Theological and ethical reflections on migration

"We can find something better than death anywhere."

Town Musicians of Bremen

1. introduction

Migration is part of the "Conditio humana like birth, reproduction, illness and death. The history of migration is as old as the history of mankind, because Homo sapiens has spread across the world as Homo migrans." Migration is therefore first and foremost an anthropological and not a political phenomenon. Broadly speaking, three groups of migration forms can be distinguished: 1. improvement or development of employment opportunities through migration for work, education, training, secondment, migrant labor and migrant trade; 2. structural nomadism and lifestyle migration for the use of natural, economic and social resources or for cultural, social or health considerations of financially privileged people and 3. forced migration as well as slave and human trafficking as flight, expulsion or resettlement for political, ethno-national, racial, religious and climatic reasons or as deportation of forced labor. Forced migration was and is often caused by wars, civil wars or authoritarian systems. In addition, especially in the 19th century, there were ethnic distinctions and demarcations based on nation-state and nationalist motives. Finally, the complex processes of colonization and decolonization are leading to massive refugee movements and displacement worldwide.

In the middle of last year, the UNHCR counted over 110 million "forcibly displaced people" worldwide, including 36.4 million registered refugees, 6.1 million asylum seekers and 62.5 million internally displaced persons. A third of all displaced persons worldwide come from three countries: Syria, Afghanistan and Ukraine. Almost 90% of all refugees come from 10 countries. In the first half of 2023, 1.6 million asylum applications were submitted. In the same period, 3.1 million displaced persons returned to their homes. According to the EU border protection agency Frontex, over 355,000 people attempted to enter Europe between January and November 2023. This is the highest number of refugees since 2016. According to the European Commission, 2,418 people drowned on the three main Mediterranean routes between January and September 2023, around a third more than in the previous year as a whole. Behind the statistics lie the individual fates of people who, in the vast majority of cases, remain unknown and whose reasons for fleeing go unnoticed. Migration and flight are dangerous risks that are taken in the hope of mere survival or better life prospects.

2. Migration as a biblical theme

The Bible addresses migration in three different ways: 1. as a tangible life experience of persons, groups and peoples, 2. as a genuine characteristic of Jewish foreign law and the biblical commandment to love, and 3. as a theological topos of Jewish and Christian expectations of the future and salvation.

2.1 Migration, displacement and flight as a life experience

A theological and ethical view of flight, asylum and migration cannot avoid the sober observation that the biblical stories are written much more directly for displaced persons, refugees and asylum seekers than for church members in the Western world. Many biblical texts are based on experiences of foreignness, expulsion, flight or exile. They convey a precise picture of what it means to be persecuted, displaced, homeless or unwanted. The Bible contains the main causes and motives that still prompt people to migrate and flee today: 1. War: the refugees from Moab find refuge in Judah (Isa 15-16); in 722 BC, the inhabitants of the shattered northern kingdom of Israel flee to the still independent south (2 Chronicles 30:25); after the conquest of Judah (701 BC), many Israelites flee to Jerusalem. 2. political reasons: The growing Israelite migrant group in Egypt (Ex 1) and the parents of Jesus after his birth (Mt 2:13-15) become victims of repressive state violence; Jeroboam flees to Egypt after a failed uprising (1 Kings 11:26-40); the prophet Uriah has to flee after criticizing his ruler (Jer 26:20-23); the Jerusalem church becomes a victim of persecution by Saul (Acts 8:1). 3. economic hardship: Abraham and his family migrate to Egypt because of a famine in Canaan (Gen 12:10-20), his son Isaac to Philistine territory (Gen 21:1-6) and his son Jacob to Egypt (Gen 41:57); Elimelech and Naomi's families move from Bethlehem to Moab and Naomi and Ruth later return to Bethlehem (Ruth). 4. Family conflicts: Cain's fate is restless and homeless after his fratricide (Gen 4:12); Jacob flees from Esau after buying his birthright and obtaining a blessing from his blind father to his uncle Laban in the land of the Arameans (Gen 25-33).

The people of the Bible were already confronted with rigid and violent border regimes. After the war between the sibling clans, the victorious Gileadites want to prevent the defeated Ephraimites from fleeing across the Jordan to their territory. But how can the winners identify the losers? They were of the same origin and therefore almost indistinguishable. "And when a fugitive from the Ephraimites said: 'I will cross over,' the men of Gilead said to him, 'Are you an Ephraimite? If he then said, 'No,' they said to him, 'Say Shibboleth. And when he said Sibboleth, because he could not pronounce it, they seized him and cut him down at the fords of the Jordan. So forty-two thousand of Ephraim fell at that time." (Jdg 12:5f.) The dialect betrayed them: The Ephraimites pronounced the word "ear of corn" differently from the Gileadites. The dialect check using the word schibbolet has curiously become the title for password-based authentication procedures in the digital age.

