Christianity in Politics, Current Events, theology

“The Sojourner in your Land” – A Christian perspective on immigration and refugees

The issue of immigration has been turned into a political meme. Refugees flee from Syria and other nations in the wake of violence. There are some who treat the plight of the refugee and immigrant, however, as a blight to be extinguished. What does the Bible have to tell us about these issues? A great deal. Here I will briefly draw out a few ways the Bible discusses these topics.

All Humans Share Equal Dignity

The Bible makes it extremely clear that all humans share the image of God (Genesis 2), and that the divisions we make of nation and race have no place in the body of Christ (Galatians 3:28).

The Sojourner in Your Land

The Old Testament has much to say regarding sojourners or exiles. There is no comment about the legality of the sojourner or exile, but rather the focus is on the plight of those who flee from their own lands.

“When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” – Leviticus 19:33-34 (ESV)

The argument might be made that these are specific commands to a specific people: the Israelites. After all, we read the reasoning: for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. We were never in Egypt! we might cry. The teaching, however, seems to be binding and universal.To point out that the latter part does not apply to Christians is like the teachers of the Law saying they were slaves to no one, despite being Abraham’s descendants (John 8:33).

Moreover, when we consider a verse like Exodus 22:21- ““You shall not wrong a sojourner or oppress him, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt” (ESV), we note that the reasoning provided is not necessary for the command. You shall not wrong or oppress a sojourner; next clause: here’s a reason why. But the command itself stands whether or not the reason given directly applies to us or not. Of course, even if you don’t buy into this reasoning, there are plenty of verses that simply command us to care for the sojourner.

Malachi 3:5 states “Then I will draw near to you for judgment. I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired worker in his wages, the widow and the fatherless, against those who thrust aside the sojourner, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts.”

God issues dire warnings “against those who thrust aside the sojourner.”

The letter to the Hebrews applies this from a New Testament perspective: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” (13:2).

Commands to help the needy and poor are found throughout Scripture, such as in Proverbs: “Open your mouth for the mute, for the rights of all who are destitute. Open your mouth, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy.” (31:8-9)

It would be difficult to discount that “illegal immigrants” are often among the poor and needy, or that refugees could not be counted among that number.

Hope for all nations is preached throughout the Bible, calling people from all directions to God.

An Eschatological Perspective

Christians are told by Peter that we are all exiles in this world (1 Peter 2:11). We are in this world, and not of it. Such verses speaking of the nature of Christians as exiles on earth tie the thread, and bring us full circle. The reasoning that applied to the Israelites because they were sojourners in Egypt applies to us, because we are sojourners on Earth. Care for the poor and needy, do not turn aside the sojourner, for we are exiles as they are.

Drawing Conclusions

Christians have no wiggle room: the plight of the sojourner, the refugee, and/or the exile are not to be ignored. We are to care for them as we would be cared for. How exactly does this play out in a practical fashion? That is up for some debate. However, any perspective cannot be called Christian which ignores the Bible’s clear teaching and command to care for others.

It is also clear that there is nowhere in the Bible where provisions are made for some of the arguments commonly used in the political sphere. For example, there is no exception stating that if people do not want to pay higher taxes, they are allowed to turn aside the sojourner. Neither does it prescribe a specific system for providing assistance, or say that a specific form of government should be established to do so. One thing that is excluded explicitly would be any demeaning of others made in the image of God. One thing that is required is that we do care for those in need.

We are called to help the sojourner. Whether that is the refugee from Syria, the young neighbor boy who ran away from an abusive home, or an “illegal” seeking to escape from systemic poverty: no exceptions are made. We as Christians should remember that we, too, are exiles seeking scraps from the Master’s table.

Grace and peace.


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About J.W. Wartick

J.W. Wartick is a Lutheran, feminist, Christ-follower. A Science Fiction snob, Bonhoeffer fan, Paleontology fanboy and RPG nerd.


20 thoughts on ““The Sojourner in your Land” – A Christian perspective on immigration and refugees

  1. My initial reaction is to agree with your conclusion, but disagree with your premise. If you want an unambiguous command to care for these people, it seems to me that Jesus’ statement “…and the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself…” would do. However with respect to undocumented immigrants, this becomes more complex. Sure we can care for their needs, but how would you resolve the conflict between competing needs of various neighbors? The genuine economic refugee needs a means to support his family. Our nation needs to know who it is that is entering the country and that they are genuine economic refugees, and not terrorists taking advantage of our care for the sojourner. It is not a simple matter of saying “care for them.”
    It seems analogous to a scenario where you are trying to support your family. At a point in time, you and your wife decide to adopt a child. You do so after counting the cost to be sure you can support your existing family and the addition. What if some time later, four more kids sneak into your house and demand you support them? Are you so obligated? Perhaps, until such time that they are removed by the authorities.
    Pushback welcome.

