The friend who wrote me an email last week was torn. She wanted me to join her campaign to urge the government to accept more refugees – but only if they were Christian refugees.
Perhaps you feel torn too - between mercy and defensiveness, between care for others and care of your own?
Perhaps you’ve experienced that tension between fear and compassion?
On the one hand, for more than a year we’ve been seeing images of ISIS and the brutal beheadings they have carried out in the name of their brand of “Islam”. These images moved us to anger and disgust. We’re grateful there is a vast distance between us and these brutal terrorists.
On the other hand, these past weeks we have seen heart-breaking images of Muslim children who have drowned while trying to escape their war-torn nations. These images moved the world towards compassion and tenderness. We considered whether our own families and our governments could be doing more.
Doubts linger though.
What will happen to this nation, you wonder, if too many Muslims come and settle here? As Christians, are we not called to defend a Christian way of life, maintain a Christian majority in society, and promote a Judeo-Christian value system?
In this post, I will suggest that as followers of Jesus, the most Christ-like thing we could do in the face of this humanitarian crisis, is to welcome Muslim refugees into our communities with open arms.
In fact, there have been very few global tests of our faith as stark as this. But I’m convinced that how we answer this question reveals a lot about how (and whether) we truly follow Jesus.
Here are 10 reasons why I believe it is imperative that Christians welcome Muslim refugees:
1. We don’t have a monopoly on Jesus
When Jesus commanded his followers to “Go into all the world and make disciples” he promised He would be with those followers, saying, "And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age." (Matthew 28:19-20)
So, Jesus is with you and I – His followers - right? Jesus is on our side! That’s a true comfort and a source of strength.
But hold on. Jesus also promised that whenever you welcome the foreigner, the naked and the hungry, you are welcoming Him (Matthew 25:35).
So, Jesus is ALSO with them - the foreigner, the naked and the hungry.
We don’t have a monopoly on Jesus’ presence. He is with everyone, especially the poorest and most vulnerable.
This may be a hard word for us to swallow. It may be jarring to consider that Jesus could be so concerned about our treatment of someone of another religion and ethnicity, that He would declare that our welcome of them is equivalent to our welcoming of God.
But isn’t that what He is saying when He says “Welcome the foreigner and you welcome me”?
He doesn’t say, welcome the foreigner as long as that foreigner is Jewish or converts to Judaism (or Christianity) – because that wouldn’t make any sense. Foreigners, by definition, were almost always of another religion and culture. Yet Jesus identified with them so strongly that He made their welcome a central measure of our faith.
2. Jesus calls us to leave behind our Tribalism
Part of what Jesus is digging at here, is our human tendency towards tribalism. That “Us and Them” mentality that rears its ugly head whenever we feel threatened. Politicians are MASTERS of pressing those tribal buttons. (Donald Trump presses the tribal button gleefully every time he opens his mouth.)
So in Luke 4, when Jesus announces his mission statement - that God would be pouring out His blessing on the poor, the people of Israel are elated. “Good news for the poor? Yes! We’re poor. God is gonna bless us! Yay!”
Tribalism. We’re the chosen ones. We. Are. The. People. Of. God. Got it?
The elation and adulation continues until Jesus points out that God’s blessing must also be poured out on foreigners of other religions. He outlines how there were many widows in Israel, but God felt it necessary to bless a widow in Sidon (located in modern day Lebanon). Sidon was a well-known place of Baal-worship. That widow was certainly not an insider (Luke 4:26).
And then get this - Jesus says, “There were many lepers in Israel…and none of them was healed, except Naaman the Syrian.” (Luke 4:27)
If you needed a word from Jesus about how God wants to bless not only YOUR tribe, but also a foreigner with a foreign religion FROM SYRIA of all places, there it is. Right there in black and white (or red letters if that’s how you roll).
If you know history, you’ll know that we have been playing this awful tribalism game since the beginning of time.
At first, we looked down on Gentiles.
Then Jews, Blacks, Mexicans and the Irish.
Then we were afraid of the “Asian Invasion”.
Now it’s the Muslims.
Nothing has changed. Just the groups we exclude and hate.
