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Missiologist Sam George of the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center observes that migration is a megatheme of the Bible. If you think about it, many of the heroes of the biblical narrative were, for one reason or another, crossing borders, from Abraham following a divine command and then, later, fleeing famine; to Moses escaping from Pharaoh; to Ruth migrating to be able to remain with her mother-in-law; to Jesus himself, who was brought to Egypt as a child, fleeing genocidal King Herod.

Another biblical migrant story is that of Joseph, in the book of Genesis, who was an involuntary migrant, sold into slavery and forced across a border, a victim of human trafficking. There’s a lot we can learn from Joseph’s migration experience – but I want to look at another character in that story: the Pharaoh over Egypt, who presents an interesting model – not of how to be an immigrant, but of how to respond to them.

You see, the Pharaoh described in the book of Genesis has a problem of troubling dreams, and in this foreigner, Joseph, he sees an opportunity: he’s told that Joseph can interpret dreams and, with God’s help, indeed he does. So Pharaoh sees another opportunity in this wise young foreigner, placing him in charge of famine relief, and Joseph ultimately saves the people of Egypt. Pharaoh’s recognition that migration could represent an opportunity leads him to respond with hospitality – we see this when Joseph’s family ultimately arrives in Genesis 47, when Pharaoh offers them the best part of the land. But even still, he has his eyes out for an opportunity: he asks Joseph to put the most skilled of his shepherd brothers in charge of his own flocks.

But just a few pages later, in the beginning of Exodus, we’re presented with a very different biblical model of responding to foreigners. A new Pharaoh now rules Egypt – one, notably, whom the text tells us “did not know Joseph.” Without that context of personal relationship, rather than recognizing the opportunity that foreigners might present, this Pharaoh sees the descendants of Joseph and his brothers as a threat to national security. He’s motivated by fear, and responds, ultimately, with horrific hostility. He doesn’t deport the Israelites – in fact, of course, he later will not allow them to leave, because he depends upon their labor – but he refuses to treat them with dignity, oppressing them as slaves and brutally murdering Israelite children.

One Pharaoh sees an opportunity and responds with hospitality. The other sees a threat and responds with fear and hostility. We face a similar choice today.

This is a question that nations around the world must wrestle with, but it is even more urgent for the global church, for our local churches, and for us individually — because while I find very compelling the arguments of economists that immigrants present an important economic opportunity for the countries that receive them, I’m more concerned with the missional opportunity presented by migration, as God, in his sovereignty, allows people to be moved across borders. We know why he does so – it tells us in Acts 17 [vv. 26-27 NIV 1984] that “from one man, God made every nation of men… and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live.” While there are certainly geopolitical and economic dynamics that motivate migration, above all of that is God’s hand in the movement of people, toward an end, as we see in verse 27: “God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him.”

Migration presents a remarkable opportunity for God’s mission. And that’s a two-way street: on the one hand, there are Christian migrants who cross borders and bring the gospel with them to their new country.

Others arrive – whether as international students or refugees, asylum seekers or other immigrants – who do not yet know Jesus, who would be very unlikely to ever encounter the gospel or even know a Christian in their countries of origin, who for various reasons end up in a country where there are many Christians, in contexts of robust religious freedom, such that we’re free to share our faith and these newcomers are free to either receive or reject it, without the threat of governmental consequences. By one estimate, there are more unreached people groups present within North America than in any country besides India or China.

I love this quote from missiologist Tim Tennent, president of Asbury Theological Seminary: “86% of the immigrant population in North America are likely to either be Christians or become Christians…. far above the national average…The immigrant population actually presents the greatest hope for Christian renewal in North America…We shouldn’t see this as something that threatens us. We should see this as a wonderful opportunity.

