Flat White

Religion, repentance and refugees

27 June 2018

4:09 PM

27 June 2018

4:09 PM

Tonight, in the national capital, Brian Douglas, the Rector of St Mark’s Anglican Church at Manuka and the Archdeacon on South Canberra, has invited all the members of the Commonwealth Parliament to attend a Service of Repentance for Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers.

Many have publicly rejected the invitation, including Liberal Senator for Tasmania Eric Abetz, here in Flat White, and his Western Australian colleague Linda Reynolds.

Unfortunately, when it comes to the issue of refugees many of the so-called ‘religious’ arguments that are put forth—especially by some Christians—are as simplistic as they are sentimental. In this regard, Abetz has written a valuable corrective to the naïve presentation that some churches make regarding this issue.

For example, Abetz, who identifies as a practising Christian, in declining Douglas’ invitation instead suggested—rightly, in my opinion—that maybe Douglas should consider holding a ‘service of thanksgiving’ for Australia’s:

  • Compassionate intake of refugees (per capita);
  • Generous provision of services to refugees (probably the best in the world);
  • Determination to put criminals (people smuggler’s) out of business;
  • Success in stopping more than 1,000 drownings at sea;
  • Initiative not to prioritise those with money and criminal support; and
  • Policy to take refugees based on need.


Abetz concluded his article by saying, “Dr Douglas needs to realise that compassion and common-sense are not mutually exclusive. Nor is Christianity and strong border protection.” As an ordained minister of the Presbyterian Church of Australia, it is his last statement in particular that I would like to pick up on and vigorously affirm.

Dr James Hoffmeier, a leading American Old Testament scholar, has written an insightful book on this subject, The Immigration Crisis: Immigrants, Aliens and the Bible (Crossway, 2009). Hoffmeier argues that the key to understanding what the Old Testament teaches on this topic is to realise that there is a definite distinction between those who come from other countries to settle in the land of Israel as legal ‘aliens’ and those who do not, ‘foreigners’. As Hoffmeier explains:

Nowhere in the Old Testament is there any sense that a nation had to accept immigrants, nor was being received as an alien a right… The Bible clearly distinguishes between the status of a legal alien (ger) and a foreigner (nekhar and zar), and one consequence is that there really is a difference between the legal standing of a present-day documented alien and an illegal immigrant. Therefore, it is legally and morally acceptable for government to deal with those in the country illegally according to the nation’s legal provisions. The Christian insists, however, that they be dealt with in a humane manner.

Hoffmeier’s insight here is critical because all too often Christians cherry pick one or two verses of the Bible to ‘proof texts’ their entire understanding of a subject. From a New Testament perspective, theologian, Dr Wayne Grudem, argues in Politics According to the Bible (Zondervan, 2010):

Another important consideration from the Bible concerns the general responsibilities of governments to seek the good of the nations that they rule (Rom. 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14) and thereby truly serve as “God’s servant for your good” (Rom. 13:4). This means that the immigration policies of a nation should be designed to bring benefit to that specific nation… Therefore, immigration policies should be designed to bring benefit to the well-being of the nation as a whole. [emphasis his]

According to Grudem, the practical ramifications for following such Biblical principles is as follows:

It is appropriate that priority in immigration be given, for example, to those who have sufficient education and training to support themselves and contribute well to…society, those who have demonstrated significant achievement in some area or another, and all those who otherwise give evidence that they will make a positive contribution. It is appropriate, also to exclude those with a criminal record, those who have communicable diseases, or those who otherwise give indication that their overall contribution would likely be negative rather than positive in terms of advancing the well-being of the nation. [emphasis his]

That is the proverbial ‘other side of the coin’ when it comes to thinking about refugees. Yes, we should help those fleeing from war, persecution or famine. But a Biblical perspective will also seek to discern how many people we can, in fact, help as well as how dire their present circumstances may be.

Hence, while a Judeo-Christian framework will emphasise care and compassion towards those seeking asylum, it will also seek to protect and benefit the citizens of the country taking refugees in. Rather than being one or the other, as Abetz wisely argues, it is a case of both/and.

Mark Powell is the Associate Pastor of Cornerstone Presbyterian Church, Strathfield.

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