Monthly Archives: July 2015

“for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt”

Updated 11/19/2015

I wrote this post well before the Syrian refugee crisis was front page news, but now that everybody and their brother is posting on this same topic, I feel somewhat compelled to revisit what I have said. I have added an “update” section on the bottom to explain how I feel this does/does not apply to the Syrian refugee crisis.

Original Post

As I was doing my concordance search on the word “foreigner” in the Bible I discovered a very interesting link to being a foreigner and welcoming foreigners. If you’ve been following my blog recently you’ll know that I have been a little occupied with the idea that as Christians we are foreigners and strangers. We are sojourners and exiles.

This identity is not unique to the New Testament church. The first of the sojourners and exiles are found in the Old Testament: Abraham, Moses, Daniel. Israel itself was a nation of foreigners and strangers. They arrived in Egypt as foreigners by God’s plan. When they became too big a threat to Egyptian rule, God rescued them from slavery and they went into a long period of exile/sojourn in the desert. When they finally arrived in the Promised Land under Joshua they were finally “home”, though they would once again experience exile in Babylon because of the judgment of God.

But even when they were home, when they found themselves as the citizens of the land that God had given them, they were continually instructed to remember that they were at one point the strangers and foreigners. And this sense of identity led to an important ethical conclusion – remember the foreigner among you.

This ethical concern for the foreigners and strangers in codified in the laws of the Pentateuch. First, there are commands to simply do no harm. “Do not mistreat the foreigner among you.” (Exod 22:21, 23:9, Lev 19:33). These commands are specifically given with the encouragement to the Israelites to remember their own historical identity. “Do not deprive the foreigner or the fatherless of justice… Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the LORD your God redeemed you from there. That is why I commanded you this” (Deut 24:17). Then there are the commands which explicitly state the same laws should apply equally to native-born and foreigners alike. In other words, Israel is supposed to apply a basic principle of justice to all without showing favoritism.

But the laws given to Israel in regards to the foreigners go beyond prohibitions against mistreatment. The “gleaning” laws demonstrate a specific concern for the foreigner, the fatherless, and the widow (Lev 19:10, Deut 24:19, 21). In Israel these individuals would have been especially vulnerable to poverty and injustice so they required special care from the entire community. Once again, these commands are given with the instruction to “remember that you were slaves in Egypt,” that is, you were once foreigners yourselves.

Perhaps the fullest expression of this idea is given in 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. “

This passage is striking because it reveals the heart of God. He shows no partiality. He loves the foreigner and he demonstrates that love by providing for their basic needs. The Israelites are to extend that same love. That is, they are to love the foreigners among them as well, caring for their basic needs. Here the command is to love (a matter of the heart) and it is based on two principles: God’s own love and Israel’s historical identity.

So what does this mean for the church of exiles and foreigners? There is a temptation for a church, as it begins to feel more and more then sense that it does not belong, to become inward focused and protectionist. There is a temptation to focus solely on caring for one’s own inner group. There was probably a temptation for Israel, especially given its history of military animosity towards its neighbors, to view all foreigners as suspect and to therefore deny them justice. That might be why Israel is so often warned against such unfairness (see Deut 26:19 where denial of justice to the foreigner is connected to a covenant curse). At a minimum, then, this means that the church needs to resist this same urge. Being foreigners and strangers does not mean that we lose a concern for those who are different from us or that we take up a position of distrust or animosity to them.

On the positive side of things these commands remind us that God is concerned for the socially and economically vulnerable and that we should extend that concern. They remind us that basic empathy matters. Do you feel like a foreigner? Then keep that in mind when you see someone else in a similar position. Practically, this could mean befriending the friendless, defending the person being bullied, showing hospitality, graciously welcoming newcomers to church, or the greeting the new residents of your neighborhood. Just like for Israel, I think it means showing generosity to the poor and a concern for basic issues of fairness and justice.

I was listening to an interview on NPR where the interviewer was discussing Islamic radicalization in Great Britain. The big concern for Britain is that there are many Islamic youth who feel like they are not “full citizens.” This sense of not belonging in that particular community leads to radicalization and, ultimately, to acts of terrorism. It would be a great tragedy if there was the same movement in Christian communities! But the Bible points us in the exact opposite direction. The status of “exile” and “foreigner” needs to point us to love and concern for others. After all, we may be foreigners on earth but we are citizens of heaven and it is our mission, through the ministry of reconciliation, to draw others into that same citizenship.

