The Sojourner Argument -- Churches and Immigration

By Edwin Childress
Volume 11, Number 3 (Spring 2001)
Issue theme: "George W. Bush, last Republican president? And does it matter?"

Many Americans find that the national leaders of their religious affiliations argue against reduction of immigration based in part on their interpretation of the biblical term 'sojourner.' The term, however, often appears to be misused. As has previously been reported in The Social Contract, immigration reductions in recent years have been opposed by national Catholic, Jewish, Mainline Protestant, Religious Right, and Quaker leaders. Among the most common biblical references to support their positions have been those referring to the sojourner.

For example, 'To Love the Sojourner' is the title of a 1988 working paper published by the United Methodist Church (UMC) drawing members' attention to changes in immigration law. That title and theme continued through pamphlets and press releases for over ten years and may still be circulating today in various forms. A 1996 resolution, 'Immigrants and Refugees To Love the Sojourner' was submitted by the denomination's Board of Global Ministries and approved that year by the General Conference (United Methodism's highest authority).

The 1988 paper discussed the amnesty for three million illegal aliens in the U.S. Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) of 1986 and criticized provisions threatening fines for businesses that hired later illegal aliens

It is apparent that the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, for all the hope it represents for a relative few, renders life much more difficult for the vast majority of immigrant peoples in the United States. These circumstances cry out for attention from the church and from Christian individuals. We must not abandon the sojourner ...abandoning sojourners would be to deny their humanity as well as our own (p. 28).

The paper traced the themes of sojourning and wandering found in the Bible. God's Spirit, Abraham, the 'pilgrim people of God,' Moses and the Israelites, Jesus and the holy family, the apostle Paul - all are shown to be sojourners. The history of the UMC's concern for those in need and especially for migrants is cataloged with appropriate references to denominational documents. Commentary is then inserted at various places to demonstrate the interplay of Bible, doctrine, and today's realities. For example

The Bible is full of stories of sojourners, strangers without homes, whom God called people to protect. The Israelites - God's chosen people - were themselves sojourners for 40 years after the exodus from Egypt before they entered the promised land. God did not let the Israelites forget that they had been without a homeland for such a long time; the ethic of welcoming the sojourner was woven into the 'Using the term ‘sojourner' as a kind of proof-text for political statements about immigration clouds the issue because many people of faith find it hard to ‘argue against the Bible.''very fabric of the Israelite confederacy. It was more than an ethic, it was a command of God. 'Do not mistreat or oppress a stranger; you know how it feels to be a stranger, because you were sojourners in the land of Egypt' (Exodus 23 9). (p.1).

As these excerpts point out, the Bible in a great many places uses 'sojourner' to refer to those who are in a location that is not their original homeland. However, it is clear that while a sojourner shares some characteristics with an immigrant, the two are in very different pursuits. Using the term 'sojourner' as a kind of proof-text for political statements about immigration clouds the issue because many people of faith find it hard to 'argue against the Bible.' Paul W. Lewis, an author on Christian engagement of social issues and a former missionary, admits 'I have been greatly bothered by the way some people have used the term ‘sojourner' to back up their own idea about immigrants. It was a totally different situation back then. We could also use the word ‘traveler' today.'

What, then, is the context of sojourner in the Bible? It is difficult to state just how stark are the differences between today's world and that of Biblical times. In the days before nations, when tribes or kingdoms were the governing units, borders were almost never maintained. People or families traveled widely under differing conditions and motivations. Abraham in the book of Genesis set out with his extended family in a search for God's threefold promise that he would possess land, become a mighty nation, and be a blessing to all people (Genesis 12 1-3).

While we romanticize this kind of bold action, migrating in ancient times was a dangerous undertaking. Consider the effects of weather, marauding bands of thieves, and the difficulty of carrying one's supplies. Related in practice to sojourning was the nomadic existence of many tribes who followed their flocks in the changing seasons, seeking grass and water where they were most abundant. This was inherently different from sojourning because it was within a specified territory and was the established way of life for that people.

