Wisdom for the Refugee Crisis
The plight of asylum seekers and refugees is one of the most polarising issues of our day. On the one hand, there are those who argue we should open wide our borders and our communities to the displaced and the fleeing. On the other hand, there are those who argue we must slam the borders shut in order to preserve our culture and our way of life. And there is seemingly very little middle ground. Media outlets portray the situation in a certain light depending on their political leanings, social media engagement is often little more than ideological propaganda, and organised rallies descend into violent shouting matches. Even the labels we use—asylum seekers or illegal immigrants—leave little room for nuance, and give a window into our feelings on the matter.
But what does God’s Word have to say to us about refugees? How can we, as followers of Jesus, engage this divisive issue with wisdom?
First, let’s consider what the Bible has to say about refugees, starting with the Old Testament.
What does the Old Testament teach us about Refugees?
The first and perhaps most obvious truth the Old Testament teaches us is that all people are made in the image of God, giving all people inherent dignity and worth (Gen. 1:27). This includes you, and it includes every human being from every nation, tribe, and tongue—no matter how foreign to you.
The second truth we must recognise is that the Old Testament—though primarily the story of God’s interaction with the nation of Israel—is not silent on the issue of refugees. In fact, it is quite vocal.
The key term in the Old Testament is the Hebrew word ger, which is variously translated in English versions of the Bible as sojourner, stranger, or alien (we shall use ‘stranger’ for the remainder of this piece). Brian Rosner, principal of Ridley Theological College in Melbourne, in his article ‘Aliens and Strangers’, summarises a wealth of biblical data in explaining that in the Old Testament there are predominantly two types of ‘strangers’:
1. The assimilating stranger, who chose to fit in with Israelite culture and religion.
2. The non-assimilating stranger, who though having settled in the community chooses to retain an independent sense of identity.
Welcome the Stranger
Having surveyed the Old Testament law, Rosner concludes that, on the whole, the law is remarkably generous and supportive of all strangers in Israel. Rosner argues that these strangers—whether assimilating or not—were protected from abuse, especially abuse stemming from patriarchal authority, protected from unfair treatment when employed by Israelites, and protected from unfair treatment in the courts. Strangers are readily recognised as lacking influence and often poor and in need, and so, they are to be afforded fair and hospitable treatment. In fact, Rosner concludes that, “Basically strangers were to be treated as native-born Israelites with only a few qualifications” (cf. Ex. 12:43; Deut 14:21; 15:1–3).
This truth is reflected in numerous passages which provide explicit direction for the Israelites on how to treat refugees. Consider the following sample of passages:
“You shall not oppress a sojourner. You know the heart of a sojourner, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 23:9)
“And you shall not strip your vineyard bare, neither shall you gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner: I am the Lord your God.” (Leviticus 19:10)
“When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” (Leviticus 19:33–34)
These passages give us a clear and direct glimpse into the heart of God for the refugee. It is obvious that Israel was not to mistreat or oppress refugees but were to welcome, to love, to care, and to provide for them.
Some Famous Strangers
In addition, it is significant if we consider the number of prominent Old Testament characters who were themselves “strangers”. The great patriarch Abraham, for instance, described himself as both a “sojourner and a foreigner” (Gen. 23:4) when he was living in Canaan. Joseph—because of treachery—became a refugee in Egypt, while his family—because of famine—soon followed. And, of course, eventually the entire people of Israel became refugees in Egypt (Ex. 1). Moses was also a refugee following his flight from Egypt to Midian, where he lived for 40 years. In fact, in Exodus 2 Moses explicitly calls himself a “sojourner” (v.22) and names his son ‘Gershom’ which means “sojourner in the land.” In addition, Ruth, having come to Israel from Moab with her mother-in-law, Naomi, is a stranger in the land. Strikingly, the book ends with Ruth forming part of the family line from which Jesus would come. Also, following the Babylonian invasion of Jerusalem, the prophet Jeremiah flees to Egypt where he remained until his death.
