Ethos Blog

Shopping Cart


We're All Boat People: A Biblical View of Refugees

Monday, 21 February 2011  | Gordon Preece

At a time of incendiary debate about our nation’s treatment of asylum seekers it is vital that we remember to connect their stories, the stories behind the statistics, with the stories of our nation’s origins, and the stories of Scripture, of a refugee people, and a refugee King. Both biblically (all creation, Israel and Jesus) and historically in Australia - ‘we’re all boat people’. Because of this common origin and identity we ought to identify with boat people in their insecurity and not treat them merely as the threatening ‘other’. We should therefore develop far more welcoming and hospitable policies towards asylum seekers.

Biblical Boat People

It is first and fundamentally in the light of Noah’s Ark that we are all boat people, or at least descendents of them. We are refugees from a raging tide of violence in the world. This began with Adam’s vertical violence, or fist in the face of God. Sin snowballed so that the earth was ‘filled’, not with a God-centred culture, according to the creation mandate (Gen 1:26-28), but with violence (6:11, 13) - domination, not mutual dominion, killing, not keeping the earth (Gen 2). So God sought to end this violent world, except blameless Noah, his family and two of every creature. Noah’s world is in many ways still our world - a world of violence and evil, of boat people fleeing it for freedom and safety. Most refugees today are fleeing chaotic situations like that, Iraq, Sudan, Burma, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, West Papua, Palestine. It is a litany of misery and mayhem repeated ad nauseum.

Yet for all God’s fierce judgment we can be thankful that God wasn’t like Mark Twain who said that it was a shame that they couldn’t close the Ark’s door before the humans got in. The rainbow covenant with Noah, applies to all of creation and humanity made in God’s image (Gen 9), not just Jews or Christians. The minimal morality of the covenant with Noah became the basis of the multicultural, inter-racial church of Jews and Gentiles at the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15). It is a standard of ‘relative Natural Law’ (Troeltsch), adapted to a world of sin and violence, applying to everyone, a basis for a minimally humane and international public policy that transcends national sovereignty and provides the basis for international law and human rights.

Australian Boat People

When we want to retreat from a world of tragedy and terror into our island fortress, to the attitudes of the White Australia Policy, we should remember that not only are we all biblically refugees from a violent and chaotic world and God’s judgement, but also historically in Australia. Many of us were picked by the best judges in England, as they say. Earlier, 30,000 year old rock paintings in the Kimberleys show boat people arriving here. Post war immigrants arrived largely by ship.

An Australian movie, No Worries, makes this point that all Australians are boat people. It is about a farming couple, Ben and Ella Bell, and their 11 year old, Matilda. Hard hit by the early ’90s recession, drought, and dust storms, they finally sell up and move to Sydney  - Marickville, little Vietnam, to be colloquial, with all its racial tensions. One of Matilda’s Anglo-Aussie classmates is caught by the teacher graffitti-ing ‘Boat People Go Home’ on a wall. The teacher says ‘what’s your name son. He says something like ‘O’Flannery, Sir’. Sir says: ‘your great-grandfather was Irish wasn’t he, came out in the mid 19th century. How do you think he got out here?’ Embarrassed silence. Sir asks the class - ‘by boat Sir.’ And the point’s made - we’re all boat people.  

Israel’s Laws of Hospitality

In the great Leviticus 19 passage that gave us the love commandment we’re told what it means: ‘when refugees settle in your land with you, you are not to harm them. Refugees who live with you must be treated just as if they were native-born like yourselves, and you are to love them as you love yourselves, for you were refugees in Egypt. I am the Lord your God’ (Lev 19:33-34). Compare  23:9 ‘you shall not oppress the refugee, you know what it feels like to be a refugee’. In Deut 10:17-19 God’s own example is also cited: ‘The Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, he shows no partiality, . . . and loves the alien’. For Jeremiah God’s blessing upon Israel, depended upon real and radical repentance, at least partly defined in terms of their treatment of refugees. ‘If you really change your ways and your actions, and deal with each other justly, if you do not oppress the refugee, the fatherless or the widow ... then I will let you live in this place, in the land I gave to your forefathers for ever and ever (Jeremiah 7:6-7). In fact, ‘habiru’ or Hebrew is the name for a refugee people who welcomed and made room for the stranger because they had been strangers in Egypt.  

Jesus the Refugee

The Gospels remind us of the Jesus for whom there was ‘no room in the inn’ during a time of imperially legislated movement in an occupied territory. Jesus recapitulates Israel’s refugee and Exodus history out of Egypt in Mt 2.  

