The Refugee and the Sovereign State

In: International Journal of Public Theology
Author: Luke Glanville1
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  • 1 Associate Professor, Department of International Relations, Australian National University, Canberra, Australia
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Some Christian political theorists and theologians counter calls for greater generosity toward refugees by appealing to the prerogatives of state sovereignty, the preferential love for fellow-citizens, and the priority of loving nearby neighbours over distant strangers. This article responds to each argument, arguing that the right to exclude outsiders is not an immutable aspect of sovereignty, the construction of a social contract among fellow-citizens does not justify abandoning duties to non-citizens, and, in a highly globalized world, the obligation to love one’s neighbour is not rightly circumscribed by geography. It further argues that Jesus’s parable of the good Samaritan serves as a foil through which it can be seen that many sovereign states not only fail to love the displaced neighbour by providing refuge, but, like the priest and the Levite, go out of their way to keep refugees at a distance—and, like the robbers, even contribute to their vulnerability and suffering.


Some Christian political theorists and theologians counter calls for greater generosity toward refugees by appealing to the prerogatives of state sovereignty, the preferential love for fellow-citizens, and the priority of loving nearby neighbours over distant strangers. This article responds to each argument, arguing that the right to exclude outsiders is not an immutable aspect of sovereignty, the construction of a social contract among fellow-citizens does not justify abandoning duties to non-citizens, and, in a highly globalized world, the obligation to love one’s neighbour is not rightly circumscribed by geography. It further argues that Jesus’s parable of the good Samaritan serves as a foil through which it can be seen that many sovereign states not only fail to love the displaced neighbour by providing refuge, but, like the priest and the Levite, go out of their way to keep refugees at a distance—and, like the robbers, even contribute to their vulnerability and suffering.

Careful theological work needs to be done to explain why biblical passages that seem to call not only individuals but political communities to love and care for vulnerable and displaced strangers are relevant for thinking about refugees today. Israel was commanded: ‘You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt’ (Lev 19:34). Indeed, the care of strangers was such a fundamental obligation for the people of God that it was presented as the yardstick for how to treat needy members of one’s own community: ‘If your brother becomes poor and cannot maintain himself with you, you shall support him as though he were a stranger and a sojourner, and he shall live with you’ (Lev 24:35). But, to explain how such biblical passages are relevant for thinking about how all people and all communities should engage with the plight of vulnerable strangers, one needs to proceed slowly, carefully explaining, for example, how Israel was given the law, including its provisions for the treatment of the stranger, as a model of God’s vision of human flourishing for all nations. There has been considerable work done on this issue in recent years by a number of theologians and biblical ethicists.1

And yet, some Christian political theorists and theologians, while not challenging the fundamental claim that individuals and communities should seek justice for strangers, caution that the biblical call to welcome the stranger should not be too quickly applied to our particular international system of sovereign states. These scholars certainly acknowledge the horror of the present global crisis of forced displacement, in which some 70.8 million people find themselves forcibly displaced from their homes and communities. They worry, however, that efforts to draw from Scripture an obligation of sovereign states to do more to love and welcome refugees fail to grapple sufficiently with crucial conceptual, political, and ethical issues. One such recent example, focusing on American immigration policy, is the work of Mark Amstutz. His lament is that Christians and churches too often offer recommendations for public policy that ‘emphasize biblical morality, but … contain little political science’.2 He claims that they draw proposals from biblical teachings about the love of neighbour and the welcome of strangers, but they fail to appreciate the constraints faced by government officials seeking to devise just policies. Specifically, they fail to grapple with the realities of global politics, the nature of sovereign statehood, the meaning of citizenship, and the necessary limits to the rights of outsiders—realities that, in Amstutz’s hands, combine to require that governments give strict priority to the interests of their own citizens.3

This article assumes that the biblical call to welcome the stranger is in some way applicable to communities today. It does not seek to explore in any depth the relevant matters of biblical interpretation or contribute to them in any way. The nature of a public theology is to be interdisciplinary: this principle of good praxis so clearly outlined by John de Gruchy presupposes that the insights from other fields of knowledge can speak back into the distinctive biblical and theological claims upon which a Christian confession depends.4 It is to be seen alongside one of de Gruchy’s other key principles whereby ‘good public theological praxis requires an informed knowledge of public policy and issues’ and is able to subject them to ‘sharp analytical evaluation and theological critique’.5 The specific purpose of the article is to address the claim made by those Christian scholars who insist that this biblical call to care for the stranger is somehow circumscribed by the particular fact of sovereign statehood. As such, it responds to three arguments commonly made to this end.

