It seems that suddenly Syrian refugees have become the main topic of the news media. Of course, there have been articles hidden in the world sections of newspapers and serious editorial-type pieces, but it has not captured the imagination of the typical citizen of the West until recently. Apparently millions of displaced people are less important than the latest celebrity wardrobe malfunction; at least as long as those displaced people remain in Sudan, or Jordan, or Lebanon. Now they are dying desperately trying to escape to Europe and arriving in large numbers in France, Italy and Germany, and the scale of the problem can no longer be ignored by the Western world.
Of course, it is easier to think of the refugee problem as something abstract. At our church in recent times we have had the privilege of ministering to a range of people who have fled their home countries as refugees. Once you put a human face on refugees, it is then difficult to see them as the news media and politicians portray them: economic migrants, closet terrorists, or ‘illegals’. I have met people whose families have been killed and for whom there is nowhere safe to return home.
Now the scale of the refugee crisis in the world is very large, and the issues are complex. I don’t want to reduce a complex issue to a short blog article, and of course countries do need to weigh the cost and think through things like the impact on the economy and how to adequately check the identity of people. But as a Christian, there are some key things that must be said for the Bible is abundantly clear on them.
I have recently been preaching through the first part of Deuteronomy, and came across chapter 10 which includes these interesting verses:
18 He [God] executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing. 19 Love the sojourner, therefore, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt. (Deu 10:18-19 ESV)
This is part of a longer passage which encourages various responses to God, things that believers should do in response to understanding what their God is like.
That word ‘sojourner’ is so old and stilted that it doesn’t really hit home with modern English readers. The older versions translated this as ‘alien’ which probably didn’t help that much more! It refers to a foreigner who is in your land. It could be a traveller, what we would call a migrant today, or what we would call a refugee. Someone who is not where they really belong but who is currently in your land.
What were the people of God to do with such a person? To love them, for God loves them. The instruction is simple. There is even an additional reason: God’s Old Testament people were sojourners in the land of Egypt. God cared for them when they were foreigners in a country, so they should love the foreigners in their land. The law of the Old Testament contains many more specific commands as to how to be just and merciful to such people, but Deut 10:19 is the basic stance believers were to have.
Like in any age and place, there would be good reason not to love such people. They were different to the locals and maybe struggled with language and culture. Maybe they will take our jobs and cost us money! All these things might be true, but they do not change God’s clear instruction: love the sojourner, for God loves them.
Well, some might say, we who are in the New Testament people of God don’t have such a history of being cared for as foreigners in another country. So the motivation here doesn’t apply to us. But not so fast – look at 1 Peter 2:11 (ESV):
11 Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul.
Do you see how the New Testament people of God are labelled by Peter here? As “sojourners and exiles”. People who are living in a land that is not their home. That is what Christians are. Our citizenship is in heaven (Phil 3:20), not here, and we will always be away from home until we die or Jesus returns. So as outsiders we should care for outsiders, even if there is a cost associated with this.
There is one more theological point we need to consider before we think about how to respond to refugees. All of what we have actually belongs to God and not to us. Believers are not to fundamentally be protectionist with our possessions as if we deserve them and others do not. No, we are encouraged repeatedly to be generous with what we have been given. So basing our thinking on refugees on the cost is the wrong way to start to approach the problem. It is a compassion issue, not an economic one. There will be a cost but we should be keen to help where we can.
So how should Christians think about refugees? Fundamentally with compassion and love. Let’s try to avoid focussing on those who abuse the system, for they exist of course. Let’s not demonize those who are desperate as if they are all greedy when many simply want to be somewhere safe.
How can we practically show love to refugees? Let me give you some suggestions.
- Pray. This is very practical, not a cop-out, and should come first in this discussion. God cares for the sojourner and so we should ask God for help and wisdom.
- Write to your MP. Our family wrote to our local MP and the Immigration Minister recently asking for more compassion to be shown. In a democracy, the government needs to know what the people care about and they cannot read our minds.
- Give money to organizations that help those in need. If God has blessed you, consider using that money in part to help those who need it.
- Volunteer at church with our English ministry! We run an extensive ministry that helps many refugees and migrants and travellers. Put a real face on refugees, not some abstract concept.
- Invite those in our country as refugees or travellers into your house for a meal. This is the universal language of friendship, and says much more than words.
Please keep praying for wisdom for the world’s leaders. This issue is complex and relates to many other issues like border control, finances and foreign policy. Pray for a basic stance of compassion instead of protectionism, that we might view this the way God does.