Christians and Asylum Seekers

There is a lot of fuzzy thinking on the issue of asylum seekers, especially from the religious left. They want to take the high moral ground here, criticising those who say we need to be a bit careful about who we allow into this country, and how.

But religious leftists tend to think that an open border policy, indeed, an open slather policy, is somehow the Christian thing to do, and anyone taking a different stance is somehow un-Christian, and certainly un-Christlike. Any criticism or second thoughts on these issues is seen to be somehow lacking in compassion and Christian love.

Thus it is worth looking more closely at just what Scripture says about issues like immigration, multiculturalism and the like. To begin with, however, a brief analogy may be of use here to clarify our thinking. Like all analogies, it is not perfect, but it helps to set the stage for this debate.

Image of The Immigration Crisis: Immigrants, Aliens, and the Bible
The Immigration Crisis: Immigrants, Aliens, and the Bible by Hoffmeier, James K. (Author) Amazon logo

Let’s say you are a Christian home owner, with a young family, paying off a mortgage. Someone knocks on your door one day, poor and dishevelled, pleading for food and shelter. You think it is the Christian and compassionate thing to do, so you let him in.

But the next day two more needy people knock on your door, also pleading for help. Indeed, the family of the first fellow also shows up, asking – indeed, demanding, that you take them in as well. Now it is your home, and you surely have the right to determine who – if any – are allowed to come under your roof.

Even if you decide to take in the whole lot of them – with all the risks of not having the resources to care for everyone properly – one thing you do not have the right to do is demand that your neighbour take in some of these new guests. Each home-owner has to decide for himself what his carrying capacity is, and who shall be allowed in.

If you do take people in, it is of course a gracious gesture on your part. However, you are not obliged to take others in. Indeed, you may not be in a position to do so. But it would be ludicrous of others to start judging you and your faith based on if and when you decide to take some of these folks in.

Nations are really no different. Every nation has the right to protect its own borders, and every nation should have the right to determine who can come in, and under what conditions. These common sense principles are in fact also found in the Bible.

And with any Scriptural issue like this, there is complexity and nuance to be found as well. Things are nowhere near as simple as the religious left – and others – tends to make out. For example, I have had some of these folks trying to tell me that Jesus and his family were asylum seekers, just like those coming in boats to Australia today.

Well, not quite. Jesus and his family did live in Egypt for a few years to avoid persecution back home, but several things can be inferred from this. One, they would have had to get permission to enter Egypt from the proper authorities. Two, they may well have worked there and contributed to the local economy. Three, we have no record that they just rolled up, demanded shelter, and assumed they could be welfare cases the whole time.

But the Bible has much to say on these complex issues, including the gospel accounts of Jesus. One way to get a handle on all the biblical data is to draw upon a great summary of the information as found in an important new book on the issue.

All those concerned to learn about what the Bible really says on these topics should get the new book by James Hoffmeier, The Immigration Crisis: Immigrants, Aliens, and the Bible (Crossway, 2009). There is a wealth of information in this volume which the Old Testament professor presents to us.

Perhaps just a few summary statements can here be offered, in the hopes that readers will go out and get this vital work. But a few words first. Because the author is from the US, he looks mainly at the American immigration debate in terms of modern application.

And he rightly reminds us that it is always tricky to apply Old Testament laws to contemporary situations. For example, Israel was a theocracy in which political and social realities were also one with religious realities. Thus the alien male living in Israel had to be circumcised and assimilate into the religious life of the community.

Obviously today in modern America or Australia, such clear biblical requirements cannot be directly applied. Sure, the more broad principle of assimilation and integration can be, but this simply points out that we need to recognise that there is both continuity and discontinuity between the Testaments, and clear one-to-one application is not always possible, or desirable.

(And just on this note, it is interesting just how often the religious left is dismissive of OT law when it comes to issues like homosexuality, but when it comes to immigration issues, they seem quite happy to take all the OT legislation and apply it holus bolus to our situation today!)

