by Victoria Sielaff
While I was preparing with a team to go on a missions trip to Israel’s Jewish absorption centers, I met a young lady named Rosebud who was taking a break in the fast food restaurant where she worked.
While I was preparing with a team to go on a missions trip to Israel’s Jewish absorption centers, I met a young lady named Rosebud who was taking a break in the fast food restaurant where she worked.
As Rosebud and I chatted, I discovered she came from what I perceived as the polar opposite on the spectrum of theology. I restrained my natural inclination toward an inadvertent prejudice. I realized my participation in a prayer group and ministry for Israeli Orthodox Jews would be construed as an affront to her. As a daughter of a Palestinian police officer for the Liberation Organization (PLO) under the former Prime Minister Yasser Arafat, this native of Gaza and former Red Crescent worker could not be associated with a more anti-Jewish Israeli group than the Palestinian Muslim Arabs.
Despite dissonance between our worldviews, I made a choice to allow myself to be implicated in Rosebud’s life. It turned out that Rosebud did not only need to escape from her husband, but also from her brother. Rosebud’s father was demanding that she be sent home to live with her parents permanently in Gaza. Rosebud’s newfound freedom as a woman in the United States would end due to her culture’s requirements for divorced women. She told me that if she would return to Gaza, she would be kept at home for the rest of her life because of the shame of divorce.
I could not in good conscience allow Rosebud to return to what seemed like more suffering than she had already experienced. We made a plan.
Biblical Narrative for Our Hospitality Mandate
One discovers the biblical narrative of the hospitality mandate not just in Christ’s fulfillment of the hospitality mandate as a guest and host, but also in the antecedent scriptures of the Old Testament. The Greek word for “hospitality” is Philoxenia (philos, loving and xenia, strangers) resulting in the definition of “love to strangers.”
According to the Jewish Virtual Library, Rabbinic literature called hospitality the hakhnasat orehim, meaning “bringing of guests,” and was considered by some Rabbis to be an act of kindness, or in Hebrew, a “mitzvah” or a command (American Israeli Cooperative Enterprise 1993).
Although in some communities hospitality toward strangers today may include a list of preferred strangers one is willing to engage, a biblical definition of hospitality (love toward strangers) is inclusive of anyone who is willing to live in the land and according to the laws of the community.
Someone seeking shelter in biblical terms includes “sojourner” and is from the Hebrew term ger, defined as an alien in a land (Mounces 2006, 889). While hospitality practices and recipients today are different from the ancient world, the biblical narrative on the topic may have some commonalities in response to refugees seeking resettlement in communities across the United States.
There is a tension that Christ brings to the forefront for all Christian communities facing exclusionary or embracing postures regardless of nationality. While it is difficult for some believers to embrace Syrian Muslim refugees, an even more demanding ethic is represented by Christ’s forgiveness of his perpetrators—those who stood below his cross and crucified the only truly righteous and fully innocent person who had ever lived.
As Jesus petitioned the Father for mercy, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34), there is a message regarding embracing versus exclusion.
While the refugee deserves one’s compassion based on what he or she has suffered and lost in his or her homeland, there is a paradoxical embracing required by Christ’s example that is even more counter cultural. Christ exemplifies the embracing of those who crucify the innocent—those who committed the most heinous crimes against humanity. Furthermore, Amos Yong poetically states,
…Christian hospitality is empowered by the Spirit of the hospitable God. We have been graciously invited to participate in this divine hospitality and given many gifts, many tongues, and many practices through which to meet, interact with, and perhaps even bless religious others. (Yong 2008, 160)
Miroslav Volf responded to a confrontation about his limits as to whom he would not be willing to embrace, namely his own nation’s enemies, the “cetniks”—those Serbian fighters who had herded his Croatian people into concentration camps, destroyed cities, and committed other atrocities in his homeland. Miroslav advocates for a missiological stance out of devotion to God’s mission (Volf 1996, 9) much like Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac or God’s willingness to sacrifice his own Son that all would be saved.
Missional Narrative on Hospitality Mandate
According to missiologist Enoch Wan, there is a distinction between traditional missiology and diaspora missiology for missiological application (Wan 2007, 11). Wan states there are patterns of scattering and gathering diaspora all throughout the Bible, including the exodus of the Israelites (Exod.19:4-6) and in Isaiah’s period (Isa. 49:5-33), while noting the Early Church period of those gathering to Christ (Acts 8 and 1 Pet. 1:1-2) (Wan 2007, 4).
Wan refers to the “involuntary and voluntary” or “push and pull forces” moving people globally (2007, 2). Understanding the variables that push people to move provides potential empathy in host countries. It would be difficult to look away from the needs Wan lists as the push factors: war, political persecution, abuse of power, exploitation of the vulnerable, natural disasters, world poverty, or obligation to improve the family left behind. The humanitarian efforts across nations do their part in receiving those migrating to find refuge.
