Taking in Refugees: What the Bible Really Says

With everything that is going on in the Middle East and Paris, debate has raged on what to do with Syrian refugees who are attempting to flee the violence in their homeland.  There seems to be evidence that ISIS took advantage of the refugee situation to sneak some people into Europe, and Europe seems to have exacerbated that problem with, well, laziness in vetting people who were coming in.  Add the fact that the America’s immigration policies are either broken or often unenforced, and this issue is a recipe for some strong emotions.

Predictably, politicians, the media, and social media have used the refugee crisis as a political weapon to demonize their opponents.  If you’re for taking in as many Syrian refugees as possible, many Republicans will accuse you of being naive, ignorant, and irresponsible with the security of the American people.  If you’re for closing our borders temporarily, you’re accused by Democrats for being heartless, paranoid, and possibly even xenophobic or racist.  This is why political discourse is so much fun in this country (not).

Interestingly enough, the Bible has been brought up in social media comments and memes by Christians and even non-Christians.  Doesn’t the Old Testament command that believers should be welcoming and kind to the foreigner or sojourner?  Shouldn’t we be open to giving them asylum, no matter what?  To say otherwise is to invite personal attacks of being unloving and unbiblical by fellow Christians and, again, even from non-Christians.

As straightforward as this sounds, it really isn’t that simple. Let’s look at a few passages in Scripture about the alien or sojourner and see what application they have to this situation.

The Law and the Alien

The Old Law is pretty clear that the Israelites are to be just and welcoming to the alien who comes and lives among them.  For example, Deuteronomy 10:18-19 states:

[God] executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and shows His love for the alien by giving him food and clothing. So show your love for the alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.

The Israelites were to mimic God’s character by caring for the orphans, widows, and aliens who were among them.  The alien gets further emphasis because the Israelites have the experience of being aliens in a foreign land, and in that case they were eventually mistreated as slaves.   There are many more passages to choose from, particularly from Deuteronomy: The Israelites were not to deny justice or aid to foreigners (Deut. 24:14, 17, 19) and they were not to detest foreigners such as Edomites and Egyptians (Deut. 23:7).  These passages are enough to show that God took seriously Israel’s kindness to foreigners who chose to live with them.

Open and shut case, right?  Christians who are uneasy about letting in thousands of Syrian refugees are just a bunch of hypocrites.

Not so fast.  There are two things to keep in mind here when reading the Law: One, It is a covenant between God and the nation of Israel, which was essentially a theocracy, and two, foreigners were expected to obey Israel’s law and follow Yahweh.  This seems lost on so many people who simply throw out the Old Testament.  This is not saying that the Law has no application to modern Christians; it only means that the Law needs to be read with an understanding of context.

Let’s look at a few passages to this effect.  Towards the end of Deuteronomy, Moses desires to address the people and says, “Assemble the people, the men and the women and children and the alien who is in your town, so that they may hear and learn and fear the Lord your God, and be careful to observe all the words of this law” (Deut. 31:12, emphasis added).  Numbers states that foreigners are expected to obey the same ordinances for food offerings as the Israelites (Num. 15:15-16) and also follow the same laws regarding Passover (Num. 9:14).  Aliens were even expected to follow dietary laws (Lev. 17:10) as well as observe the annual atonement (Lev. 16:29).  Clearly, the alien discussed in these passages is assumed to be someone for whom there is no significant doubt that he wants asylum and wants to follow, as opposed to someone who may be suspected of being a subversive or potentially dangerous person.

With this understanding in mind, it becomes rather silly to accuse Christians of hypocrisy for having second thoughts about letting in refugees where there is a significant possibility that America’s enemies will try to take advantage of that.  Are Syrian refugees going to be required to give up their religion or culture and become Christian or Western?  Is America a theocracy, even though I would argue that America’s founding principles have significant Judeo-Christian influence?  Do we have a significant guarantee that all of these refugees will not be wolves in sheep’s clothing, so to speak?  No?  Then this analogy starts to break down.  It is especially entertaining when non-Christians bring this up, the same people who expect Christians to reject principles in the OT that they don’t like regarding subjects such as sexuality.  Yeah, we should totally listen to simple-minded memes from them.

Is there a principle still be followed?

The lack of a one-to-one comparison between ancient Israel and America should temper silly and immature accusations of hypocrisy and hate.  Applying the Old Covenant to today’s time isn’t quite that simple.  Still, that doesn’t mean that these laws are completely meaningless, not to mention the fact that the New Testament has plenty of principles regarding taking care of the poor and loving one’s neighbor.  Obviously, taking care of aliens was commanded to Israel because it is a reflection on the loving and just character of God.  How can Christians seek to apply these principles?

First, the primary application for Christians regarding biblical principles is on an individual level and on a church level.  That doesn’t mean, of course, that every Christian must house a refugee or he’s being a bad Christian, but it does mean that Christians and churches can find ways to help refugees already here, give resources to oppressed people abroad, and help those refugees who are genuinely in trouble to find asylum either in America or some other country.  The Bible does not primarily command governmental action here, unless, again, you assume that America is a completely Christian nation, an idea which would make liberals bristle.

That said, this consideration does not completely exclude governmental action.  Even if America is not a theocracy like ancient Israel was, Christians can still sometimes work through the government to apply biblical principles because we are participants in the political process, though this must be done with care.  Also, even if Syrian refugees are not (and should not be) required to follow Christ as if America is a theocratic nation, there is obviously something wise about requiring that these refugees are people completely willing to follow American laws.  From a government perspective, Christians can encourage compassionate, sober, and wise housing of refugees by their political leaders.

This much has to be said: It is entirely possible that a temporary, wise course of action is to stop admitting refugees for a short period of time if the danger is real enough.  I am not saying that this is the time for that; I am merely saying that this is a live option that should not be shouted down by emotional accusations.  It is absolutely important to consider the risks to the American people, and considering that is not contradictory with having empathy for the refugees.  It is a complex problem that has no easy answer.  At the very least, if America is going to continue admitting refugees, they are going to have show far more wisdom than Europe did in vetting the refugees.  Will it be perfect?  Will it be fair to everyone?  Probably not.  That doesn’t mean that the government should throw caution to the winds.  On the other side, that also doesn’t mean that the government should automatically freak out and shut its doors to refugees.

Nuance and Understanding

Simplistic attacks get old real fast.  There is a legitimate concern on both sides, and stupid memes, silly accusations, and superficial biblical arguments hardly help the situation.  As Christians, we need to approach this issue with wisdom and love, and that requires a calm analysis of the situation and how Scripture applies to it.  It’s not easy and most likely will not be perfect, but it is what we are called to do.  Nuanced understanding is not popular because it doesn’t fit on bumper stickers and emotional one-liners, but it is what’s required for a difficult situation like this.

One thought on “Taking in Refugees: What the Bible Really Says

  1. Pingback: “Alternative Facts,” “Fake News,” and the Rhetoric of the Emotional and Close-minded | leesomniac

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