November 17, 2016

A Biblical basis for welcoming refugees

Photo by Libby Kinsey

One of our essential commitments in the Church of the Brethren is to seek the mind of Christ together. We have promised to take our cues from Jesus, not from politicians of any stripe. If we want to understand the mind of Christ in regard to refugee resettlement, we do well to begin with Jesus’ Bible, which is more or less what we call the Old Testament. From there we can move to a study of Jesus’ life and teaching as remembered by his earliest followers. Although this article only skims the surface of some relevant scriptures, part of its purpose is to invite deeper study.

Jesus’ Bible often mentions refugees, meaning people who relocate to escape danger, including the danger of starvation. Sarah and Abraham are refugees when they escape famine by going to Egypt (Genesis 12:10-20). This early example of refugee resettlement does not go well. Abraham is afraid of the Egyptians, so he persuades Sarah to lie to immigration authorities about their marital status. When the truth comes out they are deported. Fortunately, they leave Egypt unharmed and can practice better hospitality toward other travelers later.

Fast forward to a camp at the Oaks of Mamre, where Abraham sees three men approaching his tent (Genesis 18:1-15). This time he does not act out of fear. His culture allows for questioning strangers before welcoming them, but Abraham and Sarah forego that step as they hurry to provide shade, precious water, and a huge feast. After feetwashing and a meal, guests are expected to share news, and these guests do not disappoint. They stun Sarah with the word that she will give birth in old age. Abraham and Sarah exemplify the hope that hospitality can bring amazing rewards for hosts as well as guests. Recalling this story, the author of Hebrews advises, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it” (13:2).

The blessings of hospitality are also evident in Ruth’s relationship with Naomi and Boaz. Ruth marries into a family of refugees from Bethlehem while they are staying in her home country of Moab. After all the men in the family die, Ruth insists on following her mother-in-law Naomi to Bethlehem despite the widows’ desperate situation (Ruth 1:1-22). The blessings begin when Boaz, a wealthy landowner, obeys Leviticus 19:9-10 by leaving some grain in the field for the poor and foreigners to glean. Boaz might have looked down on a foreign woman like Ruth, but instead he admires her hard work, courage, and loyalty to Naomi. His prayer for her anticipates future developments: “May you have a full reward from the LORD, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come for refuge!” (Ruth 2:12).

When he tells Ruth to drink water that the young men have drawn, there is an echo of other stories about refugees who receive drinks at wells and end up getting married (Genesis 29:1-30; Exodus 2:15-22). We might expect Ruth to marry one of Boaz’s workers; but, no! Soon Naomi is grand-mothering a baby, and the whole nation is blessed. Ruth and Boaz become the great-grandparents of King David and ancestors of Jesus (Ruth 4:13-17).

Whereas hospitality for foreigners can result in blessings for all concerned, the law obeyed by Boaz offers another motive worth considering. According to several passages in the Law of Moses, God’s people should empathize with foreigners because of the memory of being oppressed in Egypt. Israel’s treatment of foreigners must be better than Egypt’s. The same chapter in Leviticus that provides for gleaning goes on to command, “The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 19:33-34). Other laws give a similar reason for allowing foreign workers to rest on the Sabbath: “You shall not oppress a resident alien; you know the heart of an alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 23:9-12; compare Deuteronomy 5:12-15).

Such motives only work when the collective memory of having been foreigners remains strong. Fortunately, Israelite worship constantly reinforced this memory. At Passover and other festivals, Israelite families confessed their unity with the earlier generations that God had rescued from famine, slavery, and genocide. A good example is the creed that Deuteronomy 26:3-10 prescribes for an annual harvest festival:

“A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand. . . .”

The law requires worshippers to recite the story of their people’s experience as refugees, using pronouns that include later generations in the story. Since this practice helps to teach empathy for refugees and other foreigners, it is no coincidence that Deuteronomy 26:11 expressly includes foreigners in the thanksgiving feast.

Such are the laws and stories that Jesus would have recited as a youth in the synagogue or during a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. His self-identification with refugees has deep roots in that tradition. In addition, the Gospel of Matthew gives a more personal reason why Jesus identifies with refugees. His family escapes mass murder by fleeing to Egypt. Even as an adult, Jesus remains a refugee. He moves around to escape persecution, and he instructs his disciples to do the same (10:23, 12:14-15, 14:1-13).

