True Hospitality and the Immigration Debate

In Genesis 15, after Abram has gathered a set of animals together and divided them, God places Abram into a deep sleep, in which God reveals to him that his descendants ‘will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, and will serve them, and they will afflict them four hundred years.’ The very next thing we read is that Sarai, Abram’s wife is barren and had borne Abram no children. Considering her infertility, Sarai suggests that her husband go into Hagar, her Egyptian maid, in order that she might be ‘built up’ from her. The attentive reader might observe a familiar biblical pattern here. The gathering of the animals, the deep sleep, the woman being built up—this story harkens back to Genesis 2. 

The character of Hagar, who appears on the scene at this point is twice characterized as Sarai’s Egyptian maidservant (16:1, 3), as if that detail about her is one requiring our notice. The reader may reasonably presume that Hagar is one of the people Abram and Sarai obtained while taking refuge from a famine in the land of Egypt in 12:16. In a pattern of events that recurs on three further occasions in Genesis, a woman from Abram’s family is taken—or nearly taken—by a Gentile ruler, illustrating the inhospitality of a number of the surrounding nations (the other instances of this can be seen in Genesis 20, 26, and 34). Following divine plagues, Pharaoh discovers the true identity of Sarai and expels Abram. Those events foreshadow the later oppression of the children of Israel in Egypt, but may also, in the advent of Hagar, put pieces in place for some more troubling later incidents.

In chapter 16, Abram listens to the voice of Sarai, takes Hagar as his wife and she conceives. When this happens, her eyes are opened and she despises her mistress. The theme of sight and opened eyes runs throughout the rest of the chapter. Sarai afflicts Hagar (verse 6) and Hagar hides herself from her mistress’s presence. Meeting Hagar in the wilderness, the Angel of the Lord inquires of her: ‘Hagar, Sarai’s maid, where have you come from, and where are you going?’ She is then told to return to her mistress and submit herself and that her descendants will be multiplied.

Much as we encountered echoes of Genesis 2 earlier, themes of the Fall are thick on the ground in the Hagar narrative: heeding the wife’s voice, taking the ‘forbidden fruit’, eyes being opened, awareness of nakedness or lack of glory, hiding, and God’s inquiry of the person who is hiding. The Angel’s word to Hagar also recalls the judgment upon Eve, both in the multiplication of her conceptions and in her call to submit to the difficult rule of Sarai. God declares that he has heard Hagar’s affliction (verse 11) and that she will bear a son.

We encounter Hagar again in chapter 21, after the birth of Isaac. We are once more reminded that she is an Egyptian. Ishmael’s laughter—his ‘Isaac-ing’—is threatening to Sarah, who fears that the continued presence of the bondwoman’s son represents a threat to the status of Isaac. Whereas once Hagar had fled from her presence, now Sarah tells Abraham to cast out Hagar and her son. With bread and a skin of water on her shoulder, Hagar leaves and wanders in the wilderness, nearly dying before God provides water for her and Ishmael. They end up in Egypt, where Ishmael marries an Egyptian.

We have already seen a foreshadowing of the story of the Exodus in Abram’s sojourn in the land of Egypt in chapter 12. However, in the story of Hagar we find a troubling inversion of roles, as Abraham and Sarah assume the parts of Pharaonic-style oppressors, while Hagar is the servant whose affliction God hears, the woman who is taken by a powerful man, whose fertility threatens her mistress, and for whom God provides in the wilderness. In Genesis 15, God told Abram that his seed would be a stranger and servant in a foreign land. In chapter 16, we are introduced to Hagar the Egyptian—whose very name (הָגָר) evokes the stranger (הַגֵּר)—who is an afflicted servant in the house of Abram. Even directly after God has foretold the future Exodus to Abram, the Exodus motifs that follow concentrate, not on Abram and Sarai, but upon an Egyptian servant within their household.

