Welcoming Migrants and Refugees: A Biblical Ethic of Kinship
What is a Christian response to people-on-the-move?
Mark R. Glanville & Luke Glanville
Refugee welcome and immigration reform are back on the political agenda in North America: In October 2020, Canadian Minister of Immigration Marco Mendicino promised to resettle 65,000 people who are seeking asylum to Canada over the next three years, and President-Elect Biden’s first post-election promise was to raise the United States’ ceiling for annual refugee resettlement to 125,000.
It’s time to return to an old question, for this new moment: what is a Christian response to people-on-the-move? We offer that a biblical ethic of kinship compels and shapes a distinctive Christian welcome of people who are seeking a home—a common Biblical theme.
An ethic of enfolding and protecting vulnerable people as kin runs through the life-blood of scripture. This model of kinship points to something broader than a family bond; the loyalty of kin is not dependent on blood. An ethic-of-kinship is Scripture’s invitation to live in loving solidarity with one another, to bring the weakest among us to the center of our communities. A biblical ethic of kinship enfolds people who are seeking asylum into the protective center of society.
Kinship is found in the well-known Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25–37). Answering the lawyer’s question, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus tells the story of a man who was set upon by robbers and left to die. A priest and a Levite each cross to the other side of the road to avoid having to help. In the course of events, it is a Samaritan trader who stops, has pity, treats his wounds with oil and wine, who bandages him, puts the man on his own donkey, and pays for his convalescence.
“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man?” Jesus asks. In Jesus’ world, “neighbor” was a kinship term. To put Jesus’ question another way: “Who treated this guy like family?”
A Samaritan did. But the lawyer can’t even bring himself to say the word: “The one who had mercy on him,” the lawyer mumbles begrudgingly. Samaritans were headed for hell, outside of the covenant of God—or so some thought.
We will return to the Samaritan in a moment, but don't miss the response of the priest and the Levite. In crossing the road, they were probably avoiding the contagion of a half-dead body, according to the religious standards of the day. Some of Jesus’ listeners would have nodded with approval at their good sense, even admiring their piety in crossing the road. Avoiding the half-dead wasn’t so foolish, according to the mores of first century Judaism (or segments thereof).
But let’s come to the present day for a moment: These sorts of priests and Levites are still around. And they appear sensible enough, as they call us to cross the road. The text of a 2019 Bible study on immigration written for the Trump administration’s White House Cabinet Bible study group and for members of US Congress argues for “the inherent responsibility of a government to advance the country, meaning its leaders will want to enact immigration policies that only allow people into the country who can advance it, not detract from it.” Sensible enough, perhaps? And yet how does this claim fare in light of Jesus’ call to kinship?
The parable demonstrates the tender, welcoming way of Jesus—an ethic of enfolding vulnerable outsiders as our kinsfolk. But the tale is multi-layered. An outsider, an “impure” Samaritan, exemplifies the welcoming way of Jesus. Through the figure of the Samaritan, the parable not only demonstrates the tenderness of the kingdom of God, but it also turns the self-assumed piety of Jesus’ audience on its head. Self-interested tribalism has no place in the kingdom of God, no matter how religious one might appear.
The point here is that the priest and the Levite go out of their way to avoid helping. This brings to mind expensive border walls. It reminds us of Australian off-shore detention facilities that cost four million dollars per (refugee) inmate this year. Western nations all too often assume the roles of the priest and the Levite.
And yet, Western nations might put themselves in the shoes of another character, as well: the robbers. Think of the unjust trade policies, wars, arms sales, and disproportionately large contributions to global warming promulgated by Western nations. This sort of behavior leaves vulnerable economies around the world lying half-dead, and it produces the mass displacement of people we then work so hard to keep out. We pursue this theme in more detail in our book Refuge Reimagined: Biblical Kinship in Global Politics.
This biblical ethic of kinship is powerful and could transform the world’s response to mass displacement. On the ten-year anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan called the global community to move “toward a stronger sense of global kinship.” Annan’s appeal reflects this biblical ethic of kinship that we see in the Parable of the Good Samaritan. The good Samaritan treated the dying man as one would treat family. Jesus’ parable echoes Old Testament passages that call God’s people both to “love your neighbor as yourself” and also to “love the stranger as yourself” (Lev 19:18, 33–34). Again, “love,” in this passage, is a kinship term. We are to enfold the “stranger”—those who are seeking a home—as our kindred.
The world is increasingly mobile. Human migration will not go away just because we build walls. We have a choice in this moment of change to determine again the posture we wish to embody, the kinds of communities we want to cultivate, and the actions we can take to build global kinship in the face of so much violence and harm, at our hands and at the hands of others.
Will it cost us? The Samaritan provided for the injured man out of his own means. Will it demand changes? During COVID, our societies have demonstrated an enormous capacity for change and innovation. We can upend normal life overnight, when we have a clear vision of the end goal. But responding to this call is not a matter of mere human desire—it is a matter of repentance and of spiritual transformation.
Recognition and acceptance of the Biblical call to kinship should prompt us to repent of our own participation in the harm done to people globally. It can lead us to open wide our imaginations to how our own Christian communities can embody the loving embrace of Jesus and how we can call upon our societies to do the same. It can lead us to embrace our own vulnerabilities as we enfold one another, helping us to joyfully grasp new opportunities for mutual transformation.
Dr. Mark R Glanville has authored Refuge Reimagined: Biblical Ethics in Global Politics. Co-written with Luke Glanville (IVP, February 2021). He is Associate Professor of Pastoral Theology at Regent College, Vancouver, and an Old Testament (Hebrew Bible) scholar. Mark’s recent scholarship explores dynamics of kinship and ethics in the Old Testament (Hebrew Bible). Mark pastored for 14 years in urban, justice-seeking churches.