    Posted by apologeticsminion | September 14, 2015, 7:45 AM
    • Why do we do so little to help those who are in economic difficulty in their own countries? Leaving ones’ home and culture is wrenching, terrible. How can we help migrants remain in their home countries?

      Posted by Drusilla Barron | September 14, 2015, 11:30 AM
    • I think your analogy is faulty. After all, what do you do with the kids who sneak into your house? Do you put them back in abusive homes or systems of oppression? Or do you–as you say–look to the authorities and places like child protective services? With those who are fleeing systemic oppression or violence in their own countries, is the proper response to ship ’em back or to care for them as we are able? I’m asking this from a Christian perspective: what is our calling within the broader world?

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | September 15, 2015, 8:29 AM
      • Ny analogy, like any analogy, breaks down if you press it too far. Care for them or ship ’em back is a false dichotomy. We can do what we can to discern who they are and provide some way of identifying them. This would give us a way to screen out terrorists and criminals, as well as provide a way for them to be here legally which protects their rights. It would also protect the electoral process, along with voter ID laws. As I said, it is not a simple issue.

        Posted by apologeticsminion | September 15, 2015, 2:00 PM
      • The false dichotomy came by way of your analogy, which suggested that the proper response would be to call the authorities to get rid of the children who break into the house. Thus, the only options offered were to care for them or have the authorities come collect them. I of course agree there is a much broader scope for the discussion, but it seems to me that you are restricting it to a legal sense rather than what I’m trying to address which is a Kingdom perspective. As I said in the post, I don’t think there is any specific prescription for a type of government or specific programs found in the Bible. My goal was to try to briefly present the data that Christians should deal with as they are considering how to operate within their own communities.

        The debate over how, exactly, this should be done is one that goes beyond the texts themselves. As for me, I think that if the complaint is so many people are here illegally and they should just come legally, we need to make it easier to gain citizenship and reduce the enormous amount of time (and money) that people have to spend on the process. I do not think my position is strictly the Biblical one; for I do not think the Bible tells us exactly what to do in the situation we are living within.

        Posted by J.W. Wartick | September 15, 2015, 2:10 PM
  2. Hey J.W. I posted this awhile back but decided to repost it on my current blog in case you hadn’t read it. It’s not really a stance as much as a discussion primer (or rather my perspective that many Anglo American Christians aren’t even ready to begin having this discussion):

    I’d love to hear any thoughts you have. I’m probably being too quixotic for my own good 😉

    Posted by exmergent | September 14, 2015, 1:56 PM
  3. America has always done more for refugees. Today America is fighting a different war and IMHO refugees are the weapon of choice we need to stand firm in opposition to. Weakened America doesn’t help the world. A strong America is best for world peace. Never will be world peace but the best option for stability of the world. The war we are in today is a war of ideology. Islam goal to take the world for Allah. Refugee occupy, multiply, take over. Refugee and illegals entering USA needs to halt till America gets strong again. I’m voting Donald Trump this time. Think can use a donkey He sure can use Donald Trump and I do not liken Trump to a donkey, More like a crass Cornelius. He may very well be on a journey and God is the guide.

    Posted by Barbara_NC | September 15, 2015, 11:40 AM
  4. I commend your instincts but I have to question your exegesis. The “sojourner” passages refer to the “ger” a legal immigrant invited to stay (as the Israelites were invited to settle in Egypt). Maimonides said illegal immigrants were killed. Now I’m not advocating the death penalty for illegal immigrants but your statement that the bible makes no distinction according to legal status depends on the English translation. I’m sure you will be able to find scholars who dispute that “ger” refers only to the legal immigrant but you will have to interact with the scholars who argue (plausibly, in my view) that the “sojourner” passages have only legal immigrants in view.

    Posted by Giles | September 15, 2015, 11:47 AM
    • Thanks for stopping by and commenting. I took the liberty of looking up the word in the Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew Lexicon of the OT and the defintion it gives for the word as used in Leviticus 19:33-34, for example, is simply “sojourner” or “temporary dweller” or “new-comer (no inherited rights).” Later in the definition, it notes that the sojourner would be extended rights as well (such as sharing in the Sabbath rest). There is no mention of these being specifically “legal” immigrants as opposed to “illegal” immigrants–and I’d have to see some pretty convincing exegesis to convince me that the modern debate over these terms could be univocally applied back to the ANE context of several of these passages.

      If you have a copy, you can look it up on p 158 of the Oxford hardcover edition of the BDB.

      So I don’t think I’m relying here on the English meaning. I looked up the word in what is probably the most well-known Hebrew-English lexicon of the OT and did not see it restricted in the sense you claim.

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | September 15, 2015, 2:06 PM
  5. I thought I’d jump in on the Hebrew lexical discussion earlier referenced. J.W. is correct in his assertion that the distinction between a legal vs. illegal immigrant is anachronistic to the worldview and language of these passages. The HALOT goes even further based on close readings of other ANE literature (much more than was available when the BDB was published) and indicates that this is a stranger in need of protection, stating:

    “גֵּר is a man who (alone or with his family) leaves village and tribe because of war 2S 43 Is 164, famine Ru 11, epidemic, blood guilt etc. and seeks shelter and residence at another place, where his right of landed property, marriage and taking part in jurisdiction, cult and war has been curtailed….”

    Posted by exmergent | September 15, 2015, 5:41 PM
    • Sorry, for some reason I didn’t get the comment updates. Exmergent comment actually supports my point that the phrase in view doesn’t just mean immigrant in context. The sources he cites would make it equivalent to refugee. He’s certainly right that we have a lot more than may be obtained by looking up a dictionary. The Jewish authorities have a great deal to say about this, I shall quote the foremost, Maimonides. “Even a temporary resident or merchant who travels from place to place should not be allowed to pass through our land until he accepts the seven universal laws commanded to Noah and his descendants, as the verse states ‘he shall not dwell in your land'” Or we could turn to the Code of Jewish Law, “in a border city even if the non Jews approaches you (ostensibly) concerning hay one must violate the Shabbat to repel them”. It’s pretty clear how the Jews understood the passages in questions and, let’s face it, it’s their law. Then as now illegal immigration was illegal. It’s not so much that the word itself must refer to legal immigrants but rather that illegal immigrants weren’t tolerated. The commands about sojourners were irrelevant to the case of illegal immigrants as any that entered were driven back or killed.

      Posted by Giles | September 17, 2015, 11:37 PM
  6. To clarify, while ger toshav literally means a stranger and sojourner, in the context of Mosaic law it was a specific legal status (as you can see by googling the phrase). It entailed accepting the Noahide laws and receiving permission to dwell in Israel. In the commandments conferring rights upon them it is this phrase that is used. As I say there is a great deal of jurisprudence on the question.

    Posted by Giles | September 18, 2015, 1:23 AM
    • Supposing this point is granted–something that I admit I’m not familiar enough to dive into right now–the fact is that there are numerous references that are not part of the Mosaic Law that continue to state plainly that the sojourner is to be cared for. Moreover, the New Testament continues the same calls. Additionally, I would think it indisputable that we are to help the poor. The fact remains that many of those so casually labeled “illegals” are the poor. Are we to inquire as to whether someone is “legal” before we assist them? I do not think the Bible could support such a division.

      Finally, I would press that the context to which it is being applied–our 21st Century debate over immigration and legal borders and the like–cannot be pressed very far before breaking. To suggest that the Mosaic Law and national laws of Israel are somehow to have a 1-to-1 correspondence with these modern disputes is, I would argue, anachronistic. Thus, what we should be doing is looking at the principial application of said laws, which are pretty clear: care for the sojourner, the neighbor, the poor.

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | September 21, 2015, 1:45 PM
      • I missed your updates again. Yes I agree, one only has to establish their humanity to establish a claim on our compassion. I don’t dispute that for a minute. I merely hold that you can’t get from, say, gleaning rights for the ger toshav to a right to equal access to welfare benefits for illegal immigrants, as one potentially could if sojourner simply meant immigrant.
        But equally that doesn’t mean one must oppose such a policy. I for one believe emergency health care should be available to illegal immigrants. And, in accordance with the refugee convention, that illegal entry shouldn’t be prosecuted if someone comes direct from a country in which they are persecuted. Indeed our obligation to decency would be undiminished even in the case of a soldier of an occupying army or an imprisoned murderer. I just don’t get to that position via the commands dealing with the case of the Ger Toshav. Thanks for engaging. We are not so far apart.

        Posted by Giles | October 4, 2015, 3:44 AM


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