Why the Church Must Love the Refugee

The global refugee crisis reached a peak this year, and is still climbing. At this time in human history there are more refugees and displaced people than at any other time on planet earth. 65.3 million or 1/113 human beings are displaced from their homes (UNHCR).

Speaking at a church recently about refugee ministry among Syrian and Iraqis, I was shamed by a middle aged man wagging his finger and shouting “those Muslims just want to kill us!” What followed was not a look of shock in the audience, or even on the pastor’s face sitting with them, but tacit agreement. Reactions like these to even straight-up biblical teaching on showing hospitality and loving one’s enemy are becoming so commonplace, it’s one of the first questions my wife asks when I return home. “‘Was it the ‘don’t they want to kill us?’ or ‘’how can we let all those terrorists come here?’ question this time?” I and some on my church’s refugee ministry team have even received hateful emails.

Research finds that churches are 2x more likely to fear refugees than help them. 86% of evangelical pastors say their churches must get involved in compassionate care for refugees, while only 9% of churches are actually doing anything internationally, and only 10% locally (Lifeway 2016).

There seems to be a massive disconnect in the American Christian’s understanding of the biblical teaching on patriotism, refugees and loving one’s perceived enemy.

Another survey found that only 12% of evangelical Christians say that their views on refugees and immigration are primarily informed by the Bible (Lifeway 2016). We apparently need to recalibrate why it’s so important that the church engage in the refugee crisis both here and abroad.

Montecruz Foto
Creative Commons – Montecruz Foto

One of my grad school professors stressed the biblical importance of caring for the disenfranchised by pointing out over 3000 biblical references to the widow, orphan, stranger, sojourner and other disenfranchised classes. Many of these are specifically about caring for the ‘foreigner’ or ‘sojourner’. It is such an important concept that it is the 2nd most oft repeated command in the OT after ‘you shall worship no other Gods’. In fact, as you read various passages from the law, caring for the sojourner was an indicator for the people of Israel of their spiritual health.

Job, David, Solomon, Ezekiel, Malachi and almost every other prophet link the care of aliens and strangers with authentic faith.

The bible also repeatedly reminded the people of Israel that they were sojourners (Deut 10:19), and Peter calls all of us foreigners and exiles (1Pet 2:11). The main cast of the biblical story is replete with refugee stories. Abraham, Moses, Joseph, Jacob, the whole nation of Israel and most importantly Jesus were in fact refugees.

The savior himself began his incarnation by identifying with the lowliest of the disenfranchised.

In a convicting parable, Jesus proposes a foreigner Samaritan as the hero of a story shaming the Jews for their lack of compassion, and suggesting they learn from this alien. In Hebrews (13:2) we are commanded to show hospitality towards strangers, and in a comprehensive list of 28 traits that should mark a true Christian, Paul lists loving strangers along with avoiding evil, being constant in prayer and meeting needs among the saints. Romans 12:13 is often translated ‘practice hospitality’ but literally means ‘express brotherly love towards the foreigner.’ (philoxenia).

Sadly, the Western church these days is more well known for xenophobia than philoxenia.

If this were not enough, Acts 17 tells that God “made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling places, that they should seek God…” We forget that God is sovereign in all, the migration of people across borders no exception. Though awful, we must not forget that God is not surprised by what is happening in Syria or Iraq, and has purposed the church to meet needs and bear the message of hope in the midst of tragedy.

Certainly there are political issues, national security issues, and legitimate complex concerns that ought to be discussed; I do not seek to downplay their importance. The responsibility of the Christian towards the foreigner in our midst is however not one of these debatable matters.

The biblical case is clear for the Christian: caring for foreigners, immigrants, and the refugee is an irrefutable mandate.

American Christians seem to have forgotten the context of the historical church and the church in the Middle East today, who more closely represent the biblical norm of a persecuted Christian minority. Though we gratefully enjoy the benefits of American freedom today, from a biblical perspective we are not entitled to it, for it is far from the norm in the biblical and historical context.

In our fear of losing our blessed, but uniquely American comforts and freedoms, we have conflated ‘Christian’ with ‘American’.

Christians are perhaps for the first time in US history forced to contemplate the relationship between their patriotism and their Christian faith. Which will have a more prominent place? Are we American christians or Christian Americans?

Are we like the Pharisee asking Jesus ‘who is my neighbor’ looking for a way out? Are we asking ‘do I really have to love Muslim refugees because after all, ‘they want to kill us’’? I’ve been astounded to hear many Christians question the applicability of Christ’s familiar commands to love our neighbor and our enemy in favor of self-protecting mantras influenced more from political slogans than the bible.

Perhaps we have forgotten that the only promise Jesus ever gave as to what quality of life we might expect was: ‘in this life you will have trouble.’

Perhaps the most obvious truth overlooked in the conversation, one that undergirds our entire faith system, is that the savior we are to emulate sacrificed his very life for those that hated him. If we are being made into the image of this Jesus, the American entitlements of comfort and security seem to be at odds with His work in us.

The US church is entering a time of identity crisis further deepened by an election season that has even the pundits baffled. The country is polarized like no other time, and more and more, the church is reflecting that polarization rather than leading through it. Many Christians seem to be forgetting that our primary citizenship and hope is not in earthly establishments, but in heaven.

I pray that the church will not miss one of the greatest ministry opportunities in the history of mankind out of a fear of cultural change and an idolization of safety. Now is the time to be salt and light.

In this climate, inside and outside the church, what better time to shed light on what’s important, and flavor hot topics with gospel oriented truth. Let us examine ourselves, looking for the marks of a true Christian, and practice philoxenia. Let us not forget that the church’s power was never intended to be derived from force, majority or volume. Rather, its relevance is found in living out gospel truth in humble service of each other and of the disenfranchised.

For the full report on the Lifeway research cited: read here. For fantastic resources on the refugee crisis see GC2 Summit and Seeking Refuge: On the Shores of the Global Refugee Crisis by Stephen Bauman, Matthew Sorens and Dr. Issam Smeir.

About Scott Gustafson

Scott Gustafson has extensive experience in the Middle East as a practitioner and consultant with faith-based charities and churches in humanitarian relief and mission work. He earned his PhD in Religion and Theology from the Vrije Universteit and researched the religious conversion phenomenon among former Muslim refugees in the Levant and the de-radicalization of some violent extremists among them. He is a member of the Extreme Beliefs/Strong Religion working group at the VU, funded by the European Research Council and is the Ambassador Warren Clark Fellow at Churches for Middle East Peace. He earned an MA in Intercultural Studies/Middle East Studies from Moody Graduate School, and a BA in Nursing and Biology from Western Michigan University. He studied Arabic at the University of Jordan and holds a certification through the Cultural Intelligence Centre as a CQ Certified Facilitator. Scott advises large funding agencies as well as indigenous organizations in the Middle East and is an advocate for peace. He speaks to groups about mission, Islam, the Middle East and countering extremism and radicalization. He also helps run a non-profit cycling team. Scott and his wife have 2 children and they live in Grand Rapids, MI. Follow his Substack.

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