The Old Testament is clear that to be a refugee is not necessarily a sinful condition, but is a reality—even for God’s people—in a fallen world. In fact, the motivation for the Israelites to adopt such a welcoming ethos toward the ‘stranger' lies in the fact that the Israelites themselves were once strangers in Egypt (Ex. 22:21; 23:9). This truth is reflected in the passages above, and especially in passages like Deuteronomy 10:17–19:
“For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who is not partial and takes no bribe. 18 He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing. 19 Love the sojourner, therefore, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.”
Moreover, in Leviticus 19, the famous commandment to “love your neighbour as yourself” (v.18) is followed by the commandment to “love the sojourner” (v.34). It is an obvious truth of the Old Testament that Israel’s benevolence toward refugees was rooted in their own history as refugees.
Interestingly enough, this repeated refrain—for Israel to “remember you were once strangers”—is one applicable to many Australians. Murray Campbell, in his article “What Does the Bible teach us about Refugees?”, points out that, “…25% of our 22 million Australians were born overseas. That’s 5.5 million of us!” He goes on to say, “I understand that those 5.5 million have migrated to this country under different banners, many were refugees and some came by boat. My point here is that 25% of Australians understand what it is to leave your home country and find a new home. Not only that, 44% of us were either born overseas or had parents who were born overseas. That’s almost half of the population! And where do we think Aussies with Irish, English or Scottish descent come from? That’s right, from Ireland, England and Scotland, from overseas, and most came by boat!” This is a truth that deserves pointed reflection from all of us—especially if we or our ancestors have come to Australia from Europe, South Africa, or elsewhere.
Obligations of the Stranger
However, we must note that the Old Testament consistently teaches that strangers had obligations as well. For instance, they were to abide by the law of Israel. Leviticus 24:22 says, “You shall have the same rule for the sojourner and for the native, for I am the Lord your God.” As Campbell points out, “This law is not only just but it’s sensible. You can’t have one law for one group, and another for a different group. That’s not called a country, that’s called countries!”
Moreover, it is obvious in the Old Testament that the nations were not simply given open slather within the borders of Israel. There is a definite exclusionist attitude in the Old Testament associated with those who were maliciously intent on leading Israel away from God (Ex. 20:2–3; Deut. 6:4; 31:16; 32:12;1 Kgs 11:4; Neh 13; 2 Kgs 17:7; Hos 4:11–14). In other words, as Campbell says, “It’s not as every though Tom, Dick, Harry and Philistine was welcome. If you turned up with a sword in one hand and an idol in the other, there were policies!” Indeed, we mustn’t wrongly conclude from the above survey that Israel blindly opened their borders. There were definite restrictions designed to preserve the integrity and shape of the national, social, and religious life of Israel.
Some Reflections for a More Balanced View
Of course, this point is not wholly applicable to our situation as we no longer live in a theocratic state like Israel. We do not live in a ‘Christian nation’—if there is such a thing. We live in a secular democratic nation with freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. This means, Australia can, and should, welcome the stranger, regardless of ethnicity or religion. And, Christians in Australia should lead the way.
Of course, none of this precludes the fact that we, and especially our leaders, should exercise discernment as to who we grant asylum in Australia. Herald Sun columnist, Rita Panahi, wrote this week: “The reality is that radical Islam and Western values cannot coexist peacefully… There exists a minority of troublemakers who seek to change our free societies into the type of place they fled from… Australians are inherently inclusive and have no interest in marginalising the Muslim community, the overwhelming majority of whom are law-abiding citizens who abhor their religion being hijacked by fanatics.” But, as she goes on to say, “Those who express concerns about the level of Muslim migration should not be simply condemned as xenophobic rednecks. The determination of some among the chattering classes to dissociate acts of terror from the religion of the perpetrators does nothing but insult the intelligence of the community. Whoever comes to this country must be capable of assimilating with the wider population and embracing our cherished values of equality, freedom and democracy.”
Though we readily concede Panahi makes a valid point, we must just as readily concede that this does not excuse us from the clear and consistent mandate of the Old Testament to welcome and love the stranger. It does not minimise the clear truth that God’s heart for the refugee—and so the heart of his people for the refugee—is to be one of welcome and openness. Indeed, it is abundantly clear in the Old Testament that those who sought refuge, for whatever reason, were permitted stay and live. And not just to stay and to live, but to be welcomed by the Israelites. This is the primary and dominant ethical mandate given to us by God in the Old Testament.
