A Christian Response to Refugees and Immigrants

In 1915, the Turkish government began slaughtering Armenian people in an event now known as the Armenian Genocide.  Many Armenian families fled the violence and relocated to the United States as refugees.  I have been thinking about them this week, and about how the Bible directs God’s people to treat refugees and immigrants.

The Old Testament law consistently commands us to treat them justly.  For example, Dt 1:16-17 says, “Give the members of your community a fair hearing, and judge rightly between one person and another, whether citizen or resident alien.”  Dt 24:14 says, “You shall not withhold the wages of poor and needy laborers, whether other Israelites or aliens who reside in your land.”

The Old Testament law also commands that refugees and immigrants be treated compassionately.  For example, Lv 23:22 says, “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and for the alien.”  Dt 24:20-21 says, “When you beat your olive trees, do not strip what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow.”

Daniel Carroll observes that other law codes of the ancient Near East are virtually silent about how to treat resident aliens.  So why would the Old Testament law advocate for them time and time again?  Perhaps the main reason is that the Lord loves them.  Dt 10:18-19 says, “[God] loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing.  You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

The prophets teach us not to mistreat refugees and immigrants.  Jer 22:3 says, “Do no wrong or violence to the alien, the orphan, or the widow.”  Zech 7:9 says, “Do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor.”  Mal 3:5 says God will judge those who push the alien aside.  In all, Bible scholars count 36 instances in which the Old Testament tells us to treat the alien, the orphan, and the widow with justice and compassion.

The New Testament promotes hospitality for refugees and immigrants.  For example, Heb 13:2 says, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.”  In Mt 25:35, Jesus says that on Judgment Day he will say to the righteous, “I was a stranger, and you welcomed me.”  The Greek word translated “stranger” is xenos, which means someone unfamiliar or foreign.  It includes immigrants and refugees.  To show hospitality to them is to show hospitality to Christ, who was once a refugee himself (Mt 2:13-15).

In summary, the Bible calls us to treat refugees and immigrants justly, compassionately, lovingly, and hospitably.  We can do this by supporting them at school, at work, and in the public sphere.  We can do this by extending friendship and by opening the doors of our churches. 

I thank God for those who treated Armenian refugees this way a century ago, especially since one of the Armenian families that fled the violence and settled in the United States was the Packlaian family.  They had a son named Steve, who had a daughter named Karen, who had a daughter named Dayna, who is my wife.  My wife and daughters have a refugee heritage.  To our family, the question of how to treat refugees is not merely a social question, or a political question; it is a very personal question.

Parents and children continue to flee violence in various parts of the world today.  They are looking for compassionate hospitality in a safe place.  This is where God’s people come in.

Pastor Noel Schoonmaker

First Baptist Church, Murfreesboro, TN