These counter-narratives entail inter-related claims to do with the prerogatives of sovereign statehood, the preferential love for fellow citizens, and the priority of loving nearby neighbours over distant and unknown strangers. The argument adopted here represents a rejection of all three: (i). the right to exclude outsiders is not a necessary and immutable aspect of sovereignty; (ii). the creation of a social contract among fellow-citizens does not justify the abandonment of duties to non-citizens, and, (iii). in this highly globalized world, the obligation to love the neighbour is not rightly circumscribed by considerations of geographical proximity. The bridge is then made to the discipline of a public theology by way of invoking the parable of the good Samaritan. The capacity of this parable to speak into contemporary issues and geopolitics has been well recognized in and through the series of lectures delivered at St Martins-in-the Field in the heart of London during 2018. The theme of ‘who is my neighbour’ and what might be the consequences of how that question is answered was taken directly from the parable. It led to a range of theological responses to living in a time of fear, the age of Trump, the threat posed by the ecological crisis, an overarching concern for the common good, and the ethics of global relationships. The prologue to the published lectures by Sam Wells reminded readers to ‘remember when you were strangers’. Megan Warner and Sarah Teather both addressed the theme of the refugee as a stranger.6 The parable itself can serve as a critical foil that reveals the extent to which many states not only fail to love their neighbours, but, like the priest and the Levite, go out of their way to keep refugees at a distance—and, like the robbers, even contribute to their vulnerability and suffering. The complicity of many sovereign states in the suffering of people beyond their borders generates obligations of restitution, amplifying rather than circumscribing their responsibilities to love their displaced neighbours. The claims about sovereign statehood addressed in this article represent just some of the many arguments deployed by Christian scholars to question or limit the contemporary applicability of the biblical injunction to welcome the stranger to contemporary refugee issues. They include the fear that welcoming large numbers of refugees and other displaced peoples might have debilitating impacts on communal bonds and national identities.7 The emphasis of this article is more limited: its interest lies in tackling a particular set of oft-heard claims that pivot around the issue of state sovereignty.

1 Sovereignty

Political authorities often claim that states have an absolute right to decide for themselves who enters their territory and the conditions on which they enter by simple virtue of their sovereignty. In 2018, for example, the then United States’ ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, responded to the United Nation’s criticism of the Donald Trump administration’s practice of separating children from parents entering the United States without documentation, including children and parents claiming asylum, with a typical appeal to sovereign prerogative: ‘We will remain a generous country, but we are also a sovereign country, with laws that decide how best to control our borders and protect our people. Neither the United Nations nor anyone else will dictate how the United States upholds its borders’.8

Some Christian scholars offer the same argument from time to time. Amstutz puts it plainly: ‘The sovereign authority of government is the primary basis for making and applying immigration policies, not the virtues of love and compassion that sustain the church’.9 In Amstutz’s defence, he does elsewhere make a case in defence of regulating immigration that is grounded in considerations of justice. The primary burden of his argument, however, leans heavily on the conviction that, since the sovereign state is the fundamental unit of the international system, it should not be restricted in how it chooses to regulate immigration. Amstutz is aware of the logical progression of the argument he is making: he acknowledges that, on such grounds, ‘some states may inhibit migration altogether’.10

The assumption that states must, by virtue of their sovereignty, have a right to control the entry of outsiders—including forcibly displaced and other vulnerable outsiders—represents a certain habit of thinking that has come to be widely accepted over time. It is incorrect for at least two reasons. First, it is a habit of thinking that implicitly reifies the sovereign state as the natural and inevitable model of political community. In fact, the sovereign state is historically quite novel. The idea of sovereignty—the idea that a political community should enjoy independence from external authorities and that the supreme authority within the community should have no internal rivals in making law or commanding allegiance—was constructed at a particular time and place. It arose in early modern Europe, gradually displacing the diverse and interwoven systems of social organization and political authority that had characterized the medieval period. Furthermore, sovereign statehood was held for a long time thereafter to be a privilege enjoyed only by Europeans and those non-Europeans that Europeans deigned to acknowledge as civilized members of the ‘family of nations’. It was not until the second half of the twentieth century—only a generation or two ago—that Europe’s widespread empires were finally dismantled, self-government was granted to formerly colonized peoples, and the institution of the territorially bounded sovereign state was finally spread across the globe. The distribution of humanity among 190 or so sovereign states is a recent phenomenon: care should be exercised so as not to present this state of affairs as a natural and inevitable one.11

Second, and more crucially, the meaning and implications of sovereignty have changed and continue to change over time. Sovereignty is socially constructed. It need not entail, and historically it has not entailed, an absolute right to regulate the movement of people in and out of one’s territory.12 Once again care needs to be exercised so that the particular constructions of the rights and responsibilities of sovereignty that happen to be widely accepted today are not regarded as necessary and immutable principles inherent to the very concept. They should certainly should not be accepted uncritically as being just. After all, up until the nineteenth century, states accepted each other’s sovereign right to participate in and benefit from the traffic of slaves and, up until the twentieth century, they maintained a sovereign right to wage war at their own choosing.13 Mere appeals to the concept of sovereignty to justify the exclusion of refugees is morally unpersuasive. They might represent an accurate description of how things currently are, but they are hardly an argument for how things ought to be.

2 Preferential Love for Fellow Citizens?

Even if the mere concept of sovereignty does not provide grounds for excluding displaced strangers, perhaps states are justified in strictly limiting the admission of outsiders on the grounds that governments are charged with caring for the safety and the well-being of their own people. Perhaps sovereign states have legitimate reasons for prioritizing the interests of their members and, in turn, strictly limiting the admission of vulnerable outsiders.

