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You will not have read my book on Asylum and Immigration. Not many people did. I wrote it about 12 years ago when public discourse on the subject was at fever pitch. It was an attempt to bring some balance and composure to the debate. How did that work out then?
The book offered a Christian perspective on the debate, so there will, naturally, be millions of people who wouldn’t be interested in reading it. But one who would, I imagine, is the new American president who has made lots of positive noises about the Bible and even quoted it in his Inaugural Address.
Asylum and Immigration argued that we needed to disambiguate the two terms because, although often conflated, they are very different. But it also argued – no, it didn’t argue: it showed – that Old Testament had a consistently positive and sympathetic attitude to a particular groups of foreigners, gerim, often translated ‘aliens’ or ‘sojourners’.
The linguistic roots of the word ger include ‘to stir up strife, create confusion’ and ‘to dread, be afraid’, intimating that the presence of gerim in the community was linked to social unrest or conflict. They, however, were not, it seems, the cause of that strife, to be controlled or evicted, but the victims of it, to be received and helped.
The group was often mentioned alongside hired hands, the poor, widows, and orphans. They were among those who were most in need of wider support because they had no support networks themselves. It would not be an abuse of the English language to render gerim as refugees.
They were to be respected and treated well. To quote a few verses: Exodus 12.49 (“The same law applies to the native–born and to the alien living among you”); Leviticus 19.33–34 (“When an alien [ger] lives with you in your land, do not mistreat him”); Deuteronomy 24.17 (“Do not deprive the foreigner or the fatherless of justice”). There are other comparable commands in the Law – Exodus 20.9–11; Exodus 22.21; Leviticus 19.9–10; Leviticus 23.22; Deuteronomy 14.28–29; Deuteronomy 24.19–22; Deuteronomy 24.14–15; Deuteronomy 26.12–13; Deuteronomy 27:19 – but to quote them all would be to labour the point.
Old Testament Israel, incidentally, was a small and somewhat vulnerable nation, sandwiched between the global superpowers of the day. Such hospitality and welcome was not especially geo–politically strategic.
The Hebrew prophets were as fierce on protecting the alien’s rights as the law was on legislating for them (Ezekiel 22.6–7; Ezekiel 22.29; Jeremiah 7.2–7; Zechariah 7.10; Malachi 3.5… I know it gets wearying) and the early Christians, while not being in a position to legislate for anything, were acutely conscious of their own position as “aliens and strangers in the world” (1 Peter 2.11) “submit[ting] to anything and everything as if they were aliens.” (Letter to Diognetus)
We don’t read modern law from biblical law these days (thankfully) but we can read tone. Whilst hardly naïve about the threat that could be posed by ‘foreigners’, the Bible that Donald Trump allegedly respects and likes to quote, talks of foreigners, and in particular refuge–seeking foreigners in a completely different tone than the President.
We should need to get that far, of course. The mere fact that, according to the CATO Institute, over the last 40 years the number of Americans killed in America by people from Trump’s travel ban countries is approximately zero – and certainly vanishingly smaller than the number killed by gun–wielding Americans (c. 12,000), gun–wielding American toddlers (c. 20), or lawnmowers (c. 70; no I don’t understand that one either). This alone should be reason enough to challenge the President’s recent actions and general rhetoric.
It clearly isn’t. So, let’s offer one last biblical quote to the President of a nation of migrants that has rightly prided itself on its impressive history of welcoming the tired, the poor and the huddled. “Do not oppress a foreigner; you yourselves know how it feels to be foreigners, because you were foreigners in Egypt.” (Exodus 23.9)
Nick Spencer is Research Director at Theos | @theosnick
Copies of his book Asylum and Immigration should be available from all good remainder bookshops.
Image by Gage Skidmore, via Flickr, available under Creative Commons