Updated 11/19/2015 – How does this apply to the Syrian refugee crisis?

First, I want to stress that the primary application for these texts is for the Church, not the State. I find it somewhat ironic that many Christians who would ridicule conservatives for applying 2 Chronicles 7:14 to the United States when it should apply to the Church, are so quick to make a blanket application of Old Testament law (in a theocracy!) to U.S. policy. Both texts apply to the people of God, and not directly to the secular state.

In regards to the refugee crisis (or just basic immigration policy, for that matter) we should apply these texts first to the church, with secondary applications (as citizens of an earthly kingdom) to government policy. For implications for the church, look up three paragraphs.

Second, I do believe there is some application for secular governments. The role of the secular government is to establish justice. This means (a) protecting its citizenry from evildoers/punishing evildoers (see Romans 13) and (b) doing what is within its scope of responsibility for caring for the destitute. That second point could certainly be contested, and I won’t fully defend it here, but I do want to point out the close connection between the laws listed above and principles of basic justice (i.e., doing no harm, equal protection under law, etc.). The pattern of connecting care for the especially vulnerable with justice (and not just charity) is established well throughout Scripture. For more on this see Tim Keller’s book Generous Justice. It’s natural for Christians to want both forms of justice from their government. And the challenge for the secular State is to balance between competing goods. The arguments just aren’t as simple as “keep them all out” and “people who want to limit the refugees, or take a pause, are heartless jerks.”

A Christian friend of mine posted a provocative status on Facebook which actually illustrates this quite well. He stated “If Obama allows Syrian refugees in we will house a family in our home. Who is with me?” This is a rather radical proposal, but I really like the heart behind it. First, it’s an observation that its the government who decides who to let in and when. The government is going to make this decision based on its competing interests. Second, though, there’s a call to the church to take an active role in caring for those strangers if or when they arrive. At that point the church has the opportunity to fully realize its role and take the above passages to heart.

Of course, there are plenty of ways to help refugees now, Syrians or otherwise. One such organization doing this good work is Samaritan’s purse. I was touched by this video back in early October, and it’s worth another “share.”


Book Review: Hostile Environment by George Yancey

In Hostile Environment: Understanding and Responding to Anti-Christian Bias George Yancey leverages his background in sociology and research into the phenomena of “Christianophobia” to help Christians understand the causes of anti-Christian hatred, the nature of opposition in the United States, and the methods for dealing with anti-Christian bias when it arises.

I must begin by stating that I do not believe I have ever experienced any material loss because of my Christianity. I think this is partly due to the fact that I am quite insulated in West Michigan. That said, I have seen all the stereotypes of Christians that are outlined in this book: ignorant, bigoted, evil, pushy, etc. In other words, while I have not often been the direct recipient of what Yancey calls “Christianophobia” I have witness the phenomena in action on plenty of occasions.

Hostile Environment is not sensationalist. It does not claim that Christians in America are being persecuted. In fact, Yancey goes out of his way to say that Christians are not being persecuted. I tend to agree with him, especially when you compare how Christians are treated in America with how they are treated throughout the world and throughout history.

As a sociologist he does not go beyond where the data guides him. He warns us not to see persecution or anti-Christian bias behind every struggle we face in life. But the data does demonstrate that, especially in certain sectors of our society, there is a verifiable anti-Christian bias. For instance, “evangelicals and fundamentalists are the groups most likely to face negative bias by academics… almost half of all academics were less willing to hire a candidate for an academic job if they learned that the person was a conservative protestant” (p 13). What was perhaps more startling was that after Yancey published this data, the data was not refuted, but many academics actually defended this blatant discrimination.

Throughout the book Yancey uses the term “Christianophobia” to describe the “irrational animosity towards or hatred of Christians, or Christianity in general” (p 14). He admits that this term is controversial since sociologists rarely concern themselves with bias or hatred of such a large group. But he adequately defends the use of the term and, after sharing quotes from respondents to the survey that forms the basis of this book, it is hard to think of a better one.

