The Bible and Refugees

This is the text of an article I wrote recently for Vox Magazine (Issue 34, April – June 2017)

The Vox team (Ruth Garvey-Williams, Editor;  Jonny Lindsay, Layout, Advertising and Promotion); Tara Byrne, Operations) do a remarkable job of producing a high quality magazine that captures stories, news and opinion from across a broad Christian spectrum of Irish Christianity. There is nothing else that begins to do this job.

THINKING BIBLICALLY AND THEOLOGICALLY ABOUT REFUGEES

We have always lived in a violent and broken world. People have always had to flee war, famine, torture and persecution. But today, the scale of forced population movement is unprecedented since the end of WWII. The implosion of an entire country like Syria, added to desperate crises in places like Myanmar, Iraq, Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia and Afghanistan, has led to millions of refugees forced to seek safety outside their home nations. The UNHCR says that today there are about 65.3 million forcibly displaced people worldwide and a further 21.3 million people are refugees.

A refugee has been defined as a person who has fled their country because of a well-founded fear of persecution on one of five grounds: race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion. A refugee is typically in a highly vulnerable situation: often without official status; lack of access to basic resources; removed from networks of family, language and culture; and often deeply traumatised by violence or fear of violence. Over half of refugees globally are under 18 years old.

Three ‘solutions’ face refugees. One is voluntary repatriation, in which refugees return in safety and with dignity to their own country. Second is local integration, in which the government enables refugees legally to integrate into the host country. The third is resettlement to a third state which has agreed to admit them and in which they have permanent residence status.

Tragically, of course, for most refugees none of these ‘solutions’ is their reality. The vast majority are left in limbo: stateless, homeless, friendless and penniless; living in camps or trying to survive on the margins within neighbouring nations. It’s important to know this: only about 1% of refugees are ever resettled to a third country despite the fact that the UNHCR reckons that about 8% of refugees globally now need resettlement.

So that’s the context. It is, of course, a hugely political issue in Europe and the USA as politicians grapple with their own population’s fears of ‘uncontrolled immigration.’ It is not an issue that is going to go away anytime soon.

How should Christians think about one of the major humanitarian issues of our day?

What follows are some proposals drawn from two key Bible texts that I believe should begin to shape a biblical and theological response. My main concern is to argue that there are absolute non-negotiable attitudes and priorities for Christians when it comes to thinking about refugees because they are based on the good news of the character of the God we worship.

Key Text 1: Deuteronomy 10:17-19

For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt.

  1. God is Impartial

The great news of this text lies in the character of God. God is utterly unimpressed by ‘important’ people with money, power and all the right connections. This magnificent indifference to human status means that he is impartial and incorruptible. He treats people, whoever they are, equally. This goes utterly against the power structures of the world, then and now.

  1. God loves the outsider

But even more counter-culturally, God ‘loves the foreigner’ residing within Israel and takes care of their needs. This is not just something he likes doing, it is something he is. We could quote multiple texts from the OT and NT related to this theme. God is a God ‘for the poor’.

  1. God’s people are to love as God loves

As God loves the foreigner, so are his people to imitate him. They should do this because they themselves had been slaves in Egypt. Another important example is Deuteronomy 23:15, “If a slave has taken refuge with you, do not hand them over to their master. Let them live among you wherever they like and in whatever town they choose. Do not oppress them.” This is radical stuff. Instead of hard borders and forced repatriation, the refugee fleeing from slavery is to be given shelter. Instead of oppression, they are to be given freedom, safety and a new start in life. This is exactly what refugees today long for (if they can’t go home).

Key Text 2: Luke 10:25-37 – The Parable of the Good Samaritan

Jesus’ famous parable about ‘neighbour-love’ deepens and radicalises the teaching of Leviticus 19:18 to ‘love your neighbour’. Leviticus is aimed within Israel. The uncomfortable point of Jesus’ tale is that the neighbour-love includes those religiously, culturally, politically and socially alien to us. The parable puts flesh on the bones other famous Jesus commands to ‘love your enemies’ (Mt. 5:44) and ‘do to others as you would have them do unto you’ (Lk. 6:31). Like Israel’s love in Deuteronomy, Christians will love this way out of their own prior experience of God’s saving love. That experience should transform us to be the neighbours that Jesus calls us to be. In a globalised world, our neighbour surely includes, for example, the Syrian refugee.  Each one of us should ask ourselves ‘How would I like to be treated if I was in his or her shoes?’

The teaching of Jesus raises two final points.

