The Bible Says to Welcome the Stranger—or Does It?

Lesvos island, Greece - 29 October 2015. Syrian migrants / refugees arrive from Turkey on boat through sea with cold water near Molyvos, Lesbos on an overload dinghy. Leaving Syria that has war.
Nicolas Economou

As the new American government battles the US judiciary over travel bans, many on both sides of the 49th Parallel have invoked Scripture to protest any such restrictions. The Bible, it is claimed, commands us to throw open our borders to the stranger.

For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who 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).

In Job’s defense of his righteousness in the face of his sufferings, he claims that he has been “a father to the needy, and I championed the stranger” (Job 29:16). Indeed, says Job, “the stranger has not lodged in the street; I have opened my doors to the traveler” (31:32).

And in Jesus’ famous parable of the last judgment, he says, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me” (Matthew 25:34-36).

For many North Americans, the Bible’s teaching is plain and simple: Open the borders and welcome anyone who wants to come in.

Before we do that, however, it is worth remembering that the Bible is a complex book meant to guide human beings in the complexities of life. So it is always a good habit to make sure one is not merely quoting a few texts convenient to one’s purposes while ignoring pertinent others.

And in this case, there are some others.

The same Old Testament law that requires ancient Israel to be hospitable to strangers also commands, over and over, that Israel maintain strong boundaries between themselves and, well, everyone else. “The nations” (= Gentiles) are a permanent threat to Israel, not only militarily but even more culturally.

God warns Israel to avoid intermarriage, in fact, for fear of welcoming the strange—strange gods, strange ethics—into Israel’s life. These alien elements, far from helping Israel become more “diverse” and “rich” and “interesting” and “strong,” will instead draw Israel’s heart away from the true God and render it weak, confused, and. polluted.

Its gift to the world is its distinctive culture: its worship of Yahweh alone, and its corporate life guided by Yahweh’s distinctive commandments. That distinctiveness cannot be maintained by cultural adulteration—indeed, what the prophets bluntly call spiritual adultery.

Canada today, of course, is not ancient Israel. (For that matter, as one does need to remind some of our American cousins, neither is the USA.) But the wisdom of the Bible—the whole Bible, and not just favourite bits of it—echoes down the centuries.

We should indeed care for the weak among us: the poor, “the widow, the orphan”—and, yes, the stranger. And inasmuch as we can care for the needy elsewhere, we should. “You shall love your neighbour,” after all, “as you love yourself” (Leviticus 19:18; Matthew 22:39).

But societies also correctly maintain their integrity by being careful how much “difference” they introduce into their social bloodstream, how much change they try to accommodate. Israel is commanded to care for the strangers clearly in need at the same time they are ordered to recognize and resist the threat posed by more powerful strangers at their borders.

We, too, should use our wealth and power to care for the needy. But we also should use our heads and not compromise precisely what makes Canada so attractive to so many people around the world: not merely our wealth and power, but our democracy, respect for law, stable institutions, social safety net, and, indeed, our regard and accommodation for differences in our neighbours even as we help them assimilate into our common life.

The Bible, that is, forbids equally a simplistic “open borders” immigration policy and a selfish disregard for the needs of the neighbour—even neighbours on the other side of the world.

No few Bible verses, that is, can provide a shortcut past the difficult conversation we have been having, and must continue to have, about immigration policy in this country.

And the same is true to the south.

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2 Comments

  1. Is there a difference for the refugees running from war verses the immigrant looking to find a different and or better life? I could look to another country for education. Decide once I'm there that i like this country and choosecto stay, maybe i fell in love with another student and choose to stay for those reasons, or maybe my ability to find work is better and so i choose to stay. But if my land, my home, my grocery store, my hospital has been blown to smitherines and all i can do is gather my family, the clothes on my back, whatever money i have and pay a smuggler to take us to a country that isnt bombing and is safe, would I be doing this to destroy that country? With my baby, with my 7 year old son, leaving behind my grandparents because they are too old to make the journey, crying all the way? Praying to God that we don't drown that ee aren't turned away. Is this different? Please tell me what is a refugee verses an immigrant?

  2. Are we loving our neighbour when we let in hordes of lawless people who would gladly rape his daughter, steal his goods, destroy his property?

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