Tag Archives: foreigners

Refugees and immigrants: A case study in Christian political engagement

Immigration, either from Mexico, or through refugees coming from Syria or surrounding nations fleeing from war and violence, is a hot topic in the news these days, and an important one for Christians to think critically about. There’s a lot on the line, both for those immigrants seeking a better life, or really any life at all, and (potentially) the future of America.

The purpose of this post isn’t to take one position or another, at least not a national political position, but to think about how this issues is understood through different lenses, and then think critically of the various positions being held. [Edit: Upon further reflection, this didn’t quite turn out to be true, see the quote from O. Alan Noble below which reflects the sort of position I find most compelling.]

What is clear

What is clear is that Christians ought to have compassion for those in other countries who are seeking to escape from war, violence, persecution, or extreme poverty and that Christians ought to have compassion for those neighbors in the United States who are especially vulnerable to injustice – including immigrants. As I have elsewhere argued, and where many others have been doing for a while now, the Old Testament is full of instructions to care for widows, orphans, and aliens living within the land. The call to care for strangers and sojourners is directly tied to Israel’s status as foreigners and strangers in Egypt. This principle in the Old Testament is consistent with the general principle of all Scripture that Christians should have compassion (that leads to material care) for those who are especially vulnerable. I can’t think of a single Christian I know – Republican or Democrat, Trump supporter or Trump detractor – who doesn’t agree with this.

What is less clear

What is significantly less clear is what role the Civil Government – in this case the American government – should do.

Let’s do a little thought experiment. Imagine that it was the “Right” that was calling for more open borders and the “Left” that was calling for tighter borders and controls and let’s also imagine that the “Right” was still heavily populated with evangelical Christians who were using the Scriptural argument above as a key part of their argument. I can picture the complaint of the “Left” already: You need to leave God out of politics. We live in a secular world. Do you want us to adopt all the laws of the Old Testament, too? Do you want us to become a theocracy!?

I think that the current more-open-borders-because-we-should-have-compassion-because-the-bible-tells-me-to position (sorry, I should shorten that name) is at least somewhat open to that charge. That position, to the extent that it argues for a one-to-one relationship between Israel and the United States, ironically makes the same mistake that it often complains those of the “Moral Majority” school of making.

The conservative argument against the more “compassionate” position of those calling for more admission of refugees is that, while it’s the role of the church and individual Christians to show compassion, it’s the role of the Civil government to restrain evil by bringing about justice for its citizens and protecting its borders from outside threats. If more immigration and refugees pose a threat to the people of this nation, then it would be the role of the government to protect its citizens by enacting greater controls, more “extreme vetting,” building a wall, or even banning immigration from certain countries.

I am sympathetic to this argument because I generally believe that the sanctioned role of government is rather limited. I also find it somewhat ironic, since those arguing in this way want to see religion and religious beliefs play a larger role in government in many other areas.

(As an aside, since I can’t help but compare most political issues back to abortion, it’s interesting to note that one of the legal justifications for abortion is that you’re not a citizen until you are born. Only citizens have rights under the constitution so only babies which have been born have the right to life (regardless of whether or not they are living humans, which they are). On the other side of the political spectrum, I’ve seen conservatives argue that non-citizens (read: refugees) don’t have rights since they are non-citizens while liberals argue for a more inclusive vision for mankind that doesn’t worry so much about citizenship.)

And so on one side of the spectrum we have a very simple God-and-government position: The Bible tells us to be compassionate towards strangers and foreigners and the vulnerable so we should have a more open immigration system. And on the other side we have a very simple separation-of-Church-and-State position: Yes, we need to be compassionate as individuals and a church but it’s the role of government to protect its own citizens from threats and not to worry about non-citizens.

A muddy middle

It should come as no surprise, if you’ve made it this far, that I want to argue for a more nuanced position than either two extremes. I admit it’s not fleshed out, but I will state my position as follows: I want a government that acts within its own realm of responsibilities and within its own character in a way that is informed by a biblical worldview. Let me unpack that:

A government that acts within its own realm of responsibilities. I don’t want my government to do everything or to take the role of the church or the role of the family. There are some “goods” which, while nevertheless good, are not the task of a civil/secular government to do. I don’t want my government doing evangelism or running church services, for instance. But, it is within the realm of the government to regulate its borders and it’s also within the realm of the government to act justly towards all mankind in a way that acknowledges a shared humanity (more on that last part in this post). It might not be the role of the government to care for refugees, but it might be the role of the government to make it possible for kind-hearted, gospel-driven citizens to do just that.

