Migrants, Strangers and the Church in Southern Africa. A Biblical Perspective

NETS Theological Research Papers - Volume Two

Research Paper (postgraduate), 2013

39 Pages, Grade: "keine"




Ethnocentrism and xenophobia in southern Africa

Migrants and strangers in the Bible

The treatment of foreigners in the Bible



Biographical notes



Protection granted by a country to a person who has left his or her own country as a political refugee


State of belonging to a social group which has a common cultural or national tradition.


The evaluation of other cultures or nations according to preconditions which originate in the customs, values and norms of one’s own culture or nation.


A person who moves from one place to another (often crossing national borders) in order to find work or better living conditions.


Prejudice and discrimination directed against someone who belongs to a different race which is based on the conviction that one’s own race is superior.


A forced migrant, i.e. a person who has been forced to leave his or her own country in order to escape persecution, war or natural disaster.


Negative behaviour and attitudes that derive from strong loyalty to one’s own tribe or social group.


A strong fear or dislike of people from other countries or nations.

Ethnocentrism and xenophobia in southern Africa

In 2008 many people in Africa and elsewhere were shocked when they saw on their televisions how Zimbabwean, Mozambican and Malawian immigrants were attacked, robbed and beaten up in South African townships. This eruption of xenophobic violence against millions of fellow southern Africans was unheard of. The following witness report was published in an article by BBC correspondent Caroline Hawley (2008):

I ran away from the situation in Zimbabwe to try to support my family...But it’s better to starve at home than to die here. At least, if I’m back in Zim- babwe, my parents can bury me and see my grave They forced their way into my home with weapons, hammers and bricks. And they took everything I’ve got. The only things I have left are the clothes that I’m wearing. I don’t even know how I’ll get home.

The riots of 2008 ‘left 62 people dead and about 150,000 displaced, primarily foreign nationals and members of South Africa’s ethnic minorities’ (Segatti 2011:10). These attacks in South African townships were surely an extreme expression of ethnic, tribal and national hatred and were not unrelated events. Racism, tribalism, ethnocentrism and selfish national interests are still widespread not only in South Africa but also in other African countries (:11). For example, the Namibian scholar Gerhard Tötemeyer (2010:180) argues that racism, tribalism and ethnocentrism have not been overcome in his home country that gained independence from South Africa in 1990 ending the discriminating phase of Apartheid. Referring to the prophetic mission of the church he strongly believes that it is the church which has a crucial role to play to bring about reconciliation and justice in the Namibian society. He writes:

In the Namibian context it includes bridging existing barriers and divisions between Blacks and Whites, between Blacks and Blacks, between Whites and Whites, between ethnicities, between tribes, between classes and between victims and perpetrators of injustice. It is unfortunate that the con- cept ‘race’ still figures in comparisons and arguments instead of referring to one race, the human race. The process of deracination is still incomplete.

While the Church is visibly present in southern African societies it seems that the biblical teaching on migrants, strangers and ethnic minorities has had little impact so far. Tribalism and xenophobia can be found inside and outside southern African church walls. While restrictive immigration policies are common (cf. Klotz 2000:831), national immigration departments can be very selective and biased when it comes to granting fellow southern Africans work or study permits. In the name of nation interests highly qualified workers from neighbouring countries are expelled though there is a need for their services. Renu Modi (2003:1760) writes about the situation in South Africa:

The immigration policy the world over is restrictive and does not allow un- restricted access across its borders. States do have a sovereign right to pro- tect their own citizen’s interests by regulating its borders. The South African policy therefore is no different. What differentiates the South African policy is a total lack of commitment to minimum human rights standards agreed upon by the international community, to which South Africa is a signatory.

According to Segatti (2011:9) the situation is not much different in other southern African countries. Thus, she states that ‘Southern Africa’s national policies and regional initiatives remain marooned in an approach rigidly based on border control and national sovereignty’. The responses to increased levels of migrations by southern Africa governments can be described as ‘defensive and noncommittal’ (:9). One of the reasons for such an attitude is the perception of immigrants as a threat to the economic and social well-being of the country and its population (Modi 2003:1760-1761). Countries like South Africa, Botswana and Namibia ‘have achieved levels of political stability and economic growth that the ruling parties...wish to sustain’ (Segatti 2011:11).

