I have been involved for several years with serving refugees in our country of Switzerland and have heard a lot of different opinions about what’s the right thing to do. Many people I work with tend to favor a welcoming approach towards the new arrivals while criticizing the strict Swiss immigration laws instituted by the Swiss Confederation. At the same time they do not want their monthly rents to increase or pay more taxes so the authorities can build new buildings to house refugees.
It’s complicated. It encouraged me to do some of my own research. How should a well thought-through biblical position on the current refugee crisis look like? It is a work in progress but here are some thoughts to start:
We need to love the foreigner in our land
We need to love the foreigner in our land. The Bible is overwhelmingly clear. The Hebrew word ‘ger’ (a guest; by implication, a foreigner:—alien, sojourner, stranger) is mentioned 92 times in the Old Testament. Mostly in the context of treating them fairly. We are not to oppress (Ex. 22:21) and not to mistreat (Lev. 19:33). We should leave gleanings for them (Lev. 19:10). God says about Himself in Deuteronomy 10:18 that ‘He loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing.’ Therefore ‘you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt’ (v.19).
Loving foreigners can be expressed practically in offering relief through food, shelter and safety. It can include counseling and trauma care. It can also involve investing in people’s skills, such as language or professional training. And it involves helping people finding dignity through work by offering them the possibility to make a contribution to society. Most importantly we can love people by sharing the truth about the God of the bible with them. And get them a bible in their own language. Refugees are often remarkably open to hear the gospel. What’s more, I saw many refugees positively surprised or even relieved to meet Europeans who actually believe in the existence of God.
Nations (and by extension borders) are God’s idea.
God promises Abraham he will make him into a ‘great nation’. (Genesis 12:2) Paul speaks on the Areopagus that God from one man, made ‘all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands.’ (Acts 17:26) From the early ages the standard had been empires, not nations, ruling over many people groups. It is through the Old Testament that the concept of the Nation-state governed by Law became the standard in the Western world.
What does this have to do with Refugees? Well, it is important to note that there are various movements such as the ‘no border network’ which advocate for eliminating borders and AGAINST the idea of the Nation-state. Slogans such as ‘No Border, No Nation, Stop Deportations!’ state this position in an obvious manner. Activists have been particularly involved in ‘the jungle’ in Calais before it was dismantled.
As Christians our position should be that we believe in a Nation-state with clearly defined boundaries, governed by Law, as God’s idea. We need to be wary of the (misguided) idealism of ‘no borders, no nations’ which breaks both the Law of the land and the biblical idea of the Nation-state.
The foreigner is subject to the same law as the citizen
The bible strongly insists that the foreigner is subject to the same law as the local person. Foreigners are not to work on the Sabbath (Ex. 20:10) or on the day of Atonement (Lev. 16:29). They are to keep the same dietary laws (Lev. 17:10). The principle goes both ways. On the one side we are not to apply a different law to foreigners in order to benefit ourselves. On the other side the foreigner is to abide by the law of the land where he is seeking refuge. He is not supposed to set up his own law as an alternative to the law of the land.
As Christians we should work actively for an impartial justice system which treats everyone equal before the law of the land. A foreigner who commits an offense should neither be treated more severe nor more lenient than a citizen. At the same time we should strongly oppose initiatives to implant alternative law systems such as sharia law.
There are certain conditions for a foreigner to become a full citizen
Celebrating passover was THE quintessentially Israelite celebration. For a foreigner to take part in the celebration he and all his male servants had to be circumcised (Ex. 12:48). Circumcision was the sign of the covenant of God with the people of Israel. It was no small thing! For the foreigner to be circumcised meant for him to fully embrace the people of Israel with their worship, customs and traditions.
As Christians we should expect (and encourage) those refugees who intend to make their home in the nation of refuge to embrace the laws, customs and traditions of their new nation. At least insofar as these values and customs are not contrary to God’s divine law. It is more than fair to expect a potential immigrant to learn a local language, familiarise himself with the history, local customs and traditions of the new country or swear an oath of allegiance if the new country would so require.
We are treading now in more contentious territory. Should the potential immigrant get rid of his or her cultural heritage? No, not at all, since God loves the diversity of cultures. As Christians we should celebrate different cultures, even see how cultures can be redeemed. How wonderful to be able to celebrate Eritrean food and dance in Switzerland!
At the same time we should be actively resisting cultural customs that perpetuate injustice, are destructive and do not align with the laws of the new nation or with God’s moral law (E.g. female genital mutilation, polygamy, oppression of women, blood revenge, solving conflict through violence).
We need to understand the different domains of church and government
In our secular society there is a loud call for governments to be compassionate, bring in more people and provide more services for refugees. But government is not really suited for this. Bureaucratic agencies are far removed from the actual people and often have a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach. Compassion literally means ‘to suffer with’ and this is hard to do from a distance. Voluntary organisations such as churches, neighbourhood associations, sport clubs etc. are much better situated to come alongside and help refugees. They can, through relationship, provide individually tailored help to each person.
Ultimately it is the church’s mandate to act in compassion towards the foreigner. The government’s mandate is to exercise justice (Romans 13:4-5). We can define justice as ‘giving to each one what he/she is due’. Government is obliged to uphold and enforce the law, including laws on immigration. This is its very reason for existing. Of course we can appeal laws we consider unjust. However, we have to remember that those in government have to deal with many different interests. They are supposed to put their citizen first and find the common good for their people. This sometimes involves making tough decisions.
‘Giving to each one what he/she is due’ means doing a proper investigation to distinguish between those who really do need help and those who are coming with questionable motives. It also means rewarding those who choose to go through the proper legal process while punishing those who are using illegal means to immigrate. Far too often people who come into Europe by illegal means can stay while those who choose to go through the proper procedure in their homeland get their applications rejected. This is unjust.
We should pray for those in government to have wisdom to act justly in extraordinary challenging circumstances. And rather than appeal to government to ‘fix’ things, we should encourage our fellow citizens to reach out to refugees in compassion through local (non-governmental) initiatives. The church is to lead in this.
We need to invest in the country of origin of refugees
As Christians we are called to ‘make disciples of all nations’ (Mt. 28:19). We believe that application of God’s truth in society can turn nations around. The reasons refugees flee their countries are multiple: war, dictatorships, poverty, hopelessness, family trouble etc. As Christians we believe with God there are solutions for all these issues. The first thing we are to do is pray for these nations. Secondly we are to ask how we can be part of bringing God’s Kingdom to these nations.
Working with refugees from West Africa in Europe as well as with people in West Africa, I find my investment in West Africa more fruitful. The amount of money and energy poured into the integration of one person in our european society can help develop a whole village out there. This is not to say that the one person we invest in is not worth it. Not al all. Rather we are to think strategically where our efforts can bear most fruit.
Of course not every nation is the same. During war people literally cannot stay. But it needs to be said that for every refugee arriving on our shores there are hundreds who stay close to home. And those who stay at home need our help as much, if not more. It is they who can bring change to their nation, more so than those who will immigrate into a european nation to stay.
Even though our eyes might be on those in need on our doorstep (and rightly so), we should not forget to support those working on the front lines. The ones serving for years in developmental projects in West African nations. The ones catering for internally displaced people in Iraq. The ones teaching a new generation of children in huge refugee camps just across the border from Syria in Lebanon. The ones investing in Sudanese refugees’ skills in Egypt, so one day they can go back to build up their nation.
To bring Kingdom development in the nations of refugees’ origin is the ultimate solution for the refugee crisis. It might seem impossible to us, but God can turn nations around. He has done it before, He can do it again. ‘With God all things are possible’ (Mt. 19:26).