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.

 

Advertisements

“Radical”: Two and a Half Caveats

David Platt’s Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream (1) is admirable in its intentions. And the book is bold in challenging American Christians’ complacency and love of comforts. Perhaps the fact that I found myself arguing, on almost every page, testifies to the effectiveness of Platt’s presentation. Still, I object to his articulation of Biblical priorities and a Biblical program at three main points.

Issue 1: What Does Radical Abandonment to Jesus Look Like?

This is the “half” caveat. I commend Radical for insisting that we cannot have Christ and self-fulfillment. Yet somehow, as I read it, the emphasis seemed to fall on all the wrong notes. To be blunt, there is a great deal in the book about what one must abandon in order to follow Christ, and much less about the Christ who calls.

I can demonstrate this best by contrasting Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s approach in the opening chapters of his classic work The Cost of Discipleship.(2) Bonhoeffer takes up, in turn, four Gospel texts, each of which issues a challenge, and each of which reveals Christ.(3)

  1. Jesus’ call to Levi in Mark 2:14 is simply, “Follow me” (COD 57); in Mark 1:17 and John 21:22, He issues the same call to Peter (45). This word “gives us no intelligible program for a way of life, no goal or ideal to strive after” (58). There is only Jesus: “When we are called to follow Christ, we are summoned to an exclusive attachment to his person” (59). His call is always this stark and this uncompromising.
  2. In Luke 9:57-62, after Jesus has resolutely set out for Jerusalem and the Cross, He converses briefly with three would-be disciples, none of whom ends up following Him. Because Jesus is God incarnate, He is able to speak a word that is a call, a word that makes faith possible. But faith must obey (60-63).
  3. Similarly, when the rich young man approaches Him with an academic question (Matthew 19:16-26; Mark 10:17-31), Jesus challenges him to make an irrevocable break with his present life, and to embrace “adherence to the person of Jesus Christ and fellowship with him.” He calls him to “spontaneous obedience” (70-76, 84-85).
  4. These passages prepare us for Mark 8:31-38, the invitation to take up our cross and follow Jesus. He “is Christ only in virtue of his suffering and rejection,” and we must join Him there: “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” The specifics are different for each of us; indeed, the call makes us individuals: “Every man is called separately, and must follow alone” (86-94).

Platt, who cites Bonhoeffer (Radical 14), quotes the same four passages (7-11). But he takes them in a different order, and passes quickly from one to another. Because he is concerned about American materialism, he spends the most time on the rich young man, even though eventually he must admit that Jesus’ words on this occasion are not a literal command for everyone (119-20). In an impatient and distracted age, it is tempting to be more concise than Bonhoeffer, but the difference is striking. In The Cost of Discipleship, we meet a suffering and majestic Christ, who makes His way to each of us to speak an empowering word, a call that is personal and different for every hearer. We hear Him call others, and consider; at last, inescapably, He calls to me. In Radical, we go quickly to the bottom line: we read about abandoning everything and “risking it all.”

Another way of stating this is to recall a point made well by Watchman Nee: that Christians must sit, rest, before they can walk. “For Christianity begins not with a big DO, but with a big DONE. Thus Ephesians opens with the statement that God has ‘blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ’ (1:3) and we are invited at the very outset to sit down and enjoy what God has done for us; not to set out to try and attain it for ourselves.”(4)

Bonhoeffer sees this: “Discipleship is bound to Christ as the Mediator, and where it is properly understood, it necessarily implies faith in the Son of God as the Mediator. Only the Mediator, the God-Man, can call men to follow him” (COD 59). Though it may seem paradoxical, though it may occur in a moment of time, the resting of faith precedes the step of following. And the resting of faith may entail a certain amount of letting go.

But Platt does not dwell on the Christ who calls. His discipleship has no sitting and resting, only walking and striving.

There is a tension in Bonhoeffer: although Christ’s call makes one an individual, “It is impossible to become a new man as a solitary individual” (COD 242). One must become a member of Christ’s Body, the Church. (And so Bonhoeffer would go on to write Life Together.) With his less individuated call, Platt might have more to say about corporate discipleship, right from the start. Yet, as we shall see, he presents, not so much a Body in which diverse members work together, but a likeminded fellowship in which individuals march in lockstep. Even his closing challenge, the Radical Experiment, asks one to decide how to give and where to serve before committing to a church (Radical 218-19).

Issue 2: Does God Exalt Our Inability?

Again, I am in sympathy with the main thrust of Radical’s third chapter: that believers must depend on the power of God instead of trusting in our own wisdom, strength, and resources. Jonathan Edwards placed a great emphasis on the Christian’s (and the creature’s) “absolute dependence” on God; this doctrine was a cornerstone of his theology, his preaching, and his devotional life.(5)

Unfortunately, Platt shapes his discussion as a response to a definition of the American dream by James Truslow Adams, which, paraphrased, assumes that “our greatest asset is our ability” (46). So the chapter’s thesis becomes: “In direct contradiction to the American dream, God actually delights in exalting our inability” (47).

