Refugee camp in Kenya (UNHCR)
informal essays

The Heart of God Toward the Foreigner

Many Christians in the United States disagree about how to treat refugees. Many “welcomers” want to bring in as many as possible, and misread opponents as letting fear overrule clear Biblical imperatives to love our neighbors. Many “hesitaters” want to tread more carefully, and misread opponents as letting naivety and oversimplified interpretations overrule practical wisdom and discretion about genuine limits and concerns. This is my attempt to encourage understanding, first by considering the welcomers’ charge of a Biblical imperative for welcoming refugees as national policy, and second by considering the hesitaters’ charge that terrorism and specific issues related to Islam justify significant constraints on such a policy.

Have you ever studied what the Bible says about immigrants and refugees? When I do, it excites me! The overall theology of “welcoming the stranger” is not simply about wanting to be nice and help some people; it’s a core indicator of the heart of God, in contrast to the natural heart of man, and it runs through the entire Bible! While a study of Biblical principles will not give us the ultimate answers of practical application, we cannot arrive at those answers without a starting foundation.

Foreigners In The Old Testament

The Bible doesn’t use words like “immigrant” and “refugee” the way we do. But the Old Testament has a Hebrew word, ger (Strong’s H1616), which is often translated alien or sojourner, meaning a “temporary dweller” or “newcomer” with “no inherited rights.” It generally seems to indicate a person who has left another place to dwell with people of a different origin, which sounds similar to what we would call an “immigrant.” It also seems to indicate immigrants without access to land or wealth, which would have much in common with “refugees,” who are fleeing any previous land with only whatever they can carry with them.

God gave the Israelites numerous commands about how to treat the sojourners living among them.

You shall not wrong a sojourner or oppress him, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt (Exodus 22:21 ESV)

Do not oppress a foreigner; you yourselves know how it feels to be foreigners, because you were foreigners in Egypt. (Exodus 23:9 NIV)

God seemed aware that such foreigners, having no land, wealth, or inheritance, along with their visible differences from the native population, were at risk of being oppressed, just as the Israelites had been in Egypt. God often identified them with other needy people such as orphans and widows, and he promised blessing if Israel obeyed his commands to provide for them:

At the end of every three years, bring all the tithes of that year’s produce and store it in your towns, so that the Levites (who have no allotment or inheritance of their own) and the foreigners, the fatherless and the widows who live in your towns may come and eat and be satisfied, and so that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. (Deuteronomy 14:28-29 ESV)

Notice how God did not merely forbid active injustice against the needy but made explicit rules to help with their provision. Ruth was such a sojourner who famously participated in one such practice:

And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, nor shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner: I am the Lord your God. (Leviticus 23:22 ESV)

In fact, God even elevated the sojourner as being deserving of the same rights and love as the native Israelite:

You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God. (Leviticus 19:34 ESV)

God felt so strongly about the treatment of sojourners that he not only promised blessing to those who used their tithe to feed them with other disadvantaged groups (see Deuteronomy 14:29 above), but he also promised a curse on those who would unjustly treat them:

Cursed be anyone who perverts the justice due to the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow. (Deuteronomy 27:19 ESV)

Note that all of these passages refer to treatment of foreigners already living with the Israelites. On the one hand, it could be argued that while they clearly describe a concern for foreigners already living in a nation, they say nothing about an obligation to invite more foreigners who are not already present. On the other hand, it could also be argued that there doesn’t seem to be anything about restricting foreigners, either. The text does seem to assume the dwelling foreigners are a relative minority, but it doesn’t seem too concerned about how they’re arriving at all, only about how to treat them once they’ve arrived.

On that point, at least, the text seems clear. God knew that sojourners among the Israelites were needy people at risk of oppression, and he made numerous commands to prevent injustice against them.

When Israel later disobeyed God’s commands, and God spoke warning and judgment through the prophets, he made it clear that oppression of the sojourner was part of the disobedience that had brought the promised curses upon them:

For if you truly amend your ways and your deeds, if you truly execute justice one with another, if you do not oppress the sojourner, the fatherless, or the widow… then I will let you dwell in this place (Jeremiah 7:5-7 ESV)

The people of the land have practiced extortion and committed robbery. They have oppressed the poor and needy, and have extorted from the sojourner without justice. (Ezekiel 22:29 ESV)

Thus says the Lord of hosts, Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another, do not oppress the widow, the fatherless, the sojourner, or the poor, and let none of you devise evil against another in your heart… But they refused to pay attention and turned a stubborn shoulder and stopped their ears that they might not hear… Therefore great anger came from the Lord of hosts..and I scattered them with a whirlwind among all the nations… (Zechariah 7)

This all set the stage for Jesus to come and take things up a notch…

Foreigners In The New Testament

25 And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” 26 He said to him, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” 27 And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself. 28 And he said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.”