As to the general biblical teachings on this topic, this is how Hoffmeier draws the OT data together. First, “nation states large and small in the biblical world were clearly delineated by borders that were often defended by large forts and military outposts.”

Second, “Countries since biblical times have had the right to clearly establish secure borders that they controlled and were recognized by surrounding governments, travelling tribes, and individuals. Furthermore, nations, including Israel of the Bible, had the right to determine who entered their land and under what circumstances, and they could confer resident or alien status to foreigners should it be mutually beneficial. The same is true today, I maintain.”

Third, “Nations that receive aliens must not at some future time turn against them and mistreat them as the Egyptians did the Israelites.” Other themes clearly come out from the biblical text. For example, the OT clearly distinguishes between legal and illegal immigrants. Even the Hebrew terms employed bear this out. Moreover, “Nowhere in the Old Testament is there any sense that a nation had to accept immigrants, nor was being received as an alien a right.”

Of course he offers far more details and much more biblical material on all this, but his presentation offers a nice balance and corrective to much of the shallow and unbiblical thinking being thrown around on this topic, especially by the religious left.

And as he acknowledges, applying ancient biblical principles and laws to modern secular situations will always be difficult at best. But certainly we need to be clear as to just what those biblical laws and values are first, before we wade into these complex social and political questions of today.

Much more needs to be said on these difficult issues, but this at least provides a bit of fuel for discussion and further debate. And helpfully it clears up a bit of the confusion and shoddy thinking on these quite contentious and hotly debated topics.

By all means let us be compassionate and Christlike in our thinking about these issues, but let us do so rationally and biblically, not just basing our pronouncements on emotions alone, or trendy leftist social policy.

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28 Replies to “Christians and Asylum Seekers”

  1. Hi Bill,

    Hoffmeier seems to be guilty of some sloppy Bible reading:

    “Thus the alien male living in Israel had to be circumcised and assimilate into the religious life of the community.”

    I’d like to know where he gets this idea from. I can’t find any OT requirement on foreigners living in the land to be circumcised unless they wanted to participate in the religious life of Israel (i.e. become Jews) and eat of the Passover meal for instance (Ex 12:48).

    Mansel Rogerson

  2. Thanks Mansel

    But please don’t be unnecessarily harsh on Hoffmeier, since it was I who should be censored, if that is needed. It was I who was paraphrasing him here. You are quoting my words, not his.

    He does deal with this issue twice in the book, and in both cases he clearly states that if a foreigner wanted to participate in Israel’s religious life, then they had to be circumcised. But they did not have to be involved in it if they did not want to. Thus Ex. 12:48-49 does indeed speak to this voluntary entrance into Israel’s religious life by the foreigner.

    My wording more properly should have been, “Thus the alien male living in Israel had to be circumcised in order to assimilate into the religious life of the community.”

    So again blame me for not perfectly representing his thoughts here.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  3. Hi Bill,

    Sorry for sounding harsh. And thanks for clearing that up.

    I took exception to the accidental misquoting of this OT law however, because the conclusion you draw from it is: “Obviously today in modern America or Australia, such clear biblical requirements cannot be directly applied.”

    As one who believes the OT civil laws were given as the pattern for all earthly civil governments to follow; I think the case for difficulty of interpretation or application is very often overstated. In fact, I think the difficulties with other inter-testament reconciliation schemes are significantly greater.

    In my experience I have found it is usually accepting the radical changes to our society that is the sticking point for most Christians in accepting a more theonomic outlook, not the Biblical exegesis.

    Mansel Rogerson

  4. I think it would be interesting to think about a related (and underlying) issue, namely, the origin and theological basis of the sovereign nation-state. For this, I think we have to go back even further than the Old Testament Law, to the book of Genesis. In Genesis chapters 10 and 11 we see the origin of nation-states after the flood. Key verses are:

    Gen 10:32 These are the clans of the sons of Noah, according to their genealogies, in their nations, and from these the nations spread abroad on the earth after the flood.

    Gen 11:9 Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the LORD confused the language of all the earth. And from there the LORD dispersed them over the face of all the earth.