In fact, God delights in exalting human weakness; as He says to Paul, His power is made perfect in our weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9). Some weaknesses are inabilities, but many are not — the youth of Samuel and Jeremiah and Timothy, Paul’s thorn in the flesh, the lowly status of the shepherds who were witnesses to the Incarnation and of the women who were witnesses to the Resurrection, and Christ’s offensive death (“crucified in weakness,” 2 Corinthians 13:4) are all examples of Biblical weakness. Weakness can coexist with great ability; the same Paul who rejoices that God chooses the foolish and weak and lowly (1 Corinthians 1:27-28) is himself a brilliant thinker, preacher, writer, teacher, and leader; and similar claims could be made for Moses, David, Solomon, and others.

This may seem like a quibble over words, but words matter. If every natural ability is a spiritual hindrance or an idol, no one should go to seminary, or even to school. There is no reason for “training” to become “equipped” (2 Timothy 3:16-17); we are better off helpless. Such ideas have surfaced from time to time in church history, never with good results.

In the Bible, we find that God is graciously pleased to give His people abilities, from “the ability to produce wealth” (Deuteronomy 8:18) to the New Testament gifts of the Spirit, which are entrusted to us like abilities for us to steward or administer, though of course “with the strength God provides” (1 Peter 4:10-11). So far from leaving us helpless, He makes some among us “competent as ministers” (2 Corinthians 3:6, NIV) and “qualified to teach others” (2 Timothy 2:2, NIV).(6)

Platt quotes the words of Jesus in John 15:5: “Apart from Me you can do nothing” (46). By themselves, though, these words invite passivity, quietism, even testing God by demanding that He act for us. Therefore, Christians typically balance this text with another one, Philippians 4:13: “I can do everything through Him who gives me strength” (NIV; RSV has “in Him”; Amplified “I have strength for all things in Christ Who empowers me [I am ready for anything and equal to anything through Him Who infuses inner strength into me; I am self-sufficient in Christ’s sufficiency]”).

As pastors know, there is a creative tension between these two texts. When I am proud and overconfident, I need to hear John 15:5, and recognize afresh my absolute dependence on the Savior. But when I am crushed and in despair (or, like Paul in prison, tempted to discontentment and fretfulness), Philippians 4:13 reminds me to persevere — and perhaps even to take godly initiative.

We desperately need the presence and power of the Holy Spirit, more than all the talents and gifts imaginable. But because God is good, He doesn’t glory in our inability. He is the loving Father who teaches us to walk (Hosea 11:3). He makes us able, qualified, and competent, even as He exalts and fills our weaknesses.

Issue 3: Is Every Christian Commanded to Go to the Nations?

The bulk of Radical is concerned with the Great Commission of Matthew 28:19-20: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (RSV).

It is an important focus, ever timely. But after a horrific story about a church that dismisses the unsaved (or at least any who are overseas), Platt makes this statement: “Jesus commands us to go. He has created each of us to take the gospel to the ends of the earth, and I propose that anything less than radical devotion to this purpose is unbiblical Christianity” (64).

If Matthew 28 were the whole of the New Testament, this conclusion would be inescapable. As it is, we have the Book of Acts and the epistles, which help us understand what “radical devotion” to Jesus’ words looked like soon after they were spoken, and what it might look like today. What do we find? Paul doesn’t urge his converts to go on to the next city, but to lead quiet lives and work with their hands (1 Thessalonians 4:11). Writing to his fellow missionaries Timothy and Titus, he focuses on elders in each congregation to provide stability.

According to Platt, “Jesus himself has not merely called us to go to all nations; he has . . . commanded us to go to all nations. We have taken this command, though, and reduced it to a calling — something that only a few people receive” (72-73).

Yet in Acts 13:2, while the church at Antioch is worshiping and fasting, the Holy Spirit says, “Set apart for Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” Already, perhaps 20 years after the Great Commission, it is a calling. Moreover, the calling comes to two individuals through the whole congregation. The Holy Spirit doesn’t rebuke everyone else for not following suit; their job is to hear, commission, send off, support, and pray. Not everyone goes, just as not everyone baptizes. The Great Commission is corporate, addressed to the entire Body of Christ; within each congregation, some are called to go, and some to send. Not for nothing does Scripture record David’s edict that the soldiers left behind, taking charge of supplies, would share equally in the reward with those who bore the heat of battle (1 Samuel 30:21-25).

Anyone who has lived on a mission field has observed the consequences of “All must go” teaching: uncalled, ill-equipped missionaries who crash and burn, harming themselves and the work.

Chapter 7 of Radical adds another element: the terrible urgency of missions work, because people are dying and going to hell. Platt writes, “We are the plan of God, and there is no plan B” (156).