It’s time to repent and turn away from our tribalism.
3. Compassion for the alien is central to following Jesus
There are few phrases more repeated in Scripture than the call to care for the orphan, the widow and the alien (or foreigner):
So you, too, must show love to FOREIGNERS, for you yourselves were once FOREIGNERS in the land of Egypt. Deuteronomy 10:19
Cursed is he who distorts the justice due a FOREIGNER, orphan, and widow. And all the people shall say, 'Amen.' Deuteronomy 27:19
“Then I will draw near to you for judgment…against those who oppress the wage earner in his wages, the widow and the orphan, and those who turn aside the FOREIGNER and do not fear Me," says the LORD of hosts. Malachi 3:5
"When you reap your harvest in your field and have forgotten a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it; it shall be for the FOREIGNER, for the orphan, and for the widow, in order that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. Deuteronomy 24:19
"He executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and shows His love for the FOREIGNER by giving him food and clothing.” Deuteronomy 10:17-18
Historically, Christians have been on the forefront of caring for orphans and widows. We all know that such care is central to the teaching and priorities of Jesus, who sought to bring good news to the poor. Now is the true test of our faith. Will we also care for aliens (immigrants, refugees and foreigners) or will we turn our backs, saying they are too hard?
Give us orphans. Give us widows. But do we draw the line at foreigners?
If, at this crucial moment we turn away from the central piece of the gospel - to bring good news to the poor, how can we call ourselves Christians? How can we say we are followers of Jesus? I'm so thankful that the Pope is leading the way on this.
4. Jesus was a refugee
I have already outlined in a previous post how Jesus chose to walk this earth, not as a King, Chief Priest or wealthy landowner, but as an undocumented child refugee to Egypt.
If our Lord and the God of the universe deliberately chose to identify Himself with refugees, don’t be too quick to overlook the significance. Jesus was in solidarity with those we are most likely to overlook or turn away from in disgust and fear.
He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised, and we held him in low esteem. Isaiah 53:3
5. The inaction of others is no excuse
A common ploy of those who want to dodge the call to compassion is to point the finger at others. This crisis has seen certain nations show real leadership – Germany, Austria and Sweden to name a few. There are also certain countries, such as the oil-rich Arab states, that have failed to welcome many refugees – Saudi Arabia, Qatar and UAE and others.
They must be called to account.
But it would be unjust and inaccurate to say that Muslim nations have not welcomed refugees. Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon have more than 4 million Syrian refugees within their borders – far more than have made it to Europe or North America.
At the end of the day, you and I will not be measured against others. God will not ask whether you helped more or less than someone else.
God will only ask whether you sought to practice the teachings of Jesus - to welcome the stranger and live a life of Good News for the poor.
6. ISIS doesn’t have a historical monopoly on brutality
Perhaps you agree with me...in general. But!
Surely, the situation today is different to anything we have faced before? ISIS is much more brutal and evil and dangerous than any group ever seen in history, right? Well, yes and no.
Anyone who argues that ISIS-style torture and execution is unprecedented hasn’t read the history of the Christian church. Perhaps you have heard of a little thang called the Spanish Inquisition? It was a period when Christian leaders tortured and killed thousands of fellow Christians who were considered to be heretics. Here’s a quote from the Pope of those times:
"Anyone who attempts to construe a personal view of God which conflicts with Church dogma must be burned without pity." Pope Innocent III
Dressed in black-robes with black hoods over their heads (um that sounds familiar!), the Inquisitors invented an arsenal of torture devices to inflict pain by slowly dismembering and dislocating the body. Many of the devices were inscribed with the motto "Glory be only to God."
A famous French Inquisitor was known to have regretted his leniency when, instead of having young children accused of witchcraft burned, he had only sentenced them to be flogged while they watched their parents burn.
Thousands of men, women and children were brutally executed by these Christian torturers, resulting in millions of refugees who fled to different parts of Europe and North America.
Of course, now we are civilized. We have developed drones to do our dirty work for us, flying unmanned over countries like Pakistan, dropping bombs on civilians and enemy targets alike. Thousands have been killed by drone strikes during the Obama administration alone.