Before Abraham’s descendants can be raised up, they first have to find and see themselves in the shoes of Hagar and Ishmael. Hagar is never merely some ‘mistake’ that Abram and Sarai make in lack of faith—some unfortunate collateral damage in the moral formation of the chosen people—after which they have to brush themselves off and move on. No, until Abraham and his descendants have recognized what was done to Hagar and have entered into her experience, they can never move on. Once they have had the experience of being strangers in Hagar’s land of Egypt, they will better understand why they need to treat the stranger with hospitality and justice: ‘Therefore love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt’ (Deuteronomy 10:19).

Already when the book of Genesis, however, we see initial stirrings of Abraham’s descendants entering into the experience of Hagar and Ishmael. In Genesis 37, a passage deeply redolent with the memory of Hagar and Ishmael, Joseph is cast out of the family by brothers who feel threatened by his presence and the favour that he enjoys with their father. Hagar and Ishmael are sent out by Abraham with bread and a skin of water put to her shoulder (שִׁכְמָהּ); Joseph is sent out by Jacob and goes to Shechem (שְׁכֶמָה). Hagar and Ishmael wander in the Wilderness of Beersheba (21:14); Joseph wanders in the field in Shechem (37:15). There is no water in the skin and Hagar casts Ishmael down beneath one of the shrubs (21:15); there is no water in the wilderness pit into which Joseph’s brothers cast him (37:24). Hagar removes herself from the lad, Ishmael, so that she will not see his death (21:16); Joseph’s brothers abandon him in the pit in the wilderness, so that they will not have to kill him directly and no one will see his death (37:21-22). It should come as no surprise to the attentive reader that it is the Ishmaeliteswho take the expelled brother down into Egypt with them. Joseph is entering into the experience of his granduncle Ishmael. While Hagar and Ishmael may have been considered a long-forgotten skeleton in the family closet, God has not forgotten it.

Joseph finds himself a stranger in Egypt, the servant of an Egyptian named Potiphar. While in the house of Potiphar, his master’s wife badly mistreats him, seeking to lie with him, much as his great-grandparents took advantage of Hagar, as Sarai made her lie with Abram, so that she might be built up by Hagar’s child. In another narrative reminiscent of the Fall, Potiphar’s wife raises troubling memories of Sarah, turning the matter of the unwelcome servant against her husband: ‘See, he has brought in to us a Hebrew to mock [lit. laugh at] us’ (39:14). Much as it was Ishmael’s laughter—his ‘Isaac-ing’—that led Sarah to seek Hagar and Ishmael’s expulsion, so the supposed ‘laughter’ of Joseph is Potiphar’s wife’s justification for his expulsion. Only by entering into the experience of Hagar will the descendants of Abraham be able to know redemption from their past sins concerning her. It is only through Joseph, the new Ishmael who is brought back into the family, that the family can be restored.

In addition to highlighting the experience of being a vulnerable stranger in a foreign land, Genesis foregrounds the duty of hospitality. One of the literary and theological features of the book of Genesis is its use of ‘diptychs’, by which two characters or events are held alongside each other and juxtaposed in illuminating ways: Cain and Abel, Ishmael and Isaac, Esau and Jacob, or Judah and Joseph all provide instances of this phenomenon. Perhaps one of the most striking examples of it, however, occurs in Genesis 18 and 19, where stories of Abraham and Lot are held alongside each other.

Both of these chapters begin with the protagonist sitting in a doorway seeing approaching strangers (Abraham in his tent door; Lot in the gate of Sodom), an act of generous welcome (Abraham running from the tent door and bowing to the ground; Lot bowing with his face to the ground), an invitation to enjoy hospitality (18:3-5; 19:2-3), the preparation of a feast (18:6; 19:3), and involve important events at the doorway (18:9-10; 19:6-11). Yet, as we look closer it is not only the similarities between these two stories, but the differences between them that appear. In the first story the encounter is in the heat of the day (18:1); in the second it is at evening (19:1). In the first story the doorway is associated with the promise of the opening of the doors of Sarah’s womb; in the second the closed door is associated with the death of those outside of it. In the first story a barren woman is made fruitful; in the second story a fruitful woman is turned to salt. While both stories end with reference to a child being born to an old man, in the first case it is the comedy of Sarah’s opened womb and in the second case it is the tragedy of Lot’s daughters’ incestuous relations with their father.