This is an argument commonly heard. Amstutz puts the case particularly clearly. ‘Sovereign governments are responsible for maintaining social order, protecting human rights, and promoting prosperity’, he claims.14 This role is especially apparent to Christians, ‘because they are aware of how greed, selfishness, and avarice can undermine the common good’. In a world without sin, there would be nothing stopping ‘the pursuit of a just world order and equitable migration practices … But because greed and selfishness predominate in communal life, sovereign governments must seek to rectify offenses and advance proximate justice through the maintenance of order and the rule of law’. Governments, therefore, must give ‘the interests of their citizens precedence over those of strangers. This does not mean that human beings are morally unequal or that states can disregard the wants and needs of noncitizens’, he says. ‘Rather, a moral approach to migration must advance the interests of citizens while taking into account the wants and needs of others’.15 In short, while governments should take into account the needs of the stateless, they are fundamentally charged with caring for their own. Writing for First Things, Peter Meilaender puts it more bluntly: ‘Immigration regulations are a way of embodying in policy a preferential love for our own fellow citizens and the way of life that we share’.16

Of course, this idea that governments are responsible for the care of their own people has long been central to justifications for sovereign statehood. Early modern theorists of sovereignty articulated it in terms of a mutual covenant or a social contract. Thomas Hobbes, for example, theorized in the mid-seventeenth century how individuals escape the misery and brutality of the state of nature and secure their own peace and protection by covenanting with each to transfer their rights to a sovereign authority. In turn, he claimed, the end for which a monarch or governing assembly is entrusted with sovereign power is ‘the procuration of the safety of the people’.17 A few decades later, John Locke theorized how people escape the violence and insecurity of the state of nature by binding themselves in ‘one Body Politick under one Supreme Government’. The people establish for themselves ‘a Judge on Earth, with Authority to determine all the Controversies, and redress the Injuries, that may happen to any Member of the Commonwealth’.18 This government, the people’s representatives, was therefore charged with securing the natural right of citizens to ‘Life, Health, Liberty, Happiness’.19

Neither Hobbes nor Locke concluded that their theories of sovereignty required the establishment of strictly controlled territorial boundaries.20 Indeed, they both accepted the permissibility of people migrating and settling in the lands of ‘countries not sufficiently inhabited’, or in tracts of land that, while possessed by others, ‘lie waste’—arguments for migration that, we should not forget, would be enthusiastically put to use by European colonialists over subsequent decades.21 It is easy to understand how, over time, people came to deduce that the responsibility of governments for securing the safety and well-being of citizens should outweigh and override the consideration of outsiders who are not included in the social contract. And, even if this was not thought to require the closure or the tight regulation of borders in the early modern period, one can perhaps understand how some conclude that such an exclusionary approach is required to uphold the social contract today.22 Daniel Strand expresses such a position clearly in a Christian foreign policy journal:

We should distinguish between government policy and the obligations of the church … The state, at least in the West, exists for the benefit and safety of its citizens … Yes, the church should be on the frontlines taking care of refugees and displaced peoples, but it’s not clear the American government faces a similar obligation to admit refugees because the American government is not a charity organization or the church and we should be glad that it is not.23

Is such an approach justifiable? Certainly, there is much to be commended about the idea that sovereign governments are responsible for the care of their people. The care of fellow members of any community, including the ‘body politic’, is obviously valuable. States ought to provide for the common good of citizens. Governments ought to pursue order and justice for the people. Scripture, of course, repeatedly commands authorities to extend relief and protection to the widow, the orphan, and the poor within the community. Scripture also calls communities and their authorities to welcome the stranger, however. As Daniel Carroll puts it, ‘concern for sojourners was part of an expansive ethical vision for the needy that included widows, orphans, and the poor. In the biblical view, one cannot isolate vulnerable groups that one does not want to engage from the comprehensive biblical call to incarnate God’s presence and care for all in need.’24 Are sovereign states exempt from this for some reason? How, if at all, might the duty to welcome the stranger be reconciled with the social contract among citizens?

2.1 On Duties to Citizens and Strangers

There are answers to be found in the thoughts of another early theorist of sovereignty, the Swiss jurist and diplomat Emer de Vattel. In his 1758 treatise, The Law of Nations, Vattel argued that, while individuals are free to unite with each other to form their own states for their own benefit, they cannot thereby excuse themselves from their duties to all of humankind. Rather, having united in community, ‘it thenceforth belongs to that body, that state, and its rulers, to fulfil the duties of humanity towards strangers’.25 While a state should certainly pay attention to the safety and interests of its citizens, it should nevertheless be willing to bear costs and inconveniences for the sake of the vulnerable beyond its borders, Vattel claimed. A state is under no obligation to contribute to the welfare of outsiders if this would require doing ‘an essential injury to herself’.26 However, it ought not to refuse to aid others out of fear of ‘a slight loss, or any little inconvenience: humanity forbids this; and the mutual love which men owe to each other, requires greater sacrifices’.27 Vattel elaborated on this idea of sacrifice:

A nation is under many obligations of duty towards herself, towards other nations, and towards the great society of mankind. We know that the duties we owe to ourselves are, generally speaking, paramount to those we owe to others; but this is to be understood only of such duties as bear some proportion to each other. We cannot refuse, in some degree, to forget ourselves with respect to interests that are not essential, and to make some sacrifices, in order to assist other persons.28

