Immigration

Preaching and Worship Resources about Immigration

Immigration refers to the movement of a person or groups of people from one nation to another. Immigrants, then, are people who arrive in a new place to live, to work, and someday possibly to become full citizens of the nation in which they settle. People may immigrate for a variety of reasons: economic need, displacement due to war or persecution, a desire for a fresh start in a new land. Most nations today have policies regulating ways to enter the country as an immigrant, restrictions on the number of immigrants the country may accept (quotas), penalties for those deemed to have immigrated illegally, and other laws governing the processes for becoming full citizens.

In Scripture

The Bible does not use the more modern terms "immigration" or "immigrant." The world of the Bible — especially in the Old Testament but in also the New Testament — did not understand national borders the way people do today. The extent to which ancient Near East nations such as Egypt or Babylon had any official immigration policies is unclear. There seems to have been greater fluidity of movement among nations in ancient times long before there were such things as passports or customs agents or formal border crossing points that regulated who was allowed to enter a given country.

There is some evidence in the New Testament that the Roman Empire had formalized ways by which to recognize its own citizens. In Acts 22, for instance, Paul protests the treatment he was receiving at the hands of the authorities, and he did so on the basis of his being a natural-born Roman citizen, a designation that carried certain privileges and rights not afforded to non-citizens. The Roman official with whom Paul spoke indicated that he, too, was a Roman citizen but that he had had to pay money to buy his citizenship, indicating that there were legal avenues to become a Roman citizen even when one was technically an immigrant born outside the Empire. Whether this resulted in anything like an early version of a passport or other document is not known, nor is it clear whether such a status had anything to do with one's legal ability to take up residence wherever one wished.

Points to Ponder

The Call of Abram: Despite the Bible's lack of specific language regarding immigration and immigrants as used in the modern world, the concept of being an alien, a stranger, or an outsider goes very far back into biblical history. God's very first word to Abram in Genesis 12 is "Go!" Abram was already an old man, well settled into his estate in the land of Ur. Yet the first requirement God made for Abram was that he become a refugee for the rest of his life, traveling to a land God promised to show him but never finding a settled home again. Indeed, by the time the Abraham story winds down in Genesis 23, we find that Abraham is so dispossessed that he must negotiate the purchase of a plot of land large enough to bury the love of his life, Sarah. For God's covenant people — first Israel and now extending into the new Israel of the church — the experience of being a displaced person — in modern terms, a migrant or an immigrant — was supposed to be an essential part of their spiritual identity.

The Alien within Your Gates: Before the book of Genesis finishes, we find the descendants of Abraham living in yet another foreign land, this time in Egypt. Having fled there due to famine and to come under Joseph's protection, Jacob, his sons, and their families took up residence in Egypt. Across four hundred years there, they grew into a large nation in their own right and were perceived as a threat by pharaohs who had long since forgotten who Joseph was or what he had done for Egypt. So the people were enslaved in Egypt and brutally mistreated. Their infant sons were murdered, and everyone else was worked nearly to death under the whips of cruel taskmasters. God rescued Israel from Egypt under the leadership of Moses, but even this led to forty more years of wilderness wanderings before finally returning to — and taking back from the Canaanites — the Promised Land. Before the Israelites settled into the Promised Land, though, God made clear again and again that they were never to forget the experience of having been a stranger in a strange land — an immigrant — and of being mistreated because that second-tier status. In Leviticus and Deuteronomy, God again and again makes special provisions for "the alien within your gates" so that no foreigner who immigrated to Israel would suffer what the Israelites had in Egypt. Leviticus 19 goes to significant lengths to ensure that foreign-born people living in Israel would not be mistreated but would receive extra help — for example, gleaner laws that demanded some of the harvest be left in the fields to feed those in Israel (such as immigrants) who owned no land or property of their own. God rooted these commands in nothing less than the divine character: "When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God" (Lev. 19:33 - 34).

Ruth and Boaz: It is by no means clear that Israel consistently obeyed God's laws in welcoming the stranger and giving extra provisions to foreigners residing in Israel. But the Bible's premier example of the good that can result when such laws were obeyed is the story of Ruth. Ruth was a widow who hailed from Moab but who traveled to Israel, to the town of Bethlehem, when she accompanied her bereft (and also widowed) mother-in-law, Naomi, back to her ancestral home. As a woman, a widow, and a foreigner, Ruth had three strikes against her. She was as vulnerable to exploitation and abuse as a person could be in the ancient world. But by God's providence she gleans in the fields of Boaz, a righteous man who followed God's laws for helping aliens. Boaz's generosity toward this Moabite woman — and his subsequent marriage to her — saved the lives of Ruth and Naomi. Ruth and Boaz even become ancestors of Jesus of Nazareth. So Jesus's own family tree includes the experience of being an immigrant, and indeed Jesus could not have been born had a number of aliens within Israel's gates not been treated justly and well.

Jesus as the Ultimate Immigrant: The gospel of John in its lyrical opening chapter makes it clear that in a sense, the Word of God who had been with God from the beginning became the ultimate displaced person when he took on flesh and entered this world. Jesus came from the outside, and even though he had made the whole world, once he arrived in this world the world did not receive him. He was rejected by everyone, including even his own people, the Jews, who had the best opportunity to recognize him. But they did not. Once his ministry was underway, Jesus once said of himself, "Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head" (Matt. 8:20). As a stranger in this world, Jesus would go from rejection to rejection until finally he was killed. Once again, the experience of being an outsider is seared deeply into the heart of God's own Son and becomes now part of the identity of his church. Paul assures Gentiles who come from outside of Israel that God has accepted them after all: "Remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. . . . So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God" (Eph. 2:12 - 13, 19). But for all God's people, Jews and Gentiles alike, the sense of displacement continues as we know our truest citizenship is in God's kingdom, not in this world.

Implications for the Church: The Bible speaks of food and its preparation but is not intended to be a cookbook. The Bible speaks of the creation of the universe and the movements of the heavens but is not intended to be a science textbook. Similarly, the Bible speaks of how to treat strangers and aliens and what we today would call immigrants in our midst, but it is not intended to be a guidebook for public policy. The modern world and its politics — including the issues of immigration — are complex with economic, national security, and justice implications. Each nation surely has a right to govern its own borders and set policies it believes to be fair toward its own citizens as well as to those who may hope to take up residence there. Many in the modern church, however, believe that the Bible-wide theme of being sensitive to strangers — stretching from Abram to Jesus to the followers of Jesus — indicates that the church at least needs to advocate for policies that are as kind and merciful to immigrants as possible. Whatever ways a given nation may (or may not) welcome aliens, the church's posture takes its cues from God's laws for ancient Israel as well as from New Testament injunctions to practice hospitality, and we lean into our own identity as aliens in this present world while we await the full arrival of our true home in the kingdom of God.


Scripture quotations are from New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.