Genesis is inviting the reader to reflect upon these two stories in parallel and correspondence with each other. In their constellation of themes hospitality is especially prominent. The story of Abraham is of entertaining angels and a house being made fruitful. The story of Lot is one of the violent inhospitality of the Sodomites and Lot’s failed attempts at hospitality. Genesis 18 ends with Abraham’s intercession for Sodom and the Lord’s declaration that he would not destroy Sodom for the sake of ten righteous. If Lot could only gather together his clan, Sodom would be saved. Yet the Sodomites seek to destroy Lot, the sojourner in their midst, the very person who could save their city by his presence. Lot, for his part, seems prepared to throw members of his family to the dogs to save his own skin and the lives of his guests.

When the sin of Sodom is recalled in later Scripture, it is its decadence and inhospitality that is emphasized (Ezekiel 16:46-50). The story of Sodom’s inhospitality concludes with the annihilation of the wicked city and a Passover-like escape (two visitors heralding judgment, an evening meal of unleavened bread, a threat at the doorway, judgment on those outside of the closed door, fleeing to the mountain, etc.) of some of Lot’s family, who escape by the skin of their teeth, the line between them and the Sodomites having become very thin. The story of Lot’s failed hospitality and apparent willingness to abandon his daughters to a rapacious mob ends with the reduction of his wife to a barren pillar of salt and his daughters having relations with him apart from his knowledge or consent.

In the most foundational stories of Israel’s identity, then, we see Israel being formed as a people of hospitality and concern for the stranger, a people who know what it is like to be vulnerable and mistreated strangers themselves. On key occasions in the Law, Israel is reminded of its own history: ‘You shall neither mistreat a stranger nor oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt…. If you afflict them in any way, and they cry at all to Me, I will surely hear their cry’ (Exodus 22:21, 23). Now that they have stood in Hagar’s shoes themselves, they should know not to afflict her in the way that Abraham and Sarah once did. They should have learned from the fate of Sodom and Egypt that societies that are cruel and inhospitable to the stranger will be judged, and from their father Abraham that the hospitable will be made fruitful.

Firmly establishing this biblical foundation for Christian practice is important when considering the subject of immigration. In Scripture we see cities and nations being judged according to a test of hospitality (Matthew 10:5-15; 25:31-46; Luke 10:1-16). Cruel and inhospitable nations will be severely judged by the God who hears the cries of the oppressed. Considering, for instance, the brutal practice of separating children from parents that has occurred on America’s borders, this fact should strike fear into people’s hearts.

Yet the movement from recognition of the good of hospitality to the right of the proper exercise of it—from the value of hospitality to the specific obligations that rest upon us in a particular situation—is one that must be made with care. It is one thing to know that I am called to be charitable; it is another thing to be under an obligation to give money to the homeless person begging on the street. Maintaining the distinction between these things is of immense importance in forms of ethical discourse that are inclined to conflate them. In our social and political debates it is often carelessly presumed that rejection of a particular course of action must arise from rejection of the good that drives our sense of its obligatory character. For instance, someone who opposes massive government welfare programmes can be wrongly judged to be rejecting the Christian duty to care for the poor. Yet what they are often rejecting is not the value of charity, but the faulty deliberative reasoning—or, as is often the case, the completely unreasoned jump from moral values to particular policies—by which specific government policies are supposed to be obligatory on account of it. On the other hand, there are those who, while paying lip service to the value, will seek to throw the concrete duties attendant upon it off their scent—or at least dissipate their force—through the self-exculpatory evasions of a sophisticated casuistry. We must beware of both these dangers.

While some persons may really be trying to escape the moral force of duties of hospitality, in charitable judgment we must not presume this when it is quite possible that they have reasonable arguments that hospitality must be expressed otherwise. The pressing questions of immigration in the contemporary context are overwhelmingly questions of the right, often complicated ones.

