Migrants and Morals

No Trespassing signs in both English and Spanish hang from a fence on the outskirts of Tucson, Arizona where illigal immigran
No Trespassing signs in both English and Spanish hang from a fence on the outskirts of Tucson, Arizona where illigal immigrants are known to wander.

A disorganized rabble consisting of thousands of migrants fleeing persecution and terrible living conditions stream out of a Mideast country. Their aim is a rich, fertile, sparsely populated land to the north. Their progress is slow and intermittent with detours and backtracks.

Sometimes they are blocked by hostile nations; sometimes forced to stop and spend years in temporary settlements. They are prey to dangerous weather, hunger, thirst, and disease. When they arrive at their destination, some people welcome them, but others are hostile. Of course, I am talking about the Israelite flight from Egypt, and their eventual entry into the Promised Land.

A Warning

The Bible offers an interesting perspective on large-scale migrations. The Israelites are initially turned away from the Promised Land by military force (Num 14:45), but that is not the end of the story. They retreat, lick their wounds for a generation, grow strong, and return to conquer the Promised Land.

The Bible does not say what would have happened if they had been received amicably when they first arrived. What the Bible does illustrate is the fact that large-scale migrations can be delayed, but are seldom successfully stopped by military force in the long run. The migrants will eventually win through, and the Bible warns that when they do, they won't be happy.

For example, consider the surprising mid-20th century rerun of the Israelite migration to the Promised Land. Jewish migrants fleeing Europe and elsewhere streamed toward the British mandate of Palestine. The British tried to block them, and the Arab inhabitants met them with hostility. But like the Biblical Israelites, the modern Jewish migrants were not ultimately deterred, and did not settle in harmoniously with the indigenous peoples.

The success of the Biblical Israelites offers a warning to Europe. Europe is a wealthy, peaceful continent with a declining population. It is adjacent to the Mideast which contains economies, indeed countries wrecked by war and a burgeoning population. Nature not only abhors vacuums, it also dislikes pressure differentials, so migration is unsurprising. Europe can keep most of the migrants out for now, but eventually they will be back. In force. Keeping them out (or letting in only a trickle) may work in the short term, but it is not a long-term solution.

What should Europe do?

The Bible offers guidance on this question, too. Even before the Israelites win possession of the Promised Land, they are repeatedly enjoined to treat the stranger well because "you were strangers in the land of Egypt" (e.g. Lev. 19:34).

This is not a command to give admittance to all who ask (but see Matthew 5:42). Nor is it detailed, practical advice about how to admit the proper number and sort of migrants in an orderly, principled way.

Instead, the reminder that, "you were strangers in the land of Egypt" is an instruction about what emotional perspective to adopt, how to feel about the migrants. It requires the reader to look at the immigrants through the lens of empathy, and feel compassion rather than fear and hatred.

Of course, feeling is not enough; feeling must guide speech and action. The Bible urges us to speak and act in compassionate ways, both toward the strangers in our midst and the strangers outside of our gates. How things are said is important. Speech reflects and effects how we think and act. We should talk of migrants as unfortunate fellow creatures, rather than in disparaging, xenophobic ways. And we should render aid insofar as we are able.

Distinctions between legal and illegal immigrants, between refugees and economic migrants, between modern and ancient migrations, etc. are important. They should not be disregarded. (1951 Refugee Convention and 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees) But they are not the whole story or the last word, either. They are to be applied compassionately. There is a big difference between "We have just about reached our limit; no more people will be admitted," and "We can squeeze in a few more families." There is even a difference between, "We have reached our quota; go home dirty Muslim" and "We are terribly sorry that we cannot admit you; we wish you well." Sending the right message may not be as important as doing the right thing, but it is nevertheless important.

What of the cost?

Some Europeans worry that admitting migrants will burden Europe, and that the migrants will remain a people apart. Again the Bible addresses these worries.

In ancient Israel, the core of the social safety net is the requirement to leave part of the field unharvested, and available to impoverished gleaners (Lev 19:9-10). Ruth is an economic migrant who utilizes this safety net. She works extraordinarily hard (Ruth 2:7), and rather quickly integrates fully into the culture by marrying Boaz (Ruth 4:13). Her great grandson turns out to be King David (Ruth 4:17), so she is a Very Important Person. Her contribution to Israelite society is very great.

The book of Ruth urges Europe to take the long view. Like Ruth, the contemporary migrants may be an economic burden up front, but they are likely to assimilate quickly into the culture, and down the line they will probably make large net contributions to society. So relax, Europe! This time it will pay to play nice.