I also appreciated Yancey’s perspective as an African American. Because he is sensitive of issues of racism and started his career in that field of study, he frequently compares and contrasts racism with Christianophobia. The two share some similarities but they are not identical. While racism is often played out in physical violence, Christianophobia rarely does. Christians in America do not need to fear bodily harm because of their faith. Instead, Yancey found that those with an anti-Christian bias tended to be well-educated, white, and male, and therefore more likely to hold influential positions. The nature of anti-Christian bias, then, is more likely to be subtle and masked by declarations of religious neutrality or separation of church and state, even though the measures or policies are specifically designed to have a greater impact on Christian groups or to silence Christians in the public sphere.

Yancey is also realistic about the sources of Christianophobia. Christians are, indeed, partially to blame for many negative stereotypes. Christians are wise to improve the way we communicate, treat one another, and interact in the public sphere. But Yancey also acknowledges that much of the Christianophobia in the world is unwarranted. Often it is based on stereotypes that are simply not true, or on beliefs about Christians that find no basis in the real world (like that Christians are secretly attempting to set up a theocracy!) or sometimes simply out of the hatred. We can and should do things to properly represent Christ to the world but we shouldn’t be surprised that even if we could be perfect (which we can’t) we will never be able to eliminate false stereotypes about Christians.

So what can Christians do about an anti-Christian bias? Yancey offers several suggestions. First, he says, we must be willing to confront bigotry toward Christians. Yancey does not believe that silence or a wooden understanding of “turning the other cheek” is the right answer. Here, once again, he draws on his perspective on racism. Racism was pushed back, at least in part, because people were willing to confront it. In fact we still need to be willing to confront racism. Yancey exhorts us to confront anti-Christian bias, but to do it in a way that loves our neighbor, watching our own motivations, not doing it out of self-interest, but doing it because injustice in any form should be confronted.

Second, he says that we need to understand those with Christianophobia. Those with Christianophobia do not want to throw Christians in prison or stop them from worshipping in their homes or churches. But they do want to eliminate the distinctive Christian voice from the public square. It’s important that Christians understand their aims and understand their fears.

Third, Yancey argues that we need to be more unified as the body of Christ. Yancey notes that conservative Christians are far more likely to face anti-Christian bias that progressive Christians and so he makes several appeals throughout the book to progressive Christians to find some amount of solidarity with conservative Christians. “Standing for religious freedom in situations where one is not currently directly threatened may save a person from having to stand for his or her own religious freedom in the future.”

Fourth, Yancey argues that we need to be wise in our arguments. This is, to some degree, an extension of his second point above. Once we understand the aims of those with anti-Christian bias we must know how to argue our point. Against those who say that Christians should be limited from speaking in the public sphere we can show that “it is hypocritical to limit Christians, under the guise of separate of church and state, in ways one would not limit other advocates” (p 150). Christians should be able to participate in public discussions in order to contribute to the common good.

Fifth, we need to love our enemies. This does not mean we surrender to those with irrational beliefs about Christians. It does mean to try to honestly understand their position, to show grace in our discussions, and to act in ways that benefit them when given the opportunity.

Finally, Yancey in several places encourages Christians to demonstrate friendship towards those with anti-Christian bias. His research demonstrated that many with Christianophobia had very little contact with Christians. Their only experience of Christians was through social media, blogs, newspapers, or television. People whose exposure to a group is so limited can more easily believe false stereotypes about that group, even when they are blatantly false. Sometimes (and Yancey stresses that this is not a guarantee) a personal connection will help that individual “humanize” Christians in their own mind and the harshness of their hatred can be reduced.

At some points Hostile Environment was stressful to read. The comments from the survey respondents were often harsh (“The only good Christian is a dead Christian”) and certainly no one likes to think about hatred being directed their way. But ultimately Hostile Environment is not a discouraging book. Christians are wise to view this with perspective. From a global perspective Christians in America have an extremely cushy life. From the perspective of eternity, these minor anti-Christian biases are but a spec. As I argued in my last post Christians are on a journey. We are sojourners, foreigners, and exiles and as such we should expect a certain level of discomfort. But we are not without hope. We press on and, like Christ, must be willing to “suffer outside the gate”, knowing that ahead of us lies a greater reward.