Existing alongside the practice of sojourning was the revered tradition of hospitality (see also Genesis 18). Even today, many traditional customs and mannerisms are still practiced. Lewis, the long-term missionary in Southeast Asia says, 'I know that among the people I lived and worked with in Burma and Thailand, it was very important to them that they accept travelers coming through their area, and they have a concept of caring for them much like the Old Testament concept regarding the ‘sojourner.'' One can imagine how the admonitions to care for the sojourner were gracious expressions of faith in an inhospitable time.

At other times, not just families but whole tribes or populations were forced to migrate because of famine or war. The Israelites made their famous migration to Egypt because of famine. Joseph had prepared their way in Egypt by making himself indispensable to Pharaoh.

It is in this context that 'sojourner' is used in the Jewish Torah and the Christian Old Testament. The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible provides three instances giving specific definition to the word sojourner 'A person living in mutually responsible association with a community or in a place not inherently his own...In the basic meaning of the term, a sojourner is a person who occupies a position between the native born and the foreigner...A traveler and settler for a shorter or longer period.'

A secular source, The Oxford American Dictionary and Language Guide, defines 'sojourn' 'to stay temporarily.' In the case of each source, sojourning would seem to be a temporary condition. God commands hospitality and care for those who sojourn because once Israel was herself a sojourner. At the offering of first fruits as described in Deuteronomy 26, the pilgrim says, 'A wandering Aramean was my father; and he went down into Egypt and sojourned Pertinent Biblical citations of 'sojourner'

When Abraham's wife, Sarah, dies, he must go to buy land where he can bury her. And Abraham rose up before his dead (wife), and said to the Hittites, 'I am a stranger and a sojourner among you; give me property among you for a burying place, that I may bury my dead out of my sight.' Genesis 23 3-4

The book of Leviticus contains certain prescriptions for different circumstances that may occur in life. If your brother becomes poor, and cannot maintain himself with you, you shall maintain him; as a stranger and a sojourner he shall live with you. Leviticus 25 35

You shall give three cities beyond the Jordan, and three cities in the land of Canaan, to be cities of refuge. These six cities shall be for refuge for the people of Israel, and for the stranger and for the sojourner among them, that anyone who kills any person without intent may flee there. Numbers 35 13-15

Hear my prayer, O Lord, and give ear to my cry; hold not thy peace at my tears! For I am thy passing guest, a sojourner, like all my fathers. Psalm 39 12there, few in number...'

Professor John B. Cobb Jr., for 32 years the Ingraham Professor of Theology at the Claremont School of Theology, concurs 'The Biblical term ‘sojourner' implies someone who is residing in a land which is not his or hers by birth. Almost always it conveys a sense of temporary residence.'

The terms 'immigrant' and 'immigration' do not appear in the Bible. The Oxford American Dictionary and Language Guide defines immigration as follows 'To come as a permanent resident to a country other than one's native land.'

Why does any of this matter? Isn't it just a small semantic detail? It is a small detail indicative of a very large issue, and among communities citing the authority of scripture for belief and action, small details mean a great deal. Sojourners, while their future plans were not clear, were not intent on permanent settlement. To use 'sojourner' and 'immigrant' interchangeably in today's world is to obscure their distinction. While sojourners in the Bible were forced by necessity to move away from their homes, their intention was to return.

The Israelites in Egypt came to a time when God determined they should return to the land of their ancestors - Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The Egyptians, however, had grown used to their labor as slaves. The first chapter of Exodus recounts several of the major building projects dependent on Hebrew labor. At the same time they wanted this slave labor, the Egyptians were afraid of the growing numbers of Israelites. The midwives were commanded to kill the newborn males but not the females. They disobeyed, of course, and God rewarded them and all the Israelites with greater numbers. As every child of Summer Bible School knows, Moses led the Israelites out of bondage to forty years in the wilderness and then Joshua 'fit the battle of Jericho' and led them into the Promised Land.

God's intention all along was that Israel in Egypt should remain distinctive so that she would serve God's purposes in history. Is it still appropriate today to understand that nations possess a role in history and in the affairs of the world? As faithful people, we pray and hope that each nation will contribute in positive ways that bring peace and fulfillment.

