Migration, Displacement, and the Kingdom of God

People have always migrated from one place to another for good and bad reasons. Think of the wise men coming from the east to see the King of Kings as a baby in his manger. On the other hand, think of Cain, forced to move after killing his brother, Abel. Throughout the Bible we read stories of people on the move. Abraham started a long journey out of Ur; Moses led the people of Israel out of Egypt; the disciples scattered around the Roman Empire; Paul took off on various missionary journeys; and the Bible ends with a book by John while he was living in exile.

The story of God’s people is definitely one of movement. And perhaps the most famous refugee of them all was Jesus. In what is frequently a forgotten side note in his story, Jesus and his family were forced to flee to Egypt to avoid the infant massacres of King Herod.

While some people willfully choose to move to follow God, many others move involuntarily as a result of war, famine, or some other massive or inescapable problem in their home country. As one who has moved willfully, I, Mark, can testify that there are still significant challenges related to cultural adaptation and separation from extended family. However, forced moves produce even more difficulties as refugees tend to be subject to stereotyping, prejudices, de-individualization, inadequate living conditions, and a lack of dignified employment.

We are experiencing migration never before equaled in the history of the world. Relatively inexpensive transportation has meant that people are frequently displaced quite far from their homeland. For example, my hometown of Boise, Idaho, USA, has seen an influx of refugees from far-flung countries such as Eritrea, Iraq, and Burma.

In Ted Lewellen’s work, The Anthropology of Globalization,1 he points out that migrating people often develop a new identity—or at the least have their previous identity significantly altered. Moreover, the current trends of migration have largely eliminated the historical dichotomies (such as rural/urban) and have produced the need to look at things in a more fluid way. Social networks can be borderless due to increases in efficiency and decreases in the cost of transportation and communication technologies. The world is changing and so is the face of migration.

Rising to the Challenge
As ministers of the gospel, we have to think about these complex issues and develop appropriate responses. Samuel Escobar2 says migration produces four primary challenges for the Church:

  1. How to be compassionate Christians and have loving attitudes that are frequently contrary to popular culture.
  2. How to educate inside the churches that ensures that people are informed of the issues and have their negative (sinful) attitudes challenged and corrected.
  3. How to have a prophetic ministry to the society at large. Christians should be speaking up for those who are suffering and seeking to create solutions and to combat political ideologies that sometimes seek to make the strong stronger at the expense of the weak.
  4. How to make migration an avenue for the evangelistic mission.

Escobar balances a difficult issue quite well. Instead of focusing fully on the injustices of migration, he also optimistically sees the possibilities of how Christians can use massive migration as an avenue for evangelism. However, he also doesn’t casually dismiss the social component and argues for its inclusion in Christian considerations of the topic.

Christine Pohl argues for the centrality of the biblical tradition of hospitality and the significance of the identity of the people of God as resident aliens, making a case for holistic ministry to migrants. She says that the missiological implications are that we should live out of “concern for the physical, social, and spiritual well-being of migrants and refugees.”3

Pohl adds that this should be central to Christian witness and not peripheral to it. She points out that we are not “just passing through” this world in a detached and unconcerned way. Rather, we should recognize that this world is not our home, while simultaneously creating homes and communities that are life-giving and life-sustaining.

Meeting Spiritual and Physical Needs
By and large, refugees are poor and have little opportunity to improve their situations. In Isaiah 58:1-10 we discover that one of the main denunciations given by Isaiah against Israel was for her sin of ignoring the poor. This was because Israel failed to act as a picture of the coming king when she neglected the poor. Jesus Christ, the coming king, would heal and preach good news to the poor as predicted by Isaiah (Isaiah 61:1-2) and later confirmed by Christ himself in the Gospel of Luke (Luke 4:18-21; 7:18-23).

Based on the preceding few verses (and so many others not mentioned), it is an inescapable reality that God has always been mindful of both the physical and spiritual needs of his people.

When the Church neglects holistic ministry and chooses to address only the spiritual needs of the people, the Church may be repeating the same error that Israel committed. The Church is the body, the bride, and the fullness of Christ (Ephesians 1:18-23; 4:7-13; 5:32), unlike Israel, who was just a shadow of the coming king. This means that whatever Israel was called to do, we are called to do in even greater fashion!

