Immigration: What Does the Bible Say?
By M. Daniel Carroll R.
The immensity of this human dilemma should drive Christians to the Scriptures to see what God might have to say about engaging the stranger.
Immigration has been a hot political issue in this country for the last several years. Some in the media can be a bit shrill, labeling newcomers as part of a “tidal wave” or an “invasion” of foreigners. Heated and exaggerated rhetoric, of whatever persuasion, is not helpful and is not becoming for Christians.
What might a self-consciously Christian position on the topic look like, one that doesn’t consist simply of a few Bible verses tacked on to the secular arguments that dominate the national debate?
A Global Perspective
A helpful starting point is to recognize that the history of humanity is the history of migration. People, whether as individuals, families, or larger groups, have been on the move since the beginning. The motivations to leave one area and go to another land have been the same throughout the centuries: hunger, conflict, persecution, natural disasters, lack of employment, or the desire for a better life. It is no different today.
The United Nations estimates that more than 210 million people are migrating worldwide. This figure includes refugees, asylum-seekers, the internally displaced, and those moving to other countries. This phenomenon is impacting countries on every continent in multiple ways. So, the first step in tackling the immigration challenge is to be aware that this is not solely a U.S. problem. It is human reality. The questions that need to be asked in light of these facts, therefore, should be: In a world where many needy millions are searching for a new life, how should Christians respond? What is the responsibility of the church?
The immensity of this human dilemma should drive Christians to the Scriptures to see what God might have to say about engaging the stranger. To the surprise of many, the Bible has a lot to say about this topic, and that biblical material should orient Christian attitudes and responses.
A Biblical Perspective
Where should we start our investigation of the Bible? We should not limit the biblical contribution to Romans 13:1-5 and questions of legality. While these are very important, the breadth of the Bible can inform us how to approach these complex issues.
Immigration is about people. Let’s start at the beginning of the Bible. Genesis 1:26-28 reveals that all human beings are made in the image of God. We are God’s representatives on earth and have the capacity to “rule” over the rest of creation. Every person—including the immigrant—has worth and the unique potential to contribute to society and the common good.
Discussions on immigration, then, need to appreciate, above all else, that the fate of people is at stake, and people have infinite value in God’s sight and can add to the country because of their capacities and gifts. Immigration is not about a faceless group of newcomers. It is about persons whom God has made and for whom Christ died.
Old Testament narratives. The Old Testament has several accounts of people migrating from one place to another.
The story of the chosen people starts with Abram’s trek to another land (Genesis 11:31-12:5; 23:4; cf. Deuteronomy 26:5). His descendants would leave that promised land for the same reasons people migrate today. Abraham’s and Jacob’s families went to Egypt looking for food (Genesis 12, 42, 43). The desperate ends to which some will go to survive explains, in part, why Abram asked his wife, Sarai, to lie and say she was his sister. He and all those with him were hungry; the only other option was to turn around and travel the desert again (Genesis 12:10-20).
Naomi and her family left Bethlehem and traveled to Moab because there was a famine in the land (Ruth 1:1, 2). Others were forced to migrate against their will. Joseph was sold into slavery in Egypt (Genesis 37). Years later, thousands were taken into exile, when Assyria conquered Israel (2 Kings 17) and Babylon took Judah (2 Kings 24, 25).
We also find stories of the assimilation of these sojourners into their host cultures. These are not easy processes, and they are not all alike. Joseph was given an Egyptian name, married an Egyptian, and had children by her, but he gave his two sons Israelite names (Genesis 41). He was so “Egyptianized” that his brothers did not recognize him, but Joseph still understood and spoke his mother tongue (Genesis 42).
When Naomi returned home, Ruth accompanied her. Ruth, who had married an immigrant (one of Naomi’s sons), became the immigrant. Ruth’s story was about her becoming part of the community of Bethlehem. Eventually she married Boaz, a native-born kinsman of Naomi.
Jeremiah counseled the exiles to invest in their new surroundings and to plan to stay awhile (Jeremiah 29). Esther, Ezra, and Nehemiah were born in exile. Esther never thought about returning to the land, and Mordecai needed to remind her of her obligations to her people. Nehemiah rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem, but returned to again serve the Persian king. Ezra, a priest, led a group back to Judah, not wanting to assimilate at all to Persian life.
Life in foreign lands could be difficult, even if occasionally tinged with success. The Israelites in Egypt suffered as slaves after being welcomed centuries earlier. Egypt wanted their labor, but was frightened by their growing numbers, and so Egypt passed harsh laws to control that immigrant population (Exodus 1-5).
Daniel distinguished himself under several kings in Babylon but was not accepted by everyone (Daniel 6).
The fact that Mordecai sat at the city gate indicated he was a man of some means in Susa, but he and the Jews became targets of a government official, Haman.
Not all, however, endured shame and suffering. Joseph rose to prominence in Egypt; Esther became queen of the Persian Empire; Nehemiah was cupbearer to Artaxerxes; and Ezra and Ezekiel ministered freely among the exiles.
These accounts demonstrate that the people of God in the Old Testament were characterized often by movement. Migration defined much of their history.
The care of outsiders also figured predominately in Old Testament Law.
Old Testament Law. The Hebrew term ger (alien, sojourner) referred to those who move in from elsewhere to live among the Israelites (the new Common English Bible translates the term as “immigrant”). This could mean someone from another part of the country, but usually it referred to someone from elsewhere. The Law contained provisions to help them become part of their new community.
