THE STRANGER AMONG YOU
What God is looking for in principle in our treatment of refugees is not hard to discern. We just need to give more attention to digging it out of scripture than we do to lazy media sloganeering.
Public debate on asylum-seeking is so polarised, that it is difficult to speak about it without people immediately looking to disagree with what you are saying. Media headlines fuel an uninformed conversation, and yet we know from reading the twelfth chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans that it is the responsibility of Christians to seek the renewal of their minds by the Holy Spirit, so that they become better at discerning the will of God. It should be a cause of great concern to us that when we arrive at big public issues like asylum, we are so poor at handling our Bibles that we fall back instead on the kind of sloganeering that dominates arguments over a pint.
Firstly, a sifting through of definitions might help.
1. Asylum seekers are people who have fled their country of origin and have submitted a claim for asylum in another country. They should not be confused with
2. Refugees, who are people who live outside their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted. They should not be confused with
3. Illegal immigrants, who are people who live outside their country of origin but without the legal warrant of their country of residence. They are often confused with
4. Immigrants, which is a term used without agreed definition, but which is usually applied to people who settle as permanent or long-term residents in a different country.
If that’s all suddenly become clear to you, you have a great forensic mind and should probably become a lawyer (if you haven’t already). And yet these linguistically subtle distinctions make a big difference in the practical way we address local concerns. There is a refugee complex near where I live. All its residents have been granted refugee status. They are people who are recognised by the U.K. Government as people who have either suffered persecution in their own country, or have a well-founded fear of persecution were they to return there. These residents have often suffered greatly. If you were to spend any time with a sample of them you would hear stories of torture, murder and gang rape. The residents are separated from their families, and have a yearning for news from their homeland – as evidenced by the prolific use of the few computers with internet access that the complex is able to provide. They are also being helped to integrate into British society. Some have jobs, and some are taking qualifications. All will eventually move on to other communities within this country.
Studies have shown that, on average, people think that the UK hosts 23% of the world’s refugees. The actual figure is unknown (which doesn’t help to alleviate this perception) but it is widely accepted as considerably lower than this. The think tank, the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), has identified three dominant factors which lead to people seeking asylum. These are human rights abuses; civil war; poverty.
The Bible, I need hardly say, does not speak of asylum seekers or immigrants because these concepts have become established with the advance of the nation-state and a body of international law which codifies relationships between peoples. But you will be familiar, from your Bibles, of the concept of the ‘alien’, the ‘sojourner’ and the ‘stranger’, as one particular Hebrew word is translated. Abraham himself was called out of Ur and lived as ‘an alien and a stranger’ among the Hittites. His response to the radical calling of God landed him in a vulnerable place, but through which countless generations would be blessed. Our own spiritual father was a stranger living in a strange land. Israel was conceived as a nation while they were living as foreigners in Egypt. The exodus was their seminal moment, and God would remind them of this again and again: ‘love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt.
The foreigner was identified along with the widow and the orphan as a vulnerable person in the land. Leviticus 19 said they were to be ‘treated as one of your native-born and loved as yourself’. According to Deuteronomy 24, the foreigner had equal rights to justice and was to be protected from abuse, exploitation at work and discrimination in the courts (Exodus 20, 22, 23). They also had the right to glean the harvest, a big component of Israel’s ancient welfare provisions. Significantly, the alien or foreigner was able to participate in the nation’s festivals provided they made their own personal commitment to Israel’s covenant with God. With such rights came responsibilities: the alien had to keep the same commandments as Jewish born people.
This concern for the foreigner was a large component of the ministry of Jesus. He used the example of the Samaritan in his parables, where they showed Israelites the true demands of the law, in the care of victims (found in the parable of the Good Samaritan) and the call to gratitude (the only one of the ten healed lepers, in Luke’s account of the miracle, to return to Jesus to give thanks was Samaritan). He met, daringly, with the Samaritan woman at the well and it is perhaps no surprise that Philip’s mission in Samaria proved such a triumph in Acts.
Love for the stranger issues from God’s heart, which is just as well, because we were all strangers and alienated from God once. In the biblical story, the alien was to be loved and cared for; they were allowed to join the covenant and take on its responsibilities. Rights, if you like, were balanced with responsibilities, and the alien was encouraged to embrace the culture and identity of the host nation. This leads to two conclusions, both of which deserve attention.
Firstly, the moral imperative that should guide a nation which is notionally Christian is, where this is practicable, to offer shelter to the oppressed. This is not where the debate is being held at all today. Instead, politicians and the public argue that asylum seekers should be accepted on the basis of their potential economic benefit to us. This is in keeping with a culture which has privatised morality and prioritised economic growth. Utility, rather than mercy, is fast becoming our guiding star, yet this is not where God’s character points to.
The other conclusion balances that priority. The foreigner in biblical times was encouraged to become a part of the host culture, with its social and legal responsibilities. The inherent vulnerability of the alien provided no excuse for behaviour which undermined the integrity and welfare of their new country. They were welcomed as fully human, and equally deserving of protection. In return, they were expected to embrace the host culture, with its institutions and its symbols of national identity, and to work as surely for the welfare of others as others had for them as aliens. I need hardly spell out the implication of this for our nation today.
In our work with, and prayer for, the refugees we have accepted into this country, we should try to avoid easy polemic. While the practical application of asylum law is a messy and demanding business where mistakes sometimes get made, in principle what God wants of us is not as hard to discern as we usually make out. We just need to give more attention to the hard but rewarding work of interpreting the scriptures than we do to newspaper editorials which customarily have no place for God.
* I am grateful to the work of the Jubilee Centre, Cambridge in helping my preparation for this talk
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