Living in Tents

I am working on an extended research project on what it means for the church to be a people of strangers and foreigners, exiles, sojourners in a foreign land. As part of my research I came across an interesting thought: an exile/sojourner/foreigner is in an awkward state. They are “living in tents” as the writer of Hebrews might say. They are a people without a home. They may not be homeless (a tent is a sort of a home) but they are not yet at “home” in the fullest psychological sense.

Sojourners and exiles are related but distinct people groups. A sojourner is on a journey, but it is journey they set out on freely. Abraham is the quintessential sojourner. An exile is someone who has been banished. Daniel was an exile. Moses, when he realized that his killing of the Egyptian had become public knowledge, became an exile. But sojourners and exiles share a common trait – they are not at home.

This place away from home can be quite emotionally and psychologically taxing. The early Christians certainly understood this. They were an extreme minority within their culture and faced financial, social, familial, religious, and political pressure. A Christian community on this journey faces a choice – do they move forward on the journey or go back? To return to the familiar is sometimes the path of least resistance, even for the exile.

The writer of Hebrews addresses the question, urging his readers again and again to move forward, to press toward the goal, and to resist the urge to return to the familiar.

The preacher’s first warning is to those who are in danger of “drifting” away from the faith, that is, drift back to unbelief, pulled along by those subtle pressures of life that work in resistance to the gospel (Heb 2:1-4).

The preacher’s second warning is to heed the example of the Israelites. They had reached the edge of the Promised Land. They had reached the end of their journey. Yet when they saw the “giants” of the land they were to enter turned back in unbelief and faced the judgment of God. The preacher urges his people forward: “The promise of entering rest still stands, let us be careful that none of us have fallen short of it” (Heb 4:1) and again “Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest, that no one will perish by following their example of disobedience” (Heb 4:11).

The preacher’s third warning once again centers on the theme of “falling away” (Heb 6:6). This time, instead of exhorting his people to press onward, he encourages them to “imitate those who through faith and patience inherit what is promised” (Heb 6:12). He provides plenty of examples of pressing on towards the goal in chapter 11.

The preacher’s fourth warning is a call to persevere. The church is called to “draw near,” “hold unswervingly to the hope,” and “spur one another one” all in light of the final Day (Heb 10:22-25). That is, the commands to persevere and commands given in hope of the future reality of the land we are moving toward. This hope is a “rich reward” for those who persevere (Heb 10:35).

The preacher uses the “hall of faith” to put an even finer point on the matter:

Reflecting on Abraham, who had left all of what was familiar in Haran, the preacher says, “People who say such things show they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country – a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God for he has prepared a city for them.” Abraham the sojourner knew returning to the home he had left was impossible. His lack of opportunity was not a logistical problem. He had no opportunity to return because his eyes were so focused on the “city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.”

Abraham was not the only one with his eyes to the future. The preacher describes Moses in precisely the same way. “He regarded disgrace for the sake of Christ as of greater value than the treasures of Egypt, because he was looking forward to his reward” (Heb 11:26). The same is true for all the saints in Hebrews 11. Their faith was characterized by a “confidence in what we hope for” (Heb 11:1). Even those who accepted martyrdom did so because they looked forward to a “better resurrection” (Heb 11:35).

At the finale of this section the preacher points his readers to Jesus, the quintessential sojourner. We are called to “throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles” all as we run the race. We are not blazing a new path, but one that has been run many more times. It has been run by our very Savior. He Himself was a stranger on earth. He was rejected. He experienced shame. He endured the cross. He was glorified. He now sits at the right hand of the throne of God.

The church has always been a colony of foreigners in a foreign land, though at various times and places it has been very easy for the church to feel at home in the structures, systems, and culture of our world. I believe we are awakening to the reality of our true position. As we do we will face the same temptation that every other sojourner and exile faces, the temptation to lose our distinct reality and drift away from those offensive elements of our faith, or drift away from the faith entirely. I believe the writer of Hebrews would urge us forward. “At least in Egypt we won’t starve or be murdered by giants” the Israelites said. True, but we also won’t receive the fullness of the promise of God.