For instance, 80% of Nigerian doctors want to leave the country: should we welcome immigration that strips a country of its skilled population? Should we encourage immigration to the US from the Middle East when displaced persons could be resettled in the region? Should Christian immigrants be favoured over non-Christian immigrants? Should we restrict immigration of ethnic groups that have not historically integrated or assimilated to our societies as well as others? At what point does immigration undermine our capacity to exercise hospitality, producing a situation where the corrosive effects of multiculturalism have left us without an ‘us’ to extend hospitality to any other group?

The duty of hospitality, like the duty of liberality, is one that is bounded by various concerns and considerations. Where such bounds are lacking, such duties can easily become tyrannical. As Jesus taught, there are many widows whose houses have been devoured by predatory leaders who have appealed to duties of liberality (Luke 20:45—21:4). The absolutization of duty can be a means of enslaving people through guilt.

Such an absolutization or universalization of duty is characteristic of much liberal humanitarianism, often both assuming the blame for all of the problems in the world and yielding a messianic commitment to solving them. Considering the degree to which Western economics and politics have had immense disruptive implications for societies around the globe, a significant extension of the realms of our moral concern and responsibility is appropriate and even necessary, but this has seldom been handled well.

Indeed, there has often been a subtle substitution of a focus upon the abstraction of the placeless universal human subject of liberal anthropology and the various categorical imperatives and attendant perfect and imperfect duties surrounding it for the biblical concern for the well-being of the neighbour. Whereas the second form of ethics focuses on the particularity of the neighbour, the first orders us towards an abstract and generalized ‘humanity’.

The difference between these two postures is of significance, having great bearing upon our immigration debates. A neighbour-focused ethic does not presume to the God’s eye vantage point of relating to humanity as such or in general, but deals with the particular human being that we encounter. The message of the Parable of the Good Samaritan is not, as many liberals would have it, that everyone is our neighbour, but that we should be outgoing in our love to those in need who cross our paths, whoever they might be. The generalization and abstraction of the neighbour dislodges us from our situatedness, whereas the concreteness of the neighbour alerts us to a particular, yet limited, horizon of moral concern within which God has placed us.

Liberal humanitarianism can often have the character of the ‘love of humanity’ described in The Brothers Karamazov:

“I love mankind,” he said, “but I am amazed at myself: the more I love mankind in general, the less I love people in particular, that is, individually, as separate persons. In my dreams,” he said, “I often went so far to think passionately of serving mankind, and, it may be, would really have gone to the cross for people if it were somehow suddenly necessary, and yet I am incapable of living in the same room with anyone even for two days, this I know from experience. As soon as someone is there, close to me, his personality oppresses my self-esteem and restricts my freedom. In twenty-four hours I can begin to hate even the best of men: one because he takes too long eating his dinner, another because he has a cold and keeps blowing his nose. I become the enemy of people the moment they touch me,” he said. “On the other hand, it has always happened that the more I hate people individually, the more ardent becomes my love for humanity as a whole.”[1]

Love for humanity in general can be considerably less onerous than love for the neighbour, who is frequently obnoxious and intrusive. The liberal humanitarian may be selective in the objects of their moral concern, assuring themselves that their duties are only imperfect. One charity project can readily be abandoned for another with more attractive beneficiaries. Yet the particularity of the neighbour alerts us to the unchosen nature of our moral obligations. Voluntouring building houses in Africa and taking photos with smiling kids is a rather different matter from making yourself a neighbour to marginalized people within your own city. That comes with enduring responsibilities that cannot readily be shrugged off when other projects may take our fancy.

In a deeply perceptive essay on this website a few years ago, Gerald Hiestand explored the virtue of compassion through the lens of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. He observed:

And here we must concur with Yevgeny. The prince has loved neither Aglaya nor Nastasya. He has loved compassion; but this is not quite the same thing. Compassion, when untethered from the commitment of love, is a sentiment that tosses one to and fro by every shifting wind and wave of suffering. The prince’s compassion, without love to bind him to a particular person or persons, causes him to betray those who trust him.