    Another key text is Acts 17:26
    And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place

    I think that these texts root the nation-state in primeval history; they arose after God intentionally divided and scattered the peoples at Babel. In the light of human sin, the sovereign nation-state is part of God’s design for history. God did not intend the peoples of the Earth to work as a united entity, nor did he intend different peoples and cultures to naturally blend together. Quite the opposite, in fact.

    The peoples of the Earth will only come together around the throne of Christ (Rev 7:9). This is something that will happen in eschatology, not in history.

    I have heard some Christians argue that all nations share a common humanity, and therefore, it is not right for nations to protect their borders (from illegal immigration, for example). Such an argument really questions the validity of the nation-state and its sovereignty, and so I think that it contradicts the biblical picture.

    Jereth Kok

  5. I would like to make a few observations on the immigration debate; You are spot on Bill – the nation state has the right to determine who comes in, apparently their are 30 million refugees, according to the UN, so physically Australia cannot accommodate them all. Bob Brown and Dick Smith have shot themselves in the foot by putting Gaia over people anyway – we will hear more and more of a population cap to save & preserve the environment and our great brown land with not enough water (this is not true however!). Will the Greens gain a greater representation than 20% – I think yes they will, as they have the ear of the current Government and they are allowed to indoctrinate School kids and Uni students, without impunity. On an aside note, I think the USA should embrace the Hispanics of the South, as they are of Christian origin (strong catholic’s) and I think that this is the fundamental problem with multiculturalism, that whichever minority ethnic group is growing fastest, whether Asian & Buddhist, Indian & Hindu or Middle Eastern & Muslim, they will gain ascendancy and change a Nation forever – look at Fiji, Indians became the majority for a short while, until the Indigenous Fijian’s (Christian) took power back. Lastly Jereth, look at the quote of Acts 17:26 again, it would appear that the allotted time periods and boundaries are fluid and changeable, so in this immigration debate, God is also bringing us ALL back together, for we stem from the same Parents.
    Neil Innes, NT

  6. There are countless instances in the books of the law where it says that the law applies to the “alien living among you” just as much as to the native-born. This included religious rules as well as civil ones (admittedly the line between them is hard to draw sometimes) – eg foreigners were required to keep the Sabbath and all the religious festivals of the Israelite calendar.

    There is no Biblical precedent to the problem we have today, which is that large numbers of people from a single country or culture are coming here and building their own little enclaves of home in Australia. There’s no problem with a concentration of Indian restaurants in Clayton, but if they stay in their own enclaves and focus on their old life instead of their new one in Australia, they’ll never HAVE a new life.

    Actually – there may be a precedent! Solomon had 1000 women, mostly of foreign origin. They refused to assimilate, led Solomon into idolatry, and brought about his downfall – and the nation’s.

    That isn’t to say we should shut the borders and go back to the White Australia Policy. Immigration is fine – but before we let them in we should make sure they subscribe to Australian values.

    Michael Angelico

  7. Hi Michael, don’t forget White Australians are the immigrants! Thereby hangs a tale!
    Rachel Smith, UK

  8. In claiming that Joseph & Mary & Jesus were asylum seekers in Egypt, the left are overlooking one vital point. Joseph’s family returned to their homeland.

    How many of the left would allow federal policy to encourage asylum seekers to return to their birth culture once conditions had settled? Not many.

    Lennard Caldwell, Clifton QLD

  9. Hi Michael and Rachel,

    Michael, I’m sure this is what you mean, but to be clear I think Christians should be advocating that immigrants subscribe to ‘Biblical values’, not just ‘Australian values’.

    Rachel, it is in only some senses true that Europeans were immigrants to the land now known as Australia. The aboriginal peoples were largely nomadic, had a very tenuous or no system of land ownership and their tribes were lacking many features of the modern nation state. Therefore European colonisation cannot be easily compared to the modern case of immigrants asking a host nation to accept them.

