Toward a Biblical Response to the Syrian Refugee Crisis

At first glance, the Bible might seem like a great guidebook for bigots and isolationists of all stripes. One nation chosen, all the others spurned. Idolaters destroyed; intermarriage with them expressly condemned.

Read a little further, though, and all chauvinisms are shaken. Repetitively, inescapably, God “loves the stranger” (Deuteronomy 10:18, Amplified; compare Psalm 146:9). He wants Israel to see themselves as a nation of pilgrims passing through (Genesis 23:4; 1 Chronicles 29:15; Hebrews 11:13; 1 Peter 2:11); thus, the foreigner in their midst holds up a mirror, serves as a reminder, and they are instructed to “love him as yourself” (Leviticus 19:33-34; compare Exodus 22:21; 23:9; Deuteronomy 10:19; Ezekiel 47:22-23).

To be sure, the resident alien must abide by Israel’s laws (Exodus 12:49; Leviticus 24:22). But — and this is remarkable — he or she is equal to the Israelite before the law (Deuteronomy 1:16; 27:19; Zechariah 7:10; Malachi 3:5). In dispensing equal justice, Israel rehearses for its deepest calling: “. . . I will also give you for a light to the nations, that My salvation may extend to the end of the earth” (Isaiah 49:6, Amplified).

In every generation of Biblical history, God uses the stranger to teach His people a fundamental lesson: that we are not possessors, established on a homeland, standing and defending our ground. Rather, we dwell in tents and booths: “. . . the land is Mine; for you are strangers and sojourners with Me” (Leviticus 25:23, RSV). The Lord is the God of the uprooted. In one passage, Jeremiah even suggests that God Himself is “like a stranger in the land, like a traveler who stays only a night” (14:8, NIV).

The picture hardly changes in the New Testament. Jesus, God Incarnate, is the ultimate Stranger on earth. He comes to pitch His tent among us (John 1:14); He has nowhere to lay His head (Luke 9:58; compare 1 Corinthians 4:11). To a radical, deeply troubling degree, He identifies Himself with every outsider. His is the face of every refugee. “Lord, when did we fail to invite You in — ?” “Whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, . . .” (Matthew 25:41-46).

Yes, But . . .: Precedents

In recent months, we have seen a weary world greet its first sight of Syrian refugees largely with a collective shrug. A photograph of a dead child on a beach softened hearts and opened doors, but they slammed shut again after an act of terrorism.

Truth be told, we should never have expected governments and politicians to welcome the stranger with bold love. This is the calling of the company of believers, themselves sojourners and exiles on earth; it can never be delegated to the world. Nor can we protest that we are asked only to embrace the worthy. Jesus Himself closed that door in our faces: “But I tell you, Love your enemies” (Matthew 5:44, Amplified).

It has always been thus. When a notorious persecutor of Christians professed conversion and claimed the status of a brother, he was shunned — until a believer named Barnabas, who loved not his life unto death, took a big risk (Acts 9:26-27). It may have been his example that first showed Paul a love that believes and hopes all things (1 Corinthians 13:7).

Around A.D. 250, an epidemic spread through much of the Roman Empire. Pagans mostly deserted the sick, but Christians in several cities organized care for the living and burial of the dead — and this in spite of the fact that the persecution of the Emperor Decius was under way, and Christians were even being blamed for the plague. Cyprian, bishop of Carthage, urged Christians to care for all the afflicted without distinction, and also specifically to extend aid to their persecutors.(1) This episode was one of many steps leading up to the establishment of the first hospitals, “a distinctively Christian institution.”(2)

Almost from the beginning of European exploration of the New World, Native Americans were portrayed predominantly as “wild savages,” “dumb brutes,” and worshipers of the devil. They were also described as treacherous and untrustworthy.(3) One who disagreed was “Apostle” John Eliot (1604-1690). Aided by Thomas Mayhew and others, his evangelistic labors resulted in the establishment of 14 towns of converted “praying Indians” in Massachusetts. Particularly during King Philip’s War in 1675-76, Eliot was called a traitor and received death threats, and many of his translated Bibles were confiscated and destroyed. But he continued undeterred: “Our Indian work yet liveth, praise be to God,” he wrote in 1686.(4)

In 1956, five young American missionaries were killed by Waodani people (also called Auca, “savage” or “naked,” and Huaorani) of Ecuador. Incredibly, some of their family members continued the work, eventually leading many Waodani to Christ. In 1965, Steve Saint, the 14-year-old son of one of the martyrs, was baptized by two of his father’s killers.(5)

These are stories that show the power of God. The apostle Paul concluded that his own dramatic conversion occurred so that others might see the “unlimited patience” of Christ (1 Timothy 1:16, NIV), and draw hope. So with other converts, age after age; but always the patience of Christ is extended through the boldness of His ambassadors.

