The (evangelical) refugee crisis


Refugee 1.jpeg

There was a time when the word “evangelical”carried a positive connotation – a time where being part of an evangelical community inferred a commitment to both God and to neighbor. But in today’s society it is no secret that the word has lost almost all credibility. To speak of evangelicals now is to at best, describe a right wing political movement, and at worst, to depict a group of people perceived as being religiously intolerant and even at times hateful towards outsiders.

I am part of a number of collectives that have historically identified with evangelicalism, and within each circle there is a sense of angst over the current trends that seem to becoming normalized within evangelicalism. Many individuals in these circles are wrestling with whether the time has finally come to disassociate with the movement. The question that is persistently asked in one form or another is this: When a group becomes so closely tied to xenophobia, misogyny, and racism, isn’t it time to move on?

For some, they have already answered the question with a definitive move away from evangelicalism. For others, they have become even more emboldened to reclaim its original heritage. The thinking of this second group is that just because hyper-conservative, white males have redefined it doesn’t mean it has to stay that way… especially when there is a long list of revolutionaries who once carried this flag with pride (did you know that Sojourner Truth identified as evangelical???)

While I very much understand the sentiment of the first group, I have personally made the choice to remain publicly aligned with evangelicalism. It is through this heritage that I have come to a deep place of faith, and I honor that history. And the original tenets of evangelicalism are still values I hold highly to (there is a good summary of those here).

Because evangelicalism represents my historic family of faith, I therefore feel obliged to speak up when I see a disconnection between the professed values we aspire to and the actual lived experience that is defining our posture in the world. I’ve spoken in the past to the ways that I see evangelicalism perpetuating sins of racism and sexism, and in this post I would like to address the troubling trends I am observing when it comes to the Biblical call to “welcome the stranger” (Matthew 25).

The Pew Research Center released a report this week as to how Americans are responding to Trump’s executive order to stop refugees from entering the U.S. for 120 days and to prevent people from seven majority-Muslim countries from entering the U.S. on a visa for 90 days. The encouraging news from the report is that Americans overall disagree with Trump’s actions, with 59 percent of respondents disapproving of the ban.

But continuing a trend that has become a disturbingly dominant headline this year, there is a group whose support enables Trump to proceed unimpeded: white evangelicals. A stunning 76% said that they approve of the ban.

It is no exaggeration to say that white evangelicals have truly become counter-cultural, though its hard for me to imagine that this is the kind of counter-cultural Jesus was calling us to. While the majority of non-evangelical society sees it as inhumane to implement an executive order like this, the overwhelming support of white evangelicals nonetheless has turned this nightmare scenario into a concrete reality for so many.

What is so incredibly odd to me about this position is the way that it flies in the face of Scripture. There are many hot-button, social issues that I expect Christians to perceive differently than those who do not look to Jesus of Nazareth for guidance from. But it is beyond comprehension for me when we get so upside down that the broader society is the one that takes the position most clearly outlined in Scripture, while (evangelical) Christians take the bizarre course of being the ones to undermine the task to welcome the stranger.

One of the most foundational commitments of evangelicalism is to look to Scripture as the source of all understanding, and what I would like to do with the rest of this post is to revisit some of the Bible passages that underscore the moral call to welcome the stranger. As a caveat, I will note that I am not attempting to minimize the need for intelligent debate about specific policy issues within the call to welcome the stranger. But I truly cannot see how any evangelical could read the pages of Scripture and walk away with anything but a clear conviction that the posture of Christ-ones is to welcome the stranger in the name of Jesus.

An overview of some important Bible passages that should inform our thinking on welcoming the stranger, with a bit of commentary on each one:

The Bible tells us that every human being is created in the image of God, and must therefore be treated with respect, dignity and honor (and this remains true whether that person is a 1st generation immigrant, a 3rd generation immigrant, a citizen, an undocumented guest, or of any other social location):

“Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” (Genesis 1.26-27)

The story of God in both the Old and New Testaments begin with a refugee who is dependent on the hospitable reception of a foreign community. In Exodus chapter 1 we see the story of the refugee Moses, whom God will later use to deliver the Israelites from slavery:

Then a new king, to whom Joseph meant nothing, came to power in Egypt. “Look,” he said to his people, “the Israelites have become far too numerous for us. Come, we must deal shrewdly with them or they will become even more numerous and, if war breaks out, will join our enemies, fight against us and leave the country.” So they put slave masters over them to oppress them with forced labor…  Then Pharaoh gave this order to all his people: “Every Hebrew boy that is born you must throw into the Nile, but let every girl live.”… Now a man of the tribe of Levi married a Levite woman, and she became pregnant and gave birth to a son. When she saw that he was a fine child, she hid him for three months. But when she could hide him no longer, she got a papyrus basket for him and coated it with tar and pitch. Then she placed the child in it and put it among the reeds along the bank of the Nile… When the child grew older, [the attendant] took him to Pharaoh’s daughter and he became her son. She named him Moses, saying, “I drew him out of the water.” (Exodus 1.8-11, 22, 2.1-3, 10)

This refugee story is an extension of the call of Abraham, of whom God called upon to become the Father of the nation of Israel. It’s easy to forget that the opening words of that story were a call to walk the road of becoming a courageous immigrant:

The Lord had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.” (Genesis 12.1)

The themes of immigration and refugee deliverance continue to play a major part in the Old Testament account of the Israelites:

“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—the home of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites. And now the cry of the Israelites has reached me, and I have seen the way the Egyptians are oppressing them. So now, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt.” (Exodus 3.7-10)

There are a couple of important things to note from the Exodus 3 passage above. First, we see how emphatically God states the way that God sees the misery of God’s people – God has heard their cries, and God is concerned for their suffering. This is significant to remember when discussing the Biblical call to welcome the stranger, and particularly as we consider the current stance on refugees. While we rightfully worry about dangers on American soil from groups like ISIS, it is important to remember that this pales in comparison to the actual dangers that everyday families face in those regions where groups like ISIS are emerging. That is the genesis of much of the current refugee crisis – there are families who are suffering, who are in danger, and who are in need of a place of refuge to flee to.

