A Review of
What Does the Bible Say About Strangers, Migrants, and Refugees?
Reviewed by Scott J. Pearson
Forced migration has become an international issue whose presence can be tracked on the evening news. In this new book, vanThanh Nguyen cites estimates that one out of every thirty people on earth are migrants. Sadly, migrants face tremendous social backlash in a recent resurgence of nationalist politics in the United States and elsewhere.
But is human migration really a new phenomenon? Nguyen, a Vietnamese refugee who resettled in the United States and a Roman Catholic priest, suggests that migration exists all over the Christian scriptures – both in the Old Testament and in the New Testament. In this book, he provides ample evidence to support that claim by citing the Torah, the writings, the prophets, the Gospels, and the epistles. In so doing, he attempts to construct a theology of how Christians ought to respond to issues of forced migration.
Nguyen relies especially on Roman Catholic teaching on social issues but shows that this instruction is congruent with the earliest trajectories of Judaism and Christianity. Those who follow Protestant theology will see much of his teaching in line with the Scriptures he inspects closely.
He seeks to build a comprehensive encyclopedia of what the Bible says about refugees and includes issues as diverse as women and children, climate change, national borders, and legality. He rightly contends that a Christian witness doesn’t fully identify with either the political left or the right. He tries to treat current events as a theologian and pastor, not as a political ideologue. Nonetheless, he adamantly maintains that being welcoming to strangers is fully (almost blindly) supported by the Christian canon.
His analysis of the Scriptures is in-depth and erudite. He picks out many examples that I would not have thought of had I not read this book. He intermixes relevant subtopics with Bible passages, contemporary stories, and current facts to show that migration is really just a part of the universal human story. To some degree, we all are migrants… and the way we treat migrants is a way of addressing “angels” or even Jesus Christ himself. These statements are not rooted in contemporary politics but rather in the words of Scripture.
While unapologetic in his Christian witness, Nguyen maintains his presence as a priest and a pastor. He does not condemn, nor does he allow his opinions on current topics to override his interpretive judgment. He simply tries to lay out the facts of what the Christian Bible says and how the Roman Catholic church interprets those statements in how it leads the faithful.
Overall, he does a thorough, if undramatic, job of analyzing the contemporary issue of migration. vanThanh Nguyen shows conclusively that this issue is neither new nor contemporary; rather, the Bible is full of migrants, including Jesus Christ himself. These are just the plain facts. Unfortunately, much current debate is not interested in facts but instead wants to elicit specific responses based on fears. I’m not sure Nguyen will change that direction much, and I’m not sure this book attempts to address that complex issue either. Nonetheless, it’s nice to have such a wide analysis of the Scriptures of this topic on my bookshelf.
Scott J. Pearson
In his day job at a medical center in Nashville, Tennessee, Scott J. Pearson develops software that tracks career development of biomedical academics. He also has a lifelong interest in how Christians can use their faith to accomplish common good. He publishes book reviews at www.scottjpearson.com.