But unfortunately, we’ve not always seen immigration as an opportunity. At World Relief, the evangelical ministry where I work that has served refugees and other immigrants for decades, we commissioned a survey of self-described evangelical Christians a few years ago, as refugee issues were becoming increasingly controversial. We found that a majority of evangelical Christians in the US, including about seven-in-ten white evangelicals, said that the arrival of immigrants presented some sort of a “threat” or “burden.” Only a minority of evangelical Christians said that it presented “an opportunity to introduce people to Jesus.” We could debate whether or not the view of immigrants as a threat or a burden is reasonable – the data, in terms of economic studies and crime statistics, does not substantiate such conclusions – but, in any case, it’s tragic if we’ve allowed a view of immigrants as a threat to blind us to the missional opportunity God has orchestrated.

The most troubling finding of that of American evangelicals –– was that only 12% said that their views on the arrival of immigrants were primarily influenced by the Bible. In fact, more evangelicals cited the media as the primary influence on their views on immigration than those who cited the Bible, their local church or the views of national Christian leaders combined.

Some might presume that’s because the Bible is simply silent on this topic – but they would be mistaken. Beyond the many biblical characters who were themselves migrants, God gives specific instructions to his people about how to treat immigrants:

Leviticus 19:33-34 [ESV]: “When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself…”

Deuteronomy 10:18-19 [CEB]: God “enacts justice for orphans and widows, and he loves immigrants, giving them food and clothing. That means you must also love immigrants…”

Notice those three categories of vulnerable people – orphans, widows and immigrants. They are mentioned over and over again in the Old Testament as people whom God loves, whom he cares for and whom he commands his people to care for as well.

Psalm 146:9 [NIV] is another example: “The Lord watches over the foreigner and sustains the fatherless and the widow, but he frustrates the ways of the wicked.”

Later, God warns through the prophet Malachi [3:5 NIV], that he will testify “against those who defraud laborers of their wages, who oppress the widows and the fatherless, and deprive the foreigners among you of justice, but do not fear me.”

Jesus picks up on this warning of judgment as well, in Matthew 25. The way that we treat the hungry, the thirsty, the prisoner, the sick and the stranger – whether we welcome them or not – is how we treat him. “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” [Matthew 25:40 NIV]. Scholars debate whether Jesus specifically means how we treat fellow Christians, brothers and sisters in Christ, or more broadly those who are part of the human family. But even if we presume the more narrow category, it’s worth noting that a significant share of migrants who come to the U.S. and Canada in recent years are fellow Christians, some of whom were persecuted and forced to flee their countries of origin specifically because of their faith.

For example, the top country of origin for refugees resettled to the U.S. in recent years is Burma, also known as Myanmar, and 70% of those refugees have been Christians. Many were persecuted particularly because of their faith. I’ve had some of those persecuted sisters and brothers as neighbors. A Burmese Baptist church met in the apartment underneath the one that I lived in for many years. I would know that church was happening because there would be dozens of shoes outside of the apartment – it’s rude to wear shoes indoors in their culture. I’ve had some of these neighbors literally at my door to make sure that I know about Jesus – and, you know what, though I’ve been a Christian almost my entire life, I have a lot to learn from these brothers and sisters in Christ who have endured persecution for their faith.

I want to mention a few other biblical principles that, while not specifically about how to treat immigrants, should inform our response as Christians.

First, immigrants, like all people, are made in the Image of God, which we see in Genesis 1[:27]. Christians have historically understood this to mean that all human beings, regardless of country of origin, ethnicity, gender, religion or any other qualifier, have inherent dignity. That’s a fundamental reason that we must do everything reasonably possible to protect human life by offering refuge to those fleeing persecution.

Here’s another dynamic to people being made in the image of God: because each person is made in the image of a Creator, we each have been endowed by God with potential – to create, and to contribute. That’s not only true for immigrants, of course, but sometimes when we talk about immigrants we forget this truth: we focus only on what they might consume, on how many jobs they might take… and we forget to ask how many jobs they might create. It turns out, the answer is: a lot. 44% of Fortune 500 companies were founded by an immigrant or their child, not to mention the many jobs created by small businesses, which studies show immigrants start at a disproportionate rate. It’s fair to ask what societal costs are associated with immigration, but only if we’re simultaneously measuring the ways they use their God-given potential to create and contribute. And always remembering that immigrants have inherent dignity as divine image bearers regardless of their economic contributions.

