A few days ago a Christian friend posed the perfectly reasonable question: “Wonder what this means: “You shall also love the stranger…” (Deuteronomy 10:19) How does that apply today?” It gave rise to lively exchanges and interesting responses, but it also got me thinking. When I did a Bible search on the word “stranger” I came up with 198 hits and interestingly some of these were on similar lines to the verse my friend quoted and these occurred in other “books of Moses”: Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers.
Checking out the Bible meaning of “Stranger”, via my Internet search engine, my first hit came up with: “This word generally denotes a person from a foreign land residing in Palestine. Such persons enjoyed many privileges in common with the Jews, but still were separate from them. The relation of the Jews to strangers was regulated by special laws (Deuteronomy 23:3 ; 24:14-21 ; 25:5 ; 26:10-13 ). A special signification is also sometimes attached to this word. In Genesis 23:4 it denotes one resident in a foreign land; Exodus 23:9, one who is not a Jew; Numbers 3:10, one who is not of the family of Aaron; Psalms 69:8 , an alien or an unknown person. The Jews were allowed to purchase strangers as slaves (Leviticus 25:44 Leviticus 25:45 ), and to take usury from them (Deuteronomy 23:20 )”.
I give this definition for the sake of balance and to provoke thought, as there is a lot in the Bible, especially in some less well read parts, such as these, which makes for uncomfortable reading, e.g. being able to purchase strangers as slaves and, if we are honest, we must not quote merely to support our opinions. After all, how do we explain away God telling the Israelites to kill all the inhabitants in a town they conquer? When people quote from such passages, often it is the more negative verses, to reinforce a particular prejudice or pour scorn on the Bible and neither is right. Few take the time to discover for themselves there is treasure to be found, in abundance. This widely applies to dealing justice and looking after the poor, and to the nature of God and doctrines like redemption and atonement.
The verse we began with is particularly pertinent to the day we are living in and the situation we are now finding. As far as some are concerned, strangers trying to enter our land (in my case England) shouldn’t be allowed, or if they are already here they should not be made welcome or given assistance. Yet the Pentateuch teaches, repeated several times, that we must love the stranger, begging the question what this entails? It teaches many other things that we do well to take heed off e.g. supporting the poor (law of gleaning) and the cancelling of debts (law of redemption and Jubilee).
But this verse was written for Gods people (the Israelites) for a given context, time and place. Can we apply this more widely? My answer is yes and no? As a Christian I am called to love my neighbor and that includes the stranger (foreigner). As a citizen of my country, while I do not impose my beliefs on those who don’t share them, I am beholden to tell people they ought to do what God wants us to do. The crux question though, is how do we apply these commands to the immigration situation we are now seeing, especially when it comes to asylum (sanctuary) seekers, which I think was what my friend was getting at when he shared the verse he did?
The issue of immigration, of which asylum seeking is part of, is complex and gives rise to a variety of responses, yet the situation of desperate displaced persons is especially grave. It would be wrong for me to pick out a few verses from the Bible and say that these should dictate government policy. However, it would also be wrong for me to let the government off the hook or us to be inactive on the matter when strangers that cry out to be loved aren’t.
I recognize the plight of illegal immigrants from Syria and surrounding countries, currently camped in around nearby Calais, is problematic and, while many would want to come to come to live in the UK and do so at any cost (thus adding to the problem) is not just a UK problem, the situation is deteriorating rather than improving and it is possible for us to make a difference. While I recognize there is a lot of detail to unravel, but the poor treatment of such people, the building of walls to keep them out, and the callous ignoring of the plight of unaccompanied minors etc. raises all sorts of concerns. There are huge issues round how best to help in what has turned out to be a monumental crisis and dealing with the root problems.
In past blogs on matters to do with immigration, I have argued for tighter control when it comes to allowing in immigrants whose motivation for entering the UK is purely economic but looser control when it comes to those seeking asylum and being more effective dealing with the causes and consequences of conflicts that create refugees in the first place. I agree with the Bishop who argues that we should welcome foreigners but based on Christian hospitality and not having to do so based on misplaced ideas about multi-culturalism etc. I try to ensure my beliefs on these matters are based on what the Bible says, including Deuteronomy 10:19.