Unfortunately, the situation within the African Church is often not much better. Many denominations and local churches are organised along ethnic/tribal lines. One of the main historical reasons for this is the fact that western missionaries tended to work in specific regions and focused on particular language groups (Pohor 2006:316). Where churches today embrace more than one ethnicity these groups often exist more or less separately from each other. Truly multicultural churches and denominations are still the exception. And while most church leaders would agree that the Church of Christ is a global body there are some among them who try hard to remove their fellow leaders just because they do not share the same nationality or ethnic/tribal background. Evans Chama (2010), writing from a Roman Catholic perspective, comments:

In many African countries tribalism has determined who becomes president and holds important positions. Unfortunately, this has often also been an issue in both the appointment and reception of a new bishop. A person from a different tribe, especially when that tribe is a minority, is seen as an intruder coming to take away power. When we act like this way, not only do we abuse the positive development of having a local person as a shepherd, but also lose absolutely the sense of Church. That’s why, without making reference to any particular case, some people would receive it as an insult to have a foreign missionary appointed as their bishop.

Surely there is a huge gap between the testimony of the Bible and everyday southern African reality. However, Punt (2009:269) clearly goes too far when he identifies ‘stereotyping and vilifying language’ in the Bible and a naïve reading of the Bible ‘based on claims about verbal inspiration and unhistorical assump- tion’ as the reasons for recent ‘racist practices and xenophobic attacks’ in South Africa. On the contrary, the biblical teaching rejects racism and promotes accep- tance beyond ethnic and social boundaries. The purpose of this article is to give an overview of what the Scriptures have to say about these issues and to encour- age Christians to live accordingly and to promote the biblical view in their local communities and beyond.

Migrants in the Bible

In his book Asylum and Immigration - A Christian Perspective on a Polarised Debate Nick Spencer (2004:85) rightly points out that the concept of asylum cannot be found in the Scriptures. But this does not mean that both the Old and the New Testament have nothing to say about migration and migrants. Apart from the Book of Daniel and Psalms 78 and 137, wisdom literature and psalms are silent on the issue of migration. However, the theme of forced migration is very prominent in the Pentateuch and the history books. In the New Testament the theme of wandering and homelessness plays an important role.

Abraham and his family

One of the most prominent stories of migration in the Old Testament is the story of Abraham and his family. The book of Genesis tells us about their journey of migration. In chapter 12 we are informed that Abram, originally from Ur in Mesopotamia, is called by God to leave Haran and to go to Canaan. Cotter (2003:90) writes about Abram’s call:

Abram is commanded to leave three things: country, kindred, and his father’s home. Thus, he is to leave behind the past, everything and everyone familiar to him, all the previous supports and influences he has known, and to depend on God alone.

However, God’s command to go to an unknown country is accompanied by a promise. The significance of this promise goes far beyond Abraham and his family: God will make him a great nation through which all families on the earth will be blessed (Westermann 1987:98). Walter Brueggemann (1982:121) depicts Abraham’s migration as a metaphor of a journey that characterizes the life of faith. Abraham’s journey, he argues, must not only be understood as a physical movement (:121). It stands for the life of faith. It is the life of faith which keeps Abraham and his descendants in pursuit of the land that God has promised them (:122). This metaphor of a journey is not only radically different from our modern western ideologies which long for ‘settlement, security and placement’, it also reflects something of God’s character (:122). Brueggemann writes: ‘Thus Yahweh is understood not as a God who settles and dwells, but as a God who sojourns and moves about’ (:122).

Chapters 12:10-20 explain that severe famine was the reason for Abram not immediately settling in Canaan, and the cause of his flight to Egypt. Here, he asks his wife Sarai to pretend to be his sister. This is, as Turner (2000:65-66) writes, a lie. He continues: ‘Not only is it intrinsically improbable, but 11.29 which told us of Abram’s marriage also told us that his brother Nahor married his niece’ (:66). Turner concludes that any blood relationship between Abram and Sarai would certainly have been mentioned too (:66). According to Gibson (1990:34) it was simple cowardice of Abram that caused him to ask his wife to pose as his sister. Amos (2004:79) considers his behaviour as pure selfishness. She writes:

Abram’s next actions don’t cover him with glory either. He is selfishly far more concerned with his own safety (they will kill me) than with protecting his wife Sarai or preserving her dignity. Abram acknowledges that her life would never have been in danger: they will let you live. Sarai is treated merely as a chattel to be traded for Abram’s own advantage.

Gibson's and Amos’ judgement appears harsh but there were good reasons for Abram’s fear. Firstly, as an alien in Egypt he was powerless and especially vul- nerable as a Hebrew (Hamilton 1990:380). Secondly, it was not unusual for powerful rulers to abduct married women. Both King David and the Mesopota- mian king Gilgamesh acted exactly in this way (Janzen 1993:24). Thirdly, Abram’s fear that he could be killed but his wife would be spared was quite realistic (Wenham 1987:291). This was exactly the practice of a later King of Egypt (Exod. 1:16).