29 But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:25-29 ESV)

Jesus answers the lawyer’s question with the famous story of the Good Samaritan. Sometimes I think this story is so familiar to us, yet so removed from the original context, that we miss how radical it was!

The Samaritans were the descendants of some Israelites who had remained in the land during the exile, intermarrying with Gentile immigrants and incorporating pagan practices into their worship. When Jews returned from the exile, the differences between the groups led to much conflict over who truly belonged to the land and who was worshipping God in the right way – both groups claimed to be following the original Pentateuch and worshipping at the original location.

Both Jewish and Samaritan religious leaders taught that it was wrong to have any contact with the opposite group, and neither was to enter each other’s territories or even to speak to one another. During the New Testament period, although the tensions went unrecognized by Roman authorities, Josephus reports numerous violent confrontations between Jews and Samaritans throughout the first half of the first century. (Wikipedia)

In this context, Jesus tells the story of the “Good Samaritan.” (Note how when Jesus asked who was a neighbor to the man, the lawyer couldn’t even bring himself to say, “the Samaritan,” but simply “The one who showed him mercy.”)

It would have been radical enough if the assaulted man was a Samaritan who was being helped by a Jew! But to make the Samaritan the one that was the helper? The one that had the wrong religious beliefs? The one that belonged to a group that committed violence against his group? Now that’s really radical!

In one fell swoop, Jesus not only challenged the Jew to love the negatively-viewed outsider as much as his local neighbors, he also challenged the Jew to have a more positive view of that outsider!

And yet this should have come as no surprise! The quote from the law to “love your neighbor as yourself” comes from Leviticus 19, the same chapter where we saw the commands to love the sojourner as yourself (v.34)! The heart of God has always been to love both your “neighbor” and the “foreigner” as yourself.

On the one hand, Jesus was only telling a provocative story to explicitly make a connection that had been there all along! On the other hand, Jesus was making the connection even stronger and more radical! Unlike some of the original sojourners, who were living among the Israelites and entering into covenant with them, the Samaritans were completely separated, following a corrupted religion, and even fighting violently with the Jews! And yet Jesus was still calling the lawyer to love them as himself.

The Heart of Evangelism

After all, Jesus loved the Samaritan. He wanted them to follow him just as much as the Jews, and he went out of his way to spend time with them. (Recall Jesus’s declaration to the Samaritan woman at the well about the true worship that “the Father is seeking,” John 4).

In fact, God’s heart towards loving foreigners has always been inseparable from his heart to save them. While sojourners were apparently not required to”enter into the covenant with the LORD” (Deuteronomy 29:10-13), it seems clear that their positive treatment by the Israelite was intended to encourage this. When King Solomon dedicated the temple, he prayed:

When a foreigner, who is not of your people Israel, comes from a far country for your name’s sake 42 (for they shall hear of your great name and your mighty hand, and of your outstretched arm), when he comes and prays toward this house, 43 hear in heaven your dwelling place and do according to all for which the foreigner calls to you, in order that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your people Israel, and that they may know that this house that I have built is called by your name. (1 Kings 8:41-43 ESV)

This was all a foreshadowing of Gentile inclusion in the Gospel – including Rahab’s and Ruth’s integration into the very line of Christ. While there was some initial wrestling with the details of this inclusion (did Gentiles need to be circumcised??), there was no doubt about its significance. Jesus “has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility” (Ephesians 2:14). He has given us the “ministry of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:18), and we look forward to the time when we shall see “every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb” (Revelation 7)

If we truly believe that hell awaits the unsaved, and that God is not willing that any should perish (2 Peter 3:9), then we should especially rejoice at the opportunity for a nation with millions of Christians to welcome immigrants from “closed countries” to a land of religious freedom. Surely even just an increased chance that even one refugee might come to the saving knowledge of Jesus Christ (and I know many who have done just that!) is worth a great deal.

Our hearts naturally turn inward toward our own ethnic groups! The heart of God naturally turns outward toward all ethnic groups! Thus I think it is fair to say that diversity is the heart of God.

Diversity Is The Heart of God

We are still not ready to address practical questions about constraints, but I want to pause to address a challenge to the more general position. There is a growing belief in some corners of the Internet that the celebration of “diversity” is nothing more than a liberal utopia, that there are fundamental differences between different groups of people and it’s better for them all to live separately in their own places. Many of these proponents desire a total or almost total restriction of immigration.

I believe this is kind of “ethnic nationalism” is a false view that is contrary to the heart of God. In fact, I would even like to speculate that to entertain such a view is to reject the blessing of God and invite his curse. It is true that the natural inward inclinations of our sinful hearts can lead to conflicts between ethnic groups, but our sinful hearts also lead to conflicts within our ethnic groups! God desires to redeem us and bring us all together.

