The powers and principalities of this world are what they are, and while they can certainly be reformed, we should not expect they can be fully redeemed at this stage of the gospel narrative. As such, it is grace that Christians are not only citizens of earthly countries, but also of a supranational Kingdom, one not disposed to borders or visas.
It is also grace that the Christian is, at all times, the saint and servant of that Kingdom as it presents itself in the flesh and dust of earth.
The Church lives within this Kingdom. And because we are not passersby but participants in the Church, we have the great privilege and duty of bringing all its material resources and sacred grit to bear on the problems of the universe.
To put it plainly, the Church must come to the aid of refugees. It has done this in many times and in many places throughout history, yet the numbers and the headlines prove more is required. Such is the watchword of the Kingdom of Christ: More is required. Not to earn salvation, but to live up to it.
Jesus gave everything for our salvation, for reconciliation with God, and to usher in the Kingdom. Our highest imitation of our savior is to give our own dearest everything. “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friend” (John 15:13).
Have we given until it hurts? Have we truly made ourselves servants to all? Have we bled?
I write now not to condemn North American Christians for an absent response, but because their response, much of it generous and noble, has been largely absent-minded. I write to supplement goodwill with good thinking and good practice. This series lays out a sort of theology of refugees. I hope it will be of use to make Christians’ response to refugeeism less arbitrary and more rooted, less scatter-brained and more reasoned, and most of all less anxious and more hopeful.
Stories and Questions
Stories of war and desperation, flight and fear, are enough today to fill libraries. And while there have always been refugees, in recent history the problem of displaced persons has spiraled once again out of control. Without a spiritual and political change of heart, it bodes only to get worse.
Every single refugee has a story. Some are heart-wrenching and some are horrifying, but they are all a reflection both of human resilience and human depravity. There is a place for each of those stories to be told—and they must be told. My intention, however, is not to guilt into action, or to drive to despair, or to bait with paragraphs of poverty porn—though I am sympathetic that stories of genuine suffering can be told at appropriate times and in appropriate places, in ways that are not exploitative. Rather, my intention in this series is to call the North American Church to action, to espouse a healthy, helpful theology of refugeeism, and to respond to sincere fears and questions.
Who are refugees in a world fallen from grace?
What is the relationship between refugees and the Church?
How is our pursuit of God and his Kingdom manifested in that relationship?
And, ultimately, how now should we live?
The Difference in Response Between Church and State
Responding to refugeeism is the State’s obligation. It is the Church’s joy and honor.
The Church does not need to love refugees because the State has failed, but because it is the hands and feet of the Teacher. In the end, the State and the UN and the Rotary Club have nothing to do with our present mission. The Church has a responsibility apart from all other earthly powers. Its duty is to put love on the offensive. Its mandate is also its joy.
This challenge is a chance.
Suffering, storms, sickness, poverty, grief, despair: these are the provinces of the Church. This is where it lives. Where it works. Where it booms. It is one of the great spiritual ironies that these are the territories the evil one chooses for his operations, because it is here that the Kingdom thrives. By the blossoms of good Christian work—service, reconciliation, transformation, giving life—and with the grace and guidance of the Spirit of God, it is here, on ground of the devil’s own choosing, that the Church will most powerfully prevail.
But wait. Isn’t this already happening? Haven’t we done our part?
Some will point to individual Christians or churches that have taken up the cross of a certain social ethic, answering the call of refugees in our time, and say, “Look, the work is underway!” That, surely, is an indispensable good. But individual efforts, like State-sponsored aid, are insufficient. The vital thing is that the Church—the whole body—discern, decree, and dispense in a coherent Christian ethic.
It is well and good for churchmen to do what they can in the service of others, for the sake of the world and for their own conscience. But the Church, too, has a conscience, a Spirit. It must rediscover it constantly, not because it changes, but because we forget. The Church must reorient itself, from the leadership to the laymen, in accordance with this Kingdom conscience. It must incarnate it.
It is partly an issue of coordination, but even more of collective will and action.
The Action of the Church
I know many churches sponsoring refugees and sending relief buckets, and I know even more Christians signing petitions and giving money for the reprieve of refugees. What grace! What glory! But until the Church united, the entire Body of Christ, whole-heartedly permits itself to be refashioned by the Spirit in the mold of human service and empowerment according to divine direction, in the shape of love for both brothers and enemies, the work of individuals and individual churches will remain inadequate. The Christian response to human uprootedness today must not be indecisive. It must have the heft and authority of the whole Church behind it.
In all of this, I do not mean to say we should desire to do this work of meeting the many needs of the world’s displaced persons with the Church alone. The issue is large. It requires nothing short of everything. It is certainly too rooted in economics and politics to neglect the State and too personal and intimate to disregard individual action. But we know the Church is the only institution hell can never overcome, so in any fight with a problem from hell, the Church must be on the frontline. Its voice must be heard.
For palaces and parliaments, this is all an expensive political game. By its very nature the State must be self-seeking. Its paramount care must be its own survival, or it will cease to exist. The Church works in the inverse way. When it becomes self-seeking, then it ceases to exist. Rather, the goal of the Church is to love God and love neighbors as ourselves. That love certainly manifests itself in the salvation of souls, but no less in accompaniment to the poor, care for widows and orphans, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and making room for the displaced.
A shrinking world is the place for the Church to grow. The Kingdom must welcome the demography of our increasingly global village, as it has since Jesus called us all brothers, since Paul told us there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave or free. But even as the world sees itself flat, the Church must open its eyes to the crags and valleys of the human condition.
It is on the plain of this shrinking, flattening, burning world that those seeking refuge are looking outward, frantic for tangible help. Many do not know who they are looking for, only what. And so the opportunity is now for the Church to shine its light and give all it has to give.
The world may be flat, but the Church remains a city on a hill. We cannot confine God to a ghettoized church, as though the King of the universe has no authority outside of pulpits and pews. His Kingdom addresses every issue, inside sanctuaries, but also far beyond their walls.
Be the Church.
Do not back down.
Do not sit out.
From under the wings of the Almighty to the brutal shadow of refugeeism, go, give, and positively glow with the glorious love of God.