Not the “LAST” word, but “A” Word on a Biblical view of refugees and sanctuary


With all of the current controversy and discussion in our nation regarding immigration, refugees, the idea of sanctuary and the like – those on all sides of the discussion seem prone to invoke “Christianity” in support of their views, policies and attitudes.

Unfortunately, much of what gets articulated under that banner of acting in a “Christian” manner – at least in my experience thus far – tends to be a more “pop-Christianity” thought process, over and above any real or contextual appeal to how the Bible might actually address these issues. The tossing out of Biblical verses as disconnected platitudes without context. Which then raises the question – does the Bible address these issues at all?

The short answer is yes. The Bible DOES speak directly to roles of government, sanctuary, refugees and the like. Though the data is spare, and set within the context of quasi-theocratic Israel, it does seem that we can consult the text of the Bible for sound principles on which to form a Biblical view on these issues.

While what I will write below is certainly NOT the “last word” on these topics, I hope it is at least “A” word, and that, informed by a Biblical worldview – which all true Christians are duty bound to heed.

Where do we start?

At the outset, we have to admit that formulating a Biblical concept of these issues involves overlapping spheres which I cannot address thoroughly in this short missive. The proper role(s) of human government – its boundaries, strengths and weaknesses is needed. The broader and Biblically informed concept of compassion and its boundaries and conditions is needed. And just plain sound reason is a necessary component. I cannot do all of that here, though I will touch on each. What we can do more manageably is look at several passages which speak specifically to refugees and sanctuary, and from those brief references try to formulate some reasonable principles to guide our thinking.

So I would like to start the discussion with an admittedly brief but telling passage out of the book of Deuteronomy: Deuteronomy 23:15–16 (ESV) “You shall not give up to his master a slave who has escaped from his master to you. 16 He shall dwell with you, in your midst, in the place that he shall choose within one of your towns, wherever it suits him. You shall not wrong him.”

A little background might be helpful.

In this portion of miscellaneous laws and statutes meant to help structure Jewish society come these 2 fascinating verses. The basic ideas are right on the surface.

  1. God takes into account the idea that some “slaves” – ostensibly here from foreign nations (most commentators agree that foreign slaves are being referenced here since there are much more complex laws stated elsewhere regarding Jewish slaves – which is a topic unto itself) would flee from oppressive foreign circumstances to Israel for relief. One commentary helpfully notes: “Wherever slavery existed, there were slaves who escaped from their masters. Ancient Near Eastern law forbade harboring runaway slaves, and international treaties regularly required allied states to extradite them. The present law, in contrast, permits escaped slaves to settle wherever they wish in the land of Israel and forbids returning them to their masters or enslaving them in Israel.” Jeffrey H. Tigay, Deuteronomy, The JPS Torah Commentary (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1996), 215.

This is helpful because it speaks directly to many of those seeking refuge in the United States today. When one is fleeing oppression, God directs His people to be compassionate toward them.

  1. If they are fleeing oppression, then sending them back into that oppression is not an option. “You shall not give up to his master…”
  2. They are to be given freedom to settle wherever they might within the nation. “He shall dwell with you, in your midst, in the place that he shall choose within one of your towns, wherever it suits him.” Sequestering or arranging internment types of corralling is not a directed course.
  3. “You shall not wrong him.” He is to have equal access to the justice system and societal acceptance. He is not to be discriminated against due to his being a foreigner.

So far, so good. And if that were ALL the Bible said about those coming into a new society to avoid persecution or oppression, then many of those advocating for virtually conditionless sanctuary cites or areas would be spot on.

But the Bible speaks to other issues which impact this situation which must also be weighed in the balance.

