The Syrian refugee crisis is complex and there’s no easy solution. I don’t claim to understand the ins and outs of the Syrian civil war, nor the most effective way America can be involved. But I’m not here to talk politics. I’m here to remind us that part of a Christianity’s DNA is that we help those in need, which includes welcoming the stranger. Yet according to the perspective of many Christians on social media, the American values of safety and security have triumphed over the Christian values of self-giving love.
The fear of “the other” is astounding. Of the 784,000 refugees admitted into the US since 2001, only 3 have been convicted of terrorist attacks. None of these attacks were domestic, and none of them were carried out. That means that 0.000004% of refugees have been proven to be terrorists—and not very good ones. In the last 10 years, 300 people have been struck by lightening, which means you should be way more fearful of your lives when the next storm comes than when—or if—the next wave of Syrians settle in your city. Like a thousand times more fearful.
Still, a common cry among Christians is that the refugees are terrorists, murderers, rapists, and thieves. We need to protect our families!
But Jesus’s command to welcome the stranger doesn’t come with footnotes or fine print. The Good Samaritan didn’t check the ½ dead man’s passport before he helped him, nor did he ask him if he was safe. Jesus never said, “when I was hungry, you gave me food, when I was a stranger, you made sure I wasn’t dangerous before you let me in.”
The cruciform ethic of self-sacrifice and enemy love is dangerous. It’s part of the cost we need to count before we follow the scandalous Christ, who didn’t care too much about your earthly safety when he called you to pick up your cross and follow him. And welcoming the stranger is part of what it means to follow him.
There are more than 90 passages in the Bible that talk about caring for and welcoming the sojourner, foreigner, the “other” who is living in our midst. In the Old Testament, God’s people were commanded to provide for immigrants through an ancient agrarian welfare system, where foreigners living among them could glean from an Israelite’s field (Lev 19:10; 23:22; Deut 24:19-22; cf. Ruth). Foreigners could receive a portion of the third-year tithe stored up in the cities (Deut 14:23-29; 26:12-13). They were to be paid in a timely manner for their work (Deut 24:15), receive justice in the courts (Deut 1:16-17), and were not to be taken advantage of by the powerful elite (Deut 24:17-18; 27:19).
In other words, immigrants—regardless of their faith commitment—were to be treated with care, honor, and dignity because they were created in God’s image.
The Old Testament prophets delivered some scathing protests against those Israelites—so-called followers of YHWH—who failed to care for the sojourner among them. “Then I will draw near to you for judgment,” says YHWH. “I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely” and “against those who thrust aside the sojourner” (Mal 3:5).
Sorcery, adultery, and thrusting aside the sojourner. All three (not just the first two) pull down the wrath of heaven.
Jesus and other New Testament writers reinforce the Scriptural mandate to care for the sojourner. By the way, people “sojourned” for all sorts of reasons in biblical times. Maybe they were seeking a better life in a new land. Perhaps they were drawn to the religion of another country (like Ruth). Or maybe they were fleeing from violence and oppression in their own land and were seeking refuge in a new nation. Not all sojourners were refugees, but all refuges were sojourners.
In any case, Jesus and New Testaments writers agreed with and reinforced the Old Testament command to care for the sojourner. After all, Joseph, Mary, and Jesus were refugees who fled from the hands of a violent dictator according to Matthew 2. Throughout his ministry, Jesus reached out to “the other”—foreigners, immigrants, and people who posed a violent threat to (Jewish) national security. He dialogued with a Samaritan woman (John 4), healed a Samaritan leper (Luke 17:11-19), reached out to a Roman centurion (Matt 8)—a symbol of national oppression—and even showed grace to a Canaanite woman (Matt 15). In his most extensive description of judgment day, Jesus said he will look at true Christians and say: “I was a stranger and you welcomed me” (Matt 25:35, 38), and then he will look at those damned to hell and say “I was a stranger and you did not welcome me” (Matt 25:43).
I’m tired. Tired of the American value system that’s replaced our radical Christian ethic. I’m tired of “family first” values that have more in common with Leave it to Beaver than with the martyrs of first-century Christianity. I already put my family in harms way when I decided to pick up my cross and follow a Jewish Messiah who was crucified by the State for treason.
The Bible is neither silent nor unclear on how we are to welcome the outcast, the marginalized, and the stranger. It’s part of who were are. It’s the texture of Christianity. Christians are people who strive to be faithful to our spouses, maintain sexual purity, avoid drunkenness, help the poor, and welcome the stranger. We don’t get to pick out the ethical commands of Christ that suit our fancy. We bow the knee to our King and ask, “what would you have me do, Lord?”
What gets me the most is that the Bible often describes followers of God as “strangers and sojourners.” Deuteronomy 10:19 says Israel used to be strangers and aliens in Egypt and therefore they should care for those sojourners in their midst. Leviticus 25:23 says that all the land belongs to God and he’s let us sojourn in his land. 1 Peter 2:11 calls Christians “sojourners and exiles” and Paul says that Gentile Christians are no longer “strangers and sojourners,” but full “members of the household of God” (Eph 2:19).
As Christians, we have the proud stamp of “sojourner” branded on our identity. How is it, then, that some Christians turn around and say, “no thank you; we don’t want any sojourners in our (earthly) land?” I fear that we may have idolized our passports when we are granted unconditional citizenship in God’s kingdom and then turn around and deny refuge in our earthly kingdom for those in need.