There are certainly legitimate national concerns relating to integration and sustainability. I believe the current European backlash against immigration partially reflects a negative heart towards foreigners, but I also believe that heart is partially a reaction to immigration-related concerns being dismissed and shamed rather than acknowledged. However, to condemn immigration as a whole seems foolhardy, even if there are no spiritual consequences and only the effects of natural economics.

Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple, was the son of a Syrian immigrant. Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google, came to America when his family fled Jewish persecution in the Soviet Union. Interestingly, both companies were co-founded partnerships of native-born and first- or second-generation immigrants. The quintessential American story of arriving on new shores with nothing, and finding a way up through hard work and opportunity, is still being told today. In fact, more than 200 of the companies in the Fortune 500 were founded by first- or second-generation immigrants. (In addition to job-creating entrepreneurs, it can be argued that the mathematical reality is we’re going to need more immigrants to make up for our declining native birth rates and support Social Security for all the retiring natives.)

Diversity can make a country stronger. Is this part of the reason the great melting pot of America has been such a great nation? Considering that many of our ancestors were themselves immigrants, many fleeing persecution or famine or misfortune and seeking a better life, I cannot help but note the parallels to God’s reasoning for his original commands to the Israelites. Do not oppress the refugee, for you yourselves were refugees from Europe…

Due to the focus on seven specific countries, many are unaware that President Trump’s executive order attempted to shut down the entire refugee program (the actual text says, “The Secretary of State shall suspend the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) for 120 days.”) Seven countries were singled out for blocking all travelers, in addition to refugees, but refugees from all countries were suspended, without warning, and without evidence of any specific risks from any of those countries, for the first time since the program was established in 1980. As the program has undergone numerous changes since its inception, including security improvements, without a sudden, prolonged halt, the justification for halting the entire program seems unclear. In addition to the immediate effects on numerous families, many welcomers are concerned that this signals a shift in a more general anti-immigrant direction, especially given reports that the order was largely influenced by Steve Bannon, who is known to have more radical views on the subject.

But is all of this political discussion still a theological issue?

Individuals or Nations?

A common criticism of “welcomers” is that they are misinterpreting Biblical commands for individuals as commands for nations. It is important to consider this distinction. Many New Testament instructions are more naturally understood as applying to individuals under the New Covenant compared to the Old Testament theocracy. In addition, the United States political ideals of democracy and freedom have a more natural application for individual charity compared to government coercion, especially given freedom of religion and the rights of other citizens to choose not to participate in such charity. There are also arguments about the superiority of individual charity as it relates to the benefits of personal relationship along with accountability and practical effectiveness.

Indeed, there are some passages about welcoming outsiders that clearly suggest a personal duty:

Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares. (Hebrews 13:2 ESV)

However, it could also be argued that the presence of passages regarding both individual and national action simply indicates the consistency of God’s heart towards the foreigner on both an individual and a national level, and that there is room, at least on some level, for both kinds of welcoming.

The issue of immigration, by definition, concerns national policy. We have seen that when Israel was a nation, welcoming foreigners was clearly God’s intent. We see that many Biblical characters took refuge in other nations that allowed their entrance (including David, 1 Sam. 21, and Jesus himself, Matt. 2, in yet another connection to the Israelite’s status as foreigners in Egypt). We also see some instances of cities or nations being condemned for refusing to allow or properly welcome foreigners (Sodom and Gomorrah, Gen. 19, and King Sihon of Heshbon, Deut. 2).

We see that Jesus confirmed and even expanded the idea of “loving the foreigner as yourself” to helping the foreigner when it is in your capacity to alleviate his hurting. While there is room for interpretation, it is interesting that even the quintessential passage about individual acts of charity has a reference to the “nations”:

Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. 34 Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, (Matthew 25:32-35)

James asks what good it is to see a brother without clothes or food and not provide for those needs (James 2:15-16) . Can we say we love a refugee family as much as we love ourselves if we have the ability to welcome them into our nation, yet refuse to do so?

But Does That Mean We Need To Bring Them Here?

Some “hesitaters” agree about the Biblical imperative to love and care for refugees, while arguing that this does not imply an imperative to welcome them into our country, especially if trumped by other concerns (pun not intended). Franklin Graham, leader of Samaritan’s Purse, has posted the following in response to discussion regarding Trump’s executive order:

As Christians we are clearly taught in the Bible to care for the poor and oppressed. At Samaritan’s Purse we have been working in the Middle East for over 30 years. We’ve provided things like food, heaters, blankets, coats, shelter plastic, and more for tens of thousands of refugees there and in other places around the world. We just opened a 55-bed field trauma hospital in northern Iraq where we’re treating Muslims who are being wounded by other Muslims in the fight over Mosul. As Christians we are commanded to help all, regardless of religious background or ethnicity, like the Good Samaritan Jesus shared about in the Bible. Our job is to show God’s love and compassion.