Refugee host countries (typically including government resettlement, charities, and non-governmental agencies) look to fulfill a global obligation for gathering the vulnerable into a place of provision and comfort from the abuses suffered. Wan notes pull forces moving people globally, including political freedom, human equality, gender equality, quality of life, and success stories of loved ones abroad inviting others to join them (Wan 2007, 2).
Hospitality for strangers often requires assimilation on the perspective of host and stranger in which personal preferences, ethnic differences, and unintentional prejudice must shift. In order to accommodate a hospitable love toward the diaspora of Syrian refugees, there are some commonalities between the biblical mandate of hospitality and receptivity toward the refugees found among government agencies and charitable organizations.
The sending of many refugees affords us access to a new ministry outreach field formerly closed to the Church in the United States. While the Syrian refugee resettlement remains a fiercely debated topic on a global and domestic scale, there is a Judeo-Christian world perspective overtaken in the wake of political debate, sometimes stirring up hatred and stereotypes of Muslims. It is time to survey a biblical theological mandate of hospitality toward the stranger to apply to a changing socio-political praxis in the community.
Mission of God Revealed in Civic Responsibility of Hospitality
Christ’s redemption for all included the entire social spectrum of Jews and Gentiles alike. While Jesus was a guest and a host for the marginalized, the Church also followed suit as seen in the New Testament.
This mission of God is thoroughly revealed throughout the Old Testament. In matters of ethics and justice in Judaism, the injunctions governing interpersonal conduct, the mishpatim, state prohibitions against oppression of the non-Jew (Robinson 2000, 239). The focus of the mitzvot is not exclusively between human beings and the Creator; the relationship between human beings is of equal importance (2000, 239). On more than a dozen separate occasions in the Torah, Israelites were enjoined to love the stranger, “for you were strangers in Egypt” (2000, 235).
The pattern to be hospitable to the sojourner (alien, stranger) is repeated throughout scripture. The Israelites were required to follow God’s justice in community responsibilities by upholding the rights of others living among them. Yahweh’s call for an empathetic perspective toward those sojourning in the land of Israel is clearly mandated: “He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing. Love the sojourner, therefore, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt” (Deut. 10:18-19).
It was not simply a “live and let live” kind of laissez faire attitude, but rather a serious matter of obedience. According to Jeffrey Tigay, “Israel’s own experience as aliens in a foreign land is regularly cited to encourage fair and kind treatment of strangers in its own land. No sooner are strangers mentioned than Israel’s duty toward them enters the mind” (Tigay 1996, 108).
The Israelites were to have the same standards applied both to the native-born Israelites and those sojourners living among them: “You shall have the same rule for the sojourner and for the native, for I am the Lord your God” (Lev. 24:22). Yahweh seems to be establishing the value for non-Israelites in treating them with dignity and equity. Nahum Sarna’s commentary notes the following of the sojourner:
In the ancient world strangers were often without rights and were outside the protection of the law. Torah is particularly sensitive to their feelings and solicitous of their needs and welfare. Numerous injunctions and obligations are set forth to ensure their humane treatment. (Sarna 1991, 113)
Not only was the sojourner to be loved, given food and clothing, and treated by the same standard for work, he or she also deserved equal rest each week. The stranger in the land was also the recipient of the Sabbath rest from labor:
But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. (Exod. 20:10)
Sarna also points out the prescribed work pattern for the Israelite and the non-Israeli:
Human liberty is immeasurably enhanced, human equality is strengthened, and the cause of social justice is promoted by legislating the inalienable right of every human being, irrespective of social class, and of draft animals as well, to twenty-four hours of complete rest every seven days…in order that your bondman and the stranger may be refreshed. (Sarna 1991, 112)
The “overarching redemptive historical metanarrative” Timmer speaks of is seen today for the sojourners. Today, hospitality to the ger is still practiced in Israel, allowing Palestinians with the day-long work visa to go back and forth crossing the border between Israel and Palestine. This type of practice sees the ‘enemy’ with potential, treating him or her with dignity of work, allowing ongoing socio-economic relations between Palestinians and Israelis.
Within the context of laws about social justice in Exodus 22:16-31, verse 21 references the treatment of the sojourner: “You shall not wrong a sojourner or oppress him, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.” This particular social law is followed in verse 22 by a set of steep consequences resulting in death for those who “mistreat any widow or fatherless child.”
God defends the sojourner who does not have the social influence or standing and protects those who are subject to exploitation (Tigay 1996, 108). The Israelites are reminded of their own years as the exploited and oppressed sojourners in Egypt. They are expected to share the matter of the heart’s anguish or desperation that sojourners experience away from their homeland: “You shall not oppress a sojourner. You know the heart of a sojourner, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt” (Deut. 23:9).
