British Christians who treat immigrants in a Christlike way are having a knock-on effect for the gospel, even as far away as the lands from which the migrants hail. I know this because I am a mission leader, responsible for the largest team of Christian workers in British immigrant communities.
Christian and other faith leaders have recently said that Britain should be willing to take in Iraqi refugees, bringing these communities into the spotlight again. And what is to be done about the return of British citizens who left the UK to fight as Islamic jihadis? The issues are current and fraught with difficulty.
We live in a globalised world that is now driving the greatest international movement of people in history. Britain is at the forefront of this trend: according to The Migration Observatory at Oxford University there were 2.9 million immigrants in the UK in 1993, increasing to more than six million in 2012.
Should we be afraid of immigrants or should we reach out to them? Elisabeth, a Christian living in Yorkshire, does the latter by teaching immigrants English. She reports that a Pakistani woman asked her to write out the Easter story so that she could share it with her family at home.
Meanwhile, a church in Birmingham was approached by a newly arrived Muslim immigrant who couldn’t find a mosque and asked permission to use a local church hall. The church said yes, and the newcomer felt supported at a vulnerable time in his life.
When the Muslim eventually visited his homeland again, he discovered Christians being ill-treated and denied a place to worship, so he campaigned for Christian rights. His reason? Because British Christians helped him. The generosity of that Birmingham church created an inroad for the gospel in the Muslim world.
CHOOSE A NARRATIVE
What narrative about immigrants is the UK Church believing? We live in a media-saturated society in which the popular yet jaundiced message is that all immigrants are only here to take our jobs, sponge off our welfare state, change our culture, impose their religion and even physically harm us.
However, this Birmingham church chose a very different narrative, believing that history is driven by divine sovereignty (Ephesians 1:11) and that the immigrants living near us are less of a threat and more of a strategic opportunity (Acts 17:26). Its understanding of the ‘great command’ of Christ to love our neighbour (Matthew 22:37-39) includes people who are different from us (Luke 10:25-37).
The references above reveal that the Bible has a countercultural narrative about this issue. This is because it emphasises immigrants as people over immigration as an issue. It also addresses a nation as if it were an individual with responsibilities. On an individual level, the Bible challenges the sinful human nature, which assumes that self-interest comes first.
MORE MUSLIMS ARE CHANGING ALLEGIANCE TO FOLLOW JESUS TODAY THAN AT ANY OTHER TIME IN HISTORY
THE PROS AND CONS OF IMMIGRATION
During the recent European elections, the issue of immigration divided political and public opinion. The underlying defensiveness about our national resources saw David Cameron try to steal UKIP’s thunder by referring to ‘the magnetic pull of the UK benefits system’.
A fairer benefits system, whereby newcomers can only ‘take out’ after they have ‘put in’ has been called for by many. However, the other side of the coin is that the British economy is not only strengthened by immigration but actually relies on it. Bangladeshi businessman Pasha Khondoker started a curry business in the UK that now employs 72,000 people. He owns 80% of the industry that now turns over an estimated £4.5 billion a year.
Some public services might have collapsed without the many highly skilled immigrants who have come to Britain. At the same time, semi-skilled and unskilled workers, particularly from the EU, have been willing to take lower-paid jobs. The knock-on effect of this is often an undercutting of local workers, however, which can create unemployment and depress wages in sectors such as the construction industry.
There is, of course, the added burden on local authorities to provide healthcare, education, transport, housing, policing and amenities. However, many immigrants are contributing to the economy and paying taxes. It is a complex picture with a broad range of issues to address.
WHY DO THEY COME?
Historically, the biggest influx of immigrants to the UK has been from Southern Asia including India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal; former colonies and territories of the British Empire. Today it is the European Union that permits the free movement of goods, capital, services and people. This makes the UK a prime destination for work and residence. Oxford University’s Migration Observatory says that approximately 13% of the UK population was born outside the UK, with 90% of these living in England. This equates to one in seven in England, and one in three in Greater London.
British immigrants include those who are ‘transient’ – here for education, shopping, medical treatment or to do business – and also those who are ‘permanent’ economic migrants. So what are we to make of these ‘strangers in the midst’?
GOD URGED THE ISRAELITES TO REMEMBER THAT MIGRATION HAS ALWAYS BEEN A PART OF THEIR HISTORY, AND THE SAME IS TRUE OF BRITAIN
THE ‘STRANGER IN THE MIDST’ IN THE OLD TESTAMENT
It is not politicians but the Old Testament that coined the phrase ‘stranger in the midst’ (ezrach). It is used to refer to immigrants living alongside native-born Israeli citizens (Leviticus 23:42). I am indebted to George Irving, who (in the essay ‘U.K. Immigration – Towards a Christian Perspective’) identifies the following subcategories of ‘stranger’ for us:
Foreigners (nokrim) were transients who migrated because they heard good things about the host society and wanted to benefit. They were received and respected (1 Kings 8:41-43). They were not, however, included in national benefits such as the cancelling of debts between native Israelis (Deuteronomy 15:1-3), which could be seen as a parallel to the British benefit system.
Aliens (gerim) were among the ‘other people’ who left Egypt with the Hebrews at the exodus (Exodus 12:37-38). They were permanent immigrants who were covered by Jewish law and responsible for adhering to it. They helped build Solomon’s Temple (2 Chronicles 2:17-18) and were identified as a vulnerable group alongside the fatherless and the widow. God was displeased when they were ill-treated (Jeremiah 22:3; Ezekiel 22:7; 29). People from Britain’s colonial territories also heard good things about the liberties available, based on our Judeo-Christian heritage.