At the same time, there is a very old Greek and Jewish tradition of asylum. "Whoever strikes a man so that he dies must be put to death. But if he has not pursued him, but God has allowed it to happen to his hand, then I will appoint a place for you where he can flee." (Ex 21:12f.) "The asylos topos is a place from which people or things cannot be removed ( sylan), as they are here under the spell and protection of the saint." The tradition of asylum has been adopted by the Christian church since the 4th century and differentiated into a differentiated ecclesiastical right of asylum. The question posed by the Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas in his Talmudic reading on the Jewish asylum tradition goes much further: "Are the cities in which we reside, is the protection that we legitimately enjoy in our liberal society [...] due to our subjective innocence, not in reality the protection of half a guilt, which is innocence, but also guilt again? - aren't our cities also asylum cities, cities of exiles?"

2.2 Dealing with strangers

The people in the First Testament are much more confronted with their own strangeness than with strangers among them. This makes it all the more remarkable that the legal and moral standards for dealing with foreigners are unique in comparison. They are under the impression of their own history: "I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of a house of slavery." (Exodus 20:2). Their own experiences of persecution, flight and migration not only have an identity-forming but also a standardizing function. Keeping alive the memory of one's own existence in a foreign country provides the justification for the required interaction with the foreigners among them.

"For the 'stranger' in the sense of the refugee or migrant, Hebrew has the vocabulary ger . As a stranger or foreigner, one lives 'in a place to which one does not originally belong. The most common reasons for immigration in Israel are Famine (Gen 12:10; 1Kings 17:20; Ruth 1:1 and others), war ("Sam 4:3; Isa 16:4; Jer 42:15, 17, 22 and others) and flight from poverty and prosecution (Ex 2:12). In the Book of the Covenant (Ex 22:20; 23:9), foreigners are seen as members of Israelite society who are particularly worthy of protection because "their position as a minority and their lack of participation in the political and legal structures of rule" expose them to a particular risk of "abuse and exploitation". Disregarding the protective provisions for foreigners is declared a sin against which the injured person can appeal to YHWH (Deut 24:14f.). "To the degree to which the If a ger appears to belong to a group of socially disadvantaged people, he is protected by the law. The ger benefits from many of the same measures aimed at protecting and promoting the welfare of potentially vulnerable members of Israelite society, especially widows and orphans (and sometimes Levites). However, this does not include full legal equality with native-born Israelites, especially in the sense that they cannot act as independent legal entities and cannot acquire land. As far as religion is concerned, the ger is prohibited from practicing visibly deviant forms of worship and is obliged to respect the basic rules of YHWH's religion. He is also given the opportunity to actively participate in Israelite worship; however, this is a choice, not an obligation."

This is distinguished from the group of "foreigners" nokri/nokriah. In contrast to the term ger , the Hebrew term is also used in the feminine form (Ruth 2:10; Ezra 10:2-18.44; Neh 13:27). A nokri comes to Israel "not with the aim of settling permanently [...] but to stay there for a limited period of time, typically as a person involved in trade. He remains emotionally, culturally and religiously at a certain distance from Israel." A nokri does not benefit from the remission of debts in the sabbatical year (Deut 15:3), but - in contrast to the Israelites - is allowed to charge interest on loans (Deut 23:20f.).

The differentiated provisions on dealing with foreigners in one's own country lead to the general moral demands: "For the Lord your God is the God of gods and the Lord of lords, the great, mighty and terrible God, who knows no respect of persons and accepts no bribe, who gives justice to the orphan and the widow and loves the stranger so that he gives him bread and clothing. You too shall love the stranger, for you yourselves were strangers in the land of Egypt." (Deut 10:17-19) And at the end of the Sinai Revelation it is specified: "And if a stranger lives with you in your land, you shall not oppress him. You shall regard the stranger who lives with you as a native. And you shall love him as yourself, for you yourselves were strangers in the land of Egypt. I am the Lord your God" (Lev 19:33f.; cf. Lev 19:18). These are the only passages in the Old Testament in which love is demanded towards a population group and not just with regard to an individual person. Strange for a modern understanding of politics, "love" belongs to ancient oriental political terminology. It is not just a feeling, but a strong loyal practice between contractually bound rulers. The commandment to love is extended beyond brotherly love (Lev 19:18) to include people who live as strangers in the land (Lev 19:34). Hans-Peter Mathys sums up: "The Israelite must show his neighbor the same measure of love that Asarhaddon expects from his vassals, the same measure of love that Jonathan gives David."