Another core biblical principle is the command to love our neighbors. Jesus tells an inquiring legal scholar that this is part of the greatest commandment – and, when this lawyer presses him to specifically define “who is my neighbor?,” seeking to justify himself, Jesus tells a story – the parable of the Good Samaritan – that makes very clear that our neighbor is to be defined broadly, since the hero of the story is someone who shows compassion to a needy traveler of a different ethnic and religious background.

Notably, the Samaritan put himself at some risk to love this vulnerable traveler. He might reasonably have feared that, in stopping to help, he might also be beaten, robbed and left to die. But the call to love our neighbors has no caveats – it’s not “love your neighbor so long as it’s safe.” It turns out that, at least in my context in the US, welcoming international newcomers is safe. Studies find that immigrants, regardless of their legal status, commit crimes at significantly lower rates than native-born citizens. And refugees, whom some people have been led to believe might be potential terrorists, actually go through what the Heritage Foundation has described as the most thorough vetting process of any category of visitor or immigrant who enters the country, a process so rigorous and effective that, of 3 million refugees resettled to the US since 1980, not a single one has taken the life of an American citizen in a terrorist attack. Countries like Canada and Australia have similar vetting standards. Those realities are helpful to know – the risks involved are actually very minimal – but ultimately our call is to love our neighbor regardless.

Lastly, I should mention Romans 13, where Paul instructs the church in Rome to be subject to governing authorities, noting that God established government for a purpose. That passage isn’t about migrants particularly, but it’s relevant because, in most countries, some immigrants are present unlawfully. For example, roughly one-quarter of all foreigners residing in the US are here unlawfully, meaning they have either overstayed a temporary visa or entered the country illegally. Many Christians struggle with this apparent tension: should we love, welcome and share the gospel with such immigrants, or should we follow the law?

Well, I have the answer for you: yes. The good news is that, at least in the US context that I’m most familiar with, the law does not restrict individual citizens or churches or ministries from showing compassion. An individual can invite a neighbor for a meal and be their friend, and should they learn that the neighbor is undocumented, there is no legal requirement to report that. A church can run a food pantry or English classes for their immigrant neighbors, regardless of their legal status. It can share the gospel and baptize new believers and teach them Sunday School – or let them teach others Sunday School– and they’re not violating any law – at least so long as there is no compensation involved, because employment is the one area where they could cross a legal line.

Of course, this situation is more complicated for Christians who are themselves undocumented. I’m a part of a Spanish-speaking church where I know this affects some of the people with whom I worship. Many of them, frankly, are well aware of Romans 13’s instructions and are desperate to get right with the law – but often, after consulting with attorneys they have learned that, under current law, there is simply no way for them to earn legal status, nor to “go back” to their home country and “come back the legal way.”

Immigration laws are complicated. They’ve changed dramatically over time, and of course they vary from one country to another. But in most wealthy countries, legal permanent resident status and citizenship are not just offered to anyone — there are strict limits on who qualifies, but often still lots of job opportunities for those who manage to come other-than-lawfully, creating an incentive to cross a border unlawfully or overstay a visa.

That’s why, for example, many evangelical leaders in the US – who want to both honor the law and be compassionate – have advocated for changes to laws, to make it harder to immigrate illegally but also easier to immigrate legally and to create a restitution-based process by which immigrants already in the country unlawfully could make amends by paying a significant fine and then earn permanent legal status. After all, being “subject to the governing authorities” for those of us who live under a democratic form of government means being stewards of that influence to seek more just, compassionate laws. But, in any case, Romans 13 is not a justification for ignoring commands to show love and compassion, nor should we allow it to blind us to the missional opportunity presented by immigration.

I want to close by returning to that theme of a missional opportunity, with the challenge to be like the Pharaoh in the book of Genesis, who saw migration as an opportunity and responded with hospitality. Hospitality, of course, is also a frequent command in the New Testament.

