Migrants and refugees: A Christian perspective

November 30, 2015

Migrants and refugees.  Refugees and migrants. Boat people arriving in Italy by the hundred. Train people arriving in Munich by the ten thousand. Families seeking shelter on Greek islands, people stumbling along tracks in Serbia and Slovenia, young men tearing down fences in Calais. It seems as if a whole world is on the move, heading for the north of Europe. And dying on the way - in decrepit fishing boats, capsized inflatables, locked trucks, and under-sea tunnels. In Europe, cheering crowds and kind donors greet some. But there are protest marches, too. And much fear. Politicians seem similarly unsure and divided. Stirred by the agony of war and the desire for prosperity, multiplied by the power of the smartphone and social media, the human tide appears to be unending. What on earth are we to make of it? What on earth should or could we be doing about it?

Then came a terrible Friday evening in Paris, and the subsequent reports that at least two of the perpetrators had entered Europe among the flow of migrants to Greek islands. Does that change everything – or anything? Should our armed forces step up their role in the “war” against ISIL, even if that creates more refugees?    Should we police our borders more tightly? The problem just got even harder, as charitable instincts run up against the stern demands of security and justice. What should be done about the refugees and migrants?

Many Christians look to the Bible for insight – and find to their surprise that it is, from beginning to end, a story of migrants and a handbook for refugees. Adam and Eve expelled from Eden, Noah left wandering a deluged world, Abraham moving as a landless stranger through Canaan. A whole nation fleeing slavery and oppression in Egypt – and experiencing violence, thirst and hunger along the way. A hunger-driven family in Moab, and a widow returning with a migrant daughter-in-law. David, persecuted, living in a cave and then a political refugee among the Philistines, his bitter enemies. Jeremiah dragged unwillingly by die-hard insurgents, from a war-torn land  into Egypt. Ezra leading a vulnerable company across the desert to a new home in an ancient homeland. Jesus himself, a child fleeing into a foreign land from a murderous tyrant. Jesus understanding the vulnerability of the refugee – “Run! - don’t even stop to collect your belongings from the house, terrible it will be for pregnant women and for mothers nursing their babies…and pray that your flight will not be in winter”. Peter’s address to the Christians who received his first Epistle: “I am writing to God’s chosen people who are living as foreigners in the lands of Pontus, Galatia, etc,” And Revelation 12, with its vivid, mysterious description of the church-woman who fled into the desert  to escape the terrible dragon, and its reassurance that “God had prepared a place to give her care.” I repeat, the Bible is, from beginning to end, a story of migrants and a handbook for refugees. No wonder God’s people are told, “You shall not oppress a resident alien; you know the heart of an alien, for you were foreigners in the land of Egypt”, (Exodus 23:9), and to “show love to the foreigners who come into your land”,for our God “shows love to the foreigners living among you and gives them food and clothing” (Deut 10:18f) But how do we show that care?

In a representative democracy, it is for our government to administer or change policy on immigration. And there are many complexities surrounding this flood of humanity. Illegal immigrants are at the mercy of ruthless gangs of people-smugglers while they travel, and of unscrupulous employers when they’ve arrived. Too many find that the land of their dreams is little more than slavery. A flood of poor migrants, receiving welfare and being given priority social housing, can arouse fears and prejudice, especially among the unemployed and previous groups of immigrants, who see them as rivals for scarce resources in an era of austerity. Second-generation refugees can be fertile ground for the spread of extremist propaganda. And, yes, among the arrivals there may lurk men and women intent on horrific violence. Yet, at the same time,  economists insist that immigration stimulates the nation’s prosperity and fills jobs that cannot otherwise be filled. Statisticians warn of many European countries with shrinking or ageing  populations  and record low birth-rates, for which immigration holds out the hope of improvement.