However, the Jewish commandment to love one's neighbor has two limitations: On the one hand, it only applies to foreigners who are permanently resident in the country, and it limits love of one's enemies to one's own ethnic group (Lev 19:17f.). The universalization of love for one's enemies continues in the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5:44) and Jesus' discourse on the field (Lk 6:27f.35). The commandment is based on the prohibition of retaliation and the demand to renounce violence (Mt 5:39-42; Lk 6:27-30). "Jesus takes up the commandment of love from the Old Testament. But he interprets it absolutely and extends it universally. For him, love of enemies appears as the serious case of love, which should fundamentally determine the relationship with all fellow human beings." The inclusion of the commandments in Matthew and Luke, on the other hand, does not differ fundamentally from the practice of loving one's enemies in Lev 19. "What was the non-Jewish stranger there is the external enemy of the Christian group here. The addressees of both Gospels are already more or less established communities. Matthew and Luke are therefore oriented towards the concrete steps of love." They also form the origin of a history of interpretation that Ulrich Luz has attested to the entire history of theology and church history: "The tendency to soften the commandment runs through the entire history of interpretation."

2.3 Hope for the future and the goal of faith

The previous comments on migration, one's own foreignness and the foreignness of others originate from one's own world of experience and are legally or morally motivated. Not independent of this, but distinct from it, are theological ideas of loss of home and the search for home, migration and homecoming. From the perspective of creation theology, everything that exists is at home in paradise and the almost cosmic catastrophe consists of the irrevocable loss of home through the fall of man. There is no way back, only laborious detours in history or through history.

In the First Testament, the term ger is used in four places to refer to human status. On the one hand, it is about human displacement in the world: "I am a stranger on earth" (Psalm 119:19) prays the psalmist and David confesses: "For before you we are strangers and sojourners, like all our ancestors. Our days on earth are like a shadow, and there is no hope." (1 Chronicles 29:15). On the other hand, Jewish law regulates the alienation of land in accordance with YHWH's demand: "But the land may not be sold forever, for the land is mine, and you are strangers and sojourners with me." (Lev 25:23). Humanity is in the wrong place and where it makes itself at home by appropriating land, it takes possession of what does not belong to it. The theological program corresponds to the history of the people of Israel after the end of kingship, the deportation into Babylonian exile, the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple. What future should the people of God look to? Should the deportees come to terms with exile as a kind of new home or should the painful thought of losing their homeland and the almost unbelievable hope of returning home be kept alive? During this time, the written collection, organization and codification of the memories, which until then had mostly been passed on orally, began, resulting in the development of a sustainable culture of remembrance. Home becomes a transportable category for on the road and abroad. In exile, the God of the land of Israel becomes the God of the people of Israel. Whereas previously "the formula [...] was: 'Where my homeland is, there is also my God', a spiritual movement and a hope is now beginning in Israel's exile that reverses the formula: 'Where my God is, there is also my homeland'." The Jewish cultural scholar Liliana Ruth Feierstein sums up: "[T]he book was always the real fatherland".

The futuristic understanding of home that is inherent in Judaism, which remains connected to the history of God's people in time, is radicalized in Christianity in that the goal coincides with the end of time. The home(politeuma) of the Christian church is the heavenly polis Jerusalem (Heb 13:14; Acts 21). "For here we have no lasting city, but we are looking for the one to come" (Heb 13:14). Because, according to Christian understanding, home extends into time but lies beyond time, earthly existence can only be a strange, alienated and alienated one. At the time, the Christian homeland is a hybrid category. "If our earthly house, the tent, is torn down, then we have a dwelling place with God, a house not made with hands, imperishable, in heaven" (2 Corinthians 5:1). The apostle Paul offers a precise description of Christian dual citizenship: Christians are "in the world" (John 17:11), but "not of the world" (John 17:14). Consequently, the author of the First Epistle of Peter addresses his letter "to the elect who live as strangers in the diaspora" (1 Peter 1:1). The term "strangers" (Greek paroikoi) serves here as a "central [...] self-designation" of the Christian community. On the one hand, this reflects the "negative experiences of non-identity" in society at the time and, on the other, the eschatological awareness of non-identity with this world in general.

