Is there a Christian perspective on immigration?

Is there a Christian perspective on immigration?

Over a million Polish people have moved to the UK since 2004. European cities like London, Paris and Madrid have 60-70 nationalities living in single neighbourhoods. Jesus himself was an asylum seeker, and Abraham (the father of all who have faith) was an economic migrant. How (and why) should Christians ‘welcome the stranger’?

The population mix of the UK, along with almost every other European country, has changed dramatically in the space of two generations. Mass immigration began shortly after World War Two and really took off in the 1960s. In the UK, immigrants came first from Caribbean countries like Jamaica and Trinidad, later from the South Asian countries of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, and more recently from East and West African countries such as Kenya, Somalia, Ghana and Nigeria. Spain has received huge immigration from all across Latin America, as has France from its former colonies in North and Central Africa and the Caribbean. There are an estimated 3½ million people of Turkish origin living in Germany. Around 150,000 (mainly white) South Africans have moved to the UK in the last 15 years, and since 2004 almost 1 million Polish people have joined them. The 2011 census indicated that 13% of the population of England and Wales was born outside the country, with over one third of London’s population (3 million out of 8.1 million) having done so.[i]

This kind of migration is not new, of course, and has been going on for the whole of human history. In the last two centuries, millions of inhabitants of the British Isles emigrated to live in what we now call the United States of America, Canada, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand, and more recently to the south of France and coastal Spain.

And such migration is not without its opponents. Immigration controls are frequently discussed and occasionally implemented by European governments, as we saw in 2015 after the massive influx of Syrian refugees into Europe through Greece. The electoral success of right-wing parties like UKIP, and the success of the Leave campaign in the referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union in June 2016, reflects the disquiet of many who consider themselves to be disadvantaged by such inward migration.

As we reflect on this and consider what our response should be as Christians to this reality, it is important for us to be clear in our minds about the difference types of migration that exist. Not every immigrant is the same as the other.

The first group, which sometimes stir up the ire of certain parts of the media, are refugees and asylum seekers. Not that they are really one group. The two terms are often used interchangeably, but they mean different things. Refugees are clearly defined by the 1951 United Nations Convention relating to the Status of Refugees (further extended in 1967) as those who leave their country or are unwilling to return because of “a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion”. It does not apply to those who move within their own country for the same reasons, nor to those who leave their country because of armed conflict or famine. Refugee status is a legally-defined and protected status, for good reason. An asylum seeker, by contrast, is someone who has left their country for one or more of the above reasons and whose claim for refugee status is currently being assessed. Vulnerable and less-protected in law, yet making a journey to another country because of threats to their wellbeing, it is hard to understand why they are sometimes so vilified.

A second type of migrant is the person who has moved within their own country. Such people are sometimes referred to as Internally Displaced Persons, or IDPs. The term is usually used to refer to those who have moved against their will, for reasons of war or famine, for example. As well as the 3 million Syrian refugees in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq[ii] as a result of the ongoing civil war, there are an estimated 6.6 million IDPs within Syria itself [iii]. Other forms of internal migration might be freely chosen. There are an estimated 130-140 million Chinese people who have moved from rural areas to work in the booming industrial cities and who return home each February for the two-week New Year celebrations (and we complain about Bank Holiday traffic in our country!). Long-term internal migration in the British Isles is evident from the number of people who moved from the English regions or Scotland, Wales and Ireland to London and the southeast of England, mainly for employment reasons. As someone from the north of England who has lived both near London and in Scotland, I can confirm that I have felt like a migrant in both places.

This relates to a third form of migration, people who are usually called economic migrants. And there are several versions of this. These can be skilled professionals (such as the many doctors, nurses and other health professionals working in the UK’s National Health Service); they may be unskilled, temporary or seasonal workers (the UK’s agricultural industry would grind to a halt without the annual influx of workers from Eastern Europe and Portugal to pick our potatoes, sugar beet and strawberries); or they may be irregular migrants (the much-vilified “illegal immigrants”), who frequently end up in low-paid demeaning jobs on the margins of the ‘black economy’, with all the associated personal vulnerability and risk, and yet who endure this in order to earn money to send back home to their families.

In the modern nation state, ideas of citizenship divide people into ‘friends’ (us, on our side of the border) and ‘enemies’ (them, on the other side of the border). But migrants are ‘strangers’, because they cross the (border)line. So are they friends, or are they enemies? There have usually been two responses to this dilemma; assimilation or ghettoization. With assimilation, the migrant/stranger is invited to become “one of us”. In the 17th century, tens of thousands of Huguenots (French Protestants) fled persecution in France and settled in the UK[iv]. But today we do not have a large, indigenous, settled French-speaking minority in our country[v]. They have been thoroughly assimilated and integrated, becoming part of British society. In the 19th century, a similar number of Jewish people moved to the UK from central and Eastern Europe and a similar degree of integration has since taken place. Ghettoization, by contrast, is a form of quarantine, whereby migrants live closely together and there is less integration with wider society. The large and visible Pakistani and Indian populations in towns and cities like Southall, Hounslow, Leicester and Bradford would suggest that, on the whole, these migrants have ghettoised rather than assimilated. The very wide geographical distribution of recent Polish migrants to the UK indicates they may be more likely to assimilate over time. However, they are also likely to retain close links with family back in Poland, and so neither ghettoisation nor assimilation is likely to be successful. The ‘stranger’, it would seem, is here to stay.

