Loving the Stranger

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God has created a world with enough blessing and bounty for every person to thrive.

Immigration is a pressing issue in North American culture—and in the church. Yet in both Canada and the United States, the church struggles to engage refugee issues in a distinctively biblical way. Media rhetoric (“We’re being swamped by refugees!”) is as likely to be repeated in the church foyer as it is in coffee shops or at home. What’s sometimes missing from our conversations is careful thought about what Scripture has to say.

John Stott suggests that when it comes to addressing the pressing issues of our day, Christians ought to engage in “double listening.” By that he means listening with one ear to Scripture and the other to culture. So how does the Bible speak to immigration and refugee issues, and how does it cause us to “hear” culture differently?

The biblical word that most closely corresponds to our modern notion of refugee is variously translated as stranger, foreigner, or sojourner. In the Bible, the stranger is someone who is both ethnically displaced and economically vulnerable. These people do not have resources to survive on their own; they are dependent upon the generosity of the Israelites among whom they live.

Perhaps the most famous biblical text regarding refugees is Deuteronomy 10:18-19:

[The Lord] defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt.

Christian refugee activists rightly use this passage to demonstrate that vulnerable people who are seeking a home ought to be welcomed. But I suspect that those who use this passage don’t realize just how radical it really is! It is rarely pointed out that these two verses follow—and are in relationship with—verses 15 and 16:

Yet the Lord set his affection on your ancestors and loved them, and he chose you, their descendants, above all the nations—as it is today. Circumcise your hearts, therefore, and do not be stiff-necked any longer.

If you take these passages together and read them carefully, you’ll notice that the word love occurs three times. First it is used to note Yahweh’s love for his people Israel. Then it notes Yahweh’s love for the foreigner. The third time it notes Israel’s love for the stranger. Now this is getting interesting! This word love (Hebrew ahav) refers to Yahweh’s covenant commitment that is expressed in action. Of course, Yahweh’s actioned covenant commitment for Israel is found preeminently in Exodus, in the story of Yahweh rescuing his people from slavery in Egypt.

But here’s the kicker: in Deuteronomy 10:18-19, this word for Yahweh’s actioned covenant commitment is applied to “the foreigner”! The special covenant word that is used for Yahweh’s commitment to his people Israel and his action on their behalf is used to express his commitment to the refugee. This suggests that Yahweh has a fierce loyalty to the vulnerable foreigner. He is on the stranger’s side. “The Lord loves the foreigner,” and he will act for the refugee’s sake.

But can a key covenant motif like this be applied to a people who have not necessarily heard God’s law or confessed allegiance to him? On the one hand we know and celebrate God’s commitment to vulnerable people, but on the other hand, is it right to express God’s commitment to vulnerable people as a covenant commitment?

As I wrestled with this question, I found help in reading one of the early liberation theologians, Gustavo Gutierrez. Gutierrez writes, “God is committed to the poor, not because the poor are good—but because He is good.” God’s commitment to refugees is grounded in his goodness. God has created a world with enough blessing and bounty for every person to thrive—especially the most vulnerable. And God is committed to the thriving of the world’s most vulnerable people. What a wonderful God we serve!

Loving the Stranger in the Old Testament
“Loving the stranger” in the Old Testament is not primarily a warm fuzzy feeling. Instead it involves a practical, lived out, actioned commitment to the stranger’s thriving. In Old Testament times this meant that the stranger was included within the work and life of the family farm. A stranger would enter into a relationship with an Israelite family, joining in their daily activities and sharing in the produce of the farm. This shared life between the family and the refugee was highlighted during thrice-yearly festivals described in Deuteronomy 16:9-17.

As we consider our own response to refugees, we ought not miss the significance of Israel’s responsibility to share their lives and wealth with the stranger. These practices teach us that there is no room for stinginess and parochialism in the kingdom of God—only for generosity and welcome.

The Israelites’ practices of hospitality remind us of the radical welcome of Christ—in particular his practice of eating with all kinds of people, especially the marginalized. New Testament scholars have pointed out that Jesus “ate his way through the gospels”—sharing meals with those considered unclean, with prostitutes, tax collectors, and “sinners.” Christ offers a radical welcome to all people.

Loving the Stranger Today
Now, with one ear attuned to Scripture, let’s listen to our culture. The status of immigration policy in the United States and Canada is a complex issue, and developing legislation in both countries inspires heated debate. As political leaders continue to debate policy with respect to immigration reform, Christians do well to reflect on what Christ’s practices of radical welcome might look like today.

Despite the sometimes inhospitable direction of refugee policy in our countries, Scripture offers real hope—not just for the stranger finding refuge among God’s people Israel, but hope for refugees today. This hope is grounded in the actioned covenant commitment of God: “[The Lord] defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing” (Deut 10:18).

The hope offered in this verse hit home to me in a fresh way at my wife’s birthday party. A woman who had fled from Iran to Canada only two months before was attending the party. She had been incarcerated in a local prison for some weeks, in accordance with refugee legislation, and had just been released. At the party, this woman, who had left husband and home, who had experienced so much loss, was dancing. At first her dancing surprised me. Then it dawned on me that she had great reason to dance, for the future of our world is secure.