In the end, the prince cannot truly love either woman, because he cannot choose between them. He is at the mercy of whatever suffering is before him at the moment. He has allowed his compassion for Nastasya’s suffering to undermine his love for Aglaya. In the end, the prince’s compassion is not a mark of love, but of weakness.

A neighbour-focused ethic is an ethic of love, an ethic that commits itself to particular persons over others. A liberal humanitarian ethic, on account of its abstract object, can undermine the particularity and the concreteness of our bonds and their related obligations. For instance, beyond the force of parental instinct, the reason why I should take especial concern for the well-being of my own children over the children of others may not be clear to someone holding such an ethic. However, Scripture makes clear that our moral duties are not generalized duties to humanity as such, but duties that are focused in concentric circles of proximity. We have duties to our households that we do not have to anything like the same degree to those outside of them. Likewise, our obligations are especially focused on the people of God (Galatians 6:10). Those who claim to be serving God in radical humanitarianism, while neglecting their obligations to their neighbours—those persons most immediate to them—reject the commandment of God (Mark 7:6-13).

A neighbour-focused ethic need not be a narrowly circumscribed ethic. As the Parable of the Good Samaritan illustrates, such an ethic should be an outgoing ethic of generous neighbour-making, working to forge new bonds in many situations where no such bonds currently exist. Such a neighbour-focused ethic is also one that creates neighbourhoods, realms where many parties live in enduring relations of mutual love and obligation, where extensive interpersonal interaction is encouraged, and where a common good is pursued.

Here a very important distinction may start to come into view: the distinction between our posture towards immigration and our posture towards the immigrant in our locality. The immigrant in our locality is our neighbour and it should be our concern to work to forge a neighbourhood in which he is a welcomed and honoured member, whether as a shorter term guest or as someone who wants to adopt our people as his own. However, the questions of immigration more generally are largely questions concerning the prudential formation of strong, healthy, and open-hearted neighbourhood and peoplehood. An indiscriminate extension of welcome can undermine the very enduring bonds of love by which such a people is formed.

A great many studies have suggested that large scale migration and diversity decrease values characteristic of healthy neighbourhoods, such as social trust (a few examples: 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8). Where society becomes radically diverse and the conditions for robust civil society are diminished, societies’ capacity for self-government are weakened and they become more dependent upon the power of the state to substitute for the threadbare social fabric.

One of the troubling effects of this has been a weakening of the representative power of government—as a government symbolizes and acts on behalf of a pre-existing peoplehood, whose (self-)government it is. In place of such representative government—which democracy alone is quite insufficient to secure—we increasingly have statist attempts to engineer an artificial peoplehood (see this video for a good example of what this can look like in the British context). The government can cease truly to be ours—a manifestation of our sovereignty as a particular people—becoming an independent coercive power trying to optimize us as a population for economic and other ends.

The rise of secular liberalism in such a context is no accident. It both responds to and propels the breaking down of the supposedly ‘provincial’ conservative and Christian reality of multiple and overlapping particular and enduring ‘neighbourhoods’ for abstract and generalized cosmopolitan humanitarianism. Immigration itself can be a form of the government’s social engineering. As Matthew Schmitz wrote in his recent article on the subject:

In 2009, Andrew Neather, a former speechwriter for Brown’s predecessor, Tony Blair, confessed that Blair’s immigration policy had been designed “to rub the Right’s nose in diversity” and build a cosmopolitan Britain. London had become “so much more international now… and so much more heterogeneous than most of the provinces, that it’s pretty much unimaginable for us to go back either to the past or the sticks.” He argued that the results in London had been “highly positive,” bringing in so many “foreign nannies, cleaners and gardeners” that it was “hard to see how the capital could function without them.” Of course, one alternative would have been to hire native-born working-class Brits, but Neather scoffed at the idea of hiring “unemployed BNP voters from Barking or Burnley—fascist au pair, anyone?” His readiness to deplore members of the native working class is typical of elites across the West.