Lack of rain for extensive periods automatically induced famines in the agrar- ian societies of the ancient Near East. Old Testament accounts of famine record dramatic rises in the cost of food (2 Kgs. 6:24-25) and cannibalism (Lam. 2:20). Sometimes famines even led to the breakdown of whole societies and migration to other countries. In addition to Abram the Old Testament cites the examples of Isaac who leaves his home country for Gerar (Gen. 26:7) and Joseph’s family who seek refuge in the Egyptian district of Goshen (Gen. 47:4-6) (Hudiburg 2000:455-456). Westermann (1987:103) speaks of famines as ‘one of the fundamental experiences of human misery’.

Finally, the story of Abraham’s migration needs to be seen in the light of God’s mission to bring salvation to the ends of the earth: The migrant Abraham ‘will become the means of blessing for all humankind’ (Köstenberger & O’Brien 2001:30). Girgis (2011:70) notes:

The biblical writer highlights Abraham’s and Sarah’s ministry and life as a story of sojourners for good reason: to get our attention to God’s purpose towards the nations as we ‘‘go to all nations’’ (Matt. 28), to ‘‘gather all nations and tongues’’ (Is. 66:18), to ‘‘bless the nations’’ (Gen. 12) and to bring different people together to form God’s reign ‘‘on earth as it is in heaven’’. To bring people in, Abraham had to get out, leaving his own country and kindred, and journey to the unknown, becoming a stranger and a sojourner.

The exodus

The first chapter of the Book of Exodus tells the story of the Israelites’ oppression in Egypt. After a long and prosperous period the Israelites are forced into slavery. Two reasons are given by the narrator. Firstly, a new pharaoh comes to power. Ashby (1998:9) speaks of ‘a new dynasty as a result of some sort of coup’. Some scholars believe this new ruler to be Rameses II (cf. Clements 1972:11; Coggins 2000:5; Cole 1973:43; Noth 1962:22; Sarna 1991:4). Others think that the new pharaoh was either Rameses II or his predecessor Seti (cf. Davies 1973:40). Meyers (2005), however, argues that the name of this pharaoh was left out deliberately by the author. He notes:

It is more likely that the pharaoh is intentionally unnamed. The anonymity of key figures in biblical narratives can serve rhetorical purposes. By not having a specific name, the pharaoh who subjugates the Israelites can repre- sent all such oppressors. At the very least, denying him a name may serve to demean him (:34).

With this change of regime the situation for Jacob’s descendants has radically changed too. The writer informs us that the new ruler does not know Joseph (Exod. 1:8). In other words, he is not obliged to respect any commitment to a group of foreigners within his territory (Durham 1987:7; Fretheim 1991:27). Secondly, the expansion of the Hebrew population is seen as potentially damag- ing in two ways: the new regime fears that they could ally themselves with for- eign powers and that they could diminish the workforce by leaving the country (Exod. 1:9-10). The bondage pharaoh prescribes for the Israelites is not slavery as such but rather forced labour (Meyers 2005:34). Sarna (1986:21) speaks of a ‘state slavery’ which imposes ‘forced labour upon the male population for long and indefinite terms of service under degrading and brutal conditions’. What the narrative does not explain is how the new Egyptian regime expected the forced labour to impede the increase of the Hebrews (Childs 1974:15). Janzen (1997:19) notes that by enslaving the Israelites, the Egyptians had obtained a cheap labour source for improving their infrastructure. In verse 11 we can read that the Israelites had to build supply cities for the Egyptians. In sum, the oppression of the Israelites appears to be politically and economically motivated. This oppres- sion reaches a new level when the new Egyptian ruler orders the death of every newborn male child (Exod. 1:15-16). Van Seters (1994:23) comments that the term genocide ‘seems to deal more directly with the threat of Israel’s increased population in Exodus 1’.

The biblical evidence gives clear grounds for the rise of nationalism and racism in Egypt of the 13th century BC. A political climate is created which is ripe for manipulation. The Egyptian king ‘plays on the prejudices and fears of his own people to justify his own racist attitudes’ (Ashby 1998:10). The story of the exodus presents a classical example of racial conflict. It shows how racial prejudices lead to persecution and oppression, coupled with economic exploitation, and thus to forced migration (:10).

According to Garrett (1990:656), the exodus from Egypt, which is told in chapters 12 to 18, was the ‘paradigm of historical renewal’ for the early Israelites. For Guiterrez Israel’s exodus forms a paradigm for liberation theology (Tombs 2002:128). Guiterrez (2001:154) sees it as a political event. He writes:

The liberation of Israel is a political action. It is the breaking away from a situation of despoliation and misery and the beginning of the construction of a just and comradely society. It is the suppression of disorder and the creation of a new order.

