As Christmas approaches and we mull over its holy significance, it is important to remember that there are 71 million displaced persons of whom 26 million are refugees. As we all know, the story surrounding the birth of Jesus is the reason we celebrate Christmas.
Joseph and pregnant Mary were strangers in Bethlehem. Mary gave birth to Jesus there and placed him in a manger because there was “no room for them in the inn.” As recorded in the gospels of Matthew and Luke, the Christmas story continues with a tale of horror and flight when the wicked king ordered the slaughter of all young children in the environs of Bethlehem. The family flees and seeks refuge in Egypt making them refugees.
Although the terms “refugee” and “displaced persons” do not appear in the Bible as such, the holy book says quite a bit about “strangers,” “sojourners,” and “foreigners.” These are terms that were used to persons from other ethnic groups who chose to live with the Jews in Israel. The Bible guides us on how to treat refugees and strangers because Jesus and the Jews were once refugees.
In Exodus 22:21, we are told that God’s people were refugees in Egypt as aliens and refugees until he heard their cry and delivered them. He calls on them to use that as a learning experience in order not to mistreat or oppress a foreigner. In the story of the Good Samaritan, Jesus tells Jews to care for people including those they despise such as the Samaritans. It is a Christian duty and responsibility to care for those in need.
God commands us to love our neighbor as we love ourselves in Galatians 5:14. Loving your neighbor means acting with compassion. He also tells us to keep on loving one another as brothers and sisters while not forgetting to show hospitality to strangers (Hebrews 13:1-2).
Job 31:32 requires of us to leave the door open to the traveler while Matthew 25:25-36 asks us to invite the stranger in. In wars, famine, and civil conflict, women and children are often the most displaced. We are asked not to oppress the widows and orphans and deprive foreigners among us of justice in Malachi 3:5.
The Bible teaches us that all people — including each refugee, regardless of their country of origin, religious background, or any other qualifier — are made in the image of God, with inherent dignity and potential. Their lives matter to God, and they matter to us. Leviticus 19:34 tells us to treat foreigners or refugees as citizens and with love.
However, in Canada, the “strangers,” “sojourners,” and “foreigners” are not welcomed just for the sake of compassion. It is a two-way traffic. Canada has an aging population and a low birth rate and needs immigrants (including refugees) to boost its population replacement rate. By 2035, five million Canadians will reach retirement age, at which time it is estimated that 350,000 immigrants will be needed annually by 2035 in order to meet Canada’s workforce demands. And yet many policies and practices in Canada, including the Safe Third Country Agreement between Canada and the US, close the door or border for many asylum claimants fleeing for their lives.
We must ensure that in Canada, refugees are welcomed, shown hospitality, loved compassionately, and not mistreated or oppressed. While Canada has maintained relatively reasonable refugee policy, it only receives a small fraction of the world’s refugees annually. Today, the global refugee crisis requires more of us. In addition to sponsoring refugees to come to Canada, we must also advocate for policies that ensure they are welcomed here. We need to knock down “Canada’s border wall,” that is, the barriers immigrants face to full integration and participation in Canadian society. We can follow the leadership of many churches in Canada. For decades they have lived out the biblical commands to love our neighbors and to practice hospitality by sponsoring refugees.
Jay Parini aptly reminds us “Christmas is, for those who wish to follow the way of Jesus, an invitation to accept into our comfortable and safe lives those who come to us from far away, who seem ragged, marginal, in transition.”