3. Geneva migration theology

What this perspective of faith means for migration policy can be exemplified by the French religious refugee and Geneva reformer John Calvin, whose unique migration theology has, significantly, only been recognized in recent decades. Due to the persecution of the Huguenots in France, around 15,000 religious refugees came to Geneva between 1535 and 1562, practically doubling the city's population. "Social tensions, housing shortages and competition in business life were the result. In addition, food became more expensive, which was exacerbated by punitive tariffs directed against Geneva. Together with the Geneva Council, Calvin tried to contain the tensions in the city. [...] The churches improved the diaconal system, and Calvin campaigned for foreigners to be naturalized and thus given the right to vote. Despite (or perhaps because of) this, the high level of immigration led to open xenophobia among the Genevans, which did not even stop at Calvin himself."

The reformer regarded Geneva as a city of asylum, from which he had to flee to Strasbourg in the meantime, and only received his citizenship a few years before his death. This is why he identified with David in exile: "banished from his fatherland, deprived of his wife, separated from his family and without financial means", Calvin saw himself as an "exiled prophet for the exiles". In a sermon on the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles, he portrays the congregation as a traveling group: Although God allows his congregation to live in the world, he does not want "us to nest here, to be caught up in it, to create a permanent resting place for ourselves down here, but to strive upwards and be here like birds on a branch". Like no other reformer, Calvin identified the Christian church with the wandering people of God in the First Testament. He therefore transfers the Jewish memory of its own history of flight and migration to the Christian church and derives from this the binding nature of the Old Testament provisions for its own migration policy demands.

At the center of his interpretation of Lev 19:33f. are the duty to protect the persecuted and the commandment to love the stranger: "But if God holds the stranger no less dear to them than their relatives, they must realize that they should always and in all cases do what is just and fair. There is also a good reason why God promises his very special protection to the foreigner who might be oppressed. After all, people who otherwise have no friends in the country are particularly exposed to oppression and violence on the part of godless people. [...] Finally, it is very remarkable that it says of the stranger: you shall love him as yourself. This makes it clear that the concept of neighbor must not be limited to fellow tribesmen or blood relatives. It encompasses the whole human race".

In his interpretation of Deut 10:17, Calvin demands that we look exclusively at the emergency and not at the identity of the person causing the emergency: "The fact that we 'look at the person' means that we take things into consideration for our judgment that should not be taken into consideration at all. But justice and truth can only prevail if you allow the matter itself to speak impartially."

Finally, in his interpretation of the slave legislation in Deut 23:15f. the current issue of repatriation and deportation: God "simply suggests to his people a humane procedure: if one knows that the master in question is a drudge, one should not support his furious behavior by extraditing the runaway slave. Our law forbids violent assistance for such a purpose: God grants the wretched man the protection of being allowed to defend his innocence before a proper court."

In his interpretation of Jewish legal texts, the Genevan reformer develops migration policy as a biblical-theological topic with ethical consequences. His reflections on migration theology do not take place in a theoretical vacuum, but against the backdrop of his own experiences as a refugee and in the face of the enormous migration policy challenges facing the city of Geneva. Calvin's theology of migration is based on a fundamental change of perspective that was as natural to the Genevan reformer as it must seem biographically alien to Swiss church members today. Four aspects characterize his reversal of perspective: 1. the reminder of the existence of migration as the enduring characteristic of the people of God and the Church; 2. a perspective on refugees, migrants and asylum seekers in which the Church recognizes its own mode of existence as a wandering people of God; 3. the insight that, from the church's point of view, it is much less about the integration of strangers than about the disintegration of one's own, to a certain extent about a "de-homelization" of the church and 4. the understanding of Christian existence as a hybrid transitional state in the world, but not of the world (cf. John 17:11.14).

4. Ethical consequences of migration

Finally, I would like to add six ethical considerations on migration to the biblical and reformation-theological references - as a kind of preliminary summary:

1st Wherever the Bible specifically refers to migration, flight and expulsion, it is always about concrete experiences of migration, flight and expulsion or about the memory of one's own history of migration, flight and expulsion. This also applies to Calvin's migration theology, which cannot be detached from his own biography and the conditions in Geneva at the time. Their own life stories open up an access that is closed to the vast majority of us: the reciprocity of experiences of migration, flight and expulsion. This has three consequences: 1st The Israelites and Calvin had experienced first-hand what it meant to leave one's homeland, to have to flee or to be expelled. 2nd For this reason, the immigrants and refugees were "people like us", strangers who shared a fundamental experience with the locals. 3rd the locals had a precise idea of what they could expect from the foreigners, because they or their ancestors had lived abroad themselves. This did not result in an automatic solidarity that would have made a dedicated Israelite aliens law superfluous. It is all the more remarkable, however, that the identity-forming memory of one's own history of migration, flight and expulsion is explicitly used to justify the lawful treatment of immigrants and foreigners.

