What is the Church’s voice to be in the midst of the current refugee crisis and on what basis does the Bible call us to account for our actions and attitudes? I want to bring out two main points from this passage in Deuteronomy that might guide our thinking and actions.
12 “And now, Israel, what does the LORD your God require of you, but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, 13 and to keep the commandments and statutes of the LORD, which I am commanding you today for your good? 14 Behold, to the LORD your God belong heaven and the heaven of heavens, the earth with all that is in it. 15 Yet the LORD set his heart in love on your fathers and chose their offspring after them, you above all peoples, as you are this day. 16 Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn. 17 For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who is not partial and takes no bribe. 18 He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing. 19 Love the sojourner, therefore, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt. 20 You shall fear the LORD your God. You shall serve him and hold fast to him, and by his name you shall swear. 21 He is your praise. He is your God, who has done for you these great and terrifying things that your eyes have seen. 22 Your fathers went down to Egypt seventy persons, and now the LORD your God has made you as numerous as the stars of heaven. (Deut. 10:12-22, ESV)
Our ethics arise out of who God is
Deuteronomy is a kind of constitution for the newly forming nation of Israel as they stand on the brink of entering the promised land. What kind of nation are they going to be? What shape will their national life take as God’s priestly people displaying life with God to the watching nations?
Israel’s ethical life was defined by God’s character and values. How were they supposed to live? In a way that reflected who God is: they were to ‘walk in the ways of the Lord’, a phrase the OT often uses for one’s ethical life.
Note the central section of the passage: God’s greatness is put alongside the protection of the weakest. He loves the sojourner/alien, a category of people who from outside of Israel (for a whole variety of reasons, including war and famine) and now settled-but-vulnerable in Israel.
The Bible does give us specific instructions and commandments but ultimately it tells us who God is and places us within the story of his purposes. We are supposed to understand and celebrate who God is and act accordingly. God loves the sojourner. Let’s contextualise this: God loves the refugee, giving him food and clothing.
Our ethics are also motivated by memory and identity
If that wasn’t enough to call Israel to action God gives them a lesson from their history (and bear in mind, most of those listening to Moses at this point had did not have their own individual memory of the events he evokes). Israel had never been a nation before, but they had been refugees. They had experienced hospitality and hostility. Towards the end of Genesis we read that their forefathers had moved to Egypt because of famine. They knew what it was to be welcomed. However, they also knew what it was liked to be oppressed in a foreign land, which we read about at the beginning of Exodus.
Israel was supposed to draw on their memory as people who had been refugees and apply that part of their identity to their dealings with refugees in their midst in the future.
This, I think, is important for us Brits to consider. Has our sense of being an island nation made it seem like the refugee problem is ‘over there’ and, therefore, not our responsibility? Providing hospitality to more refugees will involve sacrifice: are we hesitant to incur this cost because we do not feel ‘sojourner’ is part of our national memory. Is this why we need to be shocked into action?
But ‘refugee’ is an essential part of our DNA as the people of God. Progressing through the biblical story we read numerous examples of the people of God being displaced and on the move, whether it is moving to or from Egypt, Exile and Return, or the dispersion of the early Church. Comfort and stability is not the norm. What are we as the Church prepared to do to live out the heart of God and our own displaced identity?