Our Christian Duty is to Speak Up for Refugees
It’s been a long time since I’ve held a sign and chanted a slogan. I guess the last time would have been at a Right-to-Life march, which I’ve participated in a few times. But there I was yesterday on West End Avenue in Nashville, facing cars stopped at a traffic light, holding my sign. “Jesus was a Refugee,” it said.
I had seen on social media that the protest was happening. I asked my daughters if they wanted to come. Sophie said she did, but could we pick up her friend? Sure, I said. We picked X up at her mosque, and the three of us drove together. X is from Syria, and while much of her family is here now, many of her relatives are staying in Turkey for the time-being.
I stood on the sidewalk next to X, a Syrian-born Muslim, and my own daughter, who is Christian in religion but also Jewish in ethnicity (from her mother). My wife’s family lost people in the Holocaust. X’s family and friends are in the same position. Between ISIS, Russia, the rebels, and Bashar al-Assad, genocide has come to Syria.
The President’s decision to indefinitely ban Syrian refugee resettlement in the U.S. brought me to that sidewalk. Not that America was doing a great job in this department. Only 14,333 Syrian refugees have come here since 2012. That’s barely a fraction of the numbers of displaced people. Mr. Obama did a bad job with the Syrian crisis, all around. Mr. Trump has taken our policy from bad to obscene.
Refugees must, of course, be vetted. You can’t take everyone, nor should you. The U.S. has the strictest refugee vetting program on earth. We already have extreme vetting. This may be why no refugee has been involved in a terrorist act on American soil. Safety concerns could not legitimately have caused Mr. Trump's executive order. This is not the first time an American president has done something like this.
In the 1930s, with Hitler’s rise to power, untold numbers of Jews tried to come to the U.S. as refugees. Thanks to FDR, most were turned away, including the family of Anne Frank. Many in America considered Jews dangerous, many more Americans just thought Jews were sub-human. Anti-semitism was alive and well, and far more prevalent than it is today (at least in public). We thought Jews were bad for America, and we didn’t want them here.
The Church, of course, largely (but not entirely) stood by as FDR denied Jews access to our country. That’s not a surprise. The White, American Church has a history of deferring to the government and culture on such issues. We’ve stood by as Irish and Italian Catholics were persecuted. We’ve stood by as Japanese were put in internment camps. We’ve stood by as American Indians were massacred and deported. We’ve stood by as millions of Africans were enslaved for two-hundred and fifty years. We stood by as MLK was thrown into a Birmingham Jail (and you should read his letter to us!).
It is no surprise to me that some Christians, and especially some clergy people in my own denomination (Anglican Church in North America) are standing by now. Just yesterday, I was soundly chastised for standing up for Syrian refugees by two Anglican priests. Another Anglican priest friend of mine was warned to “be careful” by a fellow clergyman when my friend posted that we should let the refugees in.
Be careful. Don't want to hurt anyone's feelings. Don't want to make any of the big givers in your church angry. Don't want to get the IRS on your back. -- Trust me. I've heard it all. I don't want to hurt people's feelings, I really don't. I like being liked. But this is where my faith has brought me.
As I stood on that sidewalk yesterday, I thought to myself “the Church should be leading this rally.” Of all the people on earth who should stand up for the rights of the most down-trodden, it is the Church. We worship a refugee, after all. Jesus' family had to flee to another country when Jesus was a child (Matthew 2:13-15). Why did Jesus flee? Because the government was trying to kill him for political reasons.
Early in the Bible, in Genesis, there is a city called Sodom. God decides to destroy that city, because, as God said, “the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is great and their sin is very grave.” (Genesis 18:20). While some believe that this great sin was homosexuality, the Bible tells us why God chose to destroy the city: "Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy." (Ezekiel 16:49, NASB)
I am not arguing that the U.S. should be as generous and kind as God commands Israel to be in the Old Testament. And I’m not suggesting that U.S. should be as loving as the Church is called to be. I’m suggesting that God judges the nations on how they care for the needy. I’m also arguing that the Church as a group, and Christians as individuals, have both the right and responsibility to demand that their democratically elected representatives hold to some standard of human decency.
I’m called to love my neighbor as I love myself, and so is every Christian. But is the Syrian refugee my neighbor? Jesus answers that question pointedly in Luke 10:29-37. Your neighbor is anyone that you can help. I can’t go to Syria and fight Assad and ISIS. But I can work to help Syrian refugees get into the country, and get settled through Christian organizations.
I don't believe that the parable of the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25:31-46) is the governing verse on salvation. Salvation is in Christ alone, through grace alone, by faith alone. And, I don't want to be like those goats, who looked at Jesus and said “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ (ESV) I feel that standing up for refugees in this critical time is one small way I can honor the Lord in the faces of the poor.