The Christian Call to Welcome Refugees and Immigrants
In the years between 1933 and 1940, as tens of thousands of Jews fled Nazi Germany, nearly 105,000 refugees from Nazism were permitted to enter the United States. But those who were granted refuge were pitifully few in comparison to those who were trying to flee. One historian wrote: “The long pathetic list of refugee ships, unable to find harbors open to them, testifies to the fact that the world of the late 30’s and early 40’s was a world without room for the Jews of… Europe.”
The sad saga of the St. Louis, which set out from Germany to Cuba in May 1939 with 930 Jewish refugees on board, was a dramatic case in point. On reaching Havana, the passengers were not allowed to disembark and the ship was turned away. For weeks, as the ship hovered close enough to Miami for the refugees to see the lights of the city, negotiators tried without success to get the US government to provide temporary sanctuary. A telegram to President Roosevelt from a committee of the passengers received no reply. The St. Louis, memorialized in the movie Voyage of the Damned, was forced to sail back to Europe. Many of its passengers eventually died in concentration camps. Hitler gloated! He said that no country on earth is willing to accept Jews. This emboldened him to not just remove Jews from Germany and German occupied countries, but to exterminate the Jews of Europe.
There are more than 71 million people worldwide who have been forced to leave their homes – because of wars, gang violence and starvation. Nearly 26 million people who have been persecuted due to their religion, race or politics have been forced to go to another country. We are experiencing the largest wave of refugees the world has seen since the Second World War. More than half the refugees are children. Six million people alone have been forced from their homes in Syria. Nearly five million Venezuelans, over 15% of the entire population of Venezuela, have emigrated from the country because of the political and economic turmoil there over the past 15 years.
There are many political issues that are NOT addressed by the Bible. The Bible says nothing about what the corporate or individual tax rate ought to be. There’s nothing in Scripture about tax reform. There’s nothing about whether God wants us to be in favor of Medicare for all, employer provided plans or some other way to pay for health care. The Bible doesn’t even say anything about gun ownership or gun control! There are lots of really important subjects that Christians of good will can legitimately debate with each other and no one should say “You are unbiblical because you hold a different view than me.”
But when we consider how we ought to treat refugees and immigrants, we discover that the Bible has a ton to say about this subject. The Hebrew word “ger” is translated in our English Bibles as immigrant, foreigner, alien, stranger, sojourner. That word “ger” is found 92 times in the Old Testament. 36 times the word ger is joined to two other groups – widows and orphans – as particular subjects of God and concern and our concerns. The Bible tells us 36 times that a follower of Jesus should no more treat an immigrant or refugee badly than we should treat a widow or an orphan badly.
How important is caring for immigrants and refugees to God? One theologian put it this way:
“Welcoming the stranger… is the most often repeated commandment in the Hebrew Scriptures, with the exception of the imperative to worship the one and only God.” – Orlando Espín
One thing is clear. Our Lord Jesus personally identifies with and has compassion for the 70 million refugees in our world today. In fact, Jesus said whatever we do for refugees, we do for him.
35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ (Matthew 25:35, 36, 40)
It’s good for us Christians to remember that Jesus our Lord was a refugee along with his mother Mary and his father Joseph. They were forced to flee to Egypt to escape the tyrannical King Herod. Many of our forefathers in the faith were also refugees. Jacob fled his homeland because he was afraid of being killed by his brother, Esau. Moses fled Egypt to Midian because Pharaoh sought to kill him. David had to run from King Saul and fled to the land of the Philistines. The same was true of Elijah. In the New Testament, the church fled persecution. The Bible is a story of refugees and immigrants if we have eyes to see.
Over the past 20 years the number of refugees admitted to the United States has averaged about 90,000 per year. In response to the worsening global humanitarian crisis, the number of refugees admitted to the U.S. was raised to 110,000 in 2016. The government recently set the limit to 30,000 in 2019 and lowered the cap to 18,000 refugees for 2020. One prominent government official said he was working to reduce the number of refugees admitted to the United States to zero.
Welcoming refugees to our country is not only an act of humanitarian compassion. It’s also a way for suffering people from around the world to meet Jesus here in our local communities. And welcoming refugees is a way for followers of Jesus to practice the second of the great commandments – “loving our neighbors as ourselves”.
The famous story of the Good Samaritan ends this way:
[Jesus said], “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”
The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”
Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.” (Luke 10:36–37)