The Bible and Refugees


Roman Catholic theologian and College of the Holy Cross professor Mathew Schmalz reflects on what the Bible says about immigration and refugees.  The Conversation published this piece in January, but it has more relevance than ever right now.

A taste:

Of course, in Christianity the strong admonitions toward treating the stranger with dignity have coexisted with actions that would seem to indicate an opposite attitude: pogroms against Jews, slavery, imperialism and colonialism have been sanctioned by Christians who nonetheless would have affirmed biblical principles regarding caring for those who seem “other” or “alien.”

Indeed, when it comes to the specific questions concerning building a wall on America’s border with Mexico or welcoming immigrants and refugees, some Christians would argue that doing so does not violate any biblical precepts concerning hospitality to the stranger, since the issue is one of legality and, of course, a good number of Christians did indeed support Donald Trump’s candidacy for the presidency.

Other Christians have taken a diametrically different position, and have called for cities and educational institutions to be set apart as “safe zones” for undocumented immigrants.

It is true that the application of biblical principles to contemporary matters of policy is less than clear to the many Christians who have taken opposing sides regarding how the United States should deal with immigrants, undocumented workers and refugees.

However, in my reading of the Bible, the principles regarding welcoming the stranger are broad-reaching and unambiguous.

Read the entire piece here.

14 thoughts on “The Bible and Refugees

  1. Jim,
    The group you mention Pueblo Sin Fronteras might well be behind some of it. I will take a look at your link from NBC News and possibly find out what else is out there on them. I am not alleging that NBC has lied but they also have a narrative to promote. In any case the question still remains, “Who is funding Pueblo Sin Fronteras with the big checks?” I wonder if they make their contributors a matter of public record.

    I have to agree with you that American and Canadian Christians might well do more to help the Hondourans in their native land. I used to attend one church which was doing just that. Of course, Central America is not the only needy area in the world.

    As I have said, the six thousand caravaners will be the tip of the iceberg if they breach our border. I don’t want this intentional defiance of our law to set a wider precedent. No one disagrees with you, Jim, that the folks in Honduras have a rough row to hoe. So do many other national groups. Have you ever been to Bangladesh or parts of Africa? Don’t these people elicit your compassion?


  2. You can copy the link below, replace the “dot” before nbcnews with a period, paste into Google and there is information on local efforts to organize and support caravans so that the people traveling have some measure of protection against predation. The group responsible is Pueblo Sin Fronteras, a grassroots organization that accepts donations. Apparently caravans have been organized over the last 15 years and the effort is not to undermine Trump.

    I would hazard that any desperate parent with no viable other choices would opt into anything that they thought would help, especially, if local churches or other organizations can’t or won’t offer help. Again, these are groups of desperate people – human beings, God’s children if you will – that may or may not actually reach the U.S. border; there is no crisis threatening America’s existence. All panic and wild speculation is being generated by someone with an agenda.



  3. Jim,
    You had an interesting theory that local governments or other ad hoc groups might also be aiding these caravan people en route. With that being said, the seed money still came from an earlier and separate source, and it will be worthwhile finding out who it was. The whole thing bears investigating and blame should be placed on the person(s) or organization(s) behind it. The self-appointed white knights in the mainstream media are quick to report if Donald Trump, Jr. or Jerry Kushner waved at a Russian who was standing 200 meters away at the intersection of the next block in Manhattan. What a scoop! One would think that the liberal media bosses could send a few of today’s star investigative reporters to Mexico and Hondouras in order to discover the financial roots of this caravan. Heck, he/she might even win a Pulitzer!
    Jim, I still cannot concur with you that Hondurans are being demonized in the same manner as Jews in Nazi Germany. The Jews were singled out simply for being Jewish. This is obviously unjust. The Honduran people today are not being demonized per se. That would be likewise unjust. I am sure that most Americans see most citizens of Honduras as human beings like every other national group. The Hondourans meriting criticism are the ones who overran the border in Mexico and are heading northward to try to overrun the U.S. border. These are lawbreakers.
    It is common knowledge among most of these lawbreakers that they can present themselves at the U.S. border falsely claiming refugee status. Once “in the door” they know that a protracted legal process will allow them to stay indefinitely. In other words, they are gaming the system. We don’t need this type of individual in the U.S. I don’t care whether he/she is from Japan, Russia, Senegal, Germany, Borneo, France, Canada, Iceland, Argentina, or Honduras. They are dishonest people. WE don’t need six thousand or a mere six of them.
    This whole event is being used as a political wedge to undermine Trump; it ultimately has little to do with 6,000 economic refugees. I will not state any names but I speculate that there are some on the political left who would like nothing better than for our soldiers to become aggressive and rough with the caravan once it arrives at the border. The mainstream media would have a field day showing pictures of the “repression and brutality” of the unarmed “undocumented immigrants.” The end sadly justifies the means for some of Trump’s opponents. (It seems like I have heard that maxim somewhere before.) The good news is that Trump and Mattis are not going to allow the left this victory. I don’t know what the operations plan is, but I trust that the caravan will be humanely dispersed if it breaches the Rio Grande.


