Thinking about Immigrants

2nd September 2015

History may record 2nd September 2015 as when the 2015 European immigrant crisis really impacted the hearts and minds of people throughout the world. For that was when a dead child's body (that of Aylan Shenu) was washed up on the shores of Bodrum, southern Turkey and millions saw a photo of a Turkish police officer carrying away the migrant child's dead body in his arms. This was after a boat carrying refugees sank while trying to reach the Greek island of Cos.

As this image of the police officer and dead child went viral around the world through TV, the press and social media, thousands of refugees and migrants arrived in Athens and other European cities; and across Europe there was now desperation as Governments tried to cope with the huge influx of people fleeing war and repression in the Middle East and Africa. So how should Christians think about this crisis? How is the Bible of help? Well, certainly we need to start with its teaching on the "stranger or sojourner".

The "stranger or sojourner"

In the Old Testament the "stranger or sojourner" is someone who is permanently living in what to him or her is a foreign country in terms of their parentage. This is in contrast to the foreigner whose stay is short. The stranger or sojourner is significant in the Old Testament for God's people were themselves "sojourners" in Egypt; and that experience conditioned how the Israelites themselves treated such people when back in their own land (Deut 10.19). These sojourners could either be individuals or they could be a whole tribe like the Gibeonites (Jos 9.3ff) or the remnants of the Canaanite tribes after the Israelites had conquered Canaan. And they were well treated. They were not enslaved. Rather they had a range of privileges. Fundamentally they were not to be oppressed (Ex 22.21). In fact Leviticus chapter 19.33-34 says:

"When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God."

In practical terms there were economic benefits for sojourners. At harvest time some of the field was left for them, and also some grapes in the vineyard (Lev 19.9-10). Then there was the protection of being able to use the cities of refuge (Num 35.15). And, supremely, God would class sojourners along with the fatherless and widow as being defenceless and in need of defending. So God would, indeed, judge their oppressors (Jer 7.6).

The sojourners, however, were not free to ignore all Jewish restraints. They had to avoid leaven during the feast of Unleavened bread; avoid work on the Sabbath and on the Day of Atonement; avoid eating blood; and avoid immorality, idolatry and blasphemy. But a male was not compelled to keep the Passover but could do so if circumcised. So there was a level of integration and assimilation required from sojourners if they wanted to stay in the land.

Jesus' teaching and the New Testament

In the New Testament we read that Jesus endorsed this Old Testament care for the stranger or sojourner in his final Parable in Matthew's Gospel (the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats) that is on the final judgment. In this he says that on that Judgment Day …

"before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats."

The goats are the ones he condemns, while the sheep are the ones he commends, among other things, for "welcoming strangers" when the stranger is "one of the least of these my brothers" – that is to say, one of Jesus' followers. For, said Jesus, it was as though "you did it [offered that welcome] to me" (Mat 25.33ff); but failing to offer such welcome would incur fearful judgment. Then there is the Pauline teaching that the Christian should "do good to everyone and especially to those who are of the household of faith" (Gal 6.10). So in accordance with that instruction the Christian tradition has extended this care for the stranger to "everyone" while especially caring for Christian believers.

Contemporary responses

In the light of this biblical teaching regarding Christian "strangers and sojourners" it is good, therefore, that the Archbishop of Canterbury has challenged the Government's refugee policy as discriminating against Christians who are facing persecution. The Church Times reported (18 September 2015):

"in a private meeting with the Prime Minister on Monday, Archbishop Welby warned that Christians were likely to be excluded from the 20,000 refugees who were scheduled to come to the UK in the next five years, because of Mr Cameron's decision to take refugees directly from UN camps in Syria and bordering countries. Many Syrian Christians avoided the camps for fear of religious persecution … In a speech in the House of Lords on Monday, Archbishop Welby said that the Christian population had been 'forced to flee' from rogue Islamist groups."

Surely such neglect of genuine Christian refugees and asylum seekers is particularly serious in the light of Jesus' teaching in Matthew 25 that failing to welcome one of his followers when a stranger will incur divine judgment! But then in the light of all the biblical teaching Christians are arguing that obviously we must show compassion to these hundreds of thousands of people risking life and limb to escape from what they consider to be intolerable situations. In August it was reported by the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) that the number of refugees and migrants crossing the Mediterranean to reach Europe in 2015 was over 300,000 – up from 219,000 in the whole of 2014. And this year over 2,500 have died trying to make the crossing.

However, Canon J.John helpfully insists that in this discussion we need to add four "I's" to compassion. They are to be involved (as we are able), to be intelligent (in our analysis of the problems), to have integrity (in being honest and facing uncomfortable facts), and, essentially, to intercede (be praying).

Immigration and an uncomfortable fact

One uncomfortable fact, too often ignored, is that Europe has a declining population through low fertility. According to the UN over the next 15 years to 2030 there will be a slow decline in Europe of 4 million (from 738 million to 734 million). Then the next 20 years sees a more dramatic decline of 27 million (to 707 million). However, one of the lessons of modern social science is that no wealthy, industrialized nation can prop up its fertility rate without large-scale immigration. It needs such immigration to survive economically.

It is always difficult talking about "low fertility". For at the same time as there are such demographic problems, there are always some who are desperate to have children, but for one reason or another cannot have them. So for them the discussion is painful. But it is such a serious problem that it must be addressed. Other people react negatively to discussions about fertility because they think it is a "right wing" concern and they are of the "left" in politics.