Sojourners (toshab) were mere ‘visitors’. They were less integrated and were identified as outsiders. Like ‘foreigners’, they were excluded from festivals such as the Passover meal (Exodus 12:45), although they enjoyed basic human rights under Mosaic law. Sojourners were like tourists who come to the UK for private health treatment, higher education or to do business on a temporary basis. One such visitor from Kuwait was given a New Testament in London. He read it on his return flight and got off the plane in Kuwait having changed allegiance to Jesus Christ.
Strangers (zarim) were divided into two types. The first was like the ‘sojourner’; visitors passing through on a casual basis. They were not eligible for certain roles, which is comparable to those who are refused the right to work or trade today. The second type encapsulated those from other nations, who were used as an instrument of judgement upon Israel (Ezekiel 28:7; 10). This type would obviously be monitored and could not integrate.
The Bible records God’s clear insistence that: ‘…you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners…’ (Deuteronomy 10:19). The Bible also says: ‘When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not ill-treat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself…’ (Leviticus 19:33-34).
God urged the Israelites to remember that migration has always been part of their history, and the same is true of Britain. He also pointed to Abraham, who was ‘a foreigner and stranger’ among the Hittites (Genesis 23:4), and Moses, their lawgiver, who was ‘a foreigner in a foreign land’ (Exodus 18:3).
THE NEW TESTAMENT ‘STRANGER IN THE MIDST’
There is no shame in being an immigrant in the Bible. Jesus was an immigrant in Egypt as a boy, and as an adult he modelled a positive attitude and constructive relationships with immigrants from seven different ethnic minority groups. This included Samaritans, whose social status was akin to that of the Traveller or Muslim community today. By telling the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus was using this marginalised minority to redefine a ‘neighbour’ as someone who is there for the one in need; even when they are one of the four categories of ‘stranger’ listed above.
The Samaritans were seen as the ‘enemy in the midst’; a perceived social threat. They were forced migrants to Israel, where they were introduced as a mechanism of ‘ethnic cleansing’. The aim was to intermarry them with Israelis in a bid to dilute the Jewish bloodline (see 2 Kings 17:24-41).
What made the animosity worse was the fact that the Samaritan religion was a hybrid of foreign traditions mixed with the purity of Judaism; a direct parallel with Islam today, which has many Jewish elements to it. Some scholars refer to Islam as an ‘Arabised reflection of Judaism’ due to the fact that, like Judaism, it is rooted in God’s covenant with Abraham.
It reveres Old Testament patriarchs such as Noah, Moses and David, and 23 of the 26 prophets mentioned in the Koran are biblical prophets. Muslims circumcise their male children and instead of kosher they have the identical practice of hallal. Muslims revere Genesis to Deuteronomy (Torah), Psalms to the Song of Solomon (Mazmur) and the ‘Gospel of Jesus’ (Injil) as their holy books.
JESUS WAS AN IMMIGRANT IN EGYPT AS A BOY
THE HOLY SPIRIT HAS NO TRUCK WITH RACISM
This is why he was poured out on all people: God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven, as well as Elamites (Iranian), Mesopotamians (Iraqi), Egyptians, Libyans, Ethiopians, Romans, Samaritans, Greeks and Arabs (Acts 2:8-11). Simon Peter’s racism was finally exposed and dealt with in Acts 10.
Even persecution can have a silver lining in the economy of God, which comes at the issue from a very different angle from us. The Great Commission was in danger of stalling in Jerusalem until persecution broke out after the murder of Stephen. This dispersed the Jewish believers so they could spread the gospel across Judea and Samaria (Acts 8:1-3).
At the time of the Old Testament, the nation state of Israel was the ‘people of God’. However, when we come to the New Testament, membership in the ‘people of God’ becomes distinct from citizenship in any passport country because of Christ. As a result, followers of Jesus are asked to honour and submit to state authorities, while also enjoying a higher identity; that of being a spiritual citizen of a ‘holy nation’ (see 1 Peter 2:9).
Paul is referring to this when he writes ‘our citizenship is in heaven’ (Philippians 3:20). Gentiles who were ‘excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners’ are ‘no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household’ (Ephesians 2:12; 19).
WHAT ARE WE TO DO ABOUT ALL THIS?
I am convinced that God is not only aware of the complex migration patterns around the world, but that he is working his purposes out through them. Ethnic minorities are present in Britain ‘so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him’ (Acts 17:27). David Garrison, writes in A Wind in the House of Islam (WIGtake Resources) that more Muslims are changing allegiance to follow Jesus today than at any other time in the history of the Church.
God’s end goal was recorded by John in Revelation, when he says: ‘There before me was a great multitude that no one could count…saying: “You are worthy…because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased for God persons from every tribe and language and people and nation”’ (Revelation 7:9; 5:9).
So, while you might struggle with some of the implications of immigration, your attitude to immigrants as people needs to align with that of Jesus. You can only do this as you let go of subconscious ideas of Britain as geographical ‘Christian territory’, along with unhealthy ideas relating to ownership of the country based on imperialist assumptions.
One mission worker who had served for many years in a Muslim country told me how he returned to his hometown in the UK to find that a significant immigrant population had grown up around his church. He reacted negatively until God resolved the issue by reminding him that: ‘The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it.’ (Psalm 24:1). It’s a lesson we all need to learn.