In ET, July 2004, I wrote an article entitled, ‘The stranger within our gates’. Our Stockton congregation, like others, was experiencing an influx of asylum seekers.
Some of the challenges included providing food, helping with accommodation and attending appeals against deportation.
The situation impacted upon our worship and we ended up providing sermon notes in Turkish, and in French for DRC Congolese. Recently we have helped a european economic migrant. He had minimal English, and much time was spent overcoming the language barrier to complete forms for financial benefits so that his landlord could be paid.
It is evident that, without border controls, such scenarios if multiplied would lead to unsustainable situations. How should Christians react to mass migration, whether economic or refugee? What perspective does the Bible bring on the modern phenomenon of mass migration?
The first migration resulted from sin. God sent Adam out of the Garden of Eden and prevented his return there (Genesis 3:23-24). But Adam and Eve left with the promise that the seed of the woman would bruise the head of the serpent (Genesis 3:15). They could journey in hope if striving against sin.
After the Fall there would be various migrations, but, at that time, in conditions that would not cause economic stress. Vast territories, replete with resources, awaited the ancient settlers. The migrants were equipped with the necessary physical energy and intellectual gifts to replenish and subdue the earth.
In contrast, much of the world today is densely populated and cannot absorb large numbers of migrants without serious impact on resources. Policy needs to be directed to utilising new, sustainable regions of the world.
The early dispersals of mankind were amid the conditions described in Genesis 6:5, where ‘the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually’. It remains true today that all alike, migrants and residents, are sinners.
It is not xenophobic to be realistic about sin, and we must not be naïve in exercising compassion. Migrants bring their sins with them and, in some cases, selfishness and deceit are evident. In our own experience, we soon found that some asylum seekers were economic migrants. The passage of time drew a sharp line between the authentic and spurious.
One couple’s main reason for coming to the UK was the education of their son — they wanted a large loan from a church member to set up in business! We had one professing Christian who defrauded the church of money, to send home to Africa for his daughters’ schooling. Had he been honest about that need, we would have most likely helped anyway. Thankfully, the bad are counterbalanced by those who settle into useful work and Christian churches.
After the Flood, mankind was dispersed, this time from Shinar. Moses records that ‘the Lord scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city. Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the Lord did there confound the language of all the earth: and from thence did the Lord scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth’ (Genesis 11:8-9).
This very significant migration shaped the nations of world history. At Babel, factors militating against multiculturism were introduced, since the languages spoken and ways of thinking were completely diversified. To this day this problem has not been surmounted, even by Christians. Migration has brought into Britain African churches, Korean churches, Chinese churches, and others.
Individual stories of migration might be remarkable, but the migration of the children of Israel was miraculous. The Exodus, wilderness wanderings, and entrance into Canaan were accompanied by demonstrations of divine power. God led the Israelites out of Egypt with a mighty hand, sustained them in the wilderness, and gave them manna from heaven and water from the rock. He gave his law with displays of his glory and omnipotence.
Believers can see in all of this a vivid picture of divine omnipotence at work in our spiritual pilgrimage. We are delivered from the power of darkness. We are spiritually nourished by Christ the living bread, and Christ is our Rock, smitten that we might drink of the water of life.
Jewish exile in Babylon came about as a result of several enforced deportations that reduced the wayward Israelites to slavery once again. Out of these migrations arose new lives in a new country.
The migrants had no rights, but, by diligent labour, men like Daniel rose to high office in their new home, following, in spirit, the instruction of Jeremiah: ‘Build ye houses, and dwell in them; and plant gardens, and eat the fruit of them; take ye wives, and beget sons and daughters … And seek the peace of the city … and pray unto the Lord for it: for in the peace thereof shall ye have peace’ (Jeremiah 29:5-7).
This counsel remains relevant for migrants today, who need to settle constructively and seek the peace of friendly host nations.
Christ as refugee
In Matthew 2:13-14 we read of Christ’s migration following the visit of the wise men. Throughout his ministry, he was no resident, but passed from place to place. In infancy an enemy sought to destroy him. His experience as a refugee, commencing with an escape by night, was a vivid reminder of the agony of the cross yet to come.
Redemption could not be accomplished in a tranquil way, for ‘without the shedding of blood there is no remission’. Just as God brought Israel out of the Egyptian bondage with a mighty hand, so the greater spiritual reality was accomplished in Christ — ‘Out of Egypt have I called my son’ (Matthew 2:15).
Israel’s migrations began with Abraham’s migration from Mesopotamia, through the Fertile Crescent, into the land of Canaan. It was in many ways the beginning of a new life for Abraham, but, best of all, of a new, spiritual journey.
‘By faith Abraham, when he was called to go out into a place which he should after receive for an inheritance, obeyed; and he went out, not knowing whither he went. By faith he sojourned in the land of promise, as in a strange country … For he looked for a city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God’ (Hebrews 11:8-10).
This reminds us that we too must recognize the spiritual opportunities that migration can bring.In the providence of God, it can be a means of building Christ’s kingdom. It has certainly led to some multi-racial congregations in the UK that give visible expression to Paul’s dictum, ‘all one in Christ Jesus’. Paul writes of believers, ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus’ (Galatians 3:28).
From its inception, the Christian church has been cosmopolitan. Moreover, the qualifications for ministerial office are not social class or ethnicity, but relate to godly character, preaching gifts, biblical doctrine and divine vocation.
Christians cannot afford to neglect the call of providence to address the socio-economic implications of mass migration.
The economics of life can be cruel and brutal, because resources are limited. In consequence, compassion is costly. If a household of limited means takes in a family of refugees, each family member will feel the pinch. It is the same for a nation. Entire populations could face unsustainable burdens through mass immigration.
It is no good proclaiming ‘compassion’ without an eye to ‘cost’. We live in a fallenworld and Calvary reminds us that the Saviour’s compassion had to be self-sacrificing compassion. There is no other way to responsible compassion and no government can legislate compassion.
We must pray for our rulers. At the very time when the Christian message is most relevant for Europe, European governments, including our own, are marginalising Christianity and seeking to control its expression. In consequence, we are ill prepared as a nation for the challenges of mass migration.
But God’s gracious message is still: ‘Seek ye the Lord while he may be found, call ye upon him while he is near’ (Isaiah 55:6).
Roy Mohon is the minster of the Presbyterian Reformed Church, Stockton-on-Tees.