The political, sociological and economic arguments around migration are complex, diverse and sometimes heated. So what does the Bible have to say to us about the responsibility of God’s people towards foreigners and other outsiders in their midst?


Abraham, the father of all who have faith (Gal 3:7) was a migrant himself, firstly from Ur to Harran, and later down into Canaan and Egypt. Much later, as Moses prepared the people of Israel to enter the promised land of Canaan, he told then to recite the following, “my father was a wandering Aramean” (Deut 26:5). It may seem odd that Jacob is referred to as such, but as Abraham’s grandson he had family links in Harran (or Paddam Aram, as the region was called at the time). Both his wives, Leah and Rachel, were his cousins on his mother’s side from that area (Gen 28:1-5; 29:1-30). The people of Israel were themselves a hybrid, mixed, multi-ethnic group and not all of them could claim direct descent from Jacob and his sons (Ex 12:37-38). They were instructed to remember their origins as immigrants in Egypt and nomads in the desert, and to treat immigrants among them accordingly (Lev 19:33-34; 23:33-43). When they would in future bring the firstfruits of the harvest to God, they were to remember their origins and ensure that foreigners among them shared in that blessing (Deut 26:1-11).

The Old Testament seems to make a distinction between different types of foreigner within Israel and allows for some kind of differential response, within limits. There were foreigners (nokrim), temporary workers (toshav), and those who came to stay (gerim), usually translated as ‘resident alien’ or ‘the foreigner residing among you’.

The LORD said to Moses and Aaron, “These are the regulations for the Passover meal. No foreigner (nokri) may eat it. Any slave you have bought may eat it after you have circumcised him, but a temporary resident (toshav) or a hired worker may not eat it …… A foreigner residing among you (ger) who wants to celebrate the LORD’s Passover must have all the males in his household circumcised; then he may take part like one born in the land. No uncircumcised male may eat it. The same law applies both to the native-born and to the foreigner residing among you”. (Ex 12:43-45,48-49)

Other distinctions could be made on historical grounds.  Deut 23:3-8 makes a sharp distinction between Moabites and Ammonites on the one hand, and Egyptians and Edomites on the other, largely on the basis of their behaviour towards Israel but also because of ethnic affinity.

Among the Hebrew words used for outsiders, nokrim refers to those who had no link to the land or people of Israel and who were generally regarded with fear and loathing (the Moabites and Ammonites being a case in point). They could not participate in Israel’s worship (Ex 12:43), they could be charged interest on loans (Deut 23:20), and these loans were not cancelled during Sabbath years (Deut 15:2-3). But they were not always viewed in the negative, as Solomon’s prayer of dedication for the Temple indicates:

“As for the foreigner (nokri) who does not belong to your people Israel but has come from a distant land because of your name – for they will hear of your great name and your mighty hand and your outstretched arm – when they come and pray toward this temple, then hear from heaven, your dwelling place. Do whatever the foreigner (nokri) asks of you, so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your own people Israel, and may know that this house I have built bears your Name”. (1 Ki 8:41-43)

The gerim, by contrast, were those who came to stay. Perhaps best translated as ‘resident aliens’, these were the outsiders who were committed to the social life of Israel and who are usually mentioned alongside the poor, the widow and orphan as being deserving of special care, perhaps because of their vulnerable place in society. They were included in Israel’s worship (Ex 12:48), were given equal rights to justice (Deut 24:17), were protected from economic exploitation (Ex 20:9-10), and were expected to conduct themselves in the same way as native Israelites (Num 15:29-30). Mistreatment of these ‘resident aliens’ is one of the reasons given for Israel’s exile (Ezek 22:6-7,29; Jer 7:4-7), and matters did not seem to improve in this regard after the return from exile (Zech 7:8-10; Mal 3:5).

These and other nuances are illustrated by the story of Ruth who, although a Moabite, was accepted into Israel (notwithstanding Moses’ command in Deut 23:3-8), and who ultimately became one of the ancestors of Jesus Christ (Matt 1:5). Her first husband Mahlon was an Israelite economic migrant from Bethlehem to Moab (Ruth 1:1-5) (showing that care of foreigners can work both ways). Once widowed, Ruth’s decision to join her mother-in-law in Bethlehem suggests a degree of cultural integration (“your people will be my people and your God my God”, Ruth 1:15-17). But this attempt at integration was not wholly successful (Ruth 2:6,10) until her second marriage to Boaz (Ruth 4:11-12). Perhaps immigration and social cohesion issues were as complex and varied in ancient Israel as they are for us today.

