Public discourse on issues concerning immigration and foreign workers is often carried out within the framework of “human rights,” “national interests,” and “Asian values,” with religious values having a lesser role in the discussion. While this is understandably the preferred approach in a secular and multicultural society like Singapore, the Christian community must believe it has a point of view that can make a true difference in the problem-solving efforts.
The Christian view does not necessarily contradict these contemporary categories of thinking but it can offer humane perspectives based on an alternative view of people and the world. In this article, I would like to reflect on the question: “Why should we be hospitable to new immigrants or to resident non-citizens?”
I believe the Christian perspective supplies some good answers, and deep theological meaning can be discovered in the normal hospitality that we accord to the foreigner in our midst.
We live in the age of unprecedented human migration. Barring the implementing of regional plans by governments to check or reverse the trend, global mass migrations will continue to characterise present reality. As an instance, in a press release by the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority, it was reported that in 2013, a third or 30% of marriages in Singapore involved at least one spouse who was neither a citizen nor a permanent resident, up from 23% in 2003.[i] The trend of marriage to foreign spouses will likely continue to rise in Singapore as the city moves toward greater cosmopolitanism.
Churches have to face the reality of rapid social change, and can expect people of an uncommon ethnicity or origin to appear at the church’s doorstep. While most churches emphasise hospitality and kindness towards strangers, and discourage cliquishness, the encouragement to do so is usually based upon the evangelistic motive.
This is certainly more laudable than promoting exclusiveness or exclusion, but we can miss the important truth that the basis for Christian hospitality towards strangers is first derived from the Scriptural understanding of God’s compassion for the vulnerable and the Church’s self-understanding as a pilgrim people.
“Because You Were Foreigners in Egypt”
Charles Van Engen, a professor emeritus at Fuller Theological Seminary, noted that while the Old Testament often presents foreigners as enemies of the people of God, it also contains many commands to Israel to care for the foreigners or “strangers” who lived in their midst.[ii]
Do not oppress a foreigner; you yourselves know how it feels to be foreigners, because you were foreigners in Egypt. – Exodus 23:9, NIV
The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God. – Lv 19:34, NIV[iii]
The commands given by God through Moses were accompanied by the reason why the Israelites must treat foreigners well and not oppress them: the Israelites were foreigners in Egypt so they knew what it had been like to experience suffering and oppression as foreigners. The Israelites and the foreigners shared a common experience of alienation and suffering, and this bond must be expressed in the dignified treatment of the less powerful group.
Van Engen traced another theological meaning in God’s demand for the Israelites to show compassion – it would serve as a constant reminder to them that they were themselves a people who were pilgrims, sojourners and immigrants in the land. This was to be an integral aspect of their calling as a people even after they entered the Promised Land.
From God’s call to Abram to leave his country and become a sojourner, through to the period of the Exile when God’s people had to learn to live in a place where they did not belong, Israel’s self-understanding continued to be that of a migrant race. This self-perception would carry into the Christian faith as Jewish and Gentile believers grasped the truth that they have inherited not only the privilege of being God’s people but also its pilgrim character.
Jesus and Neighbourliness
Jesus’ approach to the poor and dispossessed in society was built on the Old Testament tradition of mercy and compassion for the disadvantaged. His teachings re-established the spirit of the Old Testament ethic, which had been kept in the practice of the law but not in the sentiments that it was meant to evoke, and superseded it with new and radical applications. He did this particularly through reinstating “neighbourliness” as a supreme way worshipping God (Mt 22:34-40), and by redefining the word “neighbour” (Lk 10:36-37).
Jesus’ teachings shaped how the early church related to pagan society. The same spirit permeated the church leaders’ instructions to their congregations on intra- and inter-church relations (Rom 12:13, 1 Pt 4:9, 1 Tm 3:2, Ti 1:8, 3 Jn 7-9), and relations with the unbelieving world (Heb 13:2, 3). Church fathers such as Clement of Alexandria, Origen and Tertullian continued in the same vein, exhorting Christians to continue in the practice of love and concern for strangers and foreigners.
Encountering God in the Migrant
In his essay, On Loving Strangers: Encountering the Mystery of God in the Face of Migrants, Miguel Diaz spoke of how ministering to migrants and understanding the experience of migration helps us as believers to “reconceive the mystery of God.”[iv] Deliberating on the thought of Karl Rahner and Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who both wrote about how we encounter the presence and mystery of God in our daily interaction with fellow human beings who may be very different from us, Diaz invites us to see how, in the Incarnation, Jesus could be conceived of as a migrant who crosses the border and experiences all the accompanying dangers of migration in order to bridge his world and ours.
Diaz concluded that “there is something about crossing over and welcoming others (especially alienated others) that mirrors how God crosses over and welcomes us in Jesus Christ. A human community that does not welcome others and their otherness—a human community that rejects and shuns identifying with the suffering of migrating strangers—does not image the mystery of God.”[v]
From ‘Migrant’ to Migrant
Singapore is a nation of immigrants, so it might be something of a surprise to the casual observer that we have not been very hospitable to entrance seekers and migrant workers residing in Singapore. This is not so surprising upon reflection. Hospitality towards others not like us is not part of the social DNA of any society. In Singapore, this has not been helped by the fact that many of our forebears were poor immigrants.
Their first concern was for their own economic survival, not the well-being of society. For them, charity began, and often ended, at home. The cautious immigrant mindset has remained, and is today encouraged by the modern myth of self-achieved success. “Since I earned my wealth and comfort through my own perspiration, why should you not do the same?” How do we practice Christian hospitality in this setting?
We often think of hospitality as something we do, whether it is preparing a meal for friends and relatives or welcoming a visitor in church. Christian hospitality is much more than outward politeness and service.
[i] Immigration and Checkpoints Authority, “New Measures to Help Prospective Singaporean-Foreigner Couples Better Plan For Their Future,” Press Release, 24 October 2014.
[ii] Charles Van Engen, “Biblical Perspectives on the Role of Immigrants in God’s Mission,” Journal of Latin American Theology 3, no. 2 (2008): 17-19.
[iii] See also Ex 22:21, 23:12; Leviticus 19:33; and Dt 10:19. The presence of these commands is remarkable when one learns that other ancient near eastern legal codes do not have statements of provision or compassion for foreigners.
[iv] Miguel H. Diaz, “On Loving Strangers: Encountering the Mystery of God in the Face of Migrants,” Word & World 29, no. 3 (2009): 235.
[v] Ibid., 240.
Dr Fong Choon Sam is Dean of Academic Studies and Interim Co-President at Baptist Theological Seminary. He teaches in the Missions, Religions, and Research areas.