The theme of God’s great protectiveness (a form of hospitality) for the sojourner is seen again in the context of the vulnerable in Psalm 146:9: “The Lord watches over the sojourners; he upholds the widow and the fatherless, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.” Scripture here contrasts between the vulnerable and the wicked, demonstrating God’s concern for sojourners. Furthermore, in ancient near eastern thought, “…the king was responsible for justice and accountable to Deity for protecting the vulnerable” (Walton 2006, 284).
The Socio-Political Narrative for Hospitality Mandate
Researchers are looking at the narratives of some right-wing rhetoric which describe refugees not as people but rather as “floods, invaders, and parasites.” These “threat narratives” across various countries potentially reshape the political policy and climate (Hogan and Haltinner 2015). In contrast to the narratives that demonize refugees, a 5-year-old report on the faith community’s role in refugee resettlements brags that, “The United States is home to the largest resettled refugee population in the world leveraging support in the private and public sectors” (Eby, Iverson, Smyers, and Kekik 2011, 586).
The socio-political praxis regarding refugee resettlement could vacillate in response to government and media-driven narratives portraying refugee resettlement rather than abiding in the static ethic by which one lives.
In a study on the portrayal of refugees in human interest features, refugees are portrayed in the following three descriptions:
…a) as victims of prior abuse and violence, b) as in search of the American Dream, c) as unable to achieve the American Dream. They also depict refugees as current victims of the American economic crisis and deeply frustrated by their inability to achieve the American Dream in their host communities. (Steimel 2010, 219)
Looking at the hurdles faced by refugees in Steimel’s study reiterates the need beyond relief aid; refugees need a plan of development in order to move beyond mere survival into a thriving productivity for a beneficial resettlement.
Vetted refugees are screened over a two-year period across three investigative agencies: Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and Homeland Security. Refugees outshine any immigrant in terms of any potential security risk (Point Taken 2016). Immigrants and tourists, on the other hand, have little to no screening coming and going in and out of the country, posing a much greater potential risk to security. While the terrorist attacks in the United States have been committed by immigrants rather than refugees, refugees from Syria or North Africa have not been involved in attacks in the United States and continue to be cast as the scapegoats for national security issues.
Implications for the Church
In his monograph on the diaspora of Muslims, Assembly of God Seminary president Mark Hausfeld states, “Today’s radical Islamic climate cannot be the Church’s excuse for abrasive, defensive responses, or for that matter, offenses” (2008, 16). Hausfeld further emphasizes the importance and attractiveness of the Church to Muslims. If the Church includes a people of peace, a people of community, and a people of power rather than a people of war, individualism, and spiritual weakness, then Muslims will be drawn into the Church (2008, 15-18). The Church is at a tipping point; we must rise up and take on the challenge of the hospitality mandate exhibiting peace, strong community, and the power of Christ in order to effectively reach the diaspora Muslims with the hope of Christ (2008, 14).
Not everyone in the Church is willing to pay the price in order to fulfill the hospitality mandate. Just as a missionary to a ‘sensitive country’ must weigh the possible risk of losing his or her life in a hostile country, so it may be a required risk for reaching those in the homeland, even when there is a tightening of homeland security protocol. If or when it does, there must be a response of forgiveness rather than retaliation. While scripture also legislates in regards to criminal activities and one’s civic duties, the greater act of loving one’s neighbor as oneself beckons the Church into a counter-cultural action against any marginalization of those seeking refuge.
As Jonah was required to risk going to the Ninevites, his act of obedience to love the vulnerable, despite his contempt toward their country’s past, undoubtedly saved them from self-destruction. Today, the lives of those who are like the Old Testament Ninevites, those who “do not know their right from their left,” are sojourning in one’s own neighborhood.
Matthew Soerens and Jenny Hwang point out the need for getting to know immigrants and refugees personally (2009, 178). Only when we begin to personally know our refugee neighbors will we begin to contemplate and practice the biblical hospitality mandate to love them.
The missio Dei clashes against the Church when certain groups are held in contempt as Jonah beheld the Ninevites, former enemies of Israel. One may resent those who represent a threat yet who are now recipients of the mercy of God. The refugees are the modern day ‘Ninevites’ to whom God is “gracious and compassionate.” Daniel Timmer suggests that scripture must first be interpreted in relation to its fulfillment in Christ, then applied to self in relation to Christ (2011, 137).
The final implication for the Church taken from Timmer’s profile on the prophet Jonah reveals the potential dark side of a spiritual leader despite the calling given: a lack of character ethics which mislead one away from God’s overall redemptive plan. All of God’s people could fall prey to the sin of contempt or disdain for those to whom God desires to show his love. How one receives or rejects the refugee or any others who are the vulnerable tests one’s faith.