At the same time, he says:

Some people seem to have forgotten that the priority of the president of the United States is protecting the Constitution and the safety of Americans… We have to be sure that the philosophies of those entering our country are compatible with our Constitution… I believe the best way to help is to reach out and help these people in their own countries… We need to pray for political solutions that would bring peace and allow them to return to their homes as they desire.

I applaud Samaritan Purse’s work in this context, and I agree with some of Mr. Graham’s concerns. It does not make sense for every one of the currently estimated 65 million global refugees to migrate to countries like the United States, and it makes sense to assist many where they are, while pursuing justice through more comprehensive solutions. (As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “after you lift so many people out of the ditch you start to ask, maybe the whole road to Jericho needs to be repaved.”)

However, I would also ask the “hesitater” to consider that even intermittent charity in an impoverished refugee camp is hardly the life we would want for ourselves, and to consider the following scenario. What if we recognized a capacity to integrate a very small percentage of those refugees, and we were given a list of those considered most qualified for relocation to our country, whether due to a heightened vulnerability in their current location, or an existing family connection, or some other set of reasons, and we were asked us to consider accepting them, provided we reviewed their information and situation and felt comfortable with the result? I believe that, in fact, accurately describes the narrow policy scenario under discussion today.

Unavoidable Risks vs. Targeted Risks

At this point, the “hesitater” may respond with the following objection: But if we can’t be completely certain about their intentions, doesn’t the government have a responsibility to keep us safe?

If he is not afraid of being politically incorrect, he may also include a second, more specific, objection: Don’t we need to be concerned about radical Islamic terrorism? Or maybe even Islam in general?

Indeed, Mr. Graham’s posts specifically reference these concerns, which loom far greater than practical concerns about the logistical limits of relocation. What seems to be a debate between Biblical imperatives for welcoming refugees and the function of government, in my opinion, actually reflects a difference in risk perception.

There will be always be some risk in welcoming strangers, whether individually or nationally, so surely Jesus did not intend it to be a deciding factor against such action. Furthermore, loving the foreigner as ourselves means thinking not just about our own risk of harm but about the risk of harm to the crowds of peaceful refugees, both Muslim and non-Muslim, trying to flee war and terrorism themselves. Welcomers tend to perceive the risk of terrorism in this general “unavoidable” sense, built on a perception that the overwhelming majority of Muslims are peaceful and non-threatening.

However, it can also be argued that if we ignore warning signs to take care of ourselves, we will be unable to take care of others, even if we really want to. Hesitaters tend to perceive Islam, or some parts of it, in this specific “targeted” sense, built on a perception that a true adherence to the Koran does not tolerate freedom of religion or even democracy, and that an influx of Muslims means an increased risk not just of “random” terrorism but also an advancing of Sharia law, crime against non-Muslims – even a fundamental threat to Western civilization.

So it is not enough for the welcomer to pronounce a Biblical imperative for welcoming foreigners and argue for its practical application in modern America. It is not even enough to respond to the hesitater’s charge about a Biblical imperative of a government to protect its citizens – though this is necessary to consider as well. The welcomer must also consider the hesitater’s fundamental differences in perception about Islam. Where did these different perceptions come from? Are they based in rumor or truth? In the context of American freedom, I think we need to discuss what risks we expect our government to protect us from, how big those risks really are, and how this relates to Islam. I have opinions on these matters, but as this post is getting long I think I will save them for a second post.

Partial Conclusions

Potential constraints notwithstanding, I think a strong case can be made – on Biblical theological grounds, on general humanitarian grounds, even on fundamentally American grounds – for welcoming as many refugees as practically possible, as a matter of both national policy and individual connecting. (Truly, both aspects are intertwined and neither can succeed alone.)

Above all, we should strive not to lose sight of the fact that we are not talking about numbers and statistics but real people, created in the image of God, who have suffered unimaginable oppression, whose lives we have unique opportunities to enter into and spend time with, just as Jesus spent much of his time on this Earth. And yet it is more than simply the privileged helping the underprivileged. We all have so much to learn from each other, as we actively participate in tearing down walls of hostility and let God turn our hearts from our natural, sinful inward focuses to his outward love for all humanity.

May the Lord guide us into all wisdom and understanding as we endeavor to grow in faith, hope, and love. And the greatest of these is love.

(If you don’t want to miss the follow-up, sign up for an email notification at the bottom of the page.)

Some Works Cited

Pastor Kyle Rainbolt’s sermon on “The Outsiders” at St. Louis Trinity Church

A conservative blog post on immigration and the Bible


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