I hesitate to take issue with this point, because this sense of urgency has helped to motivate some of the greatest Christian missionaries. Amy Carmichael was haunted by an image of people streaming over a precipice, while Christians sat by making daisy chains.(7) But we must ask whether it is Biblical to make this our overriding concern.

Even though Paul was called preach “where Christ was not known” (Romans 15:20), and lived “so that by all possible means I might save some” (1 Corinthians 9:22), he sometimes allowed other priorities to intrude. Instead of going on to unsaved Spain, he set sail for Jerusalem in the interests of church unity (Romans 15: 24-28). He was not deterred by the thought that thousands in Spain would die and go into eternity before he could return. Similarly, we read of the Holy Spirit preventing him from entering certain regions (Acts 16:6-7). If all that mattered were the presence of unsaved souls, such decisions would be positively immoral.

The “perishing souls” argument raises awful questions. Whey didn’t Jesus come earlier? Why didn’t He visit the large population of China? Why were Native Americans cut off from the Gospel for more than 1,000 years?

Against all such speculations, the Bible declares that God sent His Son “when the time had fully come” (Galatians 4:4, NIV), and that Christ died “at just the right time” (Romans 5:6, NIV). Jesus begins the Great Commission with these words: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Me” (Matthew 28:18, NIV; compare John 17:2). He is the general, opening and shutting doors; there are times and seasons that only He understands.

So when Platt says that I don’t need to inquire concerning God’s will for my life, because the answer is the same for all (159-60), I respectfully disagree. It is more Biblical to pray that we may be filled with the knowledge of God’s will, so that we may live a life worthy of Him and know Him (Colossians 1:9-12).

I saw the consequences of overriding missionary zeal at one church, where every sermon emphasized Christians’ duty to bring their unsaved friends to church. One Sunday I brought an unsaved friend, and he listened without interest to a sermon on Christians’ duty to bring their unsaved friends to church. Meanwhile, church members struggled with addictions, failing marriages, and every temptation and trial, but no help was extended, because all that mattered were the perishing souls. In a way, that pastor cared a great deal for people — up until the moment when they joined his flock.

The Great Commission also colors Platt’s view of discipleship. Against James 3:1 (“Let not many of you become teachers,” RSV), Platt says that “Jesus’ command for us to make disciples envisions a teaching role for all of us” (100). Worse, he advises that, when I listen to a sermon, I should ask not What can I get out of this? but How can I listen to his Word so that I am equipped to teach this Word to others? (102).

This is poor counsel. The words of Jesus are spirit and life, but only as they are believed (John 6:63-64). If I do not sit under the Word and allow it to prune and change me, I am in danger of becoming one who preaches Christ insincerely or impurely, for effect (Philippians 1:17). Jesus doesn’t tell a parable of the sower and his little son, who is also learning to sow; rather, the sower interacts with soil — which, in the wisdom of God, has its own way of producing and dispersing seeds, without itself becoming a sower.

Conclusion

To present a “radical” Christian call to the modern world, it is not enough to attack wealth or comfort or even complacency. One must strike at the root of individualism, calling people into a community that is diverse and differentiated, yet intimate and deeply united. Platt ends by sketching this (204-07), but it cannot be tacked on at the end. Barnabas and Saul receive their calling to the Great Commission, or at least receive the confirmation that equips them to walk it out, as members of a worshiping community (Acts 13:2).

I repeat, Radical is written with good intentions. I hope that David Platt will write a better book one day. In the meantime, though, I urge believers to spend their time reading the radical calls of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Jonathan Edwards.

(1) Colorado Springs: Multnomah, 2010.
(2) 1937; transl. R.H. Fuller, rev. Irmgard Booth, 1959; New York: Touchstone-Simon & Schuster, 1995.
(3) Bonhoeffer also discusses the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10 (76-78), but this is largely to clarify and reinforce a point made about Jesus’ exchange with the rich young man.
(4) Sit, Walk, Stand (1957, 4th ed. 1962; Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House, 1977), 2.
(5) See Edwards’ first published sermon, God Glorified in Man’s Dependence (1731; full text online at http://www.ccel.org/ccel/edwards/sermons.dependence.2.html. A search for “absolute dependence” at Yale’s Jonathan Edwards Center website, http://edwards.yale.edu/, yields 36 occurrences. Within 50 years of Edwards’ sermon, American declared independence. In the 1830s, Ralph Waldo Emerson exalted “Self-Reliance,” and in 1931, just 200 years after the sermon, J.T. Adams made the statement about the American dream that Platt quotes.
(6) The Greek word in both verses, hikanos, speaks to ability: it can be translated adequate, qualified (Marvin R. Vincent, Word Studies in the New Testament, 2nd ed., 1888 [Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, n.d.], 3:175), competent, worthy (Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words [Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1984, 1996], New Testament section, 3).
(7) Any Wilson Carmichael, Things As They Are: Mission Work in Southern India (1903; London: Morgan and Smith, 1905), 41-44; Amy Carmichael, Gold Cord: The Story of a Fellowship (1932; London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1952), 339, 348.