In fact, when Romans 12[:13] commands us to “practice hospitality,” or philoxenia in the Greek, it literally means to “practice loving strangers.” Hebrews 13[:2] tells us that, by welcoming strangers, some people have welcomed angels without realizing it. That’s probably a reference back to the story of Abraham & Sarah, who welcomed strangers who did indeed turn out to be divine messengers, bringing them the promise that Sarah would miraculously give birth to a child in her old age. Think about that: this pivotal moment in the story of our faith started with Abraham showing hospitality to strangers.

Several years ago, Diana, who at the time was my girlfriend, came over to my apartment to tell me about a family she’d just met. Diana speaks French, which was this family’s second or third language, so they could communicate. The family — a mom, eight months pregnant, plus three other kids — arrived on temporary visas but were seeking asylum, because they were fleeing a situation of persecution in their country of origin, in East Africa. They knew almost no one and had almost nothing: just a nearly-empty one-bedroom apartment. So, of course, we wanted to show hospitality. We put up a message on Facebook, asking friends from church if anyone had furniture they could donate for their apartment. We helped make sure the kids got enrolled in school. Diana was there at the hospital when the new baby was born. This family, who were already believers, also became a part of our church. When the mom finally won her asylum case, which was a huge answer to prayer, she could get a job, and they were able to cover their own rent costs. As time went by, they didn’t need a lot of help any more — and they certainly were no longer “strangers” to be welcomed, just our friends, even family.

Well, some time went by. This family was there to celebrate with us when Diana and I got married. And then, a few months later, their father/husband arrived. It’s a long story why he was not able to accompany them when they first arrived, related to the persecution that they were fleeing from. But I was there at O’Hare Airport, in the baggage claim when he arrived. I was just a weepy mess as I got to witness him meeting his now-two-year-old daughter for the first time, as he embraced his wife and children after years of separation.

In time, he became a dear friend as well, and this couple, Janvier and Marie, became mentors to Diana and me in marriage. One time, over at our apartment for dinner, they asked us a question that, to be honest, isn’t really culturally appropriate in our context, though we’ll forgive that because they’re not from here: they asked: when are you going to have a baby?

Diana and I looked at each other, wondering how we should respond. The truth was that we had been hoping and praying to have a baby basically since we’d been married. It’d been roughly a year but it hadn’t happened. And we were beginning to wonder if it wasn’t going to happen. So we shared that, and asked them to pray for us. They assured us they would — and Janvier said that he had a sense from the Lord that He was going to bless us with a child within the next year.

We thanked him for that, but, to be honest, I didn’t start painting the nursery. It’s not like we hadn’t tried prayer.

But it was only a few months later — this time over at their house for a meal — that we got to share with them the happy news that Diana was pregnant. I’ll never forget the moment when they understood what we’d just told them: they literally fell down on the ground, prostrate, shouting all sorts of “Jesu”s and “Alleluias.” It was like a Pentecostal church service in their kitchen.

They went on to tell us that, for months, they had been getting up early each Thursday and fasting all day on Thursdays, praying that God would bless us with a child.

And [reveal photo] this is a picture of our daughter Zipporah, with Janvier and Marie, on her first birthday. I have no doubt that she is the answer to their prayers. And to ours — but mostly to theirs, because I didn’t fast and pray all day on Thursdays.

So I want to close with that reminder: don’t look at strangers as a threat, but as an opportunity to obey God’s many commands to welcome. Practice hospitality. Practice loving strangers. And don’t be surprised if a few turn out to be angels in disguise.

Biblical View of Immigrants

Matthew

Immigration can be a complicated topic, but the Bible actually has a lot to say about it. How does God view the foreigner? How does God want us to respond to immigrants in our communities? Matthew shares scripture and examines immigration from various viewpoints to help us decide what God is calling us to.

Immigration can be a complicated topic, but the Bible actually has a lot to say about it. How does God view the foreigner? How does God want us to respond to immigrants in our communities? Matthew shares scripture and examines immigration from various viewpoints to help us decide what God is calling us to.

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