What can take from all this, for our thinking and actions as Christians in response to the issues around migration in the UK (and across Europe) today? Old Testament laws are not binding upon Christians, and still less upon the modern secular nation state. But those laws do reflect the first ever contextual attempt to live in obedience to God (by the people of Israel) and they also reflect something of God’s character. And so they can inform advocacy by Christians towards government policy, as well as action by churches. There is a concern for social cohesion and for the integration of the outsider, as well as for the social protection of the vulnerable migrant. There is however no obvious awareness of multiculturalism in the modern sense.

The New Testament

At first glance, the New Testament doesn’t appear to provide us with much help. Jesus’ short three-year ministry stands in stark contrast to the centuries of history we read about in the Old Testament. The apostolic letters to the churches scattered across the Roman Empire address the concerns of small and nascent Christian communities afloat in a sea of empire, rather than issues relating to national governance or civic community relations.

However, we could note that Jesus had his own early life experience as an asylum seeker (Matt 2:13-21), when his parents fled to Egypt from Bethlehem to escape Herod’s murderous paranoid rage. We don’t know if he was granted full refugee status, but on balance it seems unlikely. In his teaching, in the well-known parable of the sheep and the goats (Matt 25:31-46), he commends those who welcome the stranger. We use this Greek word xenos in our word xenophobia, and the inference in clear. Jesus expects us to welcome the foreigner, not to reject him or her.

“As citizens of heaven, live in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ” (Php 1:27)
“Our citizenship is in heaven” (Php 3:20)

These two brief statements come from Paul’s Letter to the Philippians. In the first century AD, Philippi was a Roman colony near Thessalonica. It was populated by Roman ex-legionaries who on retirement had been given land around the city and who served as army reservists on the imperial frontier. Few, if any, Jewish people lived there. There was no synagogue for Paul to speak in (his usual practice) and there are few allusions to the Old Testament in his letter (since it would be unknown and meaningless to Paul’s readers). The language of the city was Latin, not Greek, and it was proud of its Roman identity. Just how important this Roman identity was can be illustrated by the consequences of Paul and Silas’ first visit there (Acts 16:12-24). Following the conversion of Lydia, Paul performs an exorcism on a fortune-telling slave. Distressed at their loss of a profitable income stream, her owners protested; “these men are Jews and are throwing our city into an uproar by advocating customs unlawful for us Romans to accept or practice” (v20-21). On both this occasion and later, Paul used his Roman citizenship to good effect. Imprisoned on a public order offence as a consequence of the above riot, the magistrate has to appease Paul when he learns that both Paul and Silas are both Roman citizens (Acts 16:35-39). This same citizenship later allowed him to escape a public flogging (and probable summary execution) in Jerusalem (Acts 22:22-29).

The power of Paul’s injunction to the Philippian believers thus becomes apparent. Loyal citizens who had been rewarded well for their service to Rome, Paul twice reminds them not to be too tightly bound to their national and local loyalties. This seems to me that it can sum up what is foundational to a Christian response to the kind of contemporary migration described above. Israel, as a migrant nation, was to show kindness to migrants. Jesus, whom we follow, was an asylum seeker himself. And Paul, the Roman citizen, recognised that he had bigger loyalties.

What then should we do?

God’s people are those who, like Abraham, are on the move, not rooted to this earth (Heb 11:8-10,14-16). We are expected to show kindness and compassion to the vulnerable, including the foreigner among us. In the light of this, how should Christians and churches respond?

Acceptance and friendship would seem to be a priority. I used to live near London, and had two Polish families among my near neighbours. They were keen to chat, to improve their English, and to accept hospitality when offered. Research indicates that what recent Polish migrants to the UK want among other things is acceptance by and friendship with the natives (that’s us, by the way). At the same time, a significant number of Pakistani families lived nearby and I coached a number of their children at football at a local primary school. This helped to establish relationships that continued with those boys for many years. Hospitality, it would seem, is an underappreciated and yet vital Christian ministry for those who wish to welcome the stranger. Churches can also provide help with English classes, as well as advice and guidance on access to welfare and housing services. Many migrants are very vulnerable in the event of personal setbacks, as they do not always have the knowledge or the social networks to support them through such times.

Perhaps our attitude and our behaviour can be summarised by Mathetes (“A Disciple”), the writer of the second-century AD Letter to Diognetus;

“(Christians) live in their own countries, but they do so as those who are just passing through. As citizens they participate in everything with others, yet they endure everything as if they were foreigners. Every foreign land is like their homeland to them, and every land of their birth is like a land of strangers” (Ep. Diog. 5).

As I read numerous calls on social media for us to pull together and work, post-Brexit, to make Britain ‘great’ again[vi], my reading of the New Testament and of early Christian writings suggests that such forms of nationalism are ill-becoming of us as Christians. Mathetes summarises in three short sentences an attitude, drawn from Old and New Testaments alike, which can inform, guide and correct us as we try, in the words of Gandalf[vii], to live well in the times we have been given.

Richard Tiplady

[v] The quarter million French people living and working in London, mainly in financial services, do not count because they are neither indigenous or settled
[vi] Not only do the unconscious echoes of Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” rhetoric make this unsettling, it draws on a common misunderstanding of the meaning of the term ‘Great Britain’. It’s a geographical term (referring to the largest of the British Isles), not a qualitative one. I blame the parents. And the teachers. And the media (probably).