The past two years have witnessed the largest displacement of people since the Second World War and with it incredibly tragic stories of destroyed homes, lives, and families. It is a humanitarian crisis on a massive scale, which has seen over a million people seek refuge in the European Union. While Europe has borne the bulk of the inflow, the United States has accepted some 10,000 refugees from Syria alone in the past year. Even this relatively small number led to controversy, becoming a major issue in the election and resulting in various calls for bans or restrictions. Christians and their churches have not escaped the controversy. Some welcome refugees and other immigrants with open arms while others question the wisdom of allowing these people (who are predominately Muslim) to settle in their midst, especially if they are going to start building mosques. Entering the political fray of how we should screen or select people to receive visas or refugee status is not my purpose. Instead, I hope to reflect on the posture we, as Christians, should have toward those who are seeking refuge in our cities: the immigrants, sojourners, and strangers. In our attitude we have the opportunity to reflect the heart of God and the truth of the gospel–or to lie about the same.
God is near to the weak, oppressed, and downtrodden
As someone who has lived in Europe for four years working in immigrant communities, I can say that the United States is far from alone in struggling through how to deal with immigration. France faces stark division, evidenced by the recent “Burkini Bans” that only served to inflame already tense racial relations. The communities of immigrants and the more recent refugees are often provided housing, but face lingering racism, fear of their religion, and other factors that give them the impression that they are second-class citizens. While it can’t be denied that radicalization is a real threat for some young people in these communities, the majority of people I meet and talk with are just as horrified by the attacks as any other person. They fear for their city, their community, and retaliation from reactionist, misguided anger.
Most of these immigrants are people who have very little and are trying to do their best to be good members of their community. The refugees pouring into the country face an even bleaker reality. They have lost their homes and cannot go back. They have lost most everything they own. Some have lost their family through separation or death. Now, they must do their best to start a new life in a new place, while not knowing the culture or language. I wonder how well I could bear such a burden, yet refugees I’ve met are looking for nothing more than help, hope, and the opportunity to work.
As Christians, we cannot look at these refugees in fear. It is much easier to fear that which is different than it is to embrace it, but let us pray for hearts that reflect the heart of our God. The Bible is filled with examples of God’s concern for those who are “downtrodden.” The Psalms proclaim, “the needy will not always be forgotten, and the hope of the poor shall not perish forever,” (Psalm 9:18) and “that the groans of the poor and needy cause God to arise” (Psalm 12:5). Proverbs tells us, “he who oppresses the poor man insults his Maker, but he who is generous to the needy honors him” (Proverbs 14:31). The sin of Sodom was that “she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy” (Ezekiel 16:49). God’s displeasure and punishment of His people in the Old Testament were clearly in part due to their failure to be merciful–to care for the poor and needy. In the Gospels, Jesus responds to the questions of why he is eating with sinners and tax collectors by telling the religious leaders, “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Matthew 9:13, cf. Hosea 6:6ff).
It is easy to read the Gospels and identify with the heroes. Yet, when we look closely we notice that there is really only one hero: the only One who lived in perfect obedience—Jesus Christ. All the others have their failures and their need put on display. So, let us see ourselves in the needy. Like the religious leaders who questioned Jesus on his time with undesirable people, we often desire comfort over the hardship of embracing those who are different and difficult. It is easy to love those who are affluent, successful, or well-spoken. It is easy to love those who are similar to us, but God give us grace to reflect our Lord. We have a unique opportunity before us to show the truth that surpasses and encompasses all culture and race in our attitudes toward this humanitarian crisis.
We are sojourners who have found refuge in Christ
In caring for the refugee and sojourner, we are reflecting not only the heart of God, but also acknowledging our own identity in Christ. To accept Jesus as Lord is to admit your need. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” declared Jesus (Matthew 5:3). Like Pilgrim from John Bunyan’s classic, we have seen something better than the world offers and are fleeing from the “city of destruction,” seeking the city that is to come. In Christ, God has given us an inheritance and a hope. Yet, as we look back to what God has done and forward to what he has promised, we wander in this world without a true home. Our truest identity is not as citizens of any country on earth. The author of Hebrews reminds us, “For here we have no lasting city, but seek a city that is to come… Do not neglect to do good and share what you have…” (Hebrews 13:14-16). Peter pleads with us to reflect on this identity:
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy, 1 Peter 2:9ff
Those of us in Christ are ourselves sojourners in this world. We are refugees who have fled destruction to seek refuge in the Rock of our salvation. Since God has been so generous and kind to us, it should be inconceivable that we would not extend generosity to those in need. To extend such kindness and generosity is to reflect what is true of the gospel:
By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? 1 John 3:16-17
Christ modeled and commanded care for the weak
Jesus both modeled and gave instructions concerning the care of the needy. When asked “who is my neighbor?” Jesus gave us the parable of the prodigal son and instructed the man to “go and do likewise.” Jesus was repeatedly found caring for the outsiders. We find him crossing boundaries to heal the sick, to rescue the outcasts and demon-possessed (Luke 8:26ff), and to give hope to hopeless. We find him talking to the shamed Samaritan woman by the well (John 4:7ff), or telling those without sin to cast the first stone. The duty of those who follow Jesus is nowhere more clear than the account of final judgment in Matthew 25. When his true followers ask, “when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you or naked and clothe you?” Jesus said he will respond, “Truly, as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me.”
We are very familiar with the command in Matthew 28:19-20 to make disciples of all nations. Proclamation cannot be removed from this task, but Jesus’ ministry was one of word and deed. We will have great difficulty in calling people to believe in the gospel if our very lives promote a lie about it. Our God is generous and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in love. If we know Christ, we have experienced His grace and kindness. Let us then, in word and deed, display the truth of our glorious, gracious Lord by caring for the needy, the sojourners, the strangers, and all those who need refuge.
Christian Douglas is a missionary in Western Europe.
Photo credit: Quartz