As refugee advocate Jessie Taylor says, Jesus was a refugee:  

The infant Jesus came to the attention of a despotic maniac who sought to commit genocide ….  His parents fled to Egypt - presumably undocumented, unannounced and unauthorised - to save the life of their son, so that he would not be caught up in the indiscriminate slaughter of boys under two.  There they stayed, Matthew tells us, until the death of the despotic ruler who wished the child dead… 

In Australia in 2010, Mary and Joseph and their child may not have been so lucky.  Let’s say that between Herod and safety lay an ocean.  Perhaps that ocean was traversable only by a small fishing boat.  The boat may have foundered, and the radio failed.  They might have been intercepted by officials of the nation in whose waters they were bobbing.  They may have been returned to a jail in a neighbouring country, so that they could not make the journey over the sea.  If they were brought to land, the interviews, questioning and interrogation would have begun.  The family would have had to overcome its crippling fear of police and government officials, and issue forth their stories. Their lack of identity documents would have raised the eyebrows of immigration officials, and tales of genocide perhaps taken to be exaggeration or even fabrication.  Stories and news cuttings from home about the deaths of neighbours’ children would not allay the suspicions and hostilities spewed across the tabloids and fed into the collective consciousness of the population.  Flesh bearing the scars of torture would not satisfy those who wished to see them as manipulation or exaggeration.  The cries of a mother would not be enough to save her child from imprisonment.   

Months or years in a detention centre would drive the child to self harm, self mutilation, suicide attempts.  He would certainly have seen adults self harming, which is how he would have learned to cause maximum damage to himself (probably by hanging from a bunk or playground equipment, cutting with broken fluorescent tubes, ingestion of cleaning products or throwing himself into razor wire). In all likelihood, he would have wet his bed many years beyond the normal age, ceased any grooming … and suffered severely stunted physical growth and mental development.   

This appalling, stomach-churning list chronicles the utterly typical, predictable, clinically-documented effects of immigration detention upon children who are subjected to it.  This horror is an ugly (though barely publicised) mundanity in Australian detention centres where 508 children are currently held. 

If we (Christians) are to be honest with ourselves, we must consider this treatment, and visualise it visited upon Jesus the infant refugee.  If this picture moves, angers or appalls us, then we must agitate to see the day when all refugees are treated in a manner we would happily see befall Jesus Christ.   

Regardless of political persuasion, it is our duty as Christians to protect the rights of those who are imprisoned, hungry, naked or forsaken.  This is an extremely confronting call, but Matthew 25:31-46 is unequivocal’.  The Advent Jesus, the Judge of all the nations in Mt 25:31-46 comes incognito as the stranger awaiting welcome and the prisoner awaiting visitation - ‘inasmuch as you did it to one of these the least of my brothers and sisters you did it to me.’


Summary and Conclusion

From Genesis to the Gospels we see that because of our common origin and identity as ‘boat people’ we ought to treat current boat people with love and justice and should therefore develop far more welcoming and hospitable policies towards asylum seekers. I supported this argument: firstly, theologically, in terms of the narrative of Noah’s Ark and the biblical application of the Noachide commands to all humanity; secondly, historically in terms of the Australian history of mainly marine immigration; thirdly, in terms of Israel’s history as refugees and compassionate and hospitable laws concerning them; fourthly, in terms of the history of Jesus Christ the true Israelite and his broadening of neighbourly concern and hospitality beyond the borders of Israel or the Church to show that the way we treat refugees is symptomatic of the way we treat him and we will be treated at the Advent of Christ as Judge.



1.Is it true that biblically and historically we’re all boat people? If so what do you think are the implications? Will we be judged on the basis of how we treated Jesus the refugee?

2.How does our nation’s ‘No room in the Island’ (when we push them back to Indonesia (Rudd), East Timor (Gillard), or Nauru (Howard and Abbott) stance look in God’s eyes? Is it ironic when we sing ‘Advance Australia Fair’ - our national anthem: ‘For those who’ve come across the seas we’ve boundless plains to share’. Do we dare? In what ways could we as a church and nation be more hospitable to refugees? How are some Baptist churches like Westgate and Newport with considerable refugee members from Karen and Chin tribes in Burma doing this?

3.As Pastor Martin Neimoller said: ‘First they came for the Jews and I did not speak out — because I was not a Jew. Then they came for the communists and I did not speak out — because I was not a communist. Then they came for the trade unionists and I did not speak out —because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for me —and by then there was no one left to speak out for me’. What are some ways we could raise our voices for refugees individually and as Christian communities?

4.In the light of the Bible what do you think of the current race to the bottom on refugee policy by the Government and Opposition. See to compare their policies, the Greens and others.


For Reading and Viewing:

Frank Brennan, Tampering with Asylum, UQP, 2003.

G.R. Preece, ‘We are All Boat People’ in ‘Refugees: Justice or Compassion’ Interface ATF Press, 5/2 Oct 2002.

Erika Feller, ‘Detention centres and restrictions on movement solve nothing’, The Age 30/8/10, p. 11.

See a video on the background of children in detention in Indonesia at: 

Watch the DVDs ‘No Worries’, ‘The Visitor’, and ‘Welcome’ on refugee issues. The latter, filmed in France is based on French laws forbidding any help to asylum seekers like those now in Arizona and some proposed for Australia.


Got something to add?

  • Your Comment


Online Resources

subscribe to engage.mail

follow us

Latest Articles