Migrants, Refugees & the search for a Biblical Perspective

This summer has been darkened by the catastrophic events surrounding the thousands of refugees attempting to find asylum in Europe. The release of images of the tiny body of 3 year old Aylan Kurdi lying face down on the shoreline has galvanised opinion and, more than that, helped to put a human face on the events.

Many Christian groups have been responding for some time to this crisis and recently their voices are coming to the fore. A lot of my friends and associates on social media have also been adding their voice and, as one might expect, biblical texts are being widely quoted. But what is the biblical perspective?

Is it possible to make a truly biblical response to the images that we see?

First – some caveats!
1. This is not a ‘devotional’ or parænetic post – I am totally unqualified to do either. This post simply reflects my personal observations as a lecturer in biblical studies to the horrifying scenes unfolding in Europe and the Middle East.
2. Throughout this post, the terms ‘inclusive’ and ‘exclusive’ will be used as labels to identify specific theological and idealogical foci. These should not be read as an attempt to convey any (positive or negative) value judgement.
3. The views expressed below must not be taken as necessarily reflecting those of Newman University or my other colleagues at the NRCBR.

Who was the stranger? Matthew and refugees

The text that I have seen most commonly quoted is the dominical statement of Matthew 25: 35-40 (‘I was a stranger and you welcomed me…’).

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Facebook post quoting Matt 25 (03/09/15)

It’s not surprising that these verses have become something of a ‘proof-text’ for events like this. It appears to unequivocally instruct the reader to reach out to those who are marginalised, persecuted and in need. There is even a strong suggestion that one’s salvation may be in doubt if one does not do those things (vv. 42-46)! Historically, this passage underlies some extremely important Christian initiatives for supporting those who find themselves in need.

However, reading the text in this way may have been a surprise to Matthew and his community. Modern readings interpret the text as evangelical – describing those who are ‘hungry’, ‘thirsty’, ‘strangers’, ‘in prison’, etc. as being outside the church. Ancient readings (and Matthew’s ecclesiological emphasis) understood them to refer to Christians who were undergoing persecution in one form or another. In other words, the the focus of this teaching is pastoral and not evangelical. It is directed to those inside, not outside, the church. If it can be applied (in a strict sense) to refugees, it would be to Christian refugees.

Migrant PPT slide TearFund
Screenshot of TearFund presentation prayer resource PPT using Matt 25 (wrongly attributed)

Nevertheless, on an emotional level, I entirely support the use of this text to argue for a far more decisive and positive response to the appalling situation. And it is not at all my aim to disparage or try to undermine those who interpret it in this way. This reading has done and continues to do a lot of good. However, it does illustrate the difficulty of applying ancient texts to present situations. If those supporting asylum seekers use this passage in this way, we need also to recognise that those who argue the opposite case could use it just as effectively – in a nation where our poor and marginalised resort to food banks, our priority should be to take care of our own community or ‘brothers and sisters’; although this reading would need to assume that one can legitimately substitute national citizenship for church membership.

As so often is the case, texts used in this way simply become ‘clobber’ texts, where one passage or interpretation of a passage is pitted against another. This practice tends to detract attention from the main issue and totally undermines the power of the text – and, as one who often stands at the touchline observing these knock-down spats, it seems to make a complete mockery of any sense of the Bible acting as an authoritative document. (I know the early Church fathers loved doing this, but it still doesn’t make it good!)

How to treat the temporary inhabitants

The Bible does talk specifically about migrancy and refugees. The national story of Israel is based upon migrancy and the experience of seeking refuge. The story of the wandering Abraham (Gen 12 & 15) and the exodus from Egypt (Ex 3) appear among the earliest layers of the the Pentateuch. These images become an intrinsic and indissoluble part of Jewish identity – themes taken up by the later Christian writers (this is exemplified in Chris Tilling’s response to the crisis on the TearFund site). They were so much part of the national consciousness and how Israel perceived its relationship with Yahweh and the surrounding nations that this image is made central to its cultic (temple) practices.

When the priest takes the basket from your hand and sets it down before the altar of the Lord your God, you shall make this response before the Lord your God: ‘A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien.’

Deuteronomy 26:4-5 (NRSV)

This attitude is woven into much of Deuteronomists’ writings. Their reworking of the Decalogue (10 Commandments) relocates the experiences of migrancy into its heart.

Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day

Deuteronomy 5:15 (NRSV)

The people are constantly reminded of this in their dealings with the גֵּר  (ger – temporary inhabitant; often translated as ‘alien’ or ‘sojourner’) who are living in the land. Often linked with orphans and widows, this group of people are to be treated with respect, mercy and generosity.

This openness to the migrant/refugee AND the institutionalised support (within the law) offered to them is particularly noticeable within the writings of the Deuteronomists and Priestly sources. They were writing at a time when the threat and/or memory of recent exile was still very real. They knew the desperation of what it was like being an alien in a strange land because that was their experience… and, within the volatile period in which they were living, they were aware that it could happen again at any time. Their response was to act in the way that they perceived Yahweh as acting; to reach out and protect the vulnerable.

“As Christians we believe we are called to break down barriers, to welcome the stranger and love them as ourselves (Leviticus 19:34), and to seek the peace and justice of our God, in our world, today.”

Justin Welby (Archbishop of Canterbury, 03/09/15)

At this point, one might be tempted to state that the biblical response to refugees should be open-armed generosity.

The threat of the ‘outsider’

However, there are other voices within the Hebrew scriptures. Voices that compete and challenge this theology of inclusiveness. In these texts, the foreigner who would enter the land is viewed as a threat not just economically, but to the very stability of the nation. These texts also are products of the exile and post-exilic experience.