  1. Refugees our teachers

So much of the refugee crisis is framed around what ‘we’ (in the West) will ‘allow’ refugees to do or not do. It is a fantastically unequal relationship of ‘us’ versus ‘them’. ‘We’ have all the power. ‘They’ have had the most traumatic experiences of their lives, and yet ‘we’ view ‘them’ primarily as a threat to ‘our’ way of life. ‘They’ are ‘lucky’ if we permit them to enter ‘our’ promised land. And, if ‘they’ behave themselves, ‘they’ will be blessed to become like ‘us’. Rarely, if ever, do ‘we’ think that we might have a lot to learn from ‘them’. Yet Abraham and Sarah, Lot, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, all of Israel, Ruth and Naomi, David, Elijah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Esther, Daniel and his friends, were all refugees for various reasons, as were many of the first Christians (Acts 8:1, 11:19). God himself enters our world and becomes a refugee (Mt. 2:13-15). What questions, do you think, this raises for those of us living in freedom and security?

  1. Christians are not to be driven by fear but by love

There is a tremendous sense of fear in much of the West today. Fear of terror. Fear of the future. Fear of refugees. Some politicians are ruthless in exploiting this fear to get elected. Many others are, in turn, afraid of those politicians. Christians are not to be people of fear but of faith, hope and love. In Deuteronomy 10:16, Israel is told to “Circumcise your hearts’ and love the foreigner. Similarly, Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan is aimed at those who felt justified in not helping those in need. We need to hear these texts afresh and have our own hearts softened. We fool ourselves if we think there is some great status gap between ‘us’ and ‘those refugees’. God doesn’t see it that way – remember he is magnificently indifferent to our man-made boundaries of money, identity and power. Rather, he calls us to be people of radical counter-cultural generosity; to be communities of welcome and grace to those in need of help.

For this is what our God is like.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

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One of the most extraordinary misunderstandings in all of Western history

9780300118308Another snapshot of Simon May’s exceptionally good book Love: A History

The Hebrew Bible develops three innovations of immense significance for how we think about love today.

The Shema of Deuteronomy 6:4-5 states

Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.

1. The goal of love is divine

God is the one true God, the creator and source of all that exists. To love God with all that we are is to make the goal of love divine. There can be no higher purpose or calling.

2. Loving God means that we are to walk in his ways

He argues that the second innovation is that we are to love what God loves – and that includes our neighbour.

May could unpack this more. He doesn’t quote this but Deuteronomy 10:12-13 states

And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God ask of you but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in obedience to him, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to observe the Lord’s commands and decrees that I am giving you today for your own good?

The text goes on to define the sort of imitation that Israel is to demonstrate:

He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt.

As God loves the alien, providing for their needs, so Israel is to imitate Yahweh, in a sense ‘doing to others as God has already done to them’.

3. Love is a moral duty

The love of the alien, widow and the orphan above is not a sentimental feeling-based emotion – it is a moral duty to do good to those in need. Israel is commanded to love God and love others.

May comments that other pre-Christian systems of thought – Confucianism, Buddhism and Platonism made love a central value “but in none was it conceived as so overwhelming a command issued by the one God”.

May concludes with this – and it needs to be said again and again given the caricatures and confusions out there regarding the Old Testament and its main character ..

“The widespread belief that the Hebrew Bible is all about vengeance and ‘an eye for an eye’, while the Gospels supposedly invent love as an unconditional and universal value, must therefore count as one of the most extraordinary misunderstandings in all of Western history.” (19-20)

The uncomfortable particularity of biblical love

I’m doing some reading and writing on love and have been reflecting on the Shema of Deuteronomy 6:4-5

Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.

I don’t know about you, but pretty well no-one that I know or have talked to is against the idea of love.  I mean who wants to be seen as a cynical old curmudgeon or a psycho like Billy Bob Thornton’s violent predator Lorne Malvo in the series Fargo?

But push a wee bit further and questions start to emerge:

What is love?

Who or what is it that we are loving? (love always has a focus, we have to love something)

What is the outcome or consequences of our love? How is love made visible in practice?

How have ideas of love developed and changed in history?

What are the dominant popular notions of love in our contemporary western culture?

Are all religions essentially about love? Are they simply different expressions of a universal human impulse to love?

This post isn’t going to answer any of those questions! It is going to link to that last one though.

Here’s a fact about love in the Old Testament – and the Bible in general.

If love always has to have a focus, in the Shema, Israel’s love is directed at a very particular person – YHWH – not an ill defined divine reality or some sort of faceless god.

A religious pluralism that suggests that an abstract form of love lies at the core of all (or most) religions,  reduces love to a de-personalised philosophical idea.

This is very far cry from the Shema. Love for God in the Bible is love for a very specific Lord who has revealed himself in history, has chosen Israel as his people, given them the Law and the Land, and is redeeming the world through the continuing story of that nation and its Messiah.

I came across this quote by Chris Wright

.. the sharp precision of the Shema cannot be evaporated into a philosophical abstraction or relegated to a penultimate level of truth. Its majestic declaration of a monotheism defined by the history-laden, character-rich, covenant-related, dynamic personhood of “Yahweh our God”, shows that the abstract and definitionally undefinable “being” of religious pluralism is really a monism without meaning or message.[1]

[1] Chris Wright, Deuteronomy, New International Biblical Commentary. p.98