Vattel applied his reasoning directly to the issue of strangers who, driven from their own country, seek asylum in another. If the sovereign judges that admission of a particular group of strangers ‘would be attended with too great an inconvenience or danger’, he said, ‘he has a right to refuse’. In general, however, ‘every state ought, doubtless, to grant to so unfortunate a people every aid and assistance which she can bestow without being wanting to herself’.29

Vattel’s account of responsibilities to strangers would today be described as a ‘sufficientist’ approach to global justice.30 It accepts that political communities have special responsibilities for the care of their members. But it urges that, if there are strangers beyond borders who lack basic needs—who stand in need of community and of the safety and subsistence that it can provide—a state should provide it insofar as it is able without being left ‘wanting to herself’.31

This is certainly a more demanding account of responsibilities to displaced foreigners than powerful and wealthy states tend to accept. It is actually the lived experience of many weaker and poorer states. 84 per cent of refugees live in developing regions of the world. One-third of the global total are hosted by the world’s least developed countries, including Bangladesh, Uganda, and conflict-torn Yemen. One in six people in Lebanon and one in fifteen in Jordan are refugees.32 If these relatively poor countries can find a way to extend welcome to the stranger and to love their vulnerable neighbours, surely wealthier countries and their citizens are on shaky ground when they refuse to love their distant neighbour on the basis of a social-contractual imperative to love fellow-citizens. It is good for states to promote the well-being and interests of their people. But, as Pope John XXIII put it, the common good of the state ‘cannot be divorced from the common good of the entire human family’.33

2.2 Prioritizing Those with Whom our Lot Has Been Cast?

But perhaps there is a reason for sovereign political communities preferring the needs of fellow citizens that does not rely on appeals to the instrumental value of contracting to escape the state of nature. Christian ethicists, Gilbert Meilaender and Peter Meilaender, appeal to Paul’s speech at the Areopagus to suggest the possibility of a providential, rather than instrumental, justification for the preferential love of one’s own people: we should prioritize the care of those with whom our lot has been cast.34 Paul declared to the ‘men of Athens’ that God ‘made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him’ (Acts 17:26–27). While their argument is nuanced, the Meilaenders ultimately suggest that this passage provides a warrant for giving special care to those with whom, by God’s providence, we have been allotted. Peter Meilaender puts it bluntly:

Because we share in a common life, involving a range of shared institutions and practices, we develop obligations towards one another that we do not have, or not to the same degree, towards outsiders—not because we do not love those outsiders, or because we think that our fellow citizens are somehow better than folks elsewhere, but simply because these are the people with whom our lot has been cast.35

But this argument surely does not justify refusing to care for vulnerable strangers and to welcome those that have been forcibly displaced from their homes and communities. While we may find ourselves in political community with others by God’s providence, might not our encounters with vulnerable and displaced outsiders also be the result of providence?36 To maintain otherwise is surely to sanctify unjust privilege. As philosopher Joseph Carens famously put it, ‘citizenship in Western liberal democracies is the modern equivalent of feudal privilege—an inherited status that greatly enhances one’s life chances. Like feudal birthright privileges, restrictive citizenship is hard to justify when one thinks about it closely.’37 The notion that this is our lot and that is theirs does not seem a sound justification for excluding displaced outsiders from a sovereign state. Moreover, when the historical and contemporary injustices that have marked the acquisition of territory and the accrual of wealth and power by so many Western states are considered, as this article will shortly do, the idea that these states and their peoples may now seek to preserve their lot, prioritizing the advantages of fellow citizens over the needs of strangers, begins to look deeply unjust.

3 Loving Distant Neighbours

Perhaps considerations of geographical proximity are important, such that, while Western sovereign states have obligations toward asylum seekers that reach their border, they are not bound to care for those 85 per cent of the world’s refugees that remain displaced in developing regions of the world. Scripture repeatedly commends the care of vulnerable people with whom individuals and communities come in contact. The Samaritan loves the beaten man that he happens upon. Israel is called to love the stranger that lives among them. But, while nations are condemned in Scripture for violent acts of injustice beyond their territories (Amos 1:3–2:5), they are not explicitly called to go in search of distant vulnerable people to whom they may offer care and community. Are the responsibilities of sovereign states toward refugees today, then, limited by considerations of proximity? Are nations called to welcome only the stranger in their midst (Deut 26:11)—the asylum seeker that approaches their border?

There is a long tradition of Christian theorizing that might be read as pointing in this direction. Augustine wrote of the need to ‘order’ one’s love. ‘All people should be loved equally’, he declared. ‘But you cannot do good to all people equally, so you should take particular thought for those who, as if by lot, happen to be particularly close to you in terms of place, time, or any other circumstances.’38 Thomas Aquinas drew from Augustine’s reference to ‘place’ that ‘one is not bound to search throughout the world for the needy that one may succour them; and it suffices to do works of mercy to those one meets with.’39 There are clear echoes of such thinking today in the words of Christian writers who worry about the abstract nature of cosmopolitan arguments for the promotion of universal rights.

