Migrants, Refugees, and the Image of God
By Alan Cross
This article is part of a series at Humble Orthodoxy on the image of God.
Christians hold a basic and accepted understanding that all people are made in the image of God, as stated in Genesis 1:27. Because of this, we believe that all have inherent worth, value, and dignity derived from God. This belief is the foundation for human rights, the abolition of slavery, advocacy for the poor and marginalized, opposition to abortion of the unborn and promotion of a pro-life ethic, and a desire for justice and righteous action toward all, among other things.
If we are all made in God’s image, then holding racist beliefs about one skin color or ethnicity being superior to another is seen as unholy and damaging.
If we’re all made in God’s image and bear his mark of creation and capacity for relationship with God upon our souls, then murder, theft, violence, and injustice against fellow image-bearers is wrong and mars our souls.
If every human is made in the image of God, then every human being has the capacity for relationship, for creative action, for moral judgements. Every single person has the ability to work, create, build, and develop their life according to God’s good plans.
Every human being is a person that God loves and gave himself for to purchase our salvation and grant forgiveness of sins. Every human being, through a relationship with Jesus, has the capacity to worship God and know him and love others. Every person can be forgiven, receive grace, and forgive. To be “made in the image of God” is to have the touch of the divine upon our souls with the capacity to be reconciled to God through the salvation offered by Jesus through faith and repentance. We are more than animals.
It is with this awareness that we turn to migrants, refugees, and the displaced. What does it mean that these people, who have left home for various reasons and traveled to seek to live among others for safety and security, are also made in the image of God? We can accept that statement as reality and not disagree but then live as though those who come to us from other lands, tribes, and nations are somehow less than us. Their foreignness can mean to us that they don’t belong. We can look upon them and see differences in language, skin color, nationality, or traditions and customs, and instead of seeing a potential neighbor and friend, we might see a threat. Or, perhaps we don’t see them at all.
We can, if pressed, agree wholeheartedly that they are made in God’s image because they too are human, but their difference from us in these observable things of life and culture means that we somehow belong here where we are and they, because they are from elsewhere, do not. It is in the gulf of belief and acceptance that all manner of rejection, exclusion, alienation, and ignoring of the other can take place. It is in this chasm that misunderstanding and violence can grow.
Jesus gives us a better way to see the sojourner. He tells us to “welcome” them in Matthew 25:35. This word for “welcome” is synagagete, which means to gather together and, in this context, to gather into one’s self. It is a harvest word. It means more than just extending a handshake and asking how one is. Rather, it connotes the idea that we are to welcome sojourners into our lives, homes, and communities as an act of worship to God. Jesus connects how we welcome sojourners and strangers with how we see him. Do we see God at work in their lives? Do we think first about what God might be doing by sending this “image-bearer” to us, or do we first see a threat? A potential enemy? Or do we not see them at all? Jesus tells us in the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats that how we see those around us in need is directly related to how we see and follow him.
This sentiment flows from what God said about sojourners in the Old Testament. Those who were without inheritance, and thus protection and provision in the land, were to be welcomed, cared for, and justice was to be done to them. Deuteronomy 10:18-19 says that God “executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing. Love the sojourner, therefore, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.” And Leviticus 19:33-34 says, “When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. 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.”
God wants his people to see the foreigner/sojourner as those also loved by God. How his people treat them speaks to how they see their own deliverance and salvation. And it is also related to how we see and worship God. We must do more than give mental ascent to the idea that migrants and refugees are made in God’s image. Rather, we are to embody that truth, and when we encounter them, we are to actively welcome them into our communities, churches, and lives. Grace will flow between them and us. As fellow image-bearers of God, new expressions of church and community will emerge as we give and receive together.
This active receiving of foreigners into our lives is called hospitality. Hospitality comes from the Greek word philoxenia, which means “love of the stranger.” It is the counter to xenophobia, which means “fear of the stranger.” Instead of fearing migrants and refugees, we are to love and welcome them into our lives with trust in what God might do to create something new together through that expressed sacrificial love.
The Apostle Paul in 1 Timothy 3:2 says that church leaders are to be hospitable. They are to welcome strangers and sojourners through sacrificial love and gathering. We do not see a “gift of hospitality” at work here, but rather a basic Christian character trait that is to mark leaders in the church, thus marking the church itself. The church, under the Lordship of Christ, is to be a community that welcomes sojourners, foreigners, migrants, and refugees, because that is how God welcomes us in Christ. This spirit is core to the very essence of what the church is.
When we see immigrants and refugees as made in the image of God, we see them as fully human in need of welcome and a home. If we are a host people, we extend welcome and grace to them to help ease transition and to find a home among us where they too can flourish. Isaiah 58:7 says that true devotion to God is expressed in how we see and treat the vulnerable among us that God cares for. It says that we are to receive the homeless wandering poor that are cast out into our own homes. We do this because they, too, bear God’s mark upon them, and our belief that all are made in God’s image is expressed in more than just sentiment and words but in action.
This article was originally published on Humble Orthodoxy, a publication of Emmaus Theological Seminary in Cleveland, Ohio. You can read the original article here.
Alan Cross is pastor of Petaluma Valley Baptist Church in Petaluma, CA, and is the author of When Heaven and Earth Collide: Racism, Southern Evangelicals, and the Better Way of Jesus (NewSouth Books, 2014).