Stranger and Neighbor

Today we may be witnessing the start of a great move of God. For years, Muslim countries have banned or severely constrained Christian missionaries. No churches may be built, no sermons preached, no Bibles handed out; and any citizen who converts “blasphemes Islam” and is subject to extreme penalties, even death.

We have prayed for walls to crumble and gates to open. But what if God has chosen rather to bring people out — to turn them into the uprooted as a first step in making them His own? (6)

What if it falls to Christians, more than countries, to welcome and serve these strangers — taking them in if this is permitted, or, if need be, sojourning with them in temporary camps, showing them the love that Christ has shown us? If we cannot go, what if it is our calling to adopt a displaced family, sending them personal words of encouragement as well as practical assistance, even if this offends some who accuse us of giving aid and comfort to our enemies?

It is not hard to find grounds to decline this invitation; some days, every news cycle supplies a new reason. But we’ve been told to peer intently into strangers’ faces, expecting, as we serve them, to meet our Lord.

In the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), Jesus puts it another way: We can choose to love the stranger, any stranger, because of a deep conviction that he is in fact our neighbor. He may be unconscious of this connection, and of much else; and we, like the Samaritan, have no assurance that he will ever wake up. But we know the transformative power of the love of God. For when He found us, we were not merely hurting, unresponsive; we were active enemies (Romans 5:10; Colossians 1:21). We “came to ourselves” not only through the shock of pain and degradation, but also through the piercing hope of a Father’s love (Luke 15:17). And we will learn, someday, that in the Father’s house the only celebration is over the homecoming of the hopeless; the only reason to toil in the fields is to share the joy of the One who has stood for ages, staring down the empty stretch of Repentance Road. Though He sags with grief and yearning, still He stands, tensed, ready to run to them before they speak a word. Must we always find another field to tend? Or are we willing to be His flying feet, His reaching arms, His kiss that covers, and His voice that uplifts?

 

(1) Gary B. Ferngren, Medicine & Health Care in Early Christianity (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 2009), 118-19.

(2) Ferngren, 124.

(3) Richard Tetek, “Relations between English Settlers and Indians in 17th Century New England,” Diploma Thesis, Masaryk University, Brno, Czech Republic, 2010, 22-27; available at http://is.muni.cz/th/179860/pedf_m/Relations_between_English_Settlers_and_Indians_in_17th_Century_New_England.pdf.

(4) Linford D. Fisher, The Indian Great Awakening: Religion and the Shaping of Native Cultures in Early America (Oxford and New York: Oxford, 2012), 24-29.

(5) Steve Saint, End of the Spear (Carol Stream, IL.: Tyndale, 2005); Elisabeth Elliot, Through Gates of Splendor (1957; revised ed., Carol Stream, IL.: Tyndale, 1996). See also Rebecca Barnes, “The Rest of the Story,” Christianity Today, Jan. 1, 2006 (available at http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2006/january/30.38.html).

(6) A dear friend comments that I seem, in this sentence, to make God the author of a great evil.  Such is not my intent, but it is helpful and humbling to be reminded just how difficult it is to talk faithfully about world events.  A Syrian Christian, identified only as Brother John, expresses a similar point of view much more eloquently in the June 2016 Voice of the Martyrs newsletter (“Interview with a Syrian Field Worker,” 11):

Before the war, our church prayed for revival in our nation.  We prayed that every individual or heart would receive a copy of the New Testament.  We had no idea how to accomplish the goal of giving every Syrian a New Testament, but the war is how God answered the prayers of the church.

God allowed this evil that took place in Syria to spread the Syrian people all over the world so the church around the world can step into action and reach out to Syrians and spread the gospel to them.  That is how we need to look at refugees; we don’t need to look at them as a threat.

 

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