A government that acts within its own character. This may be a specifically American desire but America was founded on certain principles which I would hate to see lost or trampled on. Two of those principles are religious freedom and equality of persons. So, when Muslims are specifically targeted for exclusion, or when Mexican immigrants are demonized, we are acting outside of our character as a nation.

A government informed by a biblical worldview. I’m not saying I want a theocratic state, but I do want my government to be informed by a biblical worldview. In this case, I want it to be informed by an ethic of compassion towards the vulnerable as described in the Old Testament injunctions cited above, and then weigh that against relative threats to security and then act wisely and justly towards all people.

What we have then are (potentially) competing interests. The government ought to act in the best interests of its citizens – including security – and it ought to act in a way informed by biblical compassion for those who are especially vulnerable – including non-citizens. This is a muddy middle, perhaps, but it’s also the hard work of governance.

O. Alan Noble suggests just this sort of balanced position, arguing for community-based resettlement programs that makes room for the church to help refugees integrate into those communities. Addressing Muslim immigration in particular he states:

“Both extremes [Islamophobia and Mass Immigration] carry tremendous rhetorical weight in an election year, but neither reflects the kind of resettlement we actually do in the US. Carefully planned, community-based resettlement programs can help those in need, strengthen communities, offer new opportunities to share the gospel, and mitigate the major concerns about Muslim immigration.”

Two final notes

In many cases, the threat which immigrants and refugees plays to the American public seems to be trumped up out of proportion to the actual threat (see Ed Stetzer’s CT article). Sometimes immigration is even framed as an outside invasion, and not as families desperately seeking to get out of a horrible situation (which I think more accurately characterizes the vast majority of circumstances). We shouldn’t be naïve about the possibility of danger, but we should try to be accurate about just what danger there might be.

What if the government closes its borders entirely? What can Christians in America do then? Well, even before that happens the most direct way to help refugees for most of us is by working through organizations which have contact with refugees oversees. At the end of last year my family was able to contribute to Syrian refugee relief through the SBC.  If we want to care for immigrants and refugees, we need to do more than just complain about our government (though I have long maintained the role of advocacy) but be willing to be creative about how we can directly or indirectly love our neighbors in Jesus’s name.

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Exile and Political Engagement: Justice and Advocacy

This post is part of a series (Post 1: Introduction and OutlinePost 2: Four Key Principles for Christian Political EngagementPost 3: Submission and TaxesPost 4: Government Service)

Seeking justice for self and others through advocacy

One of the most important roles of the civil government is in providing basic justice to its citizens, but sometimes that justice is not forthcoming. In those instances, political engagement entails advocating for justice, either for yourself or for others.

This idea (that we should advocate for justice for ourselves and for others) is based primarily on the principles that (1) the civil government is a means of limited justice and (2) that we should engage in the political process in order to show love to our neighbors. There are two main biblical examples of this worth highlighting. One is the life of Paul. Paul was regularly imprisoned and, though he accepted his imprisonment as an opportunity to suffer for the sake of Christ, he also advocated for his own well-being. For instance, he made it publicly known that he was a Roman citizen and was therefore due treatment as such (see Romans 16:37-38).

Esther provides the other example. When Haman had set up a plot to kill the Jews, Esther was persuaded to intervene. Mordecai rightly recognized that she had been placed in her present position before the king “for such a time as this” and so, when she had the opportunity, she advocated for justice on behalf of the Jews, exposing Haman in the process (see Esther 7:3-6). The result was that the foreign government was encouraged to function in a more just manner.

Christians should feel free to use the given judicial system to advocate for their own and others justice. Granted Paul discourages Christians from bring lawsuits against one another in the church (1 Corinthians 6:1-11) but that was more an indictment of the failure of believers to judge amongst themselves than it was of the civil judicial system.

Christians should also feel free, and perhaps even obligated in the same way that Esther was obligated, to advocate for justice on others behalf, either through the judicial or political process. Public advocacy for groups being denied justice, or advocacy against laws that are patently unjust, is valid and Christian behavior. This could take the form of non-violent protests (like those done during the civil rights movement, or the anti-abortion protests of today) or by attempting to formulate policy, establish just laws, and remove unjust laws (like in the case of the efforts of William Wilberforce to abolish slavery), or raising awareness of a particular issue (like recent efforts to raise awareness of world wide slavery).