Guiterrez is undoubtedly right that there is an element of political liberation in the exodus story. However, there is also a strong spiritual aspect (Prill 2005:326). Thus, the starting point of Israel’s liberation is that ‘God remembered his cove- nant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob’ (Exod. 2:24). The basis of this covenant is an act of faith. Genesis 17:7 tells us that God not only established a covenant with Abraham, who believed in the Lord (Gen. 15:6), but also with his descend- ants. In other words, God entered into a covenant with Abraham’s descendants on the basis of his faith, or as Köstenberger & O’Brien (2001:34) put it: ‘Israel is not entering a covenant of works, that is conditional or provisional, but is responding to a covenant of grace based on divine promises made earlier with Abraham.’ Consequently, the exodus story is a story of ‘the God who acts in sal- vation’ (Cole 1985:27). As such it points to ‘Christ, our Passover Lamb’ (1 Cor. 5:7). It points to the ultimate salvation, the ultimate liberation which Christ achieved through His death on the cross.

The Babylonian exile

Another Old Testament example of migration is the Babylonian Exile. In this instance it is a foreign power that forces people to leave their home country. The author of 2 Kings gives an account of two deportations of people from Judah to Babylon. The significance of the first deportation was that the people taken to Babylon all belonged to the ruling class, the Jerusalem establishment (Hobbs 1985:352). Thus, the deportees were members of the royal family, officials of the royal court, soldiers, and skilled craftsmen (2 Kgs. 24:16). Only the poorest people remained in Jerusalem (24:14). Robinson (1976:237) identifies the reason for these deportations:

Nebuchadnezzar did not depopulate the city. He removed those who might assist in a future rebellion, the officers and fighting men who would provide the army, and the craftsmen and smiths who would make weapons for them to use.

After Zedekiah's rebellion against Nebuchadnezzar a second deportation took place. This time there were three groups of people who were exiled: those who were left in Jerusalem, the deserters and the rest of the population (25:11). Again we are told that only some of the poorest people were allowed to stay. They were left to look after the vineyards and the farmland (25:12).

The fundamental reason for the Babylonian invasion and the deportations lies in Nebuchadnezzar's hunger for power. It was his aim to subdue the Philistine cities and to get control over Judah (Jones 1984:633). Removal of social elites reduced the possibility of future revolt. But there was also an underlying eco- nomic agenda in operation. It is striking that the rich, the educated and the quali- fied people are deported to Babylon, while the poor are left behind in Judah. Only those are taken into exile that are of use for the Babylonian economy in general and the war economy specifically. At the same time the economic basis for the state of Judah is almost completely destroyed. That the Babylonians have a special interest in Israelite human capital is demonstrated in the story of Daniel and the other young Israelites of royal descent. These young men are valued by the Babylonians because of their wisdom and knowledge. They receive further training and function as advisers to the Babylonian King (Dan. 1:3-8).

Psalm 137 reveals something of the feelings of the exiled people of Judah. It shows the sufferings of a people who experienced the destruction of their home- land, who were deported to a foreign country, and who, upon their return, have to live in a ruined city (Weiser 1962:794). The psalm speaks about pain and home- sickness. There is the pain of being separated from one’s homeland. There is the pain of being cut-off from one’s religious centre. The exiled people of Judah find it difficult to practise their religion: ‘How could we sing the LORD’s song in a foreign land? If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither’ (Ps. 137:4- 5). Kraus (1989:503) comments:

The songs of Zion glorify Yahweh. But such Yahweh hymns cannot be sung in a foreign land. Cultic practice is not possible here (cf. 1 Sam 26:19; Hosea 8:3ff.). The land is unclean (cf. Ezek. 4:13). And yet, this explanation in v.4 does not preclude having a service of lamentation in a foreign land (cf. 1 Kings 8:46ff.).


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Migrants, Strangers and the Church in Southern Africa. A Biblical Perspective
NETS Theological Research Papers - Volume Two
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migrants in the bible, strangers in the bible, ethnocentrism, racism, xenophobia, Southern Africa, South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, foreigners in the bibel, Book of Ruth, apartheid, tribalism, Abraham, Exodus, Babylonian Exile, Jesus as refugee, foreigners in the New Testament, foreigners in the Old Testament, mission, mission of the church
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Dr. Thorsten Prill (Author), 2013, Migrants, Strangers and the Church in Southern Africa. A Biblical Perspective, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/214854


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