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!”