The LORD said, “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey.” – Exodus 3:7-8
Scripture is filled with calls to aid the needy, make peace, and work toward reconciliation. Christians must step up to the call of refugeeism if we want to maintain, or more likely restore, our credibility as followers of Christ. Scripture is filled with calls to aid the needy, make peace, and work toward reconciliation.
Christians are not only the sons and daughters of refugees, but are refugees ourselves.
Such are the reasons the Church can and must respond passionately and powerfully to the uprooted people of our world. The Bible also offers moral and legal precedents related to our treatment of foreigners. Don’t deprive foreigners of justice (Mal. 3:5). Make sure foreigners have food (Lev. 19:9-10). Heed the foreigner’s requests (1 Kings 8:41-44). Welcome foreigners as you welcome Christ (Matt. 25:35-40). Be concerned with the needs and desires of others, not only your own (Phil. 2:3-4).
These parables and paradigms underscore the importance of going above and beyond merely thinking well of those less fortunate than ourselves. We need to treat them like Jesus. Be unselfish. Be loving. Be sacrificial. And don’t view these actions as merely optional altruism, but rather as the command of Christ and the privilege of his disciples.
In view of all this history and Scripture-scanning, it is important to move beyond single verses and stories. We want to see how the entirety of God’s Word is brought to bear upon the Church’s work with the displaced. How fortunate that there is a thread woven through the gospel narrative that reveals for us a theology of refugees and how the Church can respond.
The previous chapter zoomed in, painting a picture of who refugees are, how the Church is connected, and why Christians should care. This chapter takes a larger view. Hopefully, it offers a wider, brighter vision of what it means to know refugees, to see them, and to come alongside them.
Knowing Refugees: Imago Dei
There is perhaps no more common “solution” to conflict between persons than the one encapsulated in the Christianese axiom, “See them as created in the image of God.” The call reminds us to acknowledge the reality that all humans mirror God’s divinity through an array of qualities uniquely bestowed upon humankind.
This is good advice. As Christians, we do well to see all humans everywhere as created and loved by God, and made in his likeness. It’s good because it is helpful, but, more importantly, because it is true.
On this worldview, we are able not only to see the inherent value of both our friends and our enemies, but also to recognize the brotherhood of all humanity. People are not so far apart as we might imagine.
But as with any overused spiritualism, we have the nasty tendency to say it almost whimsically, to tout it as a religious platitude without knowing what we are saying or how to enact it, and sometimes without believing it at all. What good does it do the Christian policeman to say, “This kid is created in the image of God,” and then proceeds to shoot him? What does it mean for a politician to recognize the imago Dei in an opposing candidate, and yet engage in backhanded, slanderous, skeleton-seeking campaign politics? How are we to handle the fallen paradox of Christian men who say all women are created in God’s own image, but look at pornography anyway? And what is the world to take from Christians in the West who say, “South Asian refugees bear the image of the Father,” and yet support—or, more likely, don’t care about—policies that prop up corrupt, refugee-creating regimes?
We can talk about the image of God in others all we want, but it means little if we don’t incarnate it ourselves.
No one cares if you say your mother is created in the image of God, except maybe your mother. You probably don’t even have to believe in God to say that. It takes no guts, no commitment. The true test is admitting, even joyfully, that Isis suicide bombers and Westboro Baptist sign-wavers and the other party’s nominee are created in the image of God. The hard part is saying—and believing—that God loves psychopaths and street sleepers as much as he loves me, and I should too.
It’s from the same perspective that we love “the other” and serve the poor. It’s how we care for widows and orphans, and also for rich straight white men. It’s how we care for friends and family more than ourselves. Seeing the imago Dei is how we love our enemies.
So in our thinking about the Church’s response to refugees, we need to acknowledge the imago Dei in them and in ourselves. And, at the same moment, know that the image of God is not just something we have—it’s something we must live.
Imago Dei as the Source of a Christian Ethic of Human Rights
The first step for the Christian must be to acknowledge our common human identity as one emblazoned by and endowed with the fingerprints of God. But we can never stop there. It has to be a practical thing. Something lived out daily.
In North America, with the notion of human rights so vague in our national consciousness—even as we think it is so central—it is clear we need more than a philosophy or even a policy of human rights to do battle with the causes of refugeeism. For Christians, we do not start with some modern, worldly paradigm of human rights. Though today’s notion of rights traces its roots back to the Church Fathers and the Judeo-Christian tradition, such sources are now largely left out of the discussion. The antecedents to modern human rights theory are hardly “worldly”, but our language and practice has drifted from its otherworldly mooring. Neither should our understanding of human rights begin with national or international policy, nor the prescriptions of newscasts. We certainly don’t root our response in tweets or poverty porn. The place—or rather the person—with whom we start is Jesus. We start with the Bible. We start with the Word. Such sources give us a unique standard of human rights, of refugee entitlements, of migrant liberties. They come first of all in the imago Dei.
