Strangers in a Strange Land: Refugees and the Bible
It was a number of years ago that I began to realise. I had just returned from a trip running workshops in Cambodia, Singapore and India, and I had seen people — I had talked with people — whose life circumstances made my own look, shall we say, idyllic.
Because I’ve just never had to decide between fleeing my country or killing the child soldiers the enemy sends at you, like one guy I had dinner with.
I’ve never had to beg for money, hoping to be able to take something back to the man who sends me out, like that woman in Bangalore.
I’ve not spoken up against my commanding officer, knowing I’ll go to jail (if I’m lucky) for saying that what he’s ordering amounts to genocide, like the guy at one of my meetings.
I’ve just not. Circumstances have not demanded that of me. But after a number of trips like the one I’d just returned from, I realised that circumstances were demanding something different of me. They were demanding that I refuse to stay in the opinions I had somehow just picked up along the way and never really interrogated when in came to the issue of refugee policy.
I decided it was time to go looking for some facts.
I contacted people who knew the issue a lot better than me. I found government and non-governmental fact sheets. I checked out the numbers and the trends and the stakeholders. I looked at my own country, and other countries. I looked at now, and I looked at before. I tried to get my head around the reality of the situation.
Then, once I had found a lot of facts, I decided there was something else I needed to go looking for. I needed to go looking for some truth.
Because I’m a big believer in the importance of theology. Most challenging situations in life require that we do more, as Christians, than pick out a single verse here and there to create a position. What we have to do, if we really want to grasp God’s heart towards a subject, or a value, or a group, is to examine what the Scriptures as a whole reveal about it. So that’s what I did.
I went looking for the threads of immigration and refuge-seeking throughout the whole Bible. What did God have to say about asylum seekers?
I found more than I ever imagined.
The Old Testament, David John Stemmett goes so far as to say, is “a book written by refugees for refugees”. The more I looked into it, the more I began to see what he was saying.
One of the consequences of the entry of sin into the world through the fall of man is that Adam and Eve are forced to leave their home in the Garden of Eden and create a new life in a harsh environment — becoming, effectively, the first refugees. From then to now, the effect of sin in the world remains the root cause of so many of the reasons that people are forced to leave their homelands.
Next is Cain, an exile as a result, like his parents, of his own sin. But next comes Noah. Noah is forced out of his home not by his own choices, but by the sin and brokenness of those around him. As Preece so eloquently puts it, “It is fundamentally in the light of Noah’s Ark that we are all boat people, or at least descendents of them”.
Then there is Abraham — not an immigrant ‘from’, but an immigrant ‘to’ — called by God to leave his home in Ur and become, as Abraham describes himself ‘an alien and a stranger’.
This ‘alien’ that Abraham terms himself is quite a key term. He uses the Hebrew word ‘ger’, which is:
- the status of the Israelites when they are in Egypt,
- it is the term God uses for aliens and strangers in his commands to the Israelites as to how to care for foreigners amongst them,
- it is the status God gives the Israelites themselves as a part of their inherent identity even once they are in the promised land, and
- it is their status when they are taken into exile by the Babylonians.
So this ‘ger’ word, this ‘alien’ status — it’s pretty significant. And God has a lot to say about it.
Let’s come back to our chronology for a minute though, because we also have Moses, Ruth, Daniel, David, Joseph and Esther, among others, who live their lives in exile, on the run, seeking refuge, foreigners in a strange land, under oppression, or trying to make a new home in a new land when that was not their desired plan.
One starts to see that our heroes of the faith, our ‘all-stars’ as it were, of the Old Testament, are more likely than not to have been those with the status of the alien — the ‘ger’. It began to occur to me that this may be worth paying attention to.
After dozens of commands to the Israelites as to how to care for those who are aliens amongst them, we see in the books of the Prophets the severity of God’s displeasure when they fail to obey this fundamental command. Ezekial, Jeremiah, Zechariah and Malachi all lay charge against the Israelites for their oppression of, and lack of care for, the alien.
Perhaps Deuteronomy 10:19 encapsulates the heart of all the issues of identity and hospitality which God weaves throughout the Old Testament in relation to teaching the Israelites about being, and caring for, the alien — “And you are to love those who are aliens, for you yourselves were aliens in Egypt.”
The people of God were strangers in a strange land. They were oppressed. They were cut off from the promise and inheritance of God. They were delivered…but they are not to forget. “Love him as yourself”, God tells them, “for you were aliens in Egypt. I am the Lord your God” (Lev 19:34).
