Wednesday, November 18, 2015

#JesusWasARefugee - An Appeal to Christians

I don’t write about politics often. Usually, when I want to talk about something controversial, I find a sounding board in my husband or on the Facebook pages of friends. But when I look at responses to the Syrian refugee crisis, I find that I can no longer be silent. While many people I know, both Christians and not, have stood in solidarity with the masses of men, women, and children fleeing terrorism and oppression, I am also seeing a very disturbing trend among a specific group of Christians. These are the very people who, when questioned, will tell you that they base their lives on the Bible, that if “God said it, I believe it, and that settles it.” By and large, these are the same people who, right now, are abandoning the foundation of their belief in order to justify the exclusion of refugees.

Many people have already spoken on this issue. They’ve pointed out the hypocrisy of banning all refugees because of a few potential criminals when we don’t ban all guns because of a few mass-murderers. They’ve pointed out that you are far more likely to be killed by a white, American male than you are by an Islamic radical. They’ve pointed out that many white Americans today are the descendants of refugees. They’ve pointed out the connection between this refugee crisis and that of the 1930s when Americans opposed welcoming the Jews into our country because it wasn’t our problem. Since that work is already done for me, I just want to focus on one thing: what the Bible says about refugees. Believe it or not, it says quite a bit.

To be clear, the reason I am focusing exclusively on a Biblical argument is that I am addressing a group of people who claim that in order to be Christians, we must believe everything the Bible says and live by it. This is what the Bible says.

The Israelites were refugees

When Jacob and his descendants first entered Egypt, they were escaping a severe famine in their native land. The Egyptians not only welcomed them in but, because of Joseph’s position as second-in-command to the Pharaoh, they gave the Hebrews the best land in the country to live on. (Genesis 46-47)

The Israelites’ status as former refugees was not lost on them. Throughout the Mosaic Law, God commands them to remember their history and to be hospitable to others for that very reason. The Law was especially insistent that the people of God care for the poor, the needy, for orphans, widows, and foreigners.

“The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God.” (Leviticus 19:34)

“When you reap the harvest of your land, moreover, you shall not reap to the very corners of your field nor gather the gleaning of your harvest; you are to leave them for the needy and the alien. I am the Lord your God.’” (Leviticus 23:22)

“So show your love for the alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.” (Deuteronomy 10:19)

“You shall not detest an Edomite, for he is your brother; you shall not detest an Egyptian, because you were an alien in his land.” (Deuteronomy 23:7)

“You shall not oppress a hired servant who is poor and needy, whether he is one of your countrymen or one of your aliens who is in your land in your towns.” (Deuteronomy 24:14)

“You shall not pervert the justice due an alien or an orphan, nor take a widow’s garment in pledge.” (Deuteronomy 24:17)

God cares about refugees

Over and over, the prophets and the psalmists remind the people that God’s heart is for the oppressed. 

“The Lord also will be a stronghold for the oppressed,
A stronghold in times of trouble" (Psalm 9:9).

“O Lord, You have heard the desire of the humble;
You will strengthen their heart, You will incline Your ear
To vindicate the orphan and the oppressed,
So that man who is of the earth will no longer cause terror" (Psalm 10:17-18).

"Let not the oppressed return dishonored; Let the afflicted and needy praise Your name" (Psalm 74:21).

"The Lord works righteousness and justice for all the oppressed.” (Psalm 103:6).

"He upholds the cause of the oppressed and gives food to the hungry.The Lord sets prisoners free,the Lord gives sight to the blind, the Lord lifts up those who are bowed down, the Lord loves the righteous" (Psalm 146:7-8).

"Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?" (Isaiah 58:6)

“if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place, nor walk after other gods to your own ruin, then I will let you dwell in this place, in the land that I gave to your fathers forever and ever. (Jeremiah 7:6-7)

Jesus was a refugee
Everyone familiar with the Christmas story knows that when Herod was looking for the young Jesus to kill him, his parents took him and fled to Egypt. (Matthew 2:13)

Jesus cares about the oppressed
Jesus announced his public ministry by reading in the synagogue a passage from Isaiah:

"The Spirit of the Lord is on me, 
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners 
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free, 
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor" (Luke 4:18-19, taken from Isaiah 61:1-2).

On top of that, he spent the majority of his time with people who were on the fringes of society, people whom others looked at with mistrust or even disgust: corrupt government sell-outs (tax collectors), prostitutes, and general lowlifes (fishermen).

We are commanded to care for those in need

One of Jesus’ most famous parables is the story of the Good Samaritan. For those who aren’t familiar, the Samaritans were a group of part-Jewish, part-Palestinian people whom the Jews despised every bit as much as Donald Trump despises Muslims. Their religion was a hybrid of Judaism and paganism, and because of that, the Jews had nothing to do with them if they could help it. And yet Jesus tells a story of one of Those People helping out a Jew in need.

Let’s not forget that the priest and the Levite had good reasons to shun the bleeding, dying man on the side of the road. The Law actually forbade priests and Levites from touching anything that was unclean, and that included dead people. They were just following the rules, after all. They were just making sure they didn’t risk defiling themselves. They were just taking care of their own business. And yet Jesus doesn’t ask, “which of these people did the right thing according to the Law?” He asks, “which of these was a neighbor to the man who was attacked?” Answer: “The one who showed mercy toward him.” He ends the story by turning straight to the listener and saying, “Go and do the same.” (Luke 10:30-37) In effect, Jesus is asking us, who will be a neighbor to the refugees?