There are many viewpoints on what exactly is meant when we speak of God’s image in us. Some point to humanity’s inherent sense of morality, its ability to rise above instinctual selfishness for the good of others, its mandate over creation, its reception and response to the Word, and its fundamentally Trinitarian need and desire for community. There is truth in each of these aspects of the imago Dei, but our concern here is not so much what particular features of humanity or human community we refer to when we talk about the image of God, but rather how acknowledging that image—whatever it may entail—affects the way we live with one another.
For the Church, a human rights perspective rooted in the imago Dei is more holistic, more deeply rooted (in the Father), more powerfully capable (by the Spirit), and more easily envisioned (in the life of Jesus) than the alternatives. The go-to substitute to a gospel–based humanitarian ethic are the hundreds of international documents that talk about human rights and how to defend them. Noble and poetic as many of these documents are, they too often go unenforced and, when they are enforced, settle for half-measures and cold justice. Internationally, we do not need to look far to see the short reach of our global human rights policy. It is not bad, but it is incomplete and unconvicting, as dozens of wars and millions of uprooted people prove.
Americans, for our part, don’t typically bother to debate such things—human rights, that is—because we don’t have to. At least, we think we don’t. When our southern border and city southsides are thought of as gates to hell, the notion of human rights in Syria or Burma becomes nearly superfluous, too far to be real.
Contentedly blind to the fingerprints of God, North America is in many ways closed off from the rest of the “dirty” world. The noose of security has produced a cultural isolation. We think we are open and global because we buy things from China and watch news clips about Afghanistan, but really we constrain ourselves to a neat McDonalized world, satisfied with an illusion of global awareness little deeper than the desert island on our desktop background.
To be conscious of and conscientious about the world, however, requires the sacrifice of comfort. We cannot open our eyes to the plight of refugees in Turkey and Cameroon and close them to blacks and Hispanics here at home. What is more, if we are bold enough to truly explore the problems of the world, we will see that many of them have tentacles and roots that stretch back to us. Seeing the world is fun when it’s from 30,000 feet or on the arm of a tour guide, but it’s exhausting and convicting when our perspective comes from refugee camps and conversations with migrant children.
This degree of sacrifice, of closeness, of boldness and honesty is a biblical reality, not an American one, which is why a gospel lens is a more useful basis for human rights than a nationalistic or purely humanist lens. It is also harder and more dangerous. But, one of Christianity’s greatest paradoxes asserts the closer you are to death, the closer you are to life.
In the same way, the nearer we come to suffering, the greater our opportunity to be the Church. Let us tear down the façade, every wall of separation, lined as they are with barbed wire and cultural charades.
The Church, armed with a gospel ethic, can truly know refugees by living out the imago Dei in us. This means being generous toward sojourners, drawing near to exiles, going to them on borders and in camps without fear. Also, as goodness reveals goodness and truth begets truth, actively living out the image of God in us helps us to know refugees and a heavenly standard of human rights by revealing to us the image of God in them.
We need an imago Dei perspective to truly know refugees. It allows us to see refugees in their full personhood. It disallows excuses. All other sources of human rights will permit us eventually to overlook and underserve, to stop when we think we’ve “done enough” or when it’s “not our problem.” With the imago Dei, however, the root of our ethic will have God and God-in-man at the center, pointing us toward holiness, equipping us with divine hope, and prompting us to carry out terrestrial work with eternity in mind.
True Humanization: What the Imago Dei Means for Humanity
The pertinent Old Testament imago Dei text, Genesis 1:26-28, begins by telling us, “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our own likeness.’”
All humanity. All ethnicities. All classes. All political and religious persuasions. All social statuses. Every human being who has ever lived and will ever live is created in the likeness of God.
And that means a few things.
First, it democratizes humanity, putting us all at an equal level before God. Second, it dignifies humanity, for if we are image-bearers of God, we must also have some degree of respectability, something likeable and beautiful about us. Third, being made in the image of God empowers us to imitate him in the way we live with other people.
In light of these three implications—inherent equality, inherent dignity, and empowerment to imitate God in relationship—we must begin to see the necessity of treating all people as dignified equals bearing in themselves God’s own fingerprints. Too often, politics and convenience compel us to treat refugees as predators or parasites or commodities, but the imago Dei means we must see them as fully human and treat them as such.
