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OPINION - migration and asylum

The Rt Rev Paul Butler, Bishop of Durham, explains what the Bible says about migration and asylum.

Read time: 4 minutes and 16 seconds

The public debate surrounding issues of migration and asylum can be complex, overtly political and emotionally charged. As a member of the House of Lords, involved in discussing refugee policy, I often find I need to step back and focus on the theological fundamentals I find in Scripture. Far from being opaque, the biblical story sets out a clear vision of how individuals, society and nations should treat the “foreigner” and “stranger” and Christians enjoy a deep theological well to draw upon.

The biblical story sets out a clear vision of how individuals, society and nations should treat the “foreigner” and “stranger”.

Migration is not simply a background scene to biblical events, but the displacement of people is woven throughout the pages and is fundamental to understanding the meaning of the text. Nearly every major figure that comes to mind, can be defined as a migrant or refugee at some point in their story. Abraham, answering the call from God to leave home to found a new nation. Moses leading the Israelites from slavery to find sanctuary in a promised land. Joseph being trafficked to Egypt. Daniel exiled to Babylon, serving his host nation. Naomi, returning home from Moab with her daughter-in-law Ruth, after losing her inheritance. I could go on, including to Jesus whose parents were forced to escape Herod’s terror campaign as political refugees. Migration is not just a literary tool however, but a lived reality from which people are navigating their walk with God and trying to understand his purposes. The Ukraine war and other conflicts around the world today, have pushed the number of people forced to flee violence and persecution, staggeringly to over 100 million for the first time. The size of the numbers involved clearly requires an international response, in which the United Kingdom must play its full role. The bible does not shy away from the pain of oppression and the loss of home in its words, and neither should we. Behind each and every statistic, lies a story of unimaginable suffering and survival.

The bible does not shy away from the pain of oppression and the loss of home in its words.

The three law codes set out in the Old Testament speak to those in authority and community members alike about how to respond to the stranger within their land. It is an inclusive code where the instruction is clear to treat outsiders as equal. It was as radical in Moses’ time as it is today, as God calls for them to be loved and accepted, not just through the provision of basic support but as if they were “native born”. Deuteronomy states “You should not subvert the rights of the stranger”. The mandate put to God’s people in Israel is not just a societal expectation but an expression of God’s compassion and justice. God’s justice demands justice for all. The UN Refugee Convention, a legal international universal instrument, states “Protection is not a simple concession made to the refugee: he is not an object of assistance, but rather a subject of rights and duties.” A human rights understanding of refugee policy is not simply legalistic and practical but divinely inspired.

Christianity OPINION - migration and asylum

As a Bishop, I am continually overwhelmed by people’s willingness to open up their homes and lives to welcome people from other parts of the globe. Any theology of migration must be practical in nature. God’s concern for the wellbeing of the stranger and marginalised is clear in Christian teaching as it’s a biblical mandate over our lives. Our response to refugees must move beyond the upholding of legal rights to relationship. In fact, radical hospitality and an inclusive welcome is held up as a mark of those who follow Jesus. In Matthew Chapter 25, Jesus says “For I was a stranger and you invited me in.” We have a choice to respond to the unsettling realities of today with fear or with love. Christians are called to see the face of God in those different from us.

Jesus says “For I was a stranger and you invited me in.”

In Parliament, we await yet another Bill related to asylum and as I prepare to engage in the legislative process, it has been helpful to take stock again of the biblical principles that are important to this area of policy. Ultimately the people of God in the Old and New Testaments, through their experience of needing to seek sanctuary elsewhere and living under oppression in Kingdoms other than their own, grew to learn that God is not just concerned with them but with everyone. This revelation occurs not in despite of their circumstance but because of their forced displacement.

Fundamentally God is not tied to geography or place but to people, and where we act justly and offer hospitality to the refugee, God is present. Migration can pose challenges in the modern world but they are not insurmountable and in fact present an opportunity for radical hospitality. As Rev Dr Samuel Wells eloquently put it “By the way we receive this challenge, the Christian community demonstrates who we realise we are and who we believe God is.”