There has been a lot of discussion about immigration lately, about foreigners. It is part of the political dialogue that we live in. In the light of this discussion I am posting a revision of a column that I wrote on the topic for Equipped, the magazine of the German-speaking Vineyard movement. The whole issue will be about the immigrant/ foreigner, especially the Roma, so my column was on the biblical words and their use. However, that was written in German for Germanic countries, so I have re-edited it to share here. While it is clear that our governments and politics do not recognize the authority of Jesus and his Father (nor do we as believers recognize the positions of our national governments and politics when they do not match up with the positions of our King), it is also clear that Scripture has something relevant to say.
The term foreigner/stranger/immigrant (i.e. the person of foreign origin presently living in the land, and who therefore hand no land, which was in those days the “capital” needed for production, and especially as these terms are translations of the Hebrew gēr, or Greek xenos) appears in over 190 verses of the Bible. Abraham and Israel start out as immigrants, originally in Canaan (e.g. Gen 23.4) or in Egypt (e.g. Deut 26.5, part of the basic confession of Israel); this historical tradition became the subject of Hebrew songs (e.g. Ps 105.12,23). So in its historical tradition Israel experienced what it meant to be a foreigner and therefore to be vulnerable and mistreated because of this status. Even when Israel received its “own” land (God always considered them foreigners and tenants on his land, e.g. Lev 25.23, so in a sense the land was never theirs), the people were not to forget this historical experience, but to receive and care for foreigners precisely because they remembered it. This meant that they must not oppress the immigrants (e.g. Exod 22.21; 23.9), they must share with them as they shared with the native born who had no land (e.g. Lev 19.10; Deut 26.12), they are to treat the foreigner in every respect as a citizen, for they must “love the foreigner as one of you” (Lev 19.34). Furthermore, there was to be “one law” for foreigner and citizen (Lev 24.22; Num 15.16), so there should be no legal discrimination against the immigrant. Job boasts that he fulfilled these instructions (Job 29.16; 31.32). Such actions will receive God’s blessing; indeed, Isaiah tells us that a mark of God’s blessing is that foreigners will join themselves to God’s people (e.g. Isa 14.1; 61.5). Unfortunately, Israel did not live this way, so God first warned them to turn back, follow his directives, and stop oppressing the foreigner (e.g. Jer 7.6; 22.3; Ezek 22.7; Zech 7.10; Mal 3.5) and then when they failed to respond he send another type of foreigners, hostile foreigners, to destroyed Israel, an irony not lost on the prophets.
In the New Testament the picture changes. The theme of caring for the foreigner is still there (Jesus in Matt 25.25,38,43,44; Paul in Rom 12.13; cf. Heb 13.2), but there is a grander thought process going on. Paul noted that Gentiles believers used to be foreigners to the people of God, immigrants if they lived among them rather than Jews living in foreign lands, but now these foreigners have become, not a type immigrant into Israel, but full citizens (Eph 2.12,19). Because of this fact, to Christians race, nationality, class or gender no longer count – all are equally part of one people of God (Gal 3.26,28-29) and should be treated as such.
Conversely, all believers are now foreigners with respect to this age (Heb 11.13). We may have been born US Americans, Canadians, or some other nationality, but we have been “born again” part of the people of God (1 Pet 1.3,23; 2.9-10). Because of this we are now foreigners in the land that we were physically born in (1 Pet 2.11) and as foreigners, 1 Peter adds, experience discrimination and rejection, for we have a different lifestyle. Believers are to live faithfully in this “exile,” for their king is coming, not to take them out of this world to some otherworldly home, but to take over this world and establish the justice that he demanded. The “foreigners” (from the view of the this age) will take over and, under their equally foreign king, rule.
So there are two sides to the attitude of the Bible towards the immigrant or foreigner. To the extent that God has a voice in politics (as he did in Israel and certainly should for those submitted to Jesus today), the foreigner is to be welcomed and treated just as the citizen. Because he or she often comes with less and does not have community roots (i.e. they often lack today’s means of production just as in ancient times they lacked land, the then means of production), they are to be cared for like Israel was to care for the widow, the orphan and the Levite. God will judge those who discriminate against the immigrant or foreigner. That is one side of the equation.
But to the extent that we are the people of God, we recognize that (1) there are no foreigners or immigrants in the community of God’s people, just fellow-citizens of the kingdom (to be treated as citizens in all respects), and (2) we are also foreigners in this age, part of a different people, God’s people (which also means that we do not treat the immigrant as the culture around us may treat him or her). We will indeed “inherit the land” as God’s people, but not now, for our king has not yet returned. Because of this experience of being foreign (even if we were physically born in the land we live in) we can identify with those who are foreigners because of their physical birth, and we can show them the welcome that God has shown to us, not just a “spiritual” welcome, but a welcome that refuses to treat them in any way other than the way God instructed his people to treat immigrants, the way God himself has treated us.