In recent years – and over past centuries – Britain has absorbed large numbers of refugees and migrants. Many have flourished here, and been successfully absorbed into British society. But that has not been achieved without stress or setbacks. In the latest annual statistics, net immigration stood at over 300,000 – the equivalent of a whole new city in one year. Is there a limit to the numbers that can be received? Is there a maximum rate of immigration that the nation’s resources and attitudes can cope with? How should nations respond to groups that foment violence? Is there a “right balance” between welcoming the refugees and safeguarding our society? Christians may feel that we have little influence over a modern, secular government, but we can think through such issues. We must pray wisely for our leaders,  with a measure of understanding of the dilemmas they face. We should also let them know our own compassionate concern for the afflicted and the outcast. We must urge them to do what is right, not taking the path of cheap political expediency to please a strident media or even a prejudiced majority. And we can plead with God to overrule our rulers – and the leaders of violence – for “the king’s heart is in the hands of God”  (Proverbs 21:1) 

More immediately, we can obey God’s command to “give food and clothing” by contributing to charities and relief organisations. There are so many of these competing for our gifts.  But here are a couple of guidelines you might like to consider:

i) Look for a charity that has been around for a while and which works through trusted and experienced people and churches “on the ground”. That’s what Tearfund has tried to do over the past 50 years, working through local churches in places where there is need. In supporting Tearfund through the Free Church’s mergency relief fund, we are doing our best to avoid many of the mistakes and the wastefulness that government aid and brash new charities often fall into.

ii) Look for a Christian organisation that feeds souls as well as bodies – in other words, a gospel ministry. Migrants and refugees – many of them traumatised by war and violence – need more than food or clothing. They need to find inner peace, hope for the future – and perhaps grace to lift deep guilt from their consciences. In other words, they need the gospel. Many of them have problems that a sandwich, a soft toy, or even a house, can’t fix. In God’s mysterious purposes, upheavals in the lives of nations and individuals may be his way of opening them up to hear and receive a gospel that they’ve never heard before. It is not fashionable – even in some evangelical Christian circles – to bring together works of charity and the preaching of the gospel. But we serve the Saviour who both fed the 5,000 and proclaimed to them “I am the Bread of Life”.   

You may have to look a little harder to find such ministries – but they are out there! For example, for nearly 200 years City Missions such as those in Glasgow, Edinburgh and London, have been feeding homeless and hungry refugees from  wars and pogroms and revolutions, and telling them the Good News of Jesus.  And there’s the Bethany Christian Trust that links with several of our Free Church congregations. Similar “Stadtmissionen” in Germany will be doing the same at this time of crisis, around the railway stations and in the migrant hostels of Berlin, Leipzig, Dresden, etc. Rescue Missions in the USA do the same work of mercy and grace for migrants from Latin America. Such organisations – and there are many others, too – provide good channels for individuals and churches who want to do something to help.

And remember this – the refugee road is a two-way street.

A Bible School in the former Soviet Union reports that many of the young men trained as pastors in recent years, have migrated to the West and are now working as plumbers in the USA. In contrast, a doctor and his family fled from a war-torn Islamic country, and reached Europe. But there something happened to them that they never expected. People who gave them food and shelter and practical help also told them about Jesus Christ, the Son of God. They became Christians – and soon they turned around and travelled back to their troubled homeland, determined to give themselves to meet the needs of those who had not fled to Europe. Today they are providing medical help in an area that has very little provision, and they are living and speaking as Christians in a land where the Gospel has seldom been heard. You’ll not read of them in the newspapers or see them on the BBC News. 

Refugees and migrants. Migrants and refugees. A messy crisis in a fallen world - but one that touches the heart of God and his firm promise to bring blessing to all the families of the earth.

Rev Dr John Nicholls

Rev Dr John Nicholls is Moderator Designate of the 2016 Free Church of Scotland General Assembly

To see a series of articles on the migrant crisis, written by Christians from different countries around the world, visit the website of the World Reformed Fellowship, of which the Free Church is a member.