That leads to the second observation from the Exodus passage. God foretells of bringing the Israelites out of Egypt, and leading them to a new land – one that is good, spacious, and flowing with milk and honey. In short, God’s plan is one of national immigration. This reiterates the important words of Psalm 24.1: “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it.”

I have already acknowledged that there are policy issues that must be discussed as to how this happens, but what seems indisputable for someone developing a Christian worldview is the clear recognition that this is God’s world. God is the one who moves people around as God sees fit. When there is/was mortal danger facing a group, it is/was commonplace for God to move them to another for safety, protection, and refuge.

Once God delivers the Israelites from the hand of Pharaoh, God then develops the Mosaic Law to guide the actions of the people. In legislation that directly contradicts our current stance in America, God says this to the people:

“‘When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.” (Leviticus 19.33-34)

The Law showed the people what they were to do when it came to treating the stranger with respect and care, and God consistently underscored the why behind the Law by showing how it was part of God’s very character. Passages like this are found throughout the Old Testament story:

“[God] defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing.” (Deuteronomy 10.18)

There are dozens of passages that could be pulled from the Old Testament prophets, in which a fiery judgment was exacted onto the Israelites for neglecting these commands to welcome the stranger with dignity and respect. But in the interest of time, let me move on to some New Testament passages, starting with the birth account of Jesus:

When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.” So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.” (Matthew 2.13-15)

I will never forget the first time that the weight of this passage hit for me. I was sitting in a workshop at a conference on urban ministry with Ray Bakke. The session was entitled, “A Theology for Urban Ministry,” and the entire workshop went through the birth narrative of Jesus in the book of Matthew. Bakke started by showing how the theology of reconciliation is made manifest in the genealogy of Jesus. Though Jesus was a Jew, he carried more than just Jewish blood in his veins – his birth account tells of great grandparents that were Hittite, Moabite, and Caananite – all of which were bitter rivals of the Jewish community at one point or another. Bakke reminded us that Jesus didn’t just spill his blood for all people – he inherited it from them as well.

Bakke then moved on to what he called one of the most important refugee stories in the whole Bible. When King Herod heard of the birth of Jesus, he ordered that all of the boys under the age of two in Bethlehem be executed. It was at this point where the angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph, and commanded him to seek asylum in Egypt.

Bakke presented a poignant question for all of us to consider: “What if the politicians of Egypt had passed legislation that prohibited refugees from coming into their country?” And he followed that by asking, “If Jesus and his family had to flee to America, would we welcome them?” Though this was close to twenty years ago, its startling to see that in our current climate the answer from the evangelical community almost certainly would seem to be “no.”

If we jump from the beginning of Jesus’ life to the end, we then come in contact with one of the most surprising teachings from Jesus. The overall message of Jesus was clearly built around the notion of grace – namely, that one cannot come into relationship with God based on human efforts. It is the sacrificial exchange of Jesus’ death and resurrection that serves as the basis for salvation, and nothing else. And yet, even with this being the case, Matthew 25 records the sobering words of Jesus as to the fruit of those who know him, and those who don’t. Jesus referred to those who exhibited the character associated with those redeemed by him as sheep, and to those who didn’t as goats. Included on this list is welcoming the stranger:

“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’… “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed… For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in…” (Matthew 25.34-36, 41-43)

Within evangelical circles there is a debate as to whether Jesus’ commands here were directed exclusively to being within Christianity (i.e. welcoming the Christian stranger), and I assume this is where the current notion of allowing only Christian refugees into America finds its origin. That is not my interpretation of this passage, but even if that were true, it does not alter the overall arc seen throughout Scripture. God has self-identified as a God of the foreigner, alien, and stranger from beginning to end.

One final passage to consider, this from the writer of Hebrews:

“Keep on loving one another as brothers and sisters. Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.” (Hebrews 13.1-2)

To summarize:

It seems clear that from the beginning of the Bible until the end, God has made his position clear: God is a friend to the immigrant, alien, and stranger. Furthermore, God defends their cause, and expects Christians to do the same.

I acknowledge that there are policy questions that must be contended with as an extension of welcoming the stranger, but there should be no mistaking our overall stance:

Christians should be seen as friends of immigrant.

Christians should be leading the way in hospitality to the stranger.

Christians should be seen as defenders of the foreigner.

Christians should be on the front lines of protecting refugees in harms way.

I pray that we as evangelicals will repent of our current stance (one way to define repent is to talk of changing the way we think), and that we will change the narrative that is currently attached to our witness.

I pray that when the watching world looks at those of us who bear witness to Christ, they would see those that bring a smile to the face of God. That they would see those who welcome, and love, and who defend the stranger.

Amen.

 

 

 

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