Jesus repeatedly makes promises that reflect his identification with refugees and other vulnerable people. At the end of a long warning about persecution, he assures his disciples, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me” (Matthew 10:40). He goes on to promise a reward to “whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple” (10:42). “Little” in this context means lowly and vulnerable, which is how Jesus expects the disciples to carry out their mission. A similar promise refers to a child that Jesus has lifted up as an example of lowliness: “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.” Although Matthew 18:1-5 does not describe this child as a refugee, attentive listeners can catch an echo of Matthew’s infancy narrative, which repeatedly refers to Jesus as “the child.” Jesus understandably identifies with a child who needs welcoming.

The same theme resounds in the famous judgment scene of Matthew 25:31-46, when Jesus surprises the nations with the news that “whatever you did to the least of these who are members of my family, you did to me.” Scholars debate who is included in “the least of these who are members of my family.” The related promises in Matthew 10:40-42 refer to disciples as “little ones,” and Matthew 12:46-50 describes disciples as Jesus’ family. Matthew’s earliest audiences could have heard “hungry,” “thirsty,” “stranger,” “naked,” “sick,” and “imprisoned” as descriptions of their own needs, or perhaps the needs of other disciples who suffered while following Jesus’ call to mission. It seems, then, that “the least of these” could be limited to disciples.

Nevertheless, as we seek to follow the mind of Christ, we would be wise to welcome non-Christians as well as Christians. We are not in a position to judge whom Jesus might claim as family, and other biblical calls to love and hospitality are more obviously open-ended. We have seen that Leviticus 19:33-34 includes foreigners in the command to love our neighbors as we love ourselves, and Jesus expands the definition of “neighbor” to include even enemies (Matthew 5:43-48). In addition, if we would like to be welcomed as refugees, the implications of the Golden Rule are clear (7:12).

Paul makes clear in his interpretation of Jesus’ lovecommand that genuine love requires concrete actions and includes people who are outside as well as inside the church. “Contribute to the needs of the saints,” Paul writes in Romans 12:13. Then he continues with the Greek phrase, philoxenian diokontes, which literally means “pursue love of strangers or foreigners.” In contrast to the passive ways we sometimes practice hospitality, “pursue” means that we should actively seek opportunities to welcome others. Interestingly, the Greek word xenos, meaning stranger or foreigner, is at the root of both philoxenia (love of foreigners) and xenophobia (fear of foreigners). The contrast between these words calls to mind another apostle’s teaching that “love drives out fear” (1 John 4:18).

Courageous love of foreigners takes center stage in one of Jesus’ most famous parables, featuring a compassionate Samaritan. A review of the historical context can help this parable pack more of its original surprise. Judeans and Samaritans had been enemies as far back as the split between the northern and southern kingdoms in about 930-920 BCE. Deportations imposed later by different empires increased the cultural distance between the former kingdoms. A long-standing dispute about where to worship came to a head in 113 BCE when the Judean high priest John Hyrcanus destroyed the Samaritans’ temple on Mount Gerizim. The conflict still smoldered in Jesus’ time, as many Judeans considered Samaritans unclean half-breeds, while many Samaritans considered Judeans wrongheaded.

Without being told otherwise, Jesus’ listeners would probably assume that the man left for dead in the parable is a Judean. If so, he could expect help from a priest or Levite going down from Jerusalem, but not from a Samaritan. He might not even want help from a Samaritan. Surprisingly, however, the Samaritan is the one who acts as a neighbor, showing mercy courageously and sacrificially. He pursues philoxenia even with someone stereotyped as his enemy.

Now we are in a better position to discern the mind of Christ regarding refugees. Jesus understands that people can become channels of God’s blessing by practicing hospitality toward strangers and foreigners. Jesus empathizes deeply with refugees, both because of his personal experience and because of Israel’s collective memory of escape from slavery and genocide. Since the Church of the Brethren also has a collective memory of flight from persecution, we may hear Jesus calling us to “pay forward” the welcome and religious freedom that Brethren received on first coming to America.

Jesus’ command that we love our neighbors explicitly includes people that others might stereotype as enemies. Jesus understands that active, inclusive hospitality involves significant costs and risks, but he calls us to accept those as part of the cost of discipleship. He does not want us to act out of fear, but out of the love that drives out fear.

He invites us to trust that the blessings gained by welcoming refugees will far outweigh the costs. One of the blessings Jesus promises is that we will experience his presence more deeply when we welcome children and other vulnerable people in his name. Someday we may even find ourselves among the nations who hear Jesus say, “Come, blessed ones, inherit the kingdom that has been prepared for you from the foundation of the world. . . . Whatever you did for the least of these who are members of my family, you did for me.”

Dan Ulrich is Weiand Professor of New Testament Studies at Bethany Theological Seminary in Richmond, Ind. This is from a presentation he prepared for Southern Ohio District, which has begun working on a refugee resettlement project.