A Brief Theology of Displacement


Previously on the blog I have explained that the major stories of refugees in the Bible are the Israelites in the Old Testament, and members of the Early Church in the New Testament. Based on these two major refugee narratives we can begin to form a theology of displacement. What I mean when I use the phrase “theology of displacement” is a biblical framework for thinking about refugees and displacement that it rooted in the overarching narrative of the Bible, not just one or two isolated verses or stories. However, in the interests of space and for the purposes of this article I will be focusing on two key passages of Scripture that are vital to a sound theology of displacement, one from the Old Testament and one from the New Testament. Old Testament Law

After the Israelites are delivered from slavery in Egypt, God gives them the law to govern their lives. In the midst of the over 600 regulations that make up the law is a command that stands out because of how often it is repeated. God instructs, "When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God" (Leviticus 19:33-34).

This command is repeated more times than any other in the Old Testament, except for the first of the Ten Commandments which says, "You shall have no other gods before me." There are three reasons why God himself considered this command about foreigners to be so important: the Israelites’ history as foreigners, the fact that refugees were a common occurrence, and the gracious deliverance that the Israelites had experienced.

The Israelites’ History

From the dawn of Israel’s history as a nation, the language of aliens, refugees, and strangers defines her. Abraham leaves the land of his fathers to seek the land God will give to him and to his descendants. Joseph lives in Egypt as a stranger and slave, but never leaves the sovereign will of God. Thousands of Abraham’s descendents reside as aliens in Egypt before their wandering brings them back to the land of promise. Now, the law of God under which they will dwell in the land contains a constant reminder of their past, “you were aliens…”

Refugees Were Common

The command begins with "when" rather than "if." Famine, war, and natural disaster were constantly forcing individuals to flee their homes and escape to safer lands, no differently than they do today. Refugees were a constant reality and the Israelites were to ensure that their land truly was a refuge for the war-torn, hungry, or misfortunate traveler. Strangers in a strange land are uniquely at risk of exploitation. Cultural norms and customs are foreign to them, and they may not understand nor be understood due to communication barriers. It would have been entirely the Israelites’ responsibility to ensure that strangers were treated justly in the marketplace and in situations where disputes arose. They were to treat strangers “as native-born.”

Gracious Deliverance

According to the law, foreigners were not required to conform to the customs and rituals of Israel, nor were they expected to compensate their hosts for their hospitality. It was the Israelites’ similar experience as foreigners in Egypt that was to inform their treatment of the aliens in their land. Another instance of this command says to the Israelites, “you yourselves know the feelings of a stranger.” They were familiar with the aching of heart and sorrow of spirit that characterizes a people with no land to call their home. The presence of refugees in Israel was supposed to incite merciful compassion from the Israelites, not schemes of oppression and exploitation.

Looking closer at parallels of this command reveals that it is not simply the Israelites’ experience as aliens in Egypt that was expected to motivate their merciful treatment of foreigners. A verse in Deuteronomy says this: “But you shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt, and that the LORD your God redeemed you from there; therefore I am commanding you to do this thing.” Israel’s memory of her experience as aliens in Egypt would be incomplete if it did not extend to God’s gracious act of deliverance from bondage. Ultimately, the just and compassionate treatment extended to foreigners in the land was contingent upon God, who had acted justly and compassionately toward the Israelites when they were slaves in Egypt. Their actions as a nation to the strangers residing in their land was intended to mirror the gracious action of God on their behalf when they resided as strangers in Egypt.

New Testament Grace

In the New Testament the Jewish law is fulfilled in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Followers of Jesus in the Early Church were no longer required to conform to the Old Testament regulations, including the command to welcome the stranger. However, foreigners are still precious to God, and the New Testament reminds believers that just as the Israelites had three distinct reasons to welcome the stranger, so do believers. We too have a history as foreigners, refugees are still a common occurrence, and we, of course, have been graciously set free by Jesus.