Concern for the sojourner in ancient Israel made sense. In that agrarian peasant world, without the existence of government services like today, people in need had to turn to extended family for support in case of sickness, childbirth, death, bad harvests, and other disasters. Outsiders had no such safety net. Their outsider status also meant they were excluded almost entirely from the land tenure system, where land was passed down through the sons. Not having land meant it was necessary to work as a hired hand. These factors meant outsiders depended on the Israelites for work, sustenance, and protection.
To respond to these challenges the Law provided periodic rest from work (Exodus 20:10; Deuteronomy 5:14), a fair and timely wage (Deuteronomy 24:14, 15), provision for food (Deuteronomy 14:28, 29; 24:19-21), and fairness in legal matters (Deuteronomy 1:16, 17; 24:17, 18). Sojourners also could participate in several religious feasts. This integration into Israelite society would have required that they learn the language and customs of Israel. The prophets denounced those who mistreated the sojourner (Jeremiah 7:5-7; 22:2-5; Zechariah 7:10; Malachi 3:5). They also spoke of a time when these sojourners would enjoy greater incorporation into national life (Ezekiel 47:21-23; cf. Isaiah 56:1-8).
Why were the Israelites to concern themselves about these outsiders, who had moved into their midst? The Law offered two motivations.
First, the Israelites were to remember that they had once been mistreated as foreigners in Egypt (Exodus 23:9; Leviticus 19:33, 34). If the Israelites forgot those historical experiences, it would be easy to repeat those same attitudes of rejection and exploitation against those who were now moving in.
Second, and more importantly, they were to love the sojourner, because God did (Deuteronomy 10:17-19). God said he loves the foreigner, giving them “food and clothing.” Of course, these concrete expressions of that love would have to come via the generous hand of his people.
The New Testament. There is also relevant material in the New Testament. Jesus began his life as a refugee in Egypt. He and his parents fled Bethlehem to escape Herod, and they lived for a time in that foreign land (Matthew 2). Jesus migrated from Heaven to earth (John 1:10-12; Philippians 2:5-11) and from Galilee in the north to the cross in Jerusalem (John 1:46; 7:40-52).
In his teaching, Jesus demonstrated sensitivity to those whom the rest of society marginalized, such as the sick, women, children, tax collectors, and soldiers. For our purposes, the best illustration of his willingness to interact in meaningful ways with those who were different was his treatment of the Samaritans (Luke 17:11-19; John 4). The Samaritans and the Jews despised each other. Jesus illustrated what it meant to be a neighbor, whom Jews were to love, with the illustration of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37)!
In Matthew 25, Jesus connects the final judgment to the treatment of the “stranger” (vv. 35, 38, 43, 44). The term he uses is xenos (from which we derive xenophobia). Although this passage is cited to defend immigrant rights, it seems that “the least of these” and “brothers” (vv. 40, 45, New American Standard Bible) in Matthew might refer more specifically to Jesus’ disciples (10:42; 12:48, 49; 18:6, 10, 14; 28:10). If that is true, these “strangers” are those who suffer for Jesus’ sake. Millions of immigrants in the United States are Christians, but to apply the passage to all immigrants may stretch its intent.
In the Epistles, Christians are told to be gracious to others (Romans 12:13; Hebrews 13:2; 1 Peter 4:9). This virtue of hospitality should distinguish the leadership of the church (1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:8). Christians, too, are citizens of another kingdom (Philippians 3:20; Hebrews 13:14)—all the more reason to extend a hand to those without citizenship on earth.
Peter declares that all Christians are “aliens” and “strangers” (1 Peter 1:1; 2:11, NASB). In other words, migration is a key metaphor for what it means to be a Christian! This is a powerful statement, which should give us pause. To appreciate the nature and trials of the life of immigrants is to better understand the ways of faith. For most, this is an abstract idea; for immigrants, the metaphor is a lived reality! This is another, and surprising, reason to get to know immigrants and extend them grace.
A Missional Perspective
This short summary of the biblical material makes it clear that there is much food for thought! But there are other reasons to rethink the immigrant issue. Churches and denominations around the country are being revitalized by the presence of millions of new Christians from immigrant communities. We are witnessing new church plants, the creation of leadership and training programs, and the proliferation of Christian radio and literature aimed at these recently arrived populations. Missiologists now speak of diaspora missiology, where these groups in the United States (and worldwide) are being seen not only as the targets for mission outreach, but also as potential partners to mobilize for evangelism and other endeavors.
The challenge is to get a vision of the immigrant reality as a missional possibility.
A Legislative Perspective
By way of conclusion, let’s return to the legislative element touched on at the beginning. If we gain a more positive view toward immigrants because of what has been presented in this article, then we will look at legislation differently. Instead of emphasizing punitive measures, new legislation could be crafted that better organizes both the border and entry, while at the same time facilitating in more constructive ways the incorporation into society of immigrants who already are here.
That requires some form of reform to current immigration law. What will that look like? Nobody knows, but the conversation—informed by divine revelation, permeated with Christian charity, and spurred by political courage—needs to begin.
M. Daniel Carroll R. (Rodas), is Distinguished Professor of Old Testament at Denver (Colorado) Seminary. He is the author of Christians at the Border: Immigration, the Church, and the Bible (which has been translated into Spanish), and a national spokesperson on immigration for the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, the Hispanic partner of the National Association of Evangelicals.