God has compassion for the poor, the marginalized, and the oppressed. He calls the Church to reach out to such people with his love.

All physical suffering is a product of living in a sin-filled world. The Church has an answer that the so-called “secular” relief organizations do not have. We know how to deal with sin, and consequently, meet the physical as well as the spiritual needs of people. The Church should preach the whole gospel to the whole person. The Church has been preaching salvation to save the “soul” of the sinner. However, in addition to “soul salvation,” the Church needs to be involved in teaching about economic development and social justice to both its members and the community around.

Life in Exile
I, Daniel, was born in Uganda in 1976, the youngest of eight, from Rwandan refugee parents. I grew up wondering why my parents left our home country of Rwanda. As a child, I learned that my parents were victims of the so-called “ethnic hatred” that began in 1959 and resulted in the deaths of many people. Survivors fled to neighboring countries. My parents went to Uganda.

In 1935, the Belgian colonial administration introduced a discriminatory national identification on the basis of ethnicity. Banyarwanda (Rwandans) who possessed ten or more cows were registered as Batutsi, whereas those with less were registered as Bahutu. From then on, enmity arose between the two main groups. Almost in a regular manner, killings of the Batutsi became a habit. In the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, and early 1990s massacres of Batutsi were common. Between April and July 1994 (just one hundred days) over one million Rwandan people, mainly Batutsi and some moderate Bahutu, were killed.

In 1995, we moved to Rwanda. Unfortunately, my father died in exile and was never able to return. I am thankful to God for taking me to Rwanda and for helping me leave refugee life. I am now enjoying life and serving God in Rwanda to my own people. I can share the gospel with ease because I do it in my own language and in my culture. As a refugee, the Ugandans teased me and gave me different names because I was Rwandese (Rwandan). Growing up as a refugee was never enjoyable. We were people on the move; we never settled in one place for long. We were always moving in search for food, cattle, and so forth. Because of the unfavorable conditions I grew up in, I developed a heart to serve the under-privileged. That’s why I want to blend the knowledge from these two fields of study to serve the poor holistically.

Injustices and Violence
Life as a refugee is hard. Refugees suffer injustice and are oppressed in numerous ways as Daniel was in Uganda. In the Bible, there is a constant call to seek justice for the oppressed. In Isaiah 1:17, the Lord had this to say: “Learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow.” The principle here is to provide justice for everyone who is suffering injustice.

In the New Testament Jesus was upset because Pharisees and teachers of the law neglected to offer justice to the oppressed. In Matthew 23:23, we read, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill, and cummin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy, and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. ”

In one of the most important moments of his ministry, Jesus was asked which commandment was the greatest. He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it. You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:37-39).

One of the best ways to express love is to see to it that justice is imbedded in the laws of society in order to protect and liberate the oppressed, especially women and children. Nevertheless, when we look at what is happening around the world, we realize that justice is lacking in most parts of the world. There is ample evidence that violence against women and children by warring groups in Darfur is reaching alarming levels. Extreme violence has been a feature of the civil conflict since it erupted in 2003. However, in the past months, attacks on women and girls, both within and outside camps for the displaced, have soared.

Now that we have just seen a few examples of what the Bible has to say about injustice, what should our response be?

  1. Be encouraged that our Lord is mindful of the oppressed and is disturbed by injustice.
  2. Seek to define our role as the Body of Christ. By defining our role, we will be led to advocate for those who are being oppressed.
  3. Develop situational approaches that help the aliens in our midst.

This is, after all, what the Apostle James called “true religion” (James 1:27).


1. 2002. The Anthropology of Globalization: Cultural Anthropology Enters the 21st Century. Westport, Connecticut, USA: Bergin & Garvey Paperback.

2. Escobar, Samuel. 2003. “Migration: Avenue and Challenge in Mission.” In Missiology 31(1).

3. Pohl, Christine. 2003. “Biblical Issues in Mission and Migration.” In Missiology 31(1).

Dr. Mark L. Russell (left) is director of spiritual integration at HOPE International, a Christian microfinance network working in fourteen countries. He can be reached at [email protected]. Daniel Ryumugabe (right) is a native of Rwanda and is transformation coordinator for Urwego Opportunity Bank in Kigali.