and—yes—churches, is a real problem that limits our day-to-day opportunities for rubbing shoulders with people who are different from us. As a community of faith, therefore, challenging these boundaries must be intentional. This can take many forms. It can involve worshipping with ethnic congregations, for example. Worshipping together is more than just an exercise. It creates a social and physical proximity to immigrants that can be difficult to find in a society that is still highly structured to minimize social exposure.

A second and related objective is to create opportunities to listen to our neighbors’ migration stories. This is interrelated with the point above: social proximity to immigrants may introduce opportunities to learn about migratory processes themselves. There is a lot of groundwork that must be laid before this can happen. Immigrants must feel safe enough to tell their stories, and those who are listening must be prepared to hear and understand the stories immigrants tell. Although it is helpful to increase social contact between our parishes and our immigrant neighbors, this is not a box to check. It is merely one step toward changing the way we live—and, ultimately, the way we think about and understand the larger social world of which we are a part.

Dr. Ben Roth is a professor of Social Work at the University of South Carolina, located in Columbia,  South Carolina. His wife Leslie is a social worker in the local school system.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s