One of the darker periods of Israel’s past is recorded for us in the book of Judges. In Judges 12, there is an account where a leader named Jephthah arose to wage war against the Ammonites for various crimes committed. As the same time, some of Jephthah’s countrymen from Ephraim disliked his leadership and his attacking the Ammonites without them, in turn threatening war on Jephthah and his followers. In order to protect his borders from invading subversives from Ephraim, at the border, admission to Jephthah’s territory required that the one seeking entrance say the word ‘shibboleth’. Those from Ephraim did not grow up with that pronunciation and would say “sibboleth” instead – omitting the h. Thus they were detected and denied entrance to the territory. The same principle was used during the 2nd world war at the Canadian and US border to detect those who might be crossing illegally. My Dad who was Canadian by birth but had been naturalized as a US citizen, was asked to recite the alphabet when he would cross. If he ended the alphabet with ‘W, X, Y, ZED’ instead of ‘W, X, Y, ZEE’ they knew he was Canadian. They deterred many by this means.

The point is, there may be a reasonable ‘shibboleth’ in our day, and further examination of the OT seems to offer it in regard to those who might seek refuge or sanctuary.

I would suggest the ‘shibboleth’ we need to employ today, is a simple one drawn from the Biblical text and it is repeated a number of times for emphasis. As stated in Ex. 12:49; Num. 15:16 and Numb. 15:29: “There shall be one law for the native and for the stranger who sojourns among you.” Exodus 12:49 (ESV)

What might that look like in our present context? Simply this: One who seeks admission and sanctuary here in our nation, ought to be probed regarding their willingness to abide by our code of law and constitutional government – or they cannot be a part. To speak plainly, it would require a repudiation of seeking, supporting or implementing Sharia law (or any other law system), and agreeing to be governed under the laws of this nation.

As we look elsewhere in God’s economy for those who refuse to abide by Israel’s laws and government – they were to be “cut off” from the congregation. This was true for both native born Jews and foreigners alike. And herein is sound wisdom. For no nation can sustain itself unless those within its confines are subject to that nation’s laws and structures.

Now what becomes evident under such a construct is, that those who are here in the US in direct contradiction to our laws – i.e. illegally – have already excluded themselves from the privilege of sanctuary as intimated by the construct above. They have already demonstrated their unwillingness to be governed by our laws by virtue of having disregarded those laws in the first place.

Now need that be the last word in it? No, I do not think so. It would seem to me that we might begin by examining their circumstances, and giving them opportunity to acknowledge their illegal status, to make amends for breaking the law and providing a path to becoming legalized citizens. But that does still leave the shadow of these having disregarded our laws already, and casts suspicion on their willingness to be governed by our laws in the future. I know no simple answer to that problem. Keener minds than mine may well arrive at a reasonable solution. And I am more than willing to hear what that might look like.

My 3rd and last point here will be exceedingly brief. It is rooted in a principle I have encountered over and over again in the last few years, and one to which I was initially resistant. I was resistant because it is possible to be faultily altruistic, so that what SEEMS really noble, is actually counter productive and even self-defeating.

Every time I take a flight on an airplane, the safety instructions given by the attendants covers the same ground. Ground which includes this direction: “In the event of emergency, put your oxygen mask on first.” The idea is both simple and profound – the one who “heroically” thinks to put the oxygen mask on others before themselves, put themselves in the position of being rendered unable to really assist others. So it is with a society. When we – as noble as it seems – extend ourselves to help others, without safeguarding our own ability to continue to be of use to others we end up doing more damage than good. We MUST help others in need. But we must do so wisely, and in ways which will allow us to continue to help them and not deplete our resources to help, or do so in ways which will actually work counter to being of futher help in the future. This means we will not be able to help all who are worthy of our help. This is a painful reality. It is uncomfortable. And in a society such as ours, recognizing our individual call to be compassionate to human suffering – while not violating other’s rights in the process is a balancing act that requires careful and prayerful consideration.

It is my considered opinion, that if we were to use as undergirding principles the 2 main considerations outlined above – extending the hand of sanctuary and compassion, but with the condition that subjection to our existing laws and system be paramount – we can corporately arrive as wise solutions to the other challenges of how to make that work for the greatest number possible, not just in the present crisis, but in the days to come should the Lord delay His return.

Compassion guided by wisdom. May we learn the art of managing them both under Biblical principles. Then, we can truly bless all involved.





Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s