Contemplating a caravan of people fleeing Central America in search of a new home in the United States in 2018, Rod Dreher asserts:

The Bible tells Christians to love their neighbors as they love themselves. But who is their neighbor? The man next door? Yes. The people who live across town? Surely. Those who live in another part of their country? Okay. People from another country who want to settle in their country? Erm….

If everybody is your neighbor, then nobody is.40

Political theologian Oliver O’Donovan expresses the same point in more sophisticated terms, warning against ‘complacent forms of universalism … which may amount to not much more than universal indifference, for … to love everybody in the world equally is to love nobody very much.’ O’Donovan reads in the parable of the good Samaritan a clear rebuke of ‘racial or class self-love’ within any society, but he suggests that it also draws our attention to ‘an urgent form of contingent proximity’. The priest, the Levite, and the Samaritan, after all, happened to be going down the road where the beaten man lay in need. It was this contingent proximity to the man that generated the obligation to help him. ‘Far from denying the significance of proximate relations, the parable discovers them where they are not looked for, nearer to us and under our very noses.’41

Without challenging in the least the ‘significance of proximate relations’, brief contemplation of today’s globalised world quickly makes clear that sovereign states are typically more relationally proximate to distant, displaced strangers than they tend to admit. Indeed, it turns out that, rather than having the effect of circumscribing the biblical call to welcome the stranger, as some would have it, consideration of the present realities of our international system of sovereign states actually amplifies this call.

There are two steps to this counter-argument. First, in the globalized world of today, many sovereign governments tend to be not only well aware of the suffering of many distant and vulnerable people, but also capable of offering them much needed neighbour-love. Displaced peoples may oftentimes be geographically far from away, but they are nevertheless in an important sense, to use O’Donovan’s words, ‘under our very noses’.42 Certainly, we should be wary of the temptation to espouse an abstract love of ‘humanity’ while neglecting to love those nearest to us. Jean-Jacques Rousseau rightly rebuked ‘those cosmopolitans who go to great length in their books to discover duties they do not deign to fulfil around them’ and who ‘love the Tartars so as to be spared having to love [their] neighbours’.43 It would be similarly concerning if any of us were to individually or collectively occupy ourselves with championing the plight of distant Rohingya people, displaced within or beyond Myanmar, for example, while caring little for indigenous peoples and others dispossessed and dishonoured within political communities to which we belong. At the same time it is impossible to pretend that the wider world does not know of the persecution and suffering of the Rohingya, or of Syrian, or South Sudanese, or Venezuelan civilians, internally displaced within their countries of origin, or in refugee camps or urban centres in neighbouring countries, or on the move in continued search for asylum.

Second, contemplating the storyline of the good Samaritan narrative a little further can serve as a prompt that enables recognition of how powerful and wealthy Western states are frequently proximate to the suffering of displaced strangers: that is the case not merely in the sense of being aware and capable of providing succour, but often even being implicated in and culpable for their displacement—and thus they bear amplified responsibility for the provision of relief and refuge.

4 On Being the Priest and the Levite

In his useful treatment of the parable, legal philosopher Jeremy Waldron observes that the refusal of the priest and Levite to act as neighbour to the beaten man was not passive:

Those who fail to help the man who fell among thieves are portrayed in the parable as going out of their way not to help, or going out of their way to avoid a decision about whether to help … Their not helping is an intentional doing: a decision to cross the road, a choice to go out of their way to avoid the predicament.44

It is worth contemplating the ways in which Western sovereigns do not merely passively disregard the plight of distant neighbours, but actually go out of their way to keep them at a distance and to avoid an encounter that might require the provision of asylum. Consider, for example, the multi-billion-dollar deal struck by the European Union with Turkey in 2015, according to which Turkey would accept the return of asylum seekers who reached Greece by sea, use its security forces to prevent others from getting to Greece, and improve conditions for refugees in Turkey. The deal was justified on the grounds that it would reduce deaths of people seeking passage across the Mediterranean, but was actually accompanied by both an increase in deaths at sea (since asylum seekers now needed to take more dangerous routes to reach European Union countries) and also a deterioration of conditions for those that remained in Turkey.45 The European Union subsequently struck an even more problematic deal with Libya, funding, resourcing, and training the Libyan coastguard to intercept boats in the Mediterranean and return asylum seekers and other migrants to Libya, leaving them vulnerable to the well-documented possibility of arbitrary detention, torture, rape, enslavement, and murder.46

Australian authorities, meanwhile, run a multi-million-dollar advertising campaign aimed at dissuading refugees from seeking asylum in Australia. They seek to discourage Afghans, for example, from seeking asylum by distributing a graphic novel depicting people stuck in offshore detention centres and suffering from medical problems and depression.47 Australia has also sought to keep their vulnerable neighbours at a distance in a legal sense, by excising the entirety of Australia’s territory from its migration zone. This meant that, even if some asylum seekers managed to make it to the mainland, they could be legally removed to an ‘offshore’ detention centre in a third country and made subject to the government’s stated policy that none of them will ever be allowed into Australia.48 Those that Australia has held in indefinite offshore detention have suffered tremendously. Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) reported in 2018, for example, that the mental health suffering of asylum seekers on Nauru, was ‘among the worst MSF has ever seen, including in projects providing care for victims of torture’.49

5 On Being the Robbers

Consider, furthermore, the ways in which powerful and wealthy Western states act not merely as the priest and Levite, but even as the robbers. They do so not merely by keeping vulnerable and displaced neighbours at a distance, but by contributing to their vulnerability and displacement. Western states so often bear a measure of responsibility for the suffering of strangers. O’Donovan asserts that governments are only responsible for those they represent. He acknowledges that there are commonly injustices beyond one’s borders that cry out for redress, but he insists that they are commonly injustices for which a government ‘could never responsibly take responsibility’. To make his point, he asks rhetorically, ‘Which of us, for example, was at fault in failing to put a stop to the Rwandan genocide?’50 It is actually fairly easy to explain who was at fault for failing to act in this example, and in many others like it.