  4. Maybe I should have put a smiley face after the high school history teacher comment. I should point out that my university professors concurred.

    And maybe, just maybe, the various modes of transportation that some of the people are using actually are being provided by religious organizations or groups, concerned individuals along the way, or the local governments just trying to clear their roadways. Speculating about nefarious sources of funding, like perhaps wealthy Jews as some people are doing (and I’m not pointing to you), for an invasion (inflammatory military rhetoric) are not born out by known facts.

    As to the point that I was making in using the Nazi-Jew example is borne out by any number of other instances in history where authoritarian states scapegoat an entire people for political gain. The formula is always the same. Dehumanize, instill and stoke fear and panic, legitimize with the law. The Nazis did not start with a program of genocide but ended up there using the kind of systematic and sustained rhetoric coming from the leadership of our nation today.

    It’s good to see that you would be open to 1) working to fix the source of the problem (assuming that means cooperative agreement between our government and the governments of the countries that people are fleeing), and 2) a guest worker arrangement in the meantime.

    As of today though, nobody’s advocating for unchecked crossing of the borders. As I say, there is a process in place to handle these things and these things have been handled in the past. People allowed into the country as asylum seekers ARE within the law.

    The statistic I point out is not to make the problem insignificant but to put some perspective on the situation. 6-7,000 people, when dispersed, is not as scary as envisioning a concentrated “invasion” force. And, to reiterate, there’s little likelihood that that number will survive attrition.

    My point stands. The “caravans” are not an existential crisis to the nation. It’s not time to panic. For all National Anthem fans, repeat after me “Home of the brave, home of the brave, home of the brave…….”

    Thanks for the civil conversation.


  5. Art,
    You raise a very good point about the media’s lack of curiosity regarding the funding of this caravan. Maybe the issue has been investigated and reports have been made, but I have not heard anyone providing the facts. It is possible that I have just missed the reports. On the other hand, where are the establishment organs like The NY Times and the Washington Post who generosity pride themselves on so-called investigative reporting and then trumpet their findings? If, as you suspect, certain NGOs are behind this effort, I would be eager to know which ones. They need to be held accountable for misleading the Hondurans and got flaunting U.S. law.


  6. Jim,
    Far be it from me to question all of the points your high school history teacher made. With that being said, I have studied quote a lot about 20th Century European and American history. Please allow me to address your concerns individually.
    —-Are there Christians in the Hondouran caravan? Statistically, it is probable. Which, of course, begs the question as to why these folks, if they do indeed exist, did not seek immigration or material help through American or Canadian Christian organizations and missions operating in their native land. Why did they instead decide to challenge the system by embarking on a journey which has the obvious intent of circumventing U.S. law? But with all of that being said, I question if the majority of the caravan members are spiritually inclined. (This might be a time to say that I have no objection to a formalized guest worker program for Hondourans who are willing to adhere to our laws. In my earlier days, I was an unskilled guest worker in a foreign country and found it go be a worthwhile and profitable experience.)
    ——-To compare the tragedy of the Jews on the M.S. St. Louis with the Hondouran caravan again trivializes the plight of the Jews in Nazi Germany. The people who fled the Third Reich had been German citizens who suddenly found their lives in peril simply for ethnic and religious reasons. This is hardly the case of the Hondurans who make up the caravan. If any of them were subject to bona fide religious or political persecution, there are accepted channels within our State Department to handle these matters.
    But can’t we be honest, Jim? These people simply want to circumvent our laws for economic reasons. I can’t blame them for wanting a better life, but there are also people in India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, China, the former Soviet states, Africa, and other places who would like go come here for economic reasons. What sort of integrity do we have as a country if we allow one group to break the law while requiring other groups to follow the law?
    ———-Your statement that six thousand caravaners is statistically insignificant ignores the fact that this particular caravan is a test of our ability to maintain our border. If this particular group is successful in breaching our southern flank, it is impossible to count the hundreds of thousands who will be emboldened by it in the near future.
    But this whole thing is not simply a matter of numbers. If only a thousand illegals are allowed to cross, what does that say about their personal regard for our law? Furthermore, what does it say about our own respect for our very law? If you and others believe that the current U.S. immigration law is unjust, then you need to work to get it changed instead of countenancing defiance and lawlessness. This disregard for one legitimate law can have a spillover effect onto other laws. In the meantime, I am sure there are worthy charities doing relief in Honduras which you and others could support.
    ——- I don’t know who is funding this caravan. The trucks I have seen in the photos look relatively new and the people appear to be well clothed and do not appear to be gaunt. (Which was the sad case in Nazi concentration camps where they were starving.) Obviously there is some type of sanitation and mildly sophisticated logistical support behind this operation. This is not to mention the medical and communications aspects which are surely present in some form. Why wasn’t this money made available to help these people in their homeland? Someone is using them as pawns in a much larger chess game.
    In closing, Jim, the Bonhoeffer, M.S. St. Louis, Nuremberg, comparisons are not comparable. The world has seen economic privation on one hand, and it has seen outright genocide the other. While we can lament both situations, they are not morally equivalent.


