by Rebekah Lee
It would be a remarkable thing if a week passed without some reference in the media to asylum seekers. Yet if I think back over the last fifteen years of sermons, I can recall only two occasions where I’ve heard mention of them from the pulpit. Perhaps this is just my experience, or perhaps it’s part of a wider trend to avoid touching on divisive political issues in church: let’s face it, this question tends to excite differences of opinion. But in this post, I hope to lift the issue out of its political environment and the quagmire of policy options, and instead look at it through the lens of Scripture to see how God might shape our attitude towards asylum seekers. I’ll make six brief observations.
1. Jesus was an asylum seeker
We shouldn’t be surprised when people seek asylum. The Bible shows clearly that sin creates victims. Where there’s a Cain, we find an Abel (Genesis 4). Sadly, this world is still full of Cains — and therefore plenty of Abels who need protection. Jesus himself started life as a refugee: when the Jewish King Herod ordered the killing of young boys in Bethlehem and the surrounds, Joseph and Mary sought asylum in Egypt (Matthew 2:13–18).
2. Asylum seekers share in God’s image
All humanity shares the honour of being made in God’s image. We’re therefore indelibly marked as precious (Genesis 1:26–27), and image-bearers shouldn’t mistreat one another (Genesis 9:5–6). This must shape our treatment of asylum seekers. Spitting on the portrait of a king doesn’t just insult the canvas; in the same way, we show contempt for God when we treat a fellow image-bearer with disdain, but we honour God when we treat others well (Proverbs 14:31; 17:5; 19:17; James 3:7–10). Any political argument that we’re obliged to care only for fellow citizens of this country doesn’t accurately reflect the way that God sees the world. To him, a person is a person is a person; the way we treat one another either honours or dishonours him.
3. Christians are called to “do good to all people”
Some Christians might object that before we care for asylum seekers, we need to prioritize caring for fellow Christians. Without doubt, Scripture establishes loving God’s own family as an obligation of the highest order (e.g. 2 Corinthians 9:11–13; James 2:15–17). However, there’s a problem if the Christian community cares only for itself. Doing good should be a reflex reaction whenever opportunities arise. Paul addresses this in Galatians 6:9–10, where he carefully couches his instruction to care for the “family of believers” within the parameters of “doing good to all people’”. And this makes sense as soon as we think it through in practice: it’s a false dichotomy to suggest that we can only care either for Christians or for asylum seekers. As the body of Christ, we’ll often have opportunity to do both. And in fact, there are a couple of reasons why we might attend to the needs of asylum seekers in particular.
4. Asylum seekers are “foreigners in our midst”
First, God calls us to care especially for vulnerable people. When Israel stood on the edge of the Promised Land, God instructed them to love widows, orphans, and foreigners in their midst (Deuteronomy 10:17–19). He reminded them of their history, particularly that they’d been mistreated as aliens in Egypt.
For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords…He loves the foreigner residing among you…And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt. (Deuteronomy 10:17–19)
This heritage wasn’t exclusive to the nation of Israel. As Paul reminds Gentile believers in his letter to the Ephesians, they too were “excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise” (Ephesians 2:12). But, as a result of God’s mercy, we were given citizenship in heaven (Philippians 3:20). God’s generosity wasn’t limited to citizenship: he also adopted us into his family (Romans 8:15), making us co-heirs with Christ (Romans 8:17)!
If Christians have received spiritual asylum in this way, we need to carefully consider how we respond to those who ask us for asylum. As James 1:27 puts it, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress.”
5. Asylum seekers are our neighbours
A second reason that we might particularly care for asylum seekers is that God’s given us the opportunity to do so: he’s made them our neighbours. Jesus gives a fairly expansive definition of who our neighbours are (Luke 10:29–37), and if we take this seriously, we must conclude that we’re also commanded to love asylum seekers (Matthew 22:37–40). And this command isn’t subject to exceptions or loopholes. For many of us, the idea of living by a command feels uncomfortably like being “under Law”. But this wasn’t Jesus’ view. Part of what it means to be his disciple is to obey his commands (Matthew 28:20); obeying him is how his followers remain in his love (John 15:10).
6. God measures us by the measure we use
Finally, when it comes to judgment, the measure we use to judge others is the measure that God will use to judge us (Matthew 7:2). As Christians, we’re used to hearing the message of God’s grace, but alongside this message comes awarning: if we withhold mercy from others, mercy will be withheld from us (Matthew 18:32–34; Luke 11:4; James 2:13). At first sight, these truths seem contradictory, but they do fit together: our capacity to repent of a merciless heart and to become obedient to God’s measure of mercy is itself the result of God’s mercy and grace. Ultimately, a heart that remains unmerciful is one that hasn’t been touched by God’s mercy.
Perhaps you’ve never met an asylum seeker; perhaps you feel you’ve been inundated with them. Either way, God’s word must shape our heart and our actions. In this way, as “strangers and aliens” in the world, we’ll bring God glory as we do good to others (1 Peter 2:11–12).