    It is legitimate, however, to ask whether European colonisation was right. I believe it was. The aboriginal peoples had lost nearly all specific knowledge of the true and living God in the few thousand years they had been in Australia and were given a more godly form of government as a result of colonisation. Christians should be the first to own that this must always be a blessing to any people. Was European settlement a perfect case of Christian rule? Of course not, but it was decidedly more Biblical than previous tribal customs.

    No doubt many would say this sounds a bit racist, but it is not. As Australia collapses morally by turning away from God’s civil laws, we may find ourselves facing colonisation and rule from, say a godly African people in the future. I, for one, would welcome this if we had already exhausted the possibilities of internal reform.

    Mansel Rogerson

  10. @Jereth, I think an extrapolation of your view re the “Nation-State” would have all non-Aboriginal Australians retreating “home” to their “allotted place” would it not?

    British colonialism, the US, Canada would all be in deep trouble today if your argument was sustained would they not?

    Paul Evans

  11. Good point Mansel, maybe this is our Christian hope, a bit like the USA, that Godly other races come here and transform us; Africans, Koreans, Chinese………yep it would be good!
    Neil Innes, NT

  12. Thanks, Bill.

    I made that point because people could dispute your claim:
    Every nation has the right to protect its own borders, and every nation should have the right to determine who can come in, and under what conditions.

    Or in your other post, similarly
    Every nation has a right to control its own borders, and every nation should be allowed to determine who comes in and who does not.

    Seeing as these are bare claims, and you have not spelled out the reasoning behind them, people might ask “Do nations really have that right? Who gave them that right?”

    These are really questions about the legitimacy of nations. If nation states (in the sense of sovereign, independent, political entities) legitimately exist, then they certainly have the right (and responsibility) to control their borders, along with all the other rights of statehood: imposing laws, punishing crime, raising taxes, recruiting and deploying a military, and so on. Just as there is no such thing as a legitimate nation which is not allowed to raise taxes, there is no such thing as a legitimate nation which is not allowed to protect its borders.

    My argument is that the legitimacy of nationhood comes from the early chapters of Scripture. One cannot argue (as some do) that the nation state is an undesirable or ungodly entity which we should be trying to transcend or abolish.

    Jereth Kok

  13. Lastly Jereth, look at the quote of Acts 17:26 again, it would appear that the allotted time periods and boundaries are fluid and changeable, so in this immigration debate, God is also bringing us ALL back together, for we stem from the same Parents.

    Hi Neil,

    Yes, the alloted time periods and boundaries are not permanently fixed. But I was not claiming that they are. I was merely claiming that (in my view) sovereign nations exist according to God’s design, and each nation that presently exists therefore has legitimacy under God, and may thus defend its borders.

    Yes, God has a plan to bring us all back together, but this is not something that can be achieved in a worldly sense, through forced blending of cultures. That will always fail — we cannot through human effort undo the decree of God at Babel. The peoples of the world will only unite through the Gospel, as people of all nations enter the Kingdom of God. We will not see this realised until Jesus returns (though we can see a foretaste of it in the Church).

    @Jereth, I think an extrapolation of your view re the “Nation-State” would have all non-Aboriginal Australians retreating “home” to their “allotted place” would it not?

    British colonialism, the US, Canada would all be in deep trouble today if your argument was sustained would they not?

    Hi Paul,

    My reponse to this is similar to what I said to Neil. Alloted places and times are not fixed. Nations will rise and fall as God designs it. (Dan 2:21). My point is that nation states have legitimacy while they are in existence. Australia is currently a legitimately constituted nation, made up of people who originated (ethnically speaking) from Europe and other places. This Australia (not some other Australia which no longer exists) has a right to defend its borders.

    If the nations that presently exist at any given time do not have legitimacy (including theological legitimacy), then we have anarchy. There would be no reason to obey the Government, or pay taxes, or drive under the speed limit. But this is not what the Bible teaches. The Bible teaches that the state is instituted by God and has a number of God-given rights, such as the administration of justice, collection of taxes, implementation of law and order, maintenance of borders, and self defence.