Fear versus faith

The primary reason many people don’t want to accept refugees is because of the terrorist attacks on Paris last week. One of the bombers had falsified records as a Syrian refugee (he was not actually a refugee; all the attackers have been identified as European nationals). Because background checks (one of the many steps in the vetting process) on incoming refugees rely on accessing Syrian records, which may be limited or nonexistent for many people, many people are concerned that there are terrorists disguised as refugees and that admitting refugees means admitting them. Again, other people have responded to that claim in other ways; I’m just focusing on what the Bible says.

The Bible is a story about God calling people into dangerous situations. Abraham had no idea where he was going when God called him to leave Sumer. Jacob had to face a brother who had formerly wanted to kill him. Joseph was beaten and left for dead before being sold into slavery and later thrown in prison. Moses had to ask the most powerful man on earth to free hundreds of thousands of slaves. David fought an 8-foot Amalekite with a slingshot. Every one of the prophets was murdered by the people they ministered to. John the Baptist was beheaded. Jesus was crucified.

If following God and doing the right thing is contingent upon our personal safety – if it becomes optional to obey God when there’s a slight chance that doing so might involve risk – then every one of those people was a fool, and every one of them died in vain. These are the heroes of our faith.

I've always been both inspired and terrified by the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego, the three friends of Daniel who refused to follow Nebuchadnezzar's command because it violated their faith. The consequence of their action: they were thrown into an incinerator. Accepting refugees carries a small risk of accepting a few potential or current criminals. These three Hebrew youths were threatened with absolute certain death, and this was their response:

"[W]e do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from Your Majesty’s hand. But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.” (Daniel 3:16-18, emphasis mine)

We live in a scary world. We are not called to live lives as far removed from danger as possible. We are called to go where Jesus went – and Jesus went to the cross. All we have in return is the promise he gave to Joshua: “As I was with Moses, so I will be with you; I will never leave you nor forsake you.” (Joshua 1:5)

Taking care of business

I've seen a few people point out the irony of welcoming refugees while we have so many homeless people, especially veterans, in our country. I agree that homelessness is a serious problem, which is why I support political candidates who want to extend veteran benefits, not slash them. However, the essence of this argument - that we can't help others until we first fix our own internal problems - is a distraction from the issue. And yes, the Bible has a few pertinent things to say about this as well.

One time a guy came up to Jesus and said, "Hey, I want to follow you, but first I have to go take care of some family business" (either his parents were dead and he was preparing for their funeral, or he was waiting until they died and were buried, however long that would be). Jesus replied with the famous line, "Let the dead bury their own dead." (Matthew 8:22) Basically, he was saying that the offer to follow Jesus was not going to be on the table forever, because Jesus was not going to be on earth forever. If you wait to follow him until all your ducks are in a row, you're never going to do it. 
Remember that Jesus also said, "you will always have the poor with you" (Matthew 26:11). By the time we eradicate homelessness, poverty, bigotry, discrimination, child labor, alternative energy, and any other problems (all serious, legitimate issues), this crisis will have passed us by and we will have missed the opportunity.

Faith and deeds

In my opinion, it all comes down to this: for those of us who claim to believe the Bible, who follow Jesus, do we really believe, or do we not? James has a very sharp warning for people who say they believe but do not put that faith into action:

“What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.” Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.” (James 2:14-19)

James is saying that if our faith is not backed up by action - by obedience - we are in the same boat as demons. That is a bad thing.

We Christians talk big; we make grand statements about giving Jesus everything, about being led by the Spirit, about trusting God completely. Right now, we have an opportunity to make good on those statements. If we don’t, they are just empty words. If we don’t actually see the application of our faith into situations like this, I think we need to stop deluding ourselves by claiming to believe any of it.

You know how popular the song “Oceans” by Hillsong is? Remember the line, “Spirit lead me where my trust is without borders . . .”? At some point, we need to ask ourselves (me too), do we really want that? Because that kind of faith compels us to act. And if we’re not going to act, we need to stop pretending to want that kind of faith. This is where it gets very real for me because when I think about it, there are so many things I could be doing to help people, that I don't do, or at least don't do often enough. It turns out that following Jesus is more than sharing an article on Facebook or writing a Scripture-heavy blog post. It's not a one-time thing; it's a continual challenge, and I am still struggling to respond to it.

So what can I do?

The Syrian refugee crisis is very much a political issue. President Obama has announced his intention to continue to welcome refugees, and a number of state governments have echoed this sentiment. However, a number of politicians – including current governors, presidential candidates, and more – object to this policy. What can you and I do?

We can be active in the political process. We can write letters to our governors, to our congressmen, encouraging them to extend aid to refugees who come to our states and towns. We can support candidates who are willing to help refugees, and we can encourage our friends and neighbors to do the same.

We can also be active in organizations that provide immediate relief to the Syrian refugees. I found a list hereHere is another list of smaller organizations, because sometimes the bigger organizations don’t actually do as much real good as they say they do. Do your own research and find one to support (I donated to MOAS because of this picture).

If you know there are refugees in your area, you can contribute to or volunteer with local organizations to help them. You can donate food and supplies. You can do something.
I want to finish with a story, which many people have already shared in relation to this situation.
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
“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 the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 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, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’
“They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’
“He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’(Matthew 25:31-45)

Update: In my haste to post this entry as soon as possible, I left out some key passages. Fortunately, Relevant Magazine included several that I missed in their own post, "What the Bible Says About How to Treat Refugees."