For hymn suggestions related to this theme, see A wandering Aramean was my ancestor – Refugee Week.
There is real danger in drawing too close parallels with what we read in the Bible about refugees and those we read about in our newspapers or, indeed, have encountered through visiting refugee camps in Europe or welcoming families into our communities. Each person’s story is different, as are the political and environmental contexts from which individuals and families have run in hope of a better life. This is as true of what we read in the Old and New Testaments as it is of modern day Turkey or Calais.
But the lessons that people of Biblical times learnt from their ancestors’ experiences do seem to run as an important thread through the teaching of their community leaders, prophets, and of Jesus himself. The histories of Abraham, Jacob and Moses represent powerful memories and the people of Israel are often reminded that, with God, “you are but aliens and tenants”. From their own experience, in other words, they should know how to treat strangers:
“For the Lord your God…loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Deuteronomy 10: 17-19)
This is not simply a matter of doing the right thing by those in need. It’s more complex than that. There is an equally strong drive towards integration as, for example, in Numbers 9: 14: “When an alien is settled among you, he is also to keep the Passover of the Lord, observing every rule and custom proper to it. The same statute applies to you all, to alien and native-born alike.”
In the New Testament, as one commentator puts it, we continue to “find God amidst those who are uprooted”. As a small child, this was Jesus’ own experience, as we are reminded every Christmas, and we have to wonder whether the formative escape into Egypt, away from the despotic King Herod, helped inform some of his later teachings.
As the journalist and Baptist minister Mark Woods points out, Jesus’ message of “good news to the poor” and freedom for the oppressed (e.g. Luke 4: 16- 20) is couched most stringently in his parable of the sheep and goats – the latter banished from God’s sight:
” For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was ill and in prison and you did not look after me” (Matthew 25:41-43).
In his challenging consideration of “the principles that Christians bring to the table”, and the consequences that follow, Mark concludes:
“Christians have no special insight into the details of security, immigration and asylum policies that will need to be settled in order to meet this crisis. But we have a duty to call those responsible for these policies to account: to tell them when not just their actions, but the fundamental attitudes that guide those attitudes are wrong.” (Why the Bible doesn’t allow us to turn our backs on drowning children)
Bible stories and passages to consider – a selection of Bible readings about those who were forced to leave their homes or who faced persecution, together with suggestions of further articles and resources