In the fifteen years since the sinking of the SIEV X, known as the ‘children overboard’ incident, people smugglers have facilitated the unauthorised arrival in Australia by boat of tens of thousands of asylum seekers. Phrases like ‘stop the boats’, ‘queue jumpers’ and ‘deaths at sea’ have become a fixture of the political cycle, with human rights reports, whistleblower leaks and increasingly tough ‘border protection’ policies regularly dominating electoral campaigns and political media coverage.
While ‘boat people’ are not a new phenomenon in Australia, the concurrent international rise of Islamic terrorism since 9/11, coupled with an increase in displaced persons from wars in the Middle East, has brought a new edge of fear and loathing to the public perception of asylum seekers. This unease has been expressed in increasingly harsh policy responses, from temporary protection visas and mandatory detention, to offshore processing, and more recently, an arbitrary deadline for the lodgement of protection claims.
All this despite overwhelming evidence that the vast majority of asylum seekers are genuine refugees, that Australia’s number of unauthorised maritime arrivals is significantly lower than the influx overseas, and that our country’s policy approach is in violation of human rights.
Concerningly, many of the politicians known for their hard-line stance on asylum seekers identify as Christians, including John Howard, Philip Ruddock, and more recently Tony Abbott and Scott Morrison. This trend brings into question what a Christian response to asylum seekers should be, and to what extent this should influence both our political views and our practice of faith.
As we celebrate Refugee Week this week, let us reflect on what the Bible and church history can teach us about offering refuge and welcoming foreigners.
Looking to the Scriptures
The LORD is a refuge for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble. (Psalm 9:9)
The theme of refuge runs richly throughout the Old Testament. The word ‘refuge’ is used in the Psalms alone more than forty times, with David continually characterising God as a refuge from his foes, pursuers and oppressors (e.g. Psalm 7:1-2; 9:9; 17:7; 46:1; 61:3; 62:8). As children of God, shouldn’t our Father’s compassion inform our own response to those who seek refuge from war, famine and political and religious persecution?
Do not mistreat or oppress a foreigner, for you were foreigners in Egypt. (Exodus 22:21)
Offering refuge to those fleeing hardship abroad is not only modelled by God, but expected of his people. The Israelites were given numerous stern warnings not to marginalise or oppress foreigners. God’s reasoning? His people should remember what it felt like to be mistreated in an unfamiliar land (Ex 22:21, 23:9; Deut 10:19, 24:17; 27:19). From Abraham to Egypt, exile in Babylon to Roman occupation, the nation of Israel was repeatedly in this position, as were the early church, who were frequently harassed and persecuted for their difference.
Peter even refers to Christians as foreigners by nature, living only temporarily in a hostile world (1 Pet 1:17, 2:11). And while those of us living in English speaking countries like Australia have enjoyed a few hundred years of relative peace and cultural dominance, we are increasingly becoming a maligned minority due to declining religious affiliation and the church’s controversial stance on various moral and social issues. Of course, our brothers and sisters in other nations of the world have experienced oppression much more keenly; the cultural unease Christians are currently feeling in Australia is just the tip of the iceberg. Shouldn’t this undeniable legacy of exclusion cause us to empathise with other marginalised groups facing mistreatment at home and abroad?
Looking to church history
I was a stranger and you invited me in…whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me. (Matthew 25:35,40)
Our Christian forebears were by no means perfect at translating their faith to action. Christians have sadly been responsible for a range of atrocities against people of different nationalities, cultures and religions. However, there are many examples throughout church history of Christians taking Jesus at his word when he identified with the stranger to whom we show hospitality (Matt 25:35,40).
All who arrive as guests are to be welcomed like Christ (Rule of Saint Benedict 53:1)
For centuries, Benedictine monasteries have been known as places of physical and spiritual sanctuary, offering hospitality to all manner of travellers, no questions asked. The Scriptures indicate that the practice of sharing resources with the needy was also a strong feature of the early church (Rom 12:13; Heb 13:2; 1 Pet 4:9), which we know included people of many cultural and religious backgrounds. Calvin and Luther were also strong proponents of being hospitable to persecuted Christians during the Reformation period. These examples reflect a strong legacy of compassion towards the unfamiliar and bereft.
These principles were never more strongly demonstrated than during the Holocaust, when many Christian families and communities were compelled to harbour Jews whose very lives were in danger. Although Christians were not the only ‘righteous Gentiles’ of this period, the stories of Christians who were involved in this social resistance indicate that their actions were a direct outcome of their faith.
For example, famous Christian author Corrie Ten Boom’s family provided sanctuary and practical assistance to many of their Jewish brothers and sisters in their own home, later paying the ultimate price for their compassion. They were so convinced of God’s love for these people that they risked their own lives to act out their faith. Another lesser known instance of Christian hospitality during this period is that of the French Huguenot community in Le Chambon-sur-Lignon. Well acquainted with religious persecution, this community worked tirelessly to provide shelter and safe passage to more than 3,000 Jews.
These poignant examples of sacrificial hospitality to strangers show how physical and spiritual refuge can be a powerful witness of God’s love to the persecuted. The fact that our nation’s current policies regarding asylum seekers are so opposite in spirit to these compassionate responses should be very concerning to Australian Christians.
The church today
Thankfully, many Christian individuals, churches and communities are taking decisive action to welcome refugees in spite of the hostile policy environment. Media articles, letter writing campaigns, petitions, rallies and protests have often been used by Australian Christians to raise awareness of the injustices experienced by asylum seekers in Australia, and to call for policy change. Grassroots movements have also been at the forefront of offering accommodation, financial help and practical support to refugees and asylum seekers in the community and in detention. Common Grace, Love Makes A Way, the Australian Churches Refugee Taskforce and Christian NGOs such as Anglicare and the St Vincent de Paul Society are just some of the many initiatives putting Christian faith into practice in this area.
This Refugee Week, let us reflect on the practical actions we can take in our own lives to welcome those in our midst, and offshore, who are seeking shelter and support in our peaceful and prosperous nation. Whether through prayer, social media, hospitality or advocacy, we can all do our part to welcome our Lord through helping a stranger.
Sarah Judd-Lam is passionate about social justice and has a particular interest in the interface between faith and just action. She works in the community sector, however all views expressed here are her own.
Images: 1. Greece. Refugees and migrants rescued by the Hellenic Coast Guard and Frontex during search and rescue. 2. Jordan. Cash lifeline for Syrian family under threat. 3. Greece. Arrival in Lesbos. All used with permission of the UNHCR.