Even in humanitarian aid circles, there is a tendency to see refugees less as people and more as ratings of vulnerability. The standard in the field is to prioritize the “most vulnerable” individuals, which usually means those who have been tortured or maimed, orphans, single mothers, and people with disabilities. We check boxes on surveys and plug information into computer programs that tell us which “subjects” to select. God’s image bearers become data to be crunched, even by those who try to help them.
I remember helping an uprooted friend write a letter to a Canadian church. She was from the Syrian branch of the church’s same denomination and hoped the connection might help her family find sponsors. As I read her letter, I remember thinking she needed to sound more desperate, needed to be more graphic, needed to come across as even more vulnerable than she was. In retrospect, I realized the point of her plea was not to demonstrate true humanity; it was actually to demonstrate a fabricated, fake (in)humanity in hopes of tipping the algorithm just far enough.
Such formulations are not a twenty-first century invention. As I tried to inflate my friend’s vulnerability “score”, others have tried to deflate migrants’ humanity “score”.
During the genocide in Rwanda, there was a period in which Hutu refugees were dying by the thousands every day. President Clinton sent in aid and troops, but before the American soldiers arrived at Kigali airport, a frightening conversation was held. Samantha Powers records it for us in her terrifying book A Problem from Hell:
A U.S. officer was wondering precisely how many Rwandans had died. Dallaire was puzzled and asked why he wanted to know. “We are doing our calculations back here,” The U.S. officer said, “and one American casualty is worth about 85,000 Rwandan dead.”
While not typically so explicit, this is a prevalent strain of thinking in the rich West. Christians aren’t immune. All the time we are falling into the trap James warned us of: “With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness” (James 3:9). We glorify God on Sundays and yet ignore—or worse—his image-bearers the rest of the week.
We don’t treat refugees as though they count for full human lives. We put prices on their lives and estimate what it is worth to save them. Refugees become data, statistics, calculations of national risk and imagined danger, and there are formulas contrived for the purpose of measuring who is worth what.
Our math, however, is wrong.
Refugees have value as persons, the same as everyone else. Like you and I, they have inherent human rights, both before the State and the Church. Mistreating refugees may be legal in the country, but it is illegal in the Kingdom.
Many thoughtful theologians have written about a Christian idea of human rights. Is it based in Christology? Is it rooted in covenant? Does it refer to the freedom we have in Christ or a theology of natural law? Probably these are each useful points of reference for a Christian who wants to defend her concept of human rights, as long as they return to the same starting point. The starting point of human rights is, again, always, God.
Humanitarian work is a necessity for the Church. We do it not only because we are humans, but also because we are Christians, called to imitate Christ who, while truly divine, is the truest human who ever lived (2 Cor. 4:4; Col. 1:15).
We help people not first out of pity, though that’s not always an inappropriate emotion, but for the simple reason that sojourners are humans created in the imago Dei and because, from even the basest human perspective, they have rights before all men. We don’t show favoritism—except to the unfavored. We need to love suburban rich Republicans and urban black women, poor Yemeni children and white-collar white men, people we think are stupid and those who think we are stupid, as much as we love ourselves. And more!
Refugees are not in need of humanity, because they never lost it. But they are in need of our recognition of their humanity and our reaction to it. It is only through the gospel lens of common humanity that we recognize their inherent inestimable value, their sameness to us and to every other person, no matter the circumstances. Such a perspective also prompts policymakers to address real felt needs rather than ignore them, academics to address human conditions instead of mere theoretical scenarios, journalists to write human interest stories instead of grand but empty narratives, juxtaposing images and stories of refugees alongside other news stories, soap operas, and sitcoms that cheapen them.
Humanization leads people of all stripes to care instead of pass over.
William Stringfellow said we become human by resisting the powers and principalities, controlled as they are by the moral reality of death. We do the humdrum, seemingly hopeless acts of resistance in order to maintain our humanity.
In the case of refugees, that means we resist neglect, we resist oppression in all its forms, we resist naiveté and fear. We resist all that might make refugees less than human, stealing the gleaming light of the imago Dei from their hearts and eyes.
In so doing we know again our own humanity, and realize that which we seem to have forgotten: that refugees are fully human too.
 Nicholas Wolterstorff. Justice: Rights and Wrongs. Princeton University Press. 2008. In contrast to “right order theorists” who believe the language of modern rights sprung from William of Ockham’s nominalism, Wolterstorff makes the case that our conceptualization of rights comes from a source much farther back—specifically Judeo-Christian writings andthe Early Church. More broadly, when investigating the religious foundations of human rights, some scholars do indeed point to the Christian understanding of the imago Dei.
 J. Richard Middleton. The Liberating Image? Interpreting the Imago Dei in Context. Christian Scholars Review 24.1. 1994. 8-25.
 Samantha Powers. A Problem from Hell. P. 381.
 William Stringfellow. An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land. Word Books. 1973.