Besides, we must remember the large number of displaced people seeking refuge today are not radicalised individuals seeking to destroy Western culture, but rather people made in the image of God, with their own identity and culture, seeking a safe place to live. The Red Cross, one of the world’s foremost humanitarian organisations, suggests that, “The majority of people who apply for asylum do so because their lives and safety are under threat from war, violence or human rights abuses in their homeland. Most people do not wish to leave the homes, families, friends and communities that they know and love.”
Moreover, we must understand that not all of those who come to Australia seeking asylum are doing so illegally. In fact, Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states everyone has the right to seek asylum from persecution in other countries. Human rights are universal. They are basic freedoms and protections that everyone is entitled to. This is why, as the Red Cross remind us, “It is not illegal for people to flee persecution in their homeland or to cross borders without documents or passports in order to seek asylum. It is not a crime under Australian law to arrive here by boat without a valid visa and ask for protection.”
Therefore, we must conclude that, while it is naive to assume that all refugees are peace-loving individuals ready to foster greater democratic freedom, it is equally, if not more naive, to assume that all refugees are hell-bent on the destruction of our society and nation. Indeed, our response to the plight of asylum seekers should be guided not by fear-mongering or naivety, but by biblical wisdom and the clear and consistent refrain to, ‘welcome the stranger’.
It is clear, then, that the Old Testament has much to say on the issue of refugees.
What about the New Testament?
What does the New Testament teach us about Refugees?
When we turn to the New Testament, the view of refugees, as we might expect, remains largely the same, though there is a shift in emphasis. As Campbell explains, “In the Old Testament the emphasis was Israel being this light that would radiate to the nations and attract people to Israel. That focus changes in the New Testament; it’s not the nations going to Jerusalem, it’s Jerusalem going to the nations. It’s the people of God moving out into the world, to reach people for Christ. God’s plan was always to encompass the nations (that’s what the Abrahamic covenant is about), but with Jesus’ coming the command has become, go to the nations.”
Despite this shift in emphasis, the ethical mandate of the Old Testament—to welcome the stranger—remains largely the same. For instance, this welcoming attitude towards the ‘stranger’ is epitomised in the life and ministry of Jesus. The life and mission of Jesus was marked by his love and concern for the powerless and the marginalised, particularly the poor, women, children, the socially excluded (prostitutes, lepers, etc.) and eventually, gentile sinners like us. Jesus led by example, and now expects us to follow him all the way to the margins of life and society.
Of course, to love and welcome those on the margins of society is risky. And this risk is perhaps the greatest objection to acting in love towards refugees—the risk that they will somehow abuse or betray our kindness. But, as Rosner points out, “Perhaps the best answer to such fears is to recognise that true faith and discipleship always involve taking a risk. When Jesus reached out to the Samaritan woman his disciples were scandalised. He risked the serious loss of reputation in a society obsessed with status, honour and shame. When he healed the blind and the lame, he risked being inundated with needy people, and sometimes was. Such risks did not deter him.” To love genuinely is to always take a risk; it is to open yourself up for the potential to be hurt or taken advantage of. But if Jesus willingly took risks in order to love others, even a ‘stranger’ like us, then we, too, can enter into the risky business of loving and welcoming the stranger.
Moreover, it is helpful to note that Jesus himself had the experience while on earth of being a refugee. As an infant, Jesus fled along with Mary and Joseph to Egypt in order to escape the persecution of Herod the Great. This means, as Campbell explains, “God’s Son knows what it is like to be displaced, to face such opposition in your homeland from the Government that the family is forced out, and they traveled, not by a boat, but by foot across a treacherous desert.”
Finally, we should consider the truth espoused in Hebrews 11:13:
“These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth.”