    Does that make sense?
    Jereth Kok

  14. Hi Mansel
    Thank you for your objective response to my comment. I am glad you were not offended as certainly no offence was intended. I admired the way you “grasped the nettle” in an even handed and positive way and suggested how the complex problem of large-scale immigration can be approached. I am an immigrant myself and have lived in England from the age of 3 for 60 years and love the country and its culture and I hate to see the erosion and decline from within and without of all that was great about England. I think a struggle is on the horizon to preserve it.
    Rachel Smith, UK

  15. Hi Rachel,

    No, I was not offended at all, and appreciated the opportunity you gave to speak about these issues.

    My family, for as far back as we can trace our family tree, are from the British Isles. And so I share your disappointment at the decline of the Christian culture of the UK. Like you, I was also an immigrant, but to Australia, when I was a child.

    Mansel Rogerson

  16. If the Aboriginal First Nation people had protected their borders from strangers and interlopers and occupying forces, convicts and free settlers there would be no Australians by the name of Smith, Schmidt, Smit or Smyth etc living here.

    In our multicultural Australia and under Australian law, an asylum seeker is legally able to cross our border in order to seek protection from persecution, and if, after thorough assessment of claims against the UN Refugees Convention they are confirmed to be refugees and therefore not able to return home safely , the Australian Minister for Immmigration grants them permission to stay. This is hardly an open border situation, and the 300 000 selected immigrants who came last year make the 5 000 asylum seekers who came on little boats a minor issue. Those whom I personally know after they were granted permanent residence try to get work as soon as possible, are peace loving and hard working family people – just the sort of folk we say we value as citizens.Some like the Tamils are devout Christians, many of the Hazara are devout moderate Muslims.I welcome them as my fellow Australians.

    Frederika Steen

  17. Thanks Frederika

    But the issue here is asylum seekers and boat people, not how the modern nation of Australia was founded. Thus your remarks are largely a non sequitur. Indeed, you continue to hopelessly jumble quite different situations. Queue jumpers looking for a better life for example are not at all the same as genuine refugees seeking protection from persecution at home. And just what are you suggesting? That every single person in the world who feels they have a good case to claim Australia as their home should just roll up, no questions asked? Things are a bit more complex here than what you seem to suggest.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  18. Bill, my point is that this island continent was peopled before there was a “modern nation” made up of newcomers – immigrants and refugees – and that the process of immigration continues. Do you really believe that boat people seeking asylum today are not fleeing persecution, are not as real in their claims of persecution as refugees who come from refugee camps in Africa and S E Asia? If so, what is your evidence? Only those who can prove their persecution pass the “refugee test” so a non persecuted person who simply rolls up to find a new home in Australia will be refused. That’s the control system .Having worked professionally and voluntarily with genuine refugees for thirty years, including boat people who came ten years ago and who were cruelly deprived of their freedom for no good reason in ghastly detention centres, I believe I understand asylum seeking and the refugee experience and have immeasurable respect for the courage and resilience of refugees and asylum seekers.
    Frederika Steen

  19. Thanks again Frederika

    But as I already said, the settling and civilising of a largely empty continent is an altogether different matter from modern nations having the right to secure their borders and determine who comes in. And I have already stated that there are legitimate cases of those fleeing persecution, and those who are not. Australia already has in place the appropriate means to decide who comes, and simply landing on our shores demanding entry is not it. That simply jeopardises all those genuine and legal seekers for asylum who are willing to play by the rules.

    But the policies advocated by folks like you, the Greens, and now the High Court, will do nothing but escalate the problem of illegal immigrants, queue jumpers, and boat people risking their lives, losing their life savings, and further clogging our courts. For all your protests to the contrary, you are simply advocating an open slather policy which no nation can long endure. Australia is already quite generous with those it allows in, but no nation can survive if it effectively offers to the world an open door and illegal policy which you seem to promote.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  20. Bill,

    Firstly, Australia is not a christian country by any means – we have been secular for a long time now. Despite this, I think it is followers of Christ who should be petitioning the government to adopt compassionate and ultimately Christlike legislation.