2nd The Israelite alien law and Calvin's interpretation contains five core elements: 1st the legally relevant distinction between permanent migrants and foreigners staying in the country for a limited period of time; 2nd the overriding principle of the duty to protect, which represents a high legal interest and prohibits deportation; 3rd equality in fundamental rights, including the right to judicial clarification; 4th the renunciation of complete conformity, especially in religious and cultic matters; 5th the parallel naming of the needy groups of foreigners, widows and orphans, which does not establish a competitive relationship, but rather the same attention and need for support.

3rd the consistently profiled analogies between the life situation of the natives and that of the foreigners have an important social cohesive point: the attention for and indifference towards the foreigners has a direct impact on one's own lifeworld. If we act against our own fundamental moral convictions in our dealings with persecuted people, refugees and asylum seekers, they inevitably lose their binding and unifying character for us. How much trust do a state and a society deserve that are prepared to arbitrarily change or abandon their legal and moral principles in the face of the unwelcome? Who can safely say today that he or she might not be a person who is no longer welcome in society tomorrow? Shared moral convictions lose their trust-building power as soon as they sink to the level of random evaluations. You can't deny others anything without risking it for yourself.

4th our present is not the present of the people of the Bible and the Reformation. The locals of today are not the locals of the past, and the refugees, persecuted people and migrants of today often have nothing in common with the foreigners of the past. Natives and foreigners are bound together as a legal community by universal human and international rights. This is undoubtedly a huge step forward, but it comes at a price. This is because the establishment of formal rights of claim effectively overrides the moral principle of reciprocity that underlies Israelite alien law and Calvin's interpretation of the Bible. This encourages a distorted image in which legal rights and legal obligations are no longer united in each person, but instead clash as the interests of antagonistic lobby groups. The shift is symptomatic in that the strangers, widows and orphans of today no longer appear together, but compete with each other as interest groups. The communal "we", on which the legislation of the people of Israel and Calvin's migration theology rely, dissolves into countless "you" of particular victim groups. This development does not stop at refugees and migrants, whose hopes and risks have long been economically calculated in lucrative business models. "Money makes the world go around" - that doesn't just sound cynical, it's the sheer cynical reality. In the liberal world of homo oeconomicus, every person has the freedom to try their luck as long as it does not interfere with the freedoms of all other people. The market principle becomes structurally unjust when the ability to pay determines whether a person can flee at all and assert their need for protection, and when the state's duty to protect is limited to those who are robust enough and have sufficient resources to make it to these countries.

5th The current refugee and migration movements are also the consequences of a precarious international human rights policy. The original idea of human rights, that every person in every place in the world has the same fundamental rights of protection, personality and freedom, is becoming an island phenomenon, with people seeking refuge in places where human rights apply. The situation roughly corresponds to the scenario in which courts can no longer provide justice in the state and society, so that the courthouse becomes the only place for members of society where the law still applies. Admittedly, the imbalance between those who claim rights and those who provide justice can be problematized without risk from a privileged position in a functioning constitutional state. However, this does not change the fact that rights only offer protection and can only be claimed as long as their validity is actively defended. Neither of these can be delegated. The claim of human rights to apply to every person, no matter where they are, must be enforced in every place. Human rights cannot bring about humane and just conditions. They merely form the yardstick by which states and societies can and should align themselves in the establishment and implementation of humane and just orders. Humanity owes the rise of human rights in the past especially to those individuals and groups who were victims of inhumane treatment and not to those who committed, tolerated, ignored or tacitly benefited from human rights violations.

6th We can only expect from others what they can expect from us. This is the flip side of the reciprocity morality of Israelite alien law and Calvin's theology of migration. Both traditions emphasize that attention to the plight of others correlates with insight into one's own plight. But how is this possible if our abundance and our freedom make the lack and lack of freedom of others so abysmally alien to us? The people of Israel and Calvin were able to answer the question with their memories of what they themselves had experienced. We probably have to rummage a little longer in our memories to remind ourselves that we are strangers in the world and have no permanent city here. What happens and what could happen if we as Christians and as a church were to seriously remember this?

Original text with footnotes and references:

Picture of Frank Mathwig

Frank Mathwig

Prof. Dr. theol.
Beauftragter für Theologie und Ethik

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