Ephesians 2:19 - A Key Passage

Ephesians 2:19 is the passage I have chosen to focus on for the New Testament. The first two chapters of Ephesians leading up to 2:19 display in great detail the reality of all that is offered to believers in Jesus Christ. Chapter two rejoices in the radical change of identity that takes place for those who believe. We are brought from death to life (2:1-10), from exclusion to inclusion (2:11-12), from being far off to being near (2:13), from conflict to peace (2:14-18), and finally, from an identity as aliens and strangers to one as citizens (2:19-22). The Greek words used in for “stranger” and “alien” are rare in the New Testament; one of them only occurs four times. The word used for “stranger” connotes a temporary stay, perhaps similar to a tourist, while the word for “alien” is akin to a resident alien, someone who lives in a foreign land for a long period of time.

The Believers’ History

Just as the Old Testament people of God were once strangers and aliens, so too were believers. All those living apart from Christ find themselves strangers to the household of God and aliens to the kingdom of heaven. Unbelievers wander as refugees without a home and without a community identity, while believers find their identity in the family of God. Unbelievers live enslaved to their sin, just as the Israelites lived as foreigners and slaves in Egypt, but just as the Israelites were released from bondage in Egypt by the gracious action of God on their behalf, so also are sinners released from the bondage of sin by the gracious action of Jesus on our behalf. Because God acted in just punishment of sin by pouring out His wrath on Jesus Christ, he could also act with overwhelming compassion toward sinners and grant us citizenship in the kingdom of heaven. These realities, then, and the identification of believers as former aliens and strangers enslaved to sin, should lead us to draw the same conclusions that were drawn from God’s command to the Israelites concerning strangers and aliens in the Torah.

Refugees Were Common

Aliens, in both the physical sense emphasized by Leviticus and in the spiritual sense highlighted by Ephesians will be a constant reality in every corner of the world. War, natural disaster, and poverty still drive individuals, families, and sometimes, entire tribes to seek a new beginning in a new land. Likewise, those living in bondage to sin outside of Christ will always be present among us.

Believers should treat refugees no differently than they would a fellow native resident of their country or ethnic group. The people of God in any generation should fight for the just treatment of the orphan, the widow, and the immigrant. This action has defined God-fearers since the establishment of His covenant with Israel and their release from bondage in Egypt, and it should continue to define us today. Compassion toward his neighbor characterized Jesus’s earthly ministry. When asked what the greatest commandment was, Jesus’s reply included “love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12.31). Immigrants and refugees are our neighbors as much as anyone else.

Additionally, believers, rightly viewing those outside of Christ as spiritual strangers and aliens, should not scheme against, nor take advantage of, unbelievers. In love, we ought to extend a hand of kindness and heart of compassion to them, boldly proclaiming the gospel of citizenship in the kingdom of heaven. Many physical aliens are also spiritual aliens, and just as believers should seek to bring them to rest and belonging in a physical community, we should also hope for their souls to be brought to rest in the bodily community of Christ.

Gracious Salvation

Finally, just as the experience of the Israelites as strangers in the land of Egypt was to inform their treatment of aliens in their land, so should the believer’s experience as an alien and stranger outside of Christ inform our gracious treatment of the physical and spiritual aliens around us. Why, according to James, is pure and undefiled religion summed up in ministry to the oppressed and outcast, just as Israel was commanded to do (James 1.27)? It is because in Christ we are no longer called widow, but bride, no longer called orphan, but beloved child, and no longer stranger, but citizen. Just as the Israelites’ compassion toward foreigners was not contingent upon the foreigners themselves, nor upon the Israelites, but upon God, their deliverer, so the believer’s compassionate action cannot be founded simply upon his experience as an alien apart from Christ, but upon God’s gracious act of deliverance. The believer loves his neighbor, believer or unbeliever, citizen in his land or foreigner in his land, only because he was first loved by God (1 John 4.19).

I hope this brief theology of displacement gives you a glimpse into the rich biblical history of welcoming the stranger. I hope that it helps you see that we should not simply obey what God has commanded us for its own sake, but because we understand what God has done for us in Jesus Christ.