    Considering that we live under a new convenant of Jesus’s grace, I would be interested in hearing how you interpret Jesus’ words in Matt 5 and Matt 25:31-46, especially in light of the analogy you started your post with. Does that not directly contradict the words of Jesus? Interested to hear your thoughts on this.


    Dave Berlach, NSW

  21. Thanks Dave

    I would argue is it anachronistic to use Matthew – or any biblical text – to promote a particular modern refugee policy. It is also a case of eisegesis – reading into the text something that is simply not there.

    The pericope in question of course has to do with the final judgment of the nations, and the basis for that judgment, according to Jesus, is how they treated his followers. It has nothing to do with how humanity in general is treated, but his followers (“these brothers of mine” – v.40).

    So even if we tried to apply this text here, all we could say is that the way Australia processes Christian refugees may be the relevant consideration. But even if we do, we have no biblical blueprint here as to how they should be processed, what criteria should be employed, what tests if any must be used, and so on.

    More would be required than simply quoting a section a Scripture, assuming that it somehow gives us a clear guidelines for contemporary government refugee policy. At the very most, all we can get from this text is a very general principle which still has to be teased out and applied to the complexities of modern Australian life. But in this article I already seek to discuss the various issues involved.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  22. It seems to me that most people are neglecting to make the vital distinctions between refugees and illegal immigrants, asylum and resettlement. We are obliged to give asylum only to those who have come DIRECTLY from their home country. Those who have fled persecution/war etc. and found themselves in UNHCR camps around the world are, indeed, refugees, but they have received asylum already. The boat people we see arriving in Australian waters are seeking resettlement, not asylum, as they already had asylum in another country. There is no doubt that the conditions in these camps are uncomfortable – I have worked in refugee camps in a war zone and I have worked resettling refugees in the US, so I know what I’m talking about – but we must use our heads as well as our hearts. If we allow the illegal entry of boat people for resettlement purposes under the guise of asylum we disadvantage the refugees who have been wallowing in UNHCR camps for years, who have followed the correct process of applying for resettlement. It adds insult to injury. Obviously, we cannot take in the millions of refugees who would like to come to Australia, so we must limit our intake in a way that is fair – allowing queue jumpers to profit from bribery and flouting our laws is not fair.

    To reiterate, a refugee is someone who flees their home country and claims asylum at their first port of call. A refugee who comes from a refugee camp on a boat to Australia is seeking resettlement in an illegal fashion; they are an illegal immigrant. According to Article 31 of the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, a refugee is only free from penalty for illegal entry if they come “DIRECTLY from a territory where their life or freedom was threatened”.

    Mishka Gora

  23. “The alien who lives among you will rise above you higher and higher, but you will sink lower and lower. 44 He will lend to you, but you will not lend to him. He will be the head, but you will be the tail. Deuteronomy 28:43-44 (NIV)

    Johannes Archer

  24. Thanks for taking the time to help clarify the situation of illegal immigrants. I was using the argument that Italy has a right to decide who it lets in. A non-Christian friend accused me of hypocrisy because Christ calls his followers to give everything to the poor. Thoughts?

  25. About Jesus and His family moving to Egypt: first, we know that they were originally poor. This was shown by their offering a pair of doves at the Temple (Luke 2:22–24), meaning that they could not afford a lamb (Leviticus 12:8). However, before they fled to Egpyt, the magi had given them gold among other things (Matthew 2:11). This may well have helped pay for their stay in Egypt, if Joseph were unable to work at his trade.

  26. Surely the Australian governments primary responsibility is to protect its existing citizens and the future of our western democracy. I was taught in tertiary studies 15 years ago that certain cultures do not assimilate into western democracies. Edmund Bourke said, “The effect of liberty to individuals is that they may do what they please: we ought to see what it will please them to do, before we risk congratulations.” I think that was good advice. If we look at the growing problems currently facing the west its not hard to see which political ideology is causing problems and why so lets Rise Up Australia and be wise.

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