Finally, what does any of this have to do with immigration policies? Several issues are relevant. First, America needs to make realistic allowances for those who need to 'sojourn' here temporarily. We call them refugees today. The United Nations says that, for the most part, refugees should be repatriated as soon as possible. A small contingent from Kosovo came to the U.S. on a temporary basis and when the situation at home became more secure, the desire of many was to return. That's the pattern to be followed. We could take in far more true refugees than we do currently. We don't because, once here, they are encouraged to stay, thus driving up already large numbers of annual immigrants. This does nothing for future refugees who could benefit from a temporary stay and it does nothing for the refugees' homelands.

Once again, Paul Lewis' perspective as a retired missionary gives him valuable insight

My definition of love a total concern for the total welfare of the other person through space and time. When I apply this to people wanting to immigrate into this country, I realize that many of them will be much better off in their own country. It makes much more sense to differentiate refugees and immigrants - I believe we must show love to both, but love includes the head as well as the heart. ‘Love God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind' is powerful.

A second issue focuses on the legitimacy of all nations. Our religious rhetoric and practice often imply that only the United States offers the kind of life that's worth living in the world today. That's a national arrogance which can bear no positive effect. In the Old Testament, Israel misunderstood her chosen role as one of privilege, whereas the prophets tried to make her see that she was God's instrument for bringing the world to a right way of living - peace with justice.

Author Roy Beck, in an article in the Spring 1992 issue of The Social Contract entitled '‘Xenophobia' - Scrabble Winner, Debate Stopper,' noted the growing number of news stories which ascribed xenophobic or nativist motivations to any position seeking to restrict the number of immigrants. The article's title makes clear what is still true Citizens with genuine concerns find it difficult to discuss immigration reform. Beck states that while most journalists readily find exaggerated or irrational fears of foreigners to be illegitimate,

...They rarely point out that there are legitimate, mainstream ways to raise immigration concerns. ...Thus, when readers see that a commentator has labeled one type of anti-immigration reasoning as beyond the pale of proper public discourse, they may think all anti-immigration reasoning automatically is excluded from polite debate.

Such a process is even more destructive in faith communities whose local pastoral leaders and national bureaucracies repeatedly use such language and thinking. How can a conscientiously religious person come to a responsible position when that position may be characterized as un-Biblical, racist, or irrational?

My own attempt to remain faithful to Biblical prescriptions predicates the following

1. Foreigners who are here in this country now should be accorded the respect and decency we owe to all people.

2. People who are genuine refugees and cannot be cared for in proximity to their homes might be temporarily relocated to other countries. The U.S. would accept its fair share until they can safely return home. Their temporary stay makes it possible for other refugees to sojourn here when necessary.

3. Our ethic of caring requires that we do what is necessary to help legal immigrants and legal residents to assimilate and function in U.S. society.

4. Our ethic of caring requires that we not accept such a large number of annual immigrants that 1) the ability of workers to earn a decent living is undermined, 2) the sustainability of the environment is harmed, 3) the best and brightest are drained from their own nations where they can do the most good.

5. We move away from an 'America the Best' attitude and respect the future aspirations and identities of other nations. Surely we share the earth in partnership with all nations. It is not 'us against them.'


'To Love the Sojourner A United Methodist Response to the United States Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986.' United Methodist Committee on Relief, General Board of Global Ministries, the United Methodist Church, 1988.

'Immigrants and Refugees To Love the Sojourner.' A resolution submitted by the General Board of Global Ministries. 1996, Nashville The United Methodist Publishing House.

'Sojourner.' Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, Volume 4, 1962, Nashville Abingdon Press, p. 397.

The Oxford Dictionary and Language Guide. 1999. Oxford University Press.

Beck, Roy, '‘Xenophobia' - Scrabble Winner, Debate Stopper.' The Social Contract, Vol. II, No. 3, Spring 1992, p. 144-149.

About the author

Edwin Childress is a graduate of the Divinity School at Duke University and for twenty years has served as a pastor in the United Methodist Church. He is deputy director at