But there are serious dangers and limitations here. In advocacy it can become easy to demonize opponents, fudge the facts in order to make a case, or set up false dichotomies which polarize an issue instead of finding common ground. Popular public advocates could become drawn to idolize their cause, prioritize their cause over the cause of the gospel, or simply see Christianity as a means towards seeking some human conceptions of justice. We also need to be realistic about just how far common grace can go in a world hostile to the gospel. It is reasonable to expect common grace that allows nonbelievers to see that first degree murder is wrong. But the idea that a human gets personal rights at the time of conception is a harder sell apart from an agreement on special revelation. Finally, we must be realistic about the extent to which the effects of the Fall can be rolled back by advocating for public justice. The brokenness of the world is intractable apart from the work of the gospel and no amount of appealing to basic principles of goodness or virtue will be able to usher in a golden age for Christianity. We must always remember that our hope cannot be in human authorities, but only in the authority of Christ.

Finally, while political advocacy can be a good way of demonstrating love for neighbor, Christians need to be careful to demonstrate practical love to those with whom we have direct contact. There is a certain hypocrisy in advocating against abortion but not being willing to provide material and emotional support for women in need. Likewise, there is a certain hypocrisy in speaking boldly about caring immigrants who live far away, without actually being willing to be a good neighbor to the immigrant living next door. It’s easy to tell someone else to provide justice for another group, and its not wrong to, but the Christian must also be willing to love those who are closest to them and in their direct sphere of influence.

Exile and Political Engagement: Government Service

This post is part of a series (Post 1: Introduction and Outline, Post 2: Four Key Principles for Christian Political Engagement, Post 3: Submission and Taxes)

Serving in the government

We move now from a more passive obedience to active participation. Can a Christian actually serve in a government position? To answer this I would like to look at several biblical characters who served in government positions, excluding, of course, those who served in Israel, since we are most interested at this point in the position of Christians as “foreigners and exiles.”

We begin with Joseph. Joseph was thrust into government service after interpreting Pharaoh’s dreams. He went from a man in prison to second in command over all of Egypt literally overnight (Genesis 41:41-43). It should be noted that Joseph did not exactly volunteer for service in Egypt. He was not driven by dreams of political advancement. But, when he was placed in that position, he did not refuse. Once he was placed in charge he carried out his duties with integrity and for the good of the nation in which he served.

We turn next to Daniel and to his companions Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. They were also thrust into government service. Like Joseph before them they were marked out for their integrity. And, as far as we can tell, they carried out all the duties assigned to them, so much so that they were given higher and higher positions, setting them to be the targets of jealousy-motivated plots against their lives. Unlike Joseph, once in service to the king, they had to face several instances where they had to decide to obey or disobey the law of the land. When they disobeyed they faced the legislative consequences, but also experienced divine protection from God.

Finally, we see several instances in the New Testament of Romans soldiers and tax collectors becoming Jesus followers. When John was calling people to repentance at the Jordan River he didn’t call the tax collectors to resign their position, but to not collect more than what was due. To the soldiers, he did not call them to give up soldiering, but to not extort money or accuse people falsely (Luke 3:12-14). None of the Centurions who become believers are called to leave their profession.

While the Bible doesn’t specifically call people to serve in political positions, it doesn’t condemn those positions either. Serving in the government can be done in a corrupt way (taking more money than is due) and it can come with some extra moral strings attached (see Daniel) but nowhere is it seen as something low, base, or evil in and of itself. In fact, if the civil government is something God gives the fallen world as a common grace, then serving in the government can be a way of loving your neighbor. This is certainly true of Joseph who, through his service, prevented the starvation of the Egyptians, those who came to Egypt for aid, and his own family.

Next Post: Advocating for justice

The Exile and Political Engagement: Introduction and Outline

The Church in ExileIn our study of the Christian as an exile and stranger in this world we have seen that Christians, having been brought into the presence of the kingdom of God, have been made strangers to the systems and of this world. God replaces all other “gods” and “authorities” as the ultimate authority, both for the individual Christian and for the Church worldwide. Like Jesus, our hope and our kingdom are “not of this world” (John 18:36). Our citizenship is in heaven (Philippians 3:20).

One of the main implications of this is in the arena of political engagement. How should Christians engage with the political systems of this world? That is the question we will explore in this upcoming series of posts. It is also the question we will be exploring this upcoming Sunday night. You are invited to join us if you are in the area.

Outline:

Part 1: Mindset/Worldview

– What are the key principles for political engagement?

– What is the role of civil governments in our world?

– What should be the motivation for Christian engagement in the political process?

Part 2: Types of political engagement

– Submission and Taxes

– Serving in the government

– Justice and Advocacy

– Voting

– Civil Disobedience

Conclusion

“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 up “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 the plan of God. When they became too big a threat to Egyptian rule God rescued them from slavery and they transitioned 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 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 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 a foreigner.

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? I think 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. I think that this is 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, I think that 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 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.”