Multiple bystander states were liable in one way or another for failing to halt the atrocities in Rwanda, which from April to July 1994 claimed the lives of 800,000 people and displaced two million more. It is possible to point to Belgium, which as the colonial power had accentuated and politicized the difference between Hutu and Tutsi people and sparked their antagonism for each other. It is possible to also point to France, South Africa, Egypt, and China, who supplied a mountain of arms to the obviously troubled state in the months leading up to the genocide, and to the United States, the United Kingdom, and France, who impeded an effective international response once the atrocities began by intentionally misrepresenting the crisis and failing to share with other states in the United Nations Security Council their knowledge of its genocidal nature.51 Each of these states bore special responsibilities to make amends by contributing to an international response to end the suffering and offering relief and refuge to the displaced, in addition to the general responsibilities that they and all other states had by virtue of the imperative to love the Rwandans as themselves.

A similar story can be told of the responsibilities of states with respect to the Syrian refugee crisis today. Numerous states are culpable in one way or another for enabling the outbreak, prolonging the duration, and increasing the severity of the civil war that has raged in Syria since 2011, claiming the lives of at least 450,000 people, and displacing eleven million more—over half the country’s population. Consider, for example, the impact of the decision of the United States-led ‘Coalition of the Willing’ to invade Iraq in 2003. The Iraq war not only amplified sectarian tensions in the region, but also led to an influx of one million Iraqis into Syria, straining resources and infrastructure and increasing social tensions in the country. These developments contributed to the outbreak of the Syrian civil war.52 Consider also the culpability of Russia and China, who, once the war began, repeatedly exercised their veto power in the United Nations Security Council to impede the adoption of resolutions that were in various ways aimed at protecting civilians from violence. And consider the multitude of states that have supplied arms to either side or have themselves intervened militarily in the years since 2011, with the predictable effect of increasing the severity and duration of the violence.53 None of these states can plausibly say that they are not implicated in some way in the suffering of distant, displaced Syrians.

Finally, consider the ways in which powerful and wealthy states are responsible, both historically and also in ongoing ways, for contributing to and sustaining the poverty and fragility of others, leaving them vulnerable to displacement-generating crises. The European colonial project, for example, with its brutal subjugation of colonized people and extraction of human and natural resources from colonized territories, contributed to enduring global vulnerabilities and inequalities. Contemplating these historical injustices, legal scholar Tendayi Achiume goes so far as to suggest that the migration of formerly colonized peoples (typically in the global South) to former imperial powers and their settler colonies that benefitted from these historic wrongs (typically in the global North), might be appropriately framed as part of an ongoing, just, and necessary process of decolonization.54

These former imperial powers and settler colonies—which remain some of the world’s wealthiest and most powerful states—have sustained their wealth and power in the post-colonial era in part through the establishment and perpetuation of global practices and structures that contribute to sustaining the weakness and poverty of others. The harms of exploitative economic bargaining practices, inequitable international trade agreements, restrictive intellectual property rights regimes, and the destruction of the global environment may be in a sense less direct than the past harms of colonialism or the present harms of foolish wars and the reckless provision of arms and finance to abusive regimes, but they have the effect of perpetuating poverty and oppression, heightening the risk of suffering, violence, and forced displacement in many parts of the world. In short, the affluence and security of some is inextricably connected to the poverty, vulnerability, and oftentimes displacement of others.55

The purpose of highlighting these injustices is not to determine which state is most culpable for this or that crisis of displacement and therefore which sovereign state is most bound to provide relief and refuge. Rather it is simply to show that states are often implicated in one way or another in the suffering and displacement of the distant vulnerable such that they cannot claim to be responsible only for the care of those that they encounter directly or to whom they are geographically proximate. In a globalized system of sovereign states, the distant stranger is not so distant, and the state that claims a mandate to focus on the needs of its own citizens is commonly more implicated in the vulnerability of outsiders than it admits.

6 Conclusion

Certainly this leaves many questions unanswered such as how to think about the challenges and opportunities posed to national identities and communal affinities by large numbers of newcomers, and questions about how to share responsibilities and opportunities to resettle displaced people among the global community of states, given that no one state can address the present crisis of global displacement on its own.56 At the very least, it seems that appeals to mere sovereignty, the obligations of the social contract, or the priority of proximity that are advanced by some Christian political theorists and theologians do not provide grounds for circumscribing biblical commands to love neighbours and to welcome strangers. Sovereign states ought to welcome refugees and other displaced people, even if they have to make some sacrifices in doing so. And for many states, such provision of refuge might be appropriately understood at least in part as an act of repentance and restitution, given their historical and contemporary complicity in the present global crisis of forced displacement.


