Asylum and immigration: a Christian perspective

Nick Spencer, September 2004

The publication of Asylum and Immigration: a Christian perspective on a polarised debate by Nick Spencer (Paternoster, 2004) begins an exciting period for the Jubilee Centre, with three separate publications hitting bookshelves over the next eight months. None of them would have been possible without the generosity and commitment of supporters, for which we are extremely grateful.

The issues of asylum and immigration are uniquely modern ones. They are also issues with a future. The development of modern states, the establishment of the 1951 U.N. convention relating to the status of refugees, the end of the cold war, and on-going repression, discrimination, ethnic conflict and civil war around the world have let to an unprecedented number of global refugees and asylum applicants over the last 15 years.

Globalisation, European economic integration, increased labour mobility, improved communication, and cheaper and easier travel have, at the same time, made the international movement of people easier and more attractive, and so increased worldwide immigration levels. Asylum and immigration occasionally drift from our front pages but remain two of the most important issues of the day, with the trends that drive them only set to increase over future decades.

Engaging with the issues

After examining health and healthcare, roots and mobility, political engagement, and money and value in a series of short booklets, the Jubilee Centre decided to tackle the linked but distinct issues of asylum and immigration. In engaging with these issues, we were able, crucially, to draw on Jonathan Burnside’s excellent study The status and welfare of immigrants in biblical law , which offers a forensic and thoughtful analysis of the relevant biblical material. We were also able to make use of the wealth of social research conducted over recent years by, among others, the Home Office into the level, reasons and consequences of immigration and asylum. It was soon clear that a booklet-length treatment would be insufficient and so, in partnership with Paternoster Press, who shared our vision for a serious but accessible Christian examination of these critical issues, we decided to write a full-length analysis, which is published under Jubilee Centre auspices this October.

The first chapter is dedicated to sorting out what we can and can’t say about asylum and immigration. Terminology is subtle and commonly misused, statistics slippery, tempers high, and public opinion, not surprisingly, often confused. Any Christian wishing to engage with the topics needs to recognise these facts and respond accordingly, eschewing inflammatory language, using terminology and statistics as precisely as possible, and, above all, remembering that rather than simply discussing policy, we are dealing with people’s lives, security, relationships and identity, and that at all times we need to maintain a tone of sensitivity, respect and humanity.

The book then looks at the issues of asylum and immigration separately and at some length. The key asylum questions, whilst having a uniquely modern appearance, have their roots in a fundamental, one might even say eternal, tension between legality and justice on one side – in securing one’s borders against the unscrupulous – and mercy and humanity on the other: in welcoming the stranger into our midst and helping him or her to become part of the community. The real debate, whilst affected by particular circumstances is, or at least should be, ethically grounded, addressing the values and priorities that shape social policy and a nation’s culture.

Analysing the debate

The analysis of immigration sorts the debate according to a number of different ‘levels’ and shows how popular discussion often gets stuck on the wrong ones. The most popular question – what is the ‘right’ number of immigrants? – points people towards demography and economics, looking at population size and balance, and the generally (although uncertain and uneven) positive economic impact of immigration on a nation. Obvious as this may seem, focusing the debate here implicitly adopts a notably modern and significantly non-Christian presupposition: that people are to be welcomed according to their economic potential. Hence, the (itself questionable) argument that economy needs immigrants in order to maintain current levels of growth, treats people as fuel and a wealth-generating economy as the machine that demands maintenance at all costs. Accordingly, the chapter on immigration analyses both demographic and economic issues, but also considers social, environmental and cultural ones in order to help us think holistically and biblically about immigration.

Looking at biblical teaching

The following chapters move on to engage with biblical material in an equally detailed and robust way. They firstly examine the reasons why biblical teaching is so helpful for this whole debate. Israel’s and the early church’s geopolitical situations, vulnerably sandwiched between or spread throughout vast, ‘global’ power blocks through which people often moved, made both acutely aware of the plight of the immigrant. Israel’s own origins and identity, rooted in Egypt and the Exodus, and its and the church’s on-going struggle to maintain their cultural distinctiveness further underlie this interest.

This is reflected in the Torah’s detailed legislation and the prophet’s concern for the plight of the ger or alien. ‘When the ger lives with you in your land,’ the Israelites are told in Leviticus chapter 19, ‘do not mistreat him…[He] must be treated as one of your native-born.’ This treatment involved, among other things, protection from abuse, oppression, economic exploitation, and unfair treatment in the courts (Exodus 20:9–11; 22:21), guaranteed harvest gleanings (Leviticus 19:9–10), fair employment practice (Deuteronomy 24:14–15), access to the cities of refuge (Numbers 35:15), and, latterly, even the opportunity to own rural land (Ezekiel 47:21–23). It also involved equal treatment in matters of inadvertent and ‘high-handed’ sin (Numbers 15:29–30), blasphemy (Leviticus 24:10–16), murder, disfigurement and the killing of animals (Leviticus 24:17–22). Likewise, gerim were under the same stipulation as native-born Israelites to ‘keep…statutes and…ordinances’ (Leviticus 18:26).

Jesus Christ and the early church exemplified many of these principles. Luke’s writings, in particular, use Samaritans to explode the indifference, myopia and immorality of ethnic exclusivity. Of the ten lepers healed in Luke chapter 17, the only one who returned to thank Jesus was the Samaritan (Luke 17:11–19). Jesus rebukes James and John in Luke chapter 9 for wanting to call down fire upon a Samaritan village that did not welcome them (Luke 9:51–56). He commands the disciples in Acts chapter 1 to ‘be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria’ (Acts 1–8). Luke then highlights the success of Philip’s mission in Samaria (Acts 8:4–25) and later describes how Paul and Barnabas heard about and then reported the success of the church in Samaria to the council of Jerusalem (Acts 15:3–4).

At the same time, both Israel and the early church placed real emphasis on the importance of community cohesion . Full integration within Israel, which involved participation in the Passover, was only available if a ger was prepared to identify with Israel through circumcision. Refusal incurred no legal or economic forfeit, but it did prevent full belonging, in such a way as points towards the principle of graduated integration. Correspondingly, the New Testament letters testify to the, sometimes painful, attempts to maintain the distinctive, cohesive integrity of the early church. Its boundaries, like Israel’s, were permeable to people but not to values – at least, in theory.

Establishing principles

These elements of biblical teaching (together with much else not discussed in this article) suggest a series of principles that are discussed in the final chapter of the book. They include the fundamental unity of mankind, the reality of nationhood, the permeability of borders to people but not (necessarily) to values, the imperative of loving the alien, the idea of graduated integration, and the optimum balance of rights and responsibilities for both aliens and indigenous communities. While recognising that there is no such thing as an incontestably Christian set of policies on asylum and immigration, understood rightly, this series of principles at least points towards a number of potential policies. The growing importance of both issues means that any serious Christian engagement should attempt, with appropriate humility, to outline what a Christian stance on each actually looks like in practice. We believe Asylum and Immigration has done that and we hope you will agree.

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Category: News and Reviews

September, 2004

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