Then there are yet others (politicians on both right and left) who will only think in 5 year spans and the next General Election and how to remain in power. But policies regarding fertility relate to 10-30 years ahead, need to be tough and may lose votes. 10-30 years ahead is when the oldest generation with replacement levels of fertility dies off. Until then there is an illusion of well-being as the population continues to grow. But after that low fertility really has serious consequences.

The Guardian Weekly

Currently, however, it is the left wing that has been alerting people to these consequences. The Guardian Weekly leading article for the beginning of September 2015 was headlined "Europe in need of a baby boom". The sub-headings were, "Birthrate fall is a threat to economic prosperity" and "Immigration could avert population disaster". It then outlined the fact that some European countries are in a very serious condition, including Germany. It reports that

"the UN predicts that, by 2030, the percentage of Germans in the workplace will drop 7% to just 54%; this is despite a strong influx of young migrant labourers. To offset this shortage, Germany needs to welcome an average of 533,000 immigrants every year, which gives context to the estimate that 800,000 refugees are due to come to Germany this year."

It is generally agreed that replacement fertility level is an average of 2.1 children for every woman of child bearing age. The UN's latest figures are that the European Union's average is only 1.6, the lowest in the world. However, there are wide variances within Europe. The UN says that Portugal is 1.28, Spain is 1.32, Greece and Hungary are 1.34, Poland is 1.37, Germany is 1.39, Italy is 1.43, the Czech Republic is 1.45; Russia is 1.66, the UK is 1.92 and France is 2.00 (with regard to those last two figures it needs to be noted that the UK's exceptionalism is due to the large number of births to immigrant mothers). The seriousness of the situation is particularly evident in Portugal. The Guardian Weekly reports that in real terms Portugal's population could drop from 10.5 million to 6.3 million by 2060; and it reports that in Spain the charity Democratic Renaissance claims,

"Most people think we're only talking about something that will be a problem in 50 years, but we're already seeing part of the problem. If current numbers hold, every new generation of Spaniards will be 40% smaller than the previous one."

Not surprisingly the Prime Minister of Portugal, Pedro Coelho, has called on the EU to make falling birthrates a priority in the next five years. A Portuguese Commission claims that a failure to reverse the demographic crisis could leave Portugal "unsustainable in terms of economic growth, social security and the welfare state." And it is the same with Italy where there are plans for a "baby bonus". So the Guardian Weekly concludes:

"across huge swaths of the European Union, longstanding communities are disappearing and the social burden on the young is becoming unsustainable. Meanwhile Cos, Lampedusa and on the Hungarian border, tens of thousands plead to be allowed in."

Integration not Multiculturalism

But there is another fundamental hard fact to be faced once the hard fact of the demographic deficit is faced and the need for immigrants admitted. That is the need for integration and assimilation of immigrants and not unfettered multiculturalism. For if the immigrants have an aggressive religion and so aggressive culture (with religion at the heart of culture), the host's culture will be gradually shaped by the immigrants' religion and, in the case of European countries, lose those cultural distinctives for which the immigrants have emigrated in the first place – namely peace, good order and freedom!

The hard fact is that multiculturalism is the inevitable consequence of a host's own relativistic culture where there is no absolute right or wrong (such as with the secularism of many Europeans). But such multiculturalism will not defeat a militant religious culture (such as Islamic extremism). For multiculturalism means that no one culture is normative for a society. However a society cannot hold together without some common values or the 'collective conscience' of the society. The sociologist, Peter Berger, puts it like this:

"Without those shared values, a society begins to disintegrate because the behavioural choices of individuals become completely arbitrary. Morality becomes a matter of idiosyncratic preference and ceases to be subject to public argument: 'You think that slavery is okay; I don't. You have the right to your opinion. I won't be judgmental. I won't try to impose my views on you.' …

Relativism, with its individual rather than collective morality, is an invitation to nihilism. It can also be described as decadence – defined as a situation in which the norms that hold a society together have been hollowed out, have become illusionary and likely risible, and (most important) have undermined the trust that other people will behave in accordance with collectively shared norms. A decadent society doesn't have much of a future: it lacks the will to defend itself even against very real dangers to its very existence."

There has to be integration and assimilation, but with cultural distinctives except where they are contrary, in the case of Britain, to British values. These (democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs) are only sustainable with the assumption of the values of "truth" and the "Christian tradition" (see British Values: Jesmond Conference '15).

The recovery of the Gospel

So how should the Christian respond to the immigration crisis? We should show compassion but not only compassion. We need also to be involved, be intelligent, with integrity and be interceding.

Involvement means we should seek to do good to all immigrants who come our way. In the public realm intelligence means we should have a concern for a settlement of immigrants in Europe such that a host country and an immigrant community can both live "a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way" (1 Tim 2.2). Integrity means that we face the fact of the Christian tradition of Europe and the fact that a large number of immigrants will be Muslim, many of whom will be law abiding citizens, but some, sadly, may be "extreme" and potentially violent. Christians among the immigrants, therefore, should especially be protected and enabled freely to witness to, and live for, Christ amongst their fellow immigrants. A commitment to such religious freedom and the freedom to convert should be a condition of entry for migrants.

But most important of all is intercession. We should pray for practical wisdom for the leaders of the European nations in handling the immigration crisis. We should pray for peace in the Middle East to stem the tide of refugees. We should pray for a revival of the Christian faith in Europe; among other things the consequential return to Christian marital and sexual ethics would reduce the demographic deficit. We should pray for our part on Tyneside in that revival. And we should pray for the growth of our own International work at JPC. This already is a wonderful live demonstration that you can be multicultural (without multiculturalism) and enjoy the richness of each other's cultures without conflict. But that is assured if, and only if, "you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Gal 3.28).

Back to top