See Fleur S. Houston, You Shall Love the Stranger as Yourself (New York: Routledge, 2015); Robert W. Heimburger, God and the Illegal Alien: United States Immigration Law and a Theology of Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018); M. Daniel Carroll R., The Bible and Borders: Hearing God’s Word on Immigration (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2020).


Mark R. Amstutz, Just Immigration: American Policy in Christian Perspective (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2017), pp. 225, 102.


Ibid., pp. 224‒25.


John W. de Gruchy, ‘Public Theology as Christian Witness: Exploring the Genre’, International Journal of Public Theology, 1:1 (2007),26–41 at 39.




Samuel Wells, ‘Prologue: Remember You Were a Stranger’, pp. 1–12; Megan Warner, ‘Welcoming Angels Unawares: Abraham and the Refugee Crisis’, pp. 119–138; and Sarah Teather, ‘My Neighbour the Refugee’, pp. 175–188 in Richard Carter and Samuel Wells, eds, Who Is My Neighbour? The Personal and Global Challenge (London: SPCK, 2018).


A number of such concerns are addressed in Mark R. Glanville and Luke Glanville, Refuge Reimagined: Biblical Kinship in Global Politics (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2021).


‘Press Release: Ambassador Haley on the UN’s Criticism of US Immigration Policies’, United States Mission to the United Nations, 5 June 2018, <> [accessed 1 October 2020].


Amstutz, Just Immigration, p. 223.


Ibid., p. 100.


Daniel Philpott, Revolutions in Sovereignty: How Ideas Shaped Modern International Relations (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001); Christian Reus-Smit, Individual Rights and the Making of the International System (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013).


The Peace of Westphalia (1648), for example, which is often misrepresented as attributing absolute authority to sovereign states to govern their territories as they wish, clearly imposed upon signatory powers an obligation to grant rights of emigration to religious minorities.


Luke Glanville, Sovereignty and the Responsibility to Protect: A New History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014); Oona A. Hathaway and Scott J. Shapiro, The Internationalists: How a Radical Plan to Outlaw War Remade the World (New York: Penguin, 2017).


Amstutz, Just Immigration, p. 2.


Ibid., p. 102.


Peter C. Meilaender, ‘Immigration: Citizens and Strangers’, First Things, May 2007, <> [accessed 1 October 2020].


Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, edited by G.C.A. Gaskin (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), XXX.1, emphasis in original.


John Locke, Two Treatises of Government, edited by Peter Laslett (London: Mentor, 1960), II.89.


Ibid., II.6.


On the importance of understanding how sovereignty and linear territorial boundaries have separate histories, see Kerry Goettlich, ‘The Rise of Linear Borders in World Politics’, European Journal of International Relations, 25:1 (2019), 203‒28.


Hobbes, Leviathan, XXX.19; Locke, Two Treatises of Government, II.45.


For a related history of the development of the concept, ‘illegal alien’, see Heimburger, God and the Illegal Alien, pp. 25‒44, 65‒94, 149‒78.


Daniel Strand, ‘Throwing Caution to the Wind: Charity and the Dilemma of America’s Syrian Immigration Policy’, Providence: A Journal of Christianity and American Foreign Policy, 25 November 2015.


M. Daniel Carroll R., Christians at the Border: Immigration, the Church, and the Bible, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2013), p. 97.


Emer de Vattel, The Law of Nations, edited by Béla Kapossy and Richard Whatmore (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2008), Preliminaries §11.


Ibid., Preliminaries §14.


Ibid., II.10.131.


Ibid., II.18.332.


Ibid., II.10.136. For further discussion, see Luke Glanville, ‘Responsibility to Perfect: Vattel’s Conception of Duties beyond Borders’, International Studies Quarterly, 61:2 (2017), 385–95.


For a classic defence of the sufficientist conception of global justice, see Henry Shue, Basic Rights: Subsistence, Affluence, and US Foreign Policy, 2nd ed. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996). For a powerful recent argument that pushes further and insists on the importance of global equality, see Samuel Moyn, Not Enough: Human Rights in an Unequal World (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018).


See similarly, and more recently, Arash Abizadeh, ‘The Special-Obligations Challenge to More Open Borders’, in Sarah Fine and Lea Ypi eds, Migration in Political Theory: The Ethics of Movement and Membership (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), pp. 105‒24.


United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, ‘Global Trends: Forced Displacement in 2019’ (Geneva: UNHCR, 2020).


Pope John XXIII, ‘Pacem in Terris: Encyclical of Pope John XXIII on Establishing Universal Peace in Truth, Justice, Charity, and Liberty’, 11 April 1963. On the relationship between the national and the global common good, see David Hollenbach, The Common Good and Christian Ethics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), pp. 212‒44.


Peter C. Meilaender, ‘Loving Our Neighbors, Both Far and Near’ (Waco, TX: Center for Christian Ethics at Baylor University, 2008); Gilbert Meilaender and Peter C. Meilaender, ‘Fences and Neighbors: A Theological Analysis of Immigration and Borders’, First Things, August 2018, <> [accessed 1 October 2020].