None of this is meant to excuse the evil acts of ISIS. I condemn their actions. But we must speak out equally against all violence and militarism. Not only that of our enemies.
As Jesus said, “First take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother's eye.” (Matthew 7:5).
7. Only a tiny minority of Muslims are involved with ISIS
Let’s not allow the victims of ISIS and other brutal oppressors like Assad to be overlooked, simply because we are simplistically painting everyone with the same brush.
Estimates of the number of ISIS fighters ranges from tens of thousands to as many as 200,000. Quite a number. But not when you consider that there are 1.6 billion Muslims in the world.
Like me, you’ve probably laughed at Donald Trump and his ridiculous bluster about immigrants and how he would deal with enemies of the United States. But notice, he calls himself a Christian (a Presbyterian to be exact) and claims the Bible is his favourite book.
It doesn’t take many brain cells to determine that Trump is not much of a Christian - that he doesn’t speak for the majority (OK - that he is full of BS). We are grace-filled enough not to tar all Christians with the same Trumped-up brush.
We correctly write him off as a lunatic blowhard rather than an example of Christianity.
But are you willing to apply the same nuance, the same charitable grace, the same understanding, towards Muslims and ISIS?
You should be, because they are humans too. It seems almost ridiculous to have to point this out.
Abdullah Kurdi, the father of Aylan Kurdi, the 3 year old refugee boy found drowned on a beach, was a Muslim. Does anyone question his connections with ISIS?
No, because we recognize his humanity. We recognize that first and foremost he is a grieving father, with all the complexity and humanity of any one of us.
We grieve with him.
8. Jesus calls us to love our enemies
Let us not be naïve though. There is a chance that some of those who seek refugee status have some leanings towards violent radicalism. There is at least a chance of that. (Just as there is a chance, when you meet an American, that they are willing to take up arms against an enemy or drop bombs on them.)
What then is your response to someone who could be considered an enemy?
On this, Jesus is very clear:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, LOVE YOUR ENEMIES and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven." Matthew 5:43-45
You can argue that this is naïve. You can say that it is unrealistic. But you cannot argue that Jesus called us to something different. This is His calling. To love our enemies, even those who persecute us.
I believe that welcoming Muslim refugees, whether you consider them enemies or not, is the most logical and obvious way to show love towards them in their suffering.
Jesus showed us how to love our enemies - not seeking to preserve His life, but to lay it down for those who mocked and sought to destroy Him. Are we willing to pay such a high price for loving like Jesus called us to?
9. Following Jesus is costly
"If you want a religion to make you feel comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity,” said CS Lewis. And this is truly where the rubber hits the road.
If you believe that welcoming Muslims will be costly, then good. Welcoming strangers is costly. It costs time and money and all kinds of other things. Welcoming people who think, act and believe differently is especially costly and difficult.
The folks who welcomed my wife, a vulnerable child refugee, from Cambodia to New Zealand in the early 80’s sacrificed a lot to help her feel welcome. She came from a culture and religious background that was totally different from the majority of the white folks who took her in.
But those Christians knew that we are not called to some wishy-washy, sacrifice-free faith. We follow One who went to the cross and called us to take up that cross ourselves. We follow One who called us to deny ourselves. We follow One who ultimately gave His life for us.
Will we follow that One no matter what the cost?
10. Many Muslims and Christians are now discovering Jesus
Ultimately, what we will see when we are willing to lay down our lives for others is transformation.
Firstly, we “Christians” are the ones who are being converted to the way of Christ when we turn away from tribalism and violence and towards Jesus in the distressing disguise of the poor. When we repent of how we have not loved our enemies, we are converted all over again to the cause of Christ.
And I am grateful that many Muslims are also discovering Jesus as they experience the radical welcome of Christ in new countries. Love transforms lives. Love attracts people to Christ. Love overcomes fear.
Don’t you want to be part of this exciting new movement of welcome? We have an opportunity at this juncture in history to be on the forefront of a movement for radical hospitality.
Sadly, Christians often miss what the Spirit is doing. Let's not miss it this time.
The world is watching and we have an amazing opportunity to love our neighbors.