World Refugee Day: 3 Bible reasons Christians can't turn their backs on strangers

More than 4.8 million Syrians have fled the country since civil war erupted in 2011.Reuters

Today is World Refugee Day, an occasion for the whole world to mark and raise awareness of the global refugee crisis.

Whether it's in the Middle East, Calais, or through Donald Trump's hotly-contested 'refugee ban', the world has grown increasingly aware of the plight of those forced to flee their homes.

Debate rages on about the best way to help, but what does the Bible say? Some Christians have enthusiastically advocated for the welcome of strangers, while others like evangelist Franklin Graham have said that the refugee crisis is 'not a Bible issue'.

While the complex international arena we now inhabit isn't the reality that the writers of Scripture knew, there remain timeless principles in it that offer a profound and perhaps uncomfortable challenge to help strangers in need.

Here are three biblical reasons why Christians can't turn their back on refugees.

1. The law of love

The command to help refugees is not in some side-alley of Scripture, but at the heart of the Law that God gifts to the Israelites through Moses. They must help strangers in need, because they were strangers once. Exodus 23:9 insists: 'You shall not oppress a sojourner. You know the heart of a sojourner, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.'

The law code of Leviticus offers a more specific command: 'When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God' (Leviticus 19:33-34).

Perhaps it's no surprise that Jesus gave one of the two greatest commandments as love of neighbour (Matthew 22:40), while Paul said it summed up the entire law (Galatians 5:14).

2. Blessed to be a blessing

Because Israel was a special people and family chosen by God, and eventually formed into a kingdom, it could be tempting to see God as having favourites – prioritising by ethnicity and ignoring outsiders. But though much of the Old Testament speaks about God's specific blessing for the people of Israel, this gift has a purpose – the people are blessed in order to be a blessing. As God promised Abraham, he would have a family, but also 'all peoples on earth will be blessed through you' (Genesis 12:3).

It's a principle of generosity that responds to grace by giving to others. Its captured in the wisdom of Proverbs 5.10: 'Let strangers feast on your wealth and your toil enrich the house of another.' It looks outward, not inward, seeking to serve before being served.

Smoke rises from burning makeshift shelters and tents as the Calais Jungle is destroyed and the inhabitants removed.Reuters

If God grants material wealth and prosperity, then what is it for? The Bible points to those who need it most. The book of Ezekiel gives a damning and often forgotten explanation of the sin of the city of Sodom: 'Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy' (Ezekiel 16:49).

3. Jesus the stranger

Jesus too was a refugee when he fled to Egypt, narrowly escaping the infanticide of Herod. He puts the welcome of strangers at the heart of Christian discipleship. 'For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me,' he teaches in Matthew 25:35-36.

The treatment of the least regarded in our society is, in some mysterious sense, our treatment of God. The parable of the Good Samaritan too teaches about the true 'neighbour' who looks beyond ethnic or regional boundaries to show mercy and help the one in need.

Paul offers a principle of welcome, rooted in the generous welcome of Christ. 'Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God,' he says in Romans 15:7.

Perhaps the old invitation to ask, 'What would Jesus do?' is a valuable one here. Politics is complex, but helping the needy, at its heart, should not be. If Jesus saw a sea of those in need, lacking the blessing he was able to provide, what would he do? Scripture tells us quite a lot about how far Christ went for those regarded as 'strangers'. So how far would we go?