Meilaender, ‘Loving Our Neighbors’, p. 14.


See similarly Justin P. Ashworth, ‘Who Are Our People? Toward a Christian Witness against Borders’, Modern Theology, 34:4 (2018), 495‒518, at 501.


Joseph H. Carens, ‘Aliens and Citizens: The Case for Open Borders’, Review of Politics, 49:2 (1987), 251‒73 at 252. See also, more recently, Joseph H. Carens, The Ethics of Immigration (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).


Augustine, On Christian Teaching, trans. R.P.H. Green (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), I.28.


Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, trans. Fathers of the Dominican Province (Notre Dame, IN: Christian Classics, 1981), II-II.71.1 a.1.


Rod Dreher, ‘How (Not) to Think about the Caravan’, The American Conservative, 25 October 2018, <> [accessed 1 October 2020].


Oliver O’Donovan, ‘The Loss of a Sense of Place’, in Oliver O’Donovan and Joan Lockwood O’Donovan, Bonds of Imperfection: Christian Politics, Past and Present (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004), pp. 296‒320 at pp. 316‒17.


For thoughtful deliberations on this theme of proximity, see Eric Gregory, ‘Agape and Special Relations in a Global Economy: Theological Sources’, in Douglas A. Hicks and Mark Valeri, eds, Global Neighbors: Christian Faith and Moral Obligation in Today’s Economy (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008), pp. 16‒42; Esther D. Reed, ‘Nation-States and Love of Neighbour: Impartiality and the ordo amoris’, Studies in Christian Ethics, 25:3 (2012), 327‒45.


Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Emile: Or On Education, edited by Christopher Kelly and Allan Bloom (Hanover, NH: Dartmouth College Press, 2010), p. 164.


Jeremy Waldron, ‘Who Is My Neighbor? Humanity and Proximity’, The Monist, 86:3 (2003), 333‒54 at 343, emphasis in original, cited and discussed in Gregory, ‘Agape and Special Relations in a Global Economy’, p. 41.


Katy Budge, ‘Refugees Out Of Sight, Out Of Mind Two Years On from EU-Turkey Deal’, The Conversation, 20 March 2018.


United Nations Support Mission in Libya and Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, ‘Desperate and Dangerous: Report on the Human Rights Situation of Migrants and Refugees in Libya’, 20 December 2018.


Oliver Laughland, ‘Australian Government Targets Asylum Seekers with Graphic Campaign’, The Guardian, 11 February 2014.


Karen Barlow, ‘Parliament Excises Mainland from Migration Zone,’ ABC News, 17 May 2013; <> [accessed 1 October 2020]; Gareth Hutchens, ‘Asylum Seekers Face Lifetime Ban from Entering Australia if They Arrive by Boat’, The Guardian, 30 October 2016, <> [accessed 1 October 2020].


Médecins Sans Frontières, ‘Indefinite Despair: The Tragic Mental Health Consequences of Offshore Processing on Nauru’, December 2018, pp. 4‒5, <> [accessed 1 October 2020].


Oliver O’Donovan, ‘Deliberation, History and Reading: A Response to Schweiker and Wolterstorff’, Scottish Journal of Theology, 54:1 (2001), 127‒44 at 130‒31.


See Linda Melvern, A People Betrayed: The Role of the West in Rwanda’s Genocide (London: Zed Books, 2000); Linda Melvern, Conspiracy to Murder: The Rwandan Genocide (London: Verso, 2004).


Alise Coen, ‘Capable and Culpable? The United States, RtoP, and Refugee Responsibility-Sharing’, Ethics & International Affairs, 31:1 (2017), 71‒92 at 79‒82.


For research demonstrating the negative impact of supplying arms and intervening in the context of civil wars, see Idean Salehyan, David Siroky, and Reed M. Wood, ‘External Rebel Sponsorship and Civilian Abuse: A Principal-Agent Analysis of Wartime Atrocities’, International Organization, 68:3 (2014), 633‒61; Katherine Sawyer, Kathleen Gallagher Cunningham, and William Reed, ‘The Role of External Support in Civil War Termination’, Journal of Conflict Resolution, 61:6 (2017), 1174‒202.


E. Tendayi Achiume, ‘Migration as Decolonization’, Stanford Law Review, 71:6 (2019), 1509–74.


Thomas Pogge, World Poverty and Human Rights: Cosmopolitan Responsibilities and Reforms, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Polity, 2008); Richard W. Miller, Globalizing Justice: The Ethics of Poverty and Power (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010); Iris Marion Young, Responsibility for Justice (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).


For useful Christian perspectives on these issues, see, among numerous recent works, Tisha M. Rajendra, Migrants and Citizens: Justice and Responsibility in the Ethics of Immigration (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2017); Heimburger, God and the Illegal Alien; Matthew Kaemingk, Christian Hospitality and Muslim Immigration in an Age of Fear (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2018); David Hollenbach, SJ, Humanity in Crisis: Ethical and Religious Response to Refugees (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2019); Carroll, The Bible and Borders; Glanville and Glanville, Refuge Reimagined.

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