The texts in Exodus, Leviticus, Deuteronomy, Psalms, Ruth, Jonah, and the Gospels give communities a plumb line by which our approach toward refugees should be measured. Scripture supports a biblical Judeo-Christian ethic to responsibly protect civic rights for the vulnerable sojourner. Those who are the non-Israelites—sojourning, impoverished, and of no influence in society—are the “poor” and “the least of these” described by Jesus in the Gospels. This virtuous responsibility toward the well-being of those living among the Israelites’ community is a type of hospitality mandated to the Israelites, but also continued in the teaching of Christ among those in the Early Church, which included all nations.
Jesus was a refugee. Jesus’ parents, led by an angel’s warning to his parents to flee Israel, provide the Church with an example of the necessity of fleeing a country for a host country. His parents sought asylum in Egypt with his family when King Herod was seeking to kill him, and they were later able to return to Nazareth after King Herod had died (Matt. 2:13-15).
Arguing a case for the biblical approach toward refugees cannot neglect the Old Testament. Israel’s history of being vulnerable and exploited sojourners in Egypt is part of the mandate to be hospitable to the sojourner. Deuteronomy spells out God’s overarching redemptive plan for the sojourner; God always included the nation of Israel and the vulnerable as potential recipients of his redemptive care. Those willing to live among the Israelites benefitted from a group of civic responsibilities for the vulnerable, homeless, and landless. The blessings of all nations are evident in that the hospitality is extended for the non-Israelite.
The review of Deuteronomy 10:18-19, Exodus 20:10, 22:21, 23:9, Leviticus 24:22, Psalms 146:9, Ruth, Jonah, and Matthew provides a biblical pattern of support for an ethic of hospitality and for a response of embracing the refugee in one’s community. Furthermore, throughout the Old and New Testaments, the nation of Israel and the Early Church are dutiful in caring for the needy and vulnerable, whether this includes the impoverished, widows, orphans, or others who are not only vulnerable to economic and social exploitation, but also in great need.
In addition, God’s character and love were designed to be lived out through his people by maintaining the highest level of community ethics, thus ensuring justice and dignity through hospitality for those who were non-Israelites living among them.
The mandate of hospitality for sojourners has implications for any community resettling Syrian refugees. The outreach of the local believers has new ground to engage this risky new season with potential for adding eventually to the Church—not for gain of numbers, but rather for continuing the mission of God in the overarching redemptive plan for all people.
If Christians exclude rather than embrace refugees in need, they would also have to deny the pattern of biblical support for a mandate of hospitality.
I gladly took Rosebud to my home from her workplace that night to begin a courageous journey of rebuilding her life. She told me, “Where you go, I will go.” When I asked if she minded going to Pentecostal intercessory prayer meetings, she replied, “Your people are now my people.”
Fortunately, “my people,” although very skeptical of this other person greatly different from themselves due to her faith and family of origin, had enough devotion to the mission of God that they were tremendously hospitable. Her Ruth-like loyalty and the faith of “my people” were the conditions that eventually brought emotional, physical, and spiritual healing to her life.
Hospitality is in the DNA of the Judeo-Christian ethic. There are no exclusions; all are a part of God’s overarching redemptive plan to embrace.
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Hausfeld, Mark. 2008. “Islam in America: Understanding and Engaging Diaspora Muslims Through the Local Church.”
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Robinson, George. 2000. Essential Judaism: A Complete Guide to Beliefs, Customs, and Rituals. New York: Pocket Books.
Sarna, Nahum M. 1991. The Jewish Publication Society Torah Commentary: Exodus. 1st. Philadelphia, Pa.: The Jewish Publication Society.
Soerens, Mathew, Jessica Hwang, and Leith Anderson. 2009. Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion & Truth in the Immigration Debate. Downers Grove, Ill.: Intervarsity Press.
Steimel, Sarah J. 2010. “Refugees as People: The Portrayal of Refugees in American Human Interest Stories.” Journal of Refugee Studies 23(2): 219-237.
Tigay, Jeffrey H. 1996. The JPS Torah Commentary: Deuteronomy. Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society.
Timmer, Daniel C. 2011. A Gracious and Compassionate God: Mission, Salvation and Spirituality in the Book of Jonah. Nottingham: IVP Academic.
Volf, Miroslav. 1996. Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation. Nashville: Abingdon Press.
Walton, John H. 2006. Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic.
Wan, Enoch. 2007. “Global Missiology.” globalmissiology.org.
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Victoria Sielaff is a PhD student in Intercultural Studies at the Assembly of God Seminary. She also teaches bilingual students in the Green Bay Area Public School District in Wisconsin. She and her husband have served the Latino community and churches in Green Bay since 1997.
EMQ, Vol. 53, No. 3. Copyright © 2017 Billy Graham Center for Evangelism. aAll rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMQ editors.