Neather’s reference to the ‘foreign nannies, cleaners and gardeners’ that London now depends upon is important. The displacing of the native working and middle classes by immigrant populations in Europe’s globalized cities is an ugly feature of the new European reality, as the gilets jaunes movement might be highlighting. In an insightful analysis of the situation in Paris, Christopher Caldwell observes that such a city now belongs to the rich, with the French middle and working classes largely evicted from it. Yet the rich desperately need a biddable lower class to do their menial labour for them. As in London, immigration has been adopted as an alternative to the practice of neighbourliness within the French nation itself.

The explicit desire of figures like Neather has been to obliterate conservatism by increasing diversity. A healthy conservatism depends upon a robust civil society, with strong common values and intergenerational culture, precisely the things that multiculturalism threatens. Whereas in the past, Western countries could assimilate new arrivals into a thick common society as they tended to come from culturally (and geographically) proximate countries, modern multicultural societies that indiscriminately welcome all comers no longer do the same thing. The increasing power of secular liberalism, the market, technocratic managerialism, and the growing dependence upon law and government to hold society together and establish its values are in large measure a result of this.

The people who routinely gain from mass immigration are large corporations and liberals. Large corporations and the rich gain a cheaper, more biddable, and/or higher quality workforce. Liberalism gains new demographics for which it can act as the benevolent patron and protector, playing on the fear and guilt of different groups in society to divide and conquer, destroying traditional and conservative values in the process. Compassionate multiculturalism has been one of the best excuses for scouring our public and civil life of traditional Western and Christian cultural values and practices, replacing them with a generic and anti-Christian ideological liberalism. Immigrant populations are seldom ideological liberals. However, ideological liberalism is often a far more attractive option to culturally marginal minorities than a conservative movement that seeks to maintain and privilege the historic and traditional forms and values of a society that is culturally alien to them. The fragmentation of society into multiple competing cultures encourages a purging of culture and religion from the public square and a turn towards ever more invasive and totalizing liberalism.

In such a situation, it may never have been more important for Christians to think and speak with clarity. We must ground ourselves in the scriptural story and its testimony to God’s concern for the alien and stranger. We must be diligent in discharging our duty of hospitality and love to the vulnerable stranger in our midst and vocal in our championing of this against anti-immigrant sentiment and rising ethno-nationalism. We must distinguish between the good of hospitality and the specific obligations that we have in this regard. We must resist the pull of liberal humanitarianism and commit ourselves firmly to a neighbour-focused ethic. We must be committed to forming robust and welcoming communities, focusing upon extending our service of the people most immediate to us. We must protect the health while encouraging the outward growth of our ‘neighbourhoods’, recognizing the dangers both of selfish insularity and of poorly managed immigration (Ross Douthat’s theses on immigration are a good place to begin in considering a prudent approach). We must recognize the ways that mass immigration is used to undermine the strength and solidarity of communities for the interests of governments and large corporations.

Here there may be few more important countervailing forces than the Church. The Church represents—not the abstract and deracinated cosmopolitanism of the placeless liberal subject—but a new international solidarity, bound to the particularity of Jesus of Nazareth, the world’s true Lord, in the concreteness of local communities. Although social atomization is the common result of the multiculturalism that follows on the heels of mass immigration, the Church is a place where people of all nationalities, ethnicities, tribes, and tongues can share in a common Object and Bond of love, around which and through which a new peoplehood that transcends our failing nationhoods can be forged. If there is hope of new life arising from the crumbling of our societies, this is where we should focus.

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham) is adjunct Senior Fellow at Theopolis and is one of the participants in the Mere Fidelity podcast.  He is also the contributing editor of the Politics of Scripture series on the Political Theology Today blog. He blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria and tweets using @zugzwanged


[1]Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, transl. Peavear and Volokhonsky, (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1990) 57.