Once we come to the New Testament, the clear thread of the significance of immigration and welcoming-in of the stranger not only continues — it also expands.
It both begins with, and revolves around, Jesus. It’s a question of forced temporary relocation and jumping through documentation hoops when Jesus enters the world in Bethlehem. Shortly after his birth, he and his parents must flee for their lives to a new country and start over. Later, after they’ve emigrated and again re-established their lives, Jesus’ credibility is thrown into question because of the place from which he originally came.
What God does in incarnating himself here on earth in both his full divinity and full humanity, is, to begin with, nothing short of the farthest-reaching and most humbling journey imaginable, even if he were to come as the richest and most powerful ruler there ever was. And yet, in his unfathomable compassion, he chooses to incarnate himself within the refugee experience.
During his ministry, when Jesus tells the parable of the sheep and the goats, he expresses the depth of his identification with all those who are strangers in a strange land when he says “I was a stranger” — or ‘xenos’, a foreigner living in a country not their own. In the same parable he explains that any failure to help the powerless among us is a failure to serve our Saviour himself.
But it goes further and deeper than that. Jesus’ plan on earth is not only to empathise with those who are dislocated from their homeland here in the physical, but in fact to provide a way back for those dislocated from their eternal homeland in the kingdom of God.
The life, ministry and victory of Jesus Christ over sin highlights the fact that, in truth, we are all ‘ger’. We are, every one of us, strangers in a strange land, in desperate need of a way back home — a way to be a part of bringing the rightful kingdom to bear here in the present, and a way to be a part of the eternal kingdom when He returns.
We cannot get back through the borders by ourselves.
And, foreshadowing the way he will break down the ultimate dividing border with his resurrection, Jesus also, throughout his ministry, shows a way through so many other divisions. Once Jesus begins proclaiming the kingdom on earth, the old borders no longer keep people out. Samaritan, Canaanite, Jew, Gentile, Male, Female — Jesus doesn’t let any of that keep people from him, or from his Kingdom.
As Groody says, there is no question of his willingness “to go beyond borders and narrow interpretations of the Law in obedience to a greater law of love…On the cross Jesus accomplishes the missio Dei by crossing the border that divides human beings from God and each other, initiating a new creation characterized by right relationships.” Or, as Eph 2:14–15 puts it, “For he is our peace, he who made both one and broke down the dividing wall of enmity, through his flesh”.
Jesus’ sacrifice simultaneously throws open the doors of inclusivity on membership into God’s kingdom, and realigns people from every nation as those who are now ‘strangers and aliens’ on earth. It is, in a manner of speaking, the most simultaneously inclusive and estranging act in all of history.
Peter draws a clear connection between Old Testament teaching about the concept of the ‘ger’ as characterized by both the Israelites as God’s people and those they were to care for, and the new Church as the likewise characterized people of God. He addresses the believers both as “God’s elect” (a title previously reserved only for the Israelites) and as “aliens and strangers in the world” (1 Pet. 1:1, 2:11).
We — the recipients of Jesus’ victory over the borders that kept us from the Kingdom — are the expanded People of God. We are ‘ger’. And we too, are not to forget our responsibilities to reflect the God who delivers, the God who saves, the God who is a refuge.
What then, does it mean for individuals; for communities; for countries to reflect that nature of God in practical terms? This — the implications of theology — is where positions can justifiably diverge. As Christians, we must examine the facts in light of the truth. This doesn’t mean the facts are irrelevant, not at all. We must wrestle with the reality of the facts of our context in light of the Scriptures — this is the very essence of theology. We must work out, in the brutal light of this earth’s broken nature, how to bring God’s truth to bear through complex and mutually incompatible factors.
But the touchstone, the reference point around which we must orient our wrestlings, must be God’s heart. And God’s heart seems, fairly clearly, to be for the alien.
Barclay, W, The Letters of James and Peter (1976)
Barth, K, The Doctrine of Reconciliation: Church Dogmatics (1956)
Groody, D.G, “Crossing the Divide: Foundations of a Theology of Migration and Refugees” Theological Studies, 70 (2009)
Hays, J.D, From Every People and Nation: A Biblical Theology of Race (2003).
International Organisation for Migration
Preece, G.R, “We are all Boat People”, Refugees: Justice or Compassion, Australian Theological Forum (2002).
Spencer, N, Asylum and Immigration: A Christian Perspective on a Polarised Debate (2004).
Stemmett, D.J, “A Biblical Theology of Ministry to Refugees for Baptist Churches in South Africa” (Thesis paper) University of Fort Hare (2008)
United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs
United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees