We have heard more talk about immigrants and immigration policy this election season than any in memory, and the conversation has been highly charged. Since the issue is so prominent just now, it might be helpful to have a sketch of biblical attitudes toward immigrants.
For the sake of full disclosure, I should say where I come down on the issue of U.S. immigration. I think we should endeavor to have both the most compassionate immigration policy and the most secure border in the world. But I am not here advocating a particular view on immigration, which is a discussion for another time. I’m advocating a particular attitude toward immigrants.
My views have been shaped by experience. One of my closest friends is a naturalized citizen who was born in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). Another was born in Ecuador. The U.S. is a better place because it counts them as its own.
But my views are also shaped by the Bible, which says a great deal about immigrants. There are many direct statements regarding their treatment. A few will suffice to represent the tenor of Scripture.
Following Israel’s escape from political oppression, God gave these instructions: “Do not mistreat an alien or oppress him, for you were aliens in Egypt.”
Likewise, Scripture teaches, “The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born.” Further, “… you are to love those who are aliens, for you yourselves were aliens in Egypt.”
In matters of law, God’s people were warned: “Do not deprive the alien or the fatherless of justice.” Judges were to make sure that immigrants, who were vulnerable because of their lack of political power and representation, were treated justly. This meant that “You are to have the same law for the alien and the native-born.”
Immigrants were granted equal access to services as the native-born. This included special food distributions and work opportunities. At the national celebration known as “First-fruits,” immigrants were specifically listed among the aid recipients.
Beyond the many specific instructions regarding aliens, there are numerous examples of interactions between the chosen people and the immigrants within their borders. Abraham, the father of the Jewish people, constantly interacted with such people. They considered him a “prince among us” and scripture calls him “the father of many nations” — that is, of many ethnic peoples (the Greek word is ethnos) — and his wife “the mother of many nations.”
The people of Israel were fierce in war, but for their day they were unusually considerate of immigrants. King David employed skilled foreign-born labor in the construction of the great temple and accepted immigrants into military service. The prophets continually urged that foreigners be treated with justice, as when Malachi writes that the Lord Almighty will be against “those who … deprive aliens of justice.”
The idea that immigration is evil and that immigrants are enemies is not sanctioned by the Bible. Disdain for immigrants is repeatedly condemned by the biblical writers and prophets. They insist that justice be done for the vulnerable, and include in that number those who do not have citizenship.
Now immigration in ancient times and immigration today are two different things. The Bible does not provide any kind of blueprint for immigration policy. Rather it urges us to adopt a compassionate attitude toward immigrants. Were this biblical model to inform our policies, it’s not clear how immigration in America would change. There would still be trials and deportations, but our attitude would be different. We would be a light to the world.
But we are not that light today. The current debate has degenerated into a shameless brawl between liberals and conservatives over votes. Both sides need to go beyond what is politically expedient to ask what is right. Yes, good people will answer that question differently, but whatever answer the Christian gives, it needs to be consistent with the biblical command to “love those who are aliens.”
— Shayne Looper is the pastor of Lockwood Community Church in Branch County, Michigan. Read more at shaynelooper.com.