The books of Ezra and Nehemiah present this very different attitude. Those who are not ethnically Jewish have no part in the land and, moreover, any ties with them must be decisively cut (see the chilling account in Ezra 10). No longer should the instruction of Ezekiel (a book that is also known for its distrust of the foreigner) be followed, that the migrants’ children be accorded full national participation, stand (47:22).

The foreigner, seen as a threat, is easily dehumanised; they are caricatured as worshippers of foreign gods (later idolaters), they are ungodly and perform abominable acts. Even the inclusive Deuteronomists were not immune to this type of rhetoric.

You shall annihilate them—the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites—just as the Lord your God has commanded, so that they may not teach you to do all the abhorrent things that they do for their gods, and you thus sin against the Lord your God.

Deuteronomy 20:17-18 (NRSV)

This fear of the stranger finds expression in the book of Proverbs with its numerous denunciations of foreign (זוּר – zur) women (often translated in modern English editions as ‘adulterous’). However, concerns over the appropriation of resources by the foreigner are also voiced.

and strangers [zur] will take their fill of your wealth,
and your labours will go to the house of an alien

Proverbs 5:10 (NRSV)

Although there is undoubtedly a sexual aspect to the language, the imagery is clearly rooted in the practical concerns over the ownership of finite resources.

15 Drink water from your own cistern,
flowing water from your own well.
16 Should your springs be scattered abroad,
streams of water in the streets?
17 Let them be for yourself alone,
and not for sharing with strangers [zur].

Proverbs 5 (NRSV)

The migrant and refugee from a foreign land posed the threat of impurity. To the writers and editors of the Pentateuch, the maintenance of ritual, national purity was essential. Lest we are tempted to take the moral high-ground (‘at least we are concerned with real economic and social issues, not superstition and ritual’), it is important to consider why this was so important that such extreme attitudes could develop. Within the Deuteronomic and Priestly theologies, national purity was essential for the continuation of the state of Israel. Without the presence of Yahweh, the weakened Israel emerging from exile and in the process of restructuring, could not defend itself from the nations threatening its borders. Without establishing and maintaining a place that was holy (pure), Yahweh would be unable to dwell. In other words, purity was a matter of national security.

Screenshot of a petition to UK Government to stop allowing immigrants into the UK (05/09/2015)
Screenshot of a petition to UK Government to stop allowing immigrants into the UK (05/09/2015)

When placed in this context, some of the concerns (and caricatures) voiced within these exclusivist texts sound remarkably like the ones expressed by those advocating a closed/restricted border policy to migrants and refugees; fear of proselytisation, undermining security (national, economic or religious).

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Facebook post reflecting an exclusivist narrative (05/09/15)

Is there a biblical perspective?

Can we say that there is a biblical perspective to the refugee crisis? Looking again at the recent pictures, I certainly want there to be one. What emerges from the Bible are voices that appear to be wrestling with the same issues that we face today. I see in its pages two very human responses.

On the one hand, there is this seemingly overwhelming desire to do something great; to see the person in the tragedy, to reach out with generosity and courage, to act as we think our God would act. However, coupled to this, there is a competing drive to concentrate upon the community and how it should be viewed in the light of the crisis. This often means the formalisation of structure and institutions that are held as being good and beneficial to the society. It could be argued that one naturally develops from the other. We see this throughout the history of Israel and then within the church. Focus is accordingly placed upon the need to protect what we have got, to maintain the world that we think is ours (perhaps even God given). However, the danger is that this can often lead to a concentration on structure and institutions rather than the individual. When we lose sight of the human face it is easy for them to become dehumanised.

Biblical texts are not inherently inconsistent or contradictory, they simply record the parry and thrust of a debate (where there is an Ezra you will find a Jonah to challenge it). Each voice identifies and articulates the weaknesses and dangers in the other’s position. This is why listening to them is vitally important; even though you might be very unsympathetic to the stated argument. The Hebrew Bible charts the ebb and flow of this debate (I would argue even continuing into the New Testament) – one voice challenging the other.

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Francesca Stavrakopoulou’s tweet about a recent Guardian article (05/09/15)

Each side will have its favourites and use them, as they have always done, as flags for their particular causes. In this sense, I find myself in agreement with Francesca Stavrakopoulou’s response (above) to an op-ed piece in the Guardian about refugees and the Bible. Perhaps the very nature of biblical texts force us to choose; to be selective. But if we are serious about the Bible (and if you have read this far I assume you are), we need to make sure that we read those texts arguing for inclusion in the light of (and even as a response to) those that argue against it. Similarly, we also need to read those texts that argue for a closed/restricted border policy in the light of (and perhaps a response to) those texts that challenge it.

The Bible is at its most powerful not when it appears to give you the answer, but when it draws you into the debate and forces you to respond to its unflinching questions and then demands that you find the courage to live by that response.

4 thoughts on “Migrants, Refugees & the search for a Biblical Perspective

  1. Christians should stand for biblical teaching as Numbers 35: 11-12. Refugees should follow the decision of the judges fully after they have been tried for crimes. This is the only reason there should be refuge city. To follow biblical teaching.

    Thomas New


    1. Thomas, The ‘cities of refuge’ in Numbers have nothing to do with refugees (non-nationals, who have fled from a war zone or oppressive regime). The cities are part of the legal mechanism for native Israelites in exilic and post-exilic Israel; for their function see, Joshua 20:1 – 21:45 and Deuteronomy 4:41-43. There are no close parallels in the Western modern world. This is the problem with trying to uncritically apply an ancient biblical text to a modern situation.


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