  7. These people aren’t refugees. They are props in a political stunt, and the transportation is being financed by NGOs the media cannot be bother to try to identify. Almost none of them would qualify ro asylum under any conventional set of standards. Honduras and Guatemala are poor countries (fairly common in this world) with high crime rates (less common). The appropriate responses to these problems are to address what impediments to economic development you can in Guatemala and Honduras and to foster institutional improvements to crack down on crime and improve public order in those places. Neither of these objects is advanced by having Hondurans and Guatemalans colonize the United States (much less a disorderly pell mell colonization paid for by political schemers and meant to execute a Piven – Cloward maneuver against American immigraiton law).


  8. James,

    The point is that laws and the application of laws can be unjust. We don’t have Nuremberg Laws singling out the Hondourans but the first step toward those laws was a successful campaign to degrade and dehumanize the Jews much like “Hondouran illegals” dehumanizes those who are desperate and hurting and thinking that their only shot, for themselves and their families, is to walk a thousand miles to a potential promise land. The second step was to instill a sense of fear, panic and loathing against the Jews. Then the Laws.

    In 1939, the M.S. St. Louis, carrying, 900 Jewish refugees from Germany was turned away and many of those returned to Germany or German occupied territories met their fates in concentration camps. Why were they turned away from the U.S.? This is a rhetorical question and I’m pretty sure we both know the answer.

    As to whether or not there’s a national existential crisis at the southern border because there are large groups of desperate people that have left their homes and made it to southern Mexico, I say phony baloney. Let’s say that there were 6-7,000 in one or more waves leaving Hondouras sometime in October and most of them are without cash and are walking. Do you really think that there will be no attrition? Many will be absorbed into Mexico. Many will tire out and head back of their own accord. Some will just plain die. Do you really think that whatever is left of this slug of humanity will arrive all at one time? On a side note, 6,000 human beings is approximately 0.002% of the U.S. population.

    And, we do have a process in place to evaluate legitimate claims of asylum. Is it perfect? No. Can it be made perfect? No. But, and it’s a big but, there is a legal process. Those granted an asylum hearing will not be “Hondouran illegals” as they will be subject to and within the law. The threat to have the military shoot desperate human beings because someone may have thrown a rock is morally despicable.

    Interestingly, you had no comment to my “There’s a darned good chance that some or many or even most of the refuges that are fleeing their desperate conditions are Christians themselves. Who is looking to find out? Trump? His Evangelicals?” The whole Evangelical world was beside themselves for a single Pastor under house arrest in Turkey and there’s no concern for Christian brothers and sisters in the exodus?

    Looking to the historical record to help us understand our present is not trivializing the record. At least that’s what my high school history teacher told me back in the day.


  9. John: let’s then set aside the use of that unhelpful, freighted term. The fact is, it is thousands of people, who have made it clear — bypassing opportunities to seek asylum before reaching our border; rejecting offers of aid and shelter from Mexico — they intend to enter the U.S. (As will the next group, and the next … incentivized by non-enforcement of our laws.)

    The vast majority of them are not refugees in any legal or historical sense: they are simply poor, and want a better life. As would we all. We should thank God every day that we were blessed to be born here, where for most of us destitution and desperation are unfamiliar concepts.

    Is it your position that every non-resident alien in these circumstances — coming from failed third world countries, but neither fleeing war nor natural disaster nor persecution — must be granted entry (and work permits? Licenses? Access to healthcare? Housing?) because that is what Jesus would have a secular government do? Not individual Christians. Not the Church. The government, which has biblically sanctioned obligations to its citizens.

