Thinking Biblically and Theologically about Refugees
By Patrick Mitchell
(From the April - June 2017 issue of VOX.)
We live in a violent and broken world. People have always had to flee war, famine, torture and persecution. But today, the scale of forced population movement is unprecedented. The implosion of an entire country like Syria, added to desperate crises in places like Myanmar, Iraq, Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia and Afghanistan, has forced millions of refugees to seek safety outside their home nations. The UNHCR says that today, there are about 65.3 million forcibly displaced people worldwide, and a further 21.3 million people are refugees.
A refugee is defined as a person who has fled their country because of a well-founded fear of persecution as a result of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion. Refugees are typically in a highly vulnerable situation: often without official status; lacking access to basic resources; removed from networks of family, language and culture; and often deeply traumatised by violence or fear of violence. Over half of refugees globally are under 18 years old.
Three ‘solutions’ face refugees. One is voluntary repatriation, in which they return in safety and with dignity to their own country. Second is local integration, in which the government enables refugees legally to integrate into a host country. The third is resettlement to a third state, which has agreed to give them permanent residence status.
Tragically, of course, for most refugees none of these ‘solutions’ is their reality. The vast majority are left in limbo: stateless, homeless, friendless and penniless, living in camps or trying to survive on the margins within neighbouring nations. It’s important to know this: only about 1% of refugees are ever resettled to a third country despite the fact that the UNHCR reckons that about 8% of refugees globally now need resettlement.
That’s the context. It is, of course, a hugely political issue in Europe and the USA as politicians grapple with their own populations’ fears of ‘uncontrolled immigration.’ So how should Christians think about one of the major humanitarian issues of our day?
What follows are proposals drawn from two key Bible texts that I believe should shape a biblical and theological response. My main concern is to argue that there are absolute non-negotiable attitudes and priorities for Christians when it comes to thinking about refugees because they are based on the character of the God we worship.
KEY TEXT 1: DEUTERONOMY 10:17-19
For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. He 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.
GOD IS IMPARTIAL
The great news of this text lies in the character of God. God is utterly unimpressed by important people with money, power and all the right connections. This magnificent indifference to human status means that He is impartial and incorruptible. He treats people equally. This goes utterly against the power structures of the world, then and now.
GOD LOVES THE OUTSIDER
But even more counter-culturally, God ‘loves the foreigner’ residing within Israel and takes care of their needs. This is not just something He likes doing; it is something He is. We could quote multiple texts from the OT and NT related to this theme. God is a God for the poor.
GOD’S PEOPLE ARE TO LOVE AS GOD LOVES
As God loves the foreigner, so are His people to imitate Him. They should do this because they had been slaves in Egypt. Another important example is Deuteronomy 23:15 - “If a slave has taken refuge with you, do not hand them over to their master. Let them live among you wherever they like and in whatever town they choose. Do not oppress them.” This is radical stuff. Instead of hard borders and forced repatriation, the refugee fleeing from slavery is to be given shelter. Instead of oppression, they are to be given freedom, safety and a new start in life. This is exactly what refugees today long for (if they can’t go home).
KEY TEXT 2: LUKE 10:25-37 - THE PARABLE OF THE GOOD SAMARITAN
Jesus’ famous parable about ‘neighbour-love’ deepens and radicalises the teaching of Leviticus 19:18 to ‘love your neighbour’. Leviticus is aimed within Israel. The uncomfortable point of Jesus’ tale is that the neighbour-love includes those religiously, culturally, politically and socially alien to us. The parable puts flesh on the bones of other famous commands to ‘love your enemies’ (Matthew 5:44) and ‘do to others as you would have them do unto you’ (Luke 6:31).
Like Israel’s love in Deuteronomy, Christians will love this way out of their own prior experience of God’s saving love. That experience should transform us to be the neighbours that Jesus calls us to be. In a globalised world, our neighbour surely includes the Syrian refugee. Each one of us should ask ourselves, “How would I like to be treated if I was in his or her shoes?”
The teaching of Jesus raises two final points.
REFUGEES - OUR TEACHERS
So much of the refugee crisis is framed around what we (in the West) will allow refugees to do or not do. It is a fantastically unequal relationship of us versus them. We have all the power. They have had the most traumatic experiences of their lives, and yet we view them primarily as a threat to our way of life. They are lucky if we permit them to enter our promised land. And, if they behave themselves, they will be blessed to become like us.
Rarely, if ever, do we think that we might have a lot to learn from them. Yet Abraham and Sarah, Lot, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, all of Israel, Ruth and Naomi, David, Elijah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Esther, and Daniel and his friends were all refugees for various reasons, as were many of the first Christians (Acts 8:1, 11:19). God Himself enters our world and becomes a refugee (Matthew 2:13-15). What questions do you think this raises for those of us living in freedom and security?
CHRISTIANS MUST BE DRIVEN BY LOVE, NOT FEAR
There is a tremendous sense of fear in much of the West today. Fear of terror. Fear of the future. Fear of refugees. Some politicians are ruthless in exploiting this fear to get elected. Many others are afraid of those politicians. Christians are not to be people of fear but of faith, hope and love. In Deuteronomy 10:16, Israel is told to “circumcise your hearts’ and love the foreigner. Similarly, Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan is aimed at those who felt justified in not helping those in need.
We need to hear these texts afresh and have our own hearts softened. We fool ourselves if we think there is some great status gap between ‘us’ and ‘those refugees’. God doesn’t see it that way – remember, He is magnificently indifferent to our man-made boundaries of money, identity and power. Rather, He calls us to be people of radical counter-cultural generosity; to be communities of welcome and grace to those in need of help. For this is what our God is like.
Patrick Mitchel lectures in theology at the Irish Bible Institute. He blogs at www.faithinireland.wordpress.com and is currently writing a book on The Message of Love within the IVP Bible Speaks Today series.
Main Photo: David Cavan / Tearfund