We are living in an unprecedented period of global displacement – the highest level on record, according to the UNHCR (U.N. Refugee Agency) – with more than 65 million people around the world who have been forced from home.
That’s a number almost double Canada’s entire population.
Canada has responded to the international crisis by receiving more refugees than in recent years, including resettling more than 34,000 people from Syria.
Christian congregations are welcoming newcomers with assistance in housing and transition to a new culture.
Christian refugee organizations, such as Kinbrace, birthed out of Grandview Calvary Baptist in Vancouver, and Matthew House in Toronto are key contributors nationally in refugee support.
At the same time, there are misgivings and concerns within our country. We can be swayed by fear-producing rhetoric – “We are being swamped by refugees!” or “Some may be terrorists!”
We would do well to remember that most refugees are here because they are fleeing persecution, conflict and possibly death. Most would return to their homeland in a heartbeat if they could.
Refugees are here because they are desperate. They have lost virtually everything and now they are seeking our hospitality. Each one is precious in God’s sight – each has a name, a history and hope for a better future.
So, how does the Bible speak to this present crisis? And what might this mean for worshipping communities today?
The word that most closely corresponds to our modern notion of “refugee” in the Old Testament is (depending on the translation) stranger, alien and sojourner.
The “stranger” is someone who is displaced. Strangers have lost their homeland and their kindred.
These people lack the resources to survive on their own. They are dependent upon the generosity of the Israelites among whom they hope to live.
The book of Deuteronomy is especially concerned to protect such displaced people, referring to the stranger no less than 22 times.
An important passage for reflecting on our role in the current refugee crisis can be found in Deuteronomy 10:18-19. “He (God) executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the stranger, giving them food and clothing. Love the stranger, therefore, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
The attentive reader will note that the word “love” is used twice in these verses.
God loves those whose lives are threatened by poverty and exclusion – the fatherless, the widow, and the stranger. God’s people are to respond by loving the stranger, remembering that their ancestors were once a people without a homeland.
It is important to grasp the way the theme of love is used in Deuteronomy 10:
- God loves his people Israel.
- God loves the stranger that has fled to the communities of Israel.
- The communities of Israel are to love the stranger.
We learn that the kind of love that God has for his people is also the kind of love that God has for the stranger. In turn, Israel is to offer to the stranger this kind of love. God loves displaced people.
This makes sense to us when we remember that the nation of ancient Israel was birthed when Yahweh redeemed Israel from slavery in Egypt: God emancipated an enslaved nation. This is our God!
It can be meaningful to explore the meaning of the Hebrew word “love.” Three important aspects enable us to go deeper with these verses.
First, love signifies a covenant commitment or bond of solidarity. Accordingly, God has had a commitment with those who live as strangers among his people.
Second, love is a kinship word. People in the communities of Israel are to welcome the stranger as kin.
Third, love is an emotion of the heart. Israel is to feel affection for vulnerable and displaced people that have come to their communities seeking asylum.
We need to think of the practical implications.
The teaching of Deuteronomy was to be put into practice on the local family farm. In ancient times, strangers might be exploited as cheap labor or even enslaved.
Deuteronomy 10:18-19 offers an alternative model for responding to displaced people. The stranger is to be loved. This means a sacred commitment to their well-being and acceptance.
Families within Israel were to treat the stranger as kindred, enfolding displaced people into the extended family. And, Israelites were to feel compassion and affection for the stranger.
As we have seen, this model is grounded in the reality of God’s love both for Israel and for the stranger.
Mark Glanville is a pastor-scholar who ministers at Grandview Calvary Church, Vancouver, and is on the teaching faculty at the Missional Training Center, Phoenix (MissionalTraining.org). A version of this article first appeared in Mosaic Magazine, Winter 2017 issue. Reprinted by permission of Canadian Baptist Ministries. Glanville’s writings can also be found on his blog, and you can follow him on Twitter @markrglanville.
Editor’s note: This is the first article in a two-part series. Part two is available here.