    And in this calculus, how do we weigh the interests of our fellow citizens, those not living in bucolic Mechanicsburg, but near the border, who will bear the brunt of these policies, for good and for ill. Let’s stipulate — although we have no way of knowing — that 98% of these people are noble, hardworking, seeking only a chance to make a new life. The 2% that remain are less savory: criminals, sex-traffickers, drug runners, gang members and intent upon no good. (If this reality — acknowledging some tiny percentage of bad people commingled with the good, constitutes “fearmongering” then we (writ large) really cannot have a rational conversation about this issue.)

    Did Jesus say that Christians should dictate to others, outside the church, what mandatory obligations to the disposessed they must undertake? To be enforced via government policy? (That sounds much like the approach of the, gulp, court evangelicals.)

    What is to be said to those families — like that of Kate Steinle and many others — who have suffered incalculable loss at the hands of illegal aliens who have been permitted to remain here, and repeatedly broken our laws, in the name of compassion? Must progressive evangelicals grapple with those terrible and avoidable outcomes, in the same way you ask others to assess their lived commitment to God’s Kingdom?

    I think all these people, children of God, must be treated with dignity, compassion, love. Those truly in need of asylum should be granted it. We should make every effort to prevent children from being separated from parents (this is a far more complex issue than the media’s bad faith execrations, mostly because the asylum application process takes time; a federal law precludes housing children with them for that duration).

    We should also unashamedly enforce our laws, and reject false, demagogic claims that in doing so, we are somehow equivalent to Nazis and totalitarians. People who resort to these arguments — many of whom you cite favorably — have lost the ability to make moral distinctions. Or, as James points out, are just being dishonest in furtherance of an agenda.


  10. How can Mr. Schmalz and a church historian fail to distinguish immigration from invasion? When the group carries the flag of their home country, they scorn our laws and abuse the hope once reserved for genuine victims of persecution.


  11. Jim.
    I don’t know how you can call the crisis at the border “phony baloney” in view of the precedent this caravan will set if it is successful. The current six thousand caravan members will be a drop in the bucket compared to what will come thereafter.
    As far as your remarks about Jesus, Bonhoeffer, and the Nuremberg laws, I cannot see how that relates to the caravan of potential Hondourans illegals. The Jews in Germany had violated no German laws prior to the enactment of Hitler’s subsequent laws specifically and unjustly directed against them ethnically. By the same token, the U.S. immigration laws on the books do not restrict Hondourans simply because they are Hondourans. If we were to pass such laws, as the Nazis did, it would be unjust. But our laws are not following the patterns in the Third Reich.
    You know, Jim, I wonder if the Nazi comparison you made has the unfortunate effect of trivializing the genuine misdeeds in Nazi Germany? To compare our fair immigration laws with Nazi laws which sought eventual genocide is unwarranted.


  12. “….since the issue is one of legality….”

    In Germany in 1935 they passed a legal code to deal with the Jewish problem. Bonhoeffer and a small group of Christians were unimpressed with the Nuremberg Laws. Something that is legal is not by definition “just” depending on how one views justice. If justice is protecting the state against the individual then maybe something like the Nuremberg Laws would seem rational and just. If, however, you believe that justice should protect the individual from the state then you might feel otherwise. Were Jesus’ words about justice for the state or justice, love and mercy for the individual? Are all humans deserving of love and respect? Did Jesus say “This One” and “Not That One?” There’s a darned good chance that some or many or even most of the refuges that are fleeing their desperate conditions are Christians themselves. Who is looking to find out? Trump? His Evangelicals?

    Of course, the state has to be strong enough to protect the individual but the phony baloney “crisis at the border” is not an existential threat to the nation and there are legal processes in place to deal with desperate refugees seeking asylum.


  13. This polemical piece of work demonstrates not only an ignorance of scripture but a cheap rhetorical technique.

    As far as the ignorance of scripture, Mr. Schmalz, takes verses directed specifically to ancient national Israel and applies them to the Church. He then takes an eschatological passage in Matthew 25 and applies it far more broadly than the context warrants. The passage clearly deals either with future Jewish believers or with future Christian believers depending upon how dispensational someone is theologically. Finally, Schmalz takes a passage in Galatians relating to God’s salvation and misapplied it by making it quasi-political. The writer is either dishonest or hermeneutically challenged.

    Rhetorically, Mr. Schmalz slyly suggests that pogroms, slavery, and other horrors are akin to borfer security. He should be ashamed.


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