In Christ, God is recovering his purposes for his good creation. In Christ’s death and resurrection God has secured thriving for all people, especially the most vulnerable. He is enacting his covenant commitment to refugees once and for all, and this is a great reason to dance. In the words of Romans 11:36: “For from him and through him and for him are all things. To him be the glory forever!”

You might also be interested in:
Office of Social Justice: Refugee overview
Office of Social Justice: Refugee Resettlement
Office of Social Justice: Refugee Stories

About the Author

Mark Glanville, pastor of Willoughby Christian Reformed Church in Langley, British Columbia, is writing a doctoral thesis on Old Testament ethics. Mark blogs at markrglanville.wordpress.com.

See comments (6)


As unpopular as this sounds in North American culture, as believers it is our Biblical mandate to welcome and love the stranger.  This requires believers to share the basic necessities of life with them, as well as speaking for their freedom from persecution and resentment.  In doing so, Christ's Kingdom is advanced!

This article does well enough in terms of informing as to what God says in the OT about dealing with the stranger and foreigner, but otherwise when informing as to what that means for US immigration and refugee law/policy.

To begin with, US law as to refugees and non-refugee immigrants is pretty separate and distinct.  This article conflates them, as if the subject matter under its consideration is one instead of two.  Any conversation about US immigration and refugee law that starts out with this misunderstanding can't really continue in a meaningful way.  And so when the author says: "As political leaders continue to debate policy with respect to immigration reform, Christians do well to reflect on what Christ’s practices of radical welcome might look like today," he really sets the Christians who read this article on an unfortunate course by causing them, his disclaimer notwithstanding, to regard this subject in a badly oversimplified way.  (Even the links to OSJ pages are about refugees, not non-refugee immigrants, while his political admonition is stated as directed about the subject of "immigration reform."

Instead of ending with the implication that federal law should be changed to be more "pro-immigration,"  this article might have focused on what Christians, as individuals, families and local churches, might do to welcome immigrants and refugees when those immigrants and refugees turn out to be our neighbors in our own neighborhoods and communities.  We could be immigrant sponsors, or help existing immigrants and refugees find jobs, housing, and other resources that allow them to flourish (and stay off public assistance).  There is plenty of important work we can directly do directly to show love for immigrants and refugees.  Yet, the article focuses more on the supposed "inhospitable direction of refugee policy in our countries."

The government, one of many spheres, has its task to do, and it is quite different from the task that we individually as neighbors have to do.  We do well if we focus as an institutional church community on discussions about how we might, in our individuals and local community lives, welcome the stranger.

This article is most certainly a good biblical survey.  At the same time, DVG does us a service in pointing to the two dimensions: "refugee and non-refugee immigrants."  However, at the conclusion I don't think we as "church" can leave the government off the hook of comprehensive immigration reform and only concentrate on serving those in our communities.  For me it is "both-and."

   Amen, Mark, Amen!

Lou: I may also a "both and" provided the level of competency is "both and" -- but therein lies the problem.  The CRCNA, as an institutional church, has a deserved excellent reputation as an institution that produces competent theological analysis.  Conversely, at least I would suggest if judged by those of the Reformed perspective whose occupations/expertise involve legal, political and economic issues, the CRCNA, as an institutional church, has anything but an excellent reputation as a institution that produces competent legal, political and economic analysis.  Indeed, I would say this article is Exhibit A in demonstrating that contrast.

My concerns are two: first, that the CRCNA is on the road to becoming an institutional church that aligns itself with a politically partisan position so that members or would-be members really have to evaluate the CRCNA's political stances as well as its theological stances when deciding about affiliation with the CRCNA as an institutional church; and second, that when the institutional church proclaims to its own members this or that purported truth about legal/political/economic matters, some members decide to agree merely because the proclamation is from those they recognize as God's people's leaders after all, not having the discernment to distinguish between those of God's people who have competency as to the subject matters they proclaim about and those who don't (the 'dominie knows best' syndrome).

The RC Church isn't shy about claiming authority/God's competency for itself as church institution, whatever the subject matter (or sphere of life) but the Reformed tradition has wisely done otherwise.  Increasingly though, the CRCNA, at least if the denominiation level powers continue to have their way, is moving toward the RC Church perspective.  Ironically, this is happening while many in the RC Church move toward the historic Reformed perspective.  Witness, for example, how many of the US Sup Ct Justices considered "conservative" are RC (Roberts, Scalia, Thomas, Alito, and Kennedy).

It seems to me that we're conflating to groups of folks and thinking that they ought to be treated the same way. We have distinguished 'refugees' as one catagory and 'immigrants' as another catagory. All people who come into the USA or Canada (or any other country than the one they were born in) are considered 'immigrants'...some, of these, but by no means all, are refugees. Are we to believe that the USA is hostile to refugees? Furthermore, are nations within their God given right to legislate who may and may not enter another country. The USA is not hostile to refugees, nor is it a lawless society. Is it unChristian and unbiblical to expect that persons wishing to enter the USA, not as refugees, but as immigrants, be expected to follow the laws of the country they wish to enter? Why is it unjust - and for our purposes here unChristian -  to define who may and may not enter a country?