The author of Hebrews makes clear a truth that is often minimised, especially in Western counties, that this earth is not our home. We are, as believers in Jesus Christ, strangers and exiles upon the earth. This is not to say we are awaiting the day we can escape this God-forsaken earth, but rather that our primary identity is not found in anything on earth, but in Jesus alone.
“This posture,” as Campbell points out, “…guards us from being overly protective about calling anything on earth ours. We are strangers who are passing through; this is a hotel room for a relatively short period. Do we hold on to our property, or national identity, or borders more rigidly than our theology permits us? That is a question worth asking. I am not suggesting that nationality is irrelevant or that being Australian doesn’t mean something and not hold any significance; the nations are there present and active in the book of Revelation. But I would ask, are our notions of nationhood helps for Gospel work or inhibitors? I suspect it’s a bit of both.”
So, having surveyed what the Bible has to say about refugees, where do we go from here? How can we bring the wisdom of the gospel to bear upon this issue of refugees?
What do we do now?
What follows are 4 suggested ways the gospel can shape our response to the refugee crisis.
The gospel way is to welcome and care for the stranger.
Put simply, as Campbell says, “God has welcomed us into his kingdom; he gave us the rights of sons and daughters, for which we had no claim or right.” Ephesians 2:13 reminds us that, “…in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.” This truth gives us the motivation and power we need to welcome those who are far off and in need.
The gospel isn’t ignorant of security issues.
Campbell aptly points out, “Part of loving the other is making sure that our neighbours are safe. It would be irresponsible for us to rashly let anyone into the country without proper security checks, and therefore put our neighbours at risk. That wouldn’t be Gospel-minded. I don’t know of anyone suggesting we fling the doors open to everyone without discernment, that’s a straw man argument.”
The gospel way is to obey the government.
Romans 13 clearly espouses the principle that we are to obey the government—even secular government. Of course, at times the gospel and the government will not agree, and we need humble and prayerful wisdom in order to navigate this complexity. But at least part of what it means to be a good citizen is to submit to the authorities that God has put in place and the rulings they make (Rom. 13:1).
The gospel means sacrifice.
Jesus says in Matthew 16:24, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” To follow Jesus is to follow him all the way to the cross. It is the way of sacrifice. And sacrifice is, by definition, something that costs us. For Jesus, sacrifice meant the cost of his life. And he calls us to be willing to sacrifice the same.
Recently, Tim Costello, CEO of World Vision, said that, “On a per capita basis, for Australia to be ‘generous’, we’d increase our intake by 215,000”. Now, of course, the exact number of refugees we should take is not the point here. But we should ask ourselves, what are we willing to sacrifice for the good of others? What are we willing to sacrifice for those who have been forcibly displaced from their homeland? Will a number such as the one proposed by Tim Costello cost us? Yes, but that is the nature of sacrifice, that is the point of love. Will such a number bring with it a certain degree of fear of the unknown? Perhaps. But, as we are told in 1 John 4:18, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.”
And this is why Campbell insightfully concludes, “From what I hear in the media it sounds as though much of this debate is being framed by fear. I don’t think it’s primarily about racism, though that’s there. I think it’s more to do with fear. People are fearful of change, fearful of the unknown, fearful of what might happen to our standard of living should we welcome more people. The Gospel is not built on fear, but love, and love expressed through compassion and sacrifice. That can be hard. And the reality is, not everyone who migrates to Australia (whether as a refugee or through other avenues) is deserving. Not every one who comes to Australia is grateful for being here. But isn’t that the cost of love? Isn’t that what Jesus did? He absorbed the sin of the world, he took on his himself all our pain and shame, and the world did not receive him. And yet through this act of grace God has welcomed home those who did not formerly belong.”
Bray Park Community Church
Aliens and Strangers by Brian Rosner
What does the Bible Teach us about Refugees? by Murray Campbell
Asylum Seekers: 13 Things You Should Know by Red Cross (redcross.org.au)
Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion Truth in the Immigration Debate by Matthew Soerens and Jenny Hwang Yang
The Immigration Crisis: Immigrants, Aliens, and the Bible by James K. Hoffmeier
What Every Christian Needs to Know About the Qur'an by James R. White
A Just Cause — ajustcause.com.au