For thousands of years the people of God have been part of the ever-unfolding story of exiles and migrants in the world. We have been refugees, refugee-makers, and sources of refuge. This is no less the reality today, despite our lull into inevitably fleeting comfort in the West.
As we assess the Church’s role in the story—I am speaking particularly about our role as a source of refuge—we should not only acknowledge our place in it, but the uniqueness of our place. States, international organizations, NGOs, and religious and humanist groups of many stripes have a job to do in responding to the refugeeism of our age, but the Church above all has a singular duty.
The entire Christian life is summed up in the great commandments to love God and to love our neighbors—both friends and enemies. Any church that denies these commands is no church at all. The trouble forever is figuring out what this means in daily life. The Church, after all, is not only a minister of the gospel; it is part of the gospel. We cannot separate our duty to speak the Word and to do the Word. The latter, in fact, is a no less essential form of obedience. And just as we administer the sacraments, we must administer the love of God in a way that only the Church can.
The clearest example of the love of God is Jesus himself, who came not to be served, but to serve. He thought of others above himself. He sacrificed. He condescended. He humbled himself. Jesus set aside his own security and comfort and departed all the treasuries of heaven to take upon himself the status of a refugee and the risk of providing refuge.
Is anything less expected of the Church? Any less service? Any less humility?
The answer is a resounding no.
The Church has a role to play in responding to refugeeism because of the model we are given in ecclesial history and, far more importantly, in Christ. Its role is unique for three reasons: 1) the Church can and must act where others merely should, 2) our shepherd showed us how to respond by responding to us, and 3) we must not only help, we must make ourselves like those we are helping.
1. The Church Can and Must Act
Egypt was the breadbasket of the biblical world. It was from the bounty of the Nile that many of Scripture’s refugees found sustenance. Today, the rich West is the equivalent breadbasket, and the Church here needs to be generous. We need to help simply because we have the power to do what many others cannot.
The cited sin of Sodom was not its debauchery; it was that they did not care for those in need. “She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy” (Ezek. 16:49). Let the same never be said of us.
The Church can respond powerfully to refugeeism because, unlike polities, it is not loyal to any ethnicity or nationality. Its agenda concerns all humankind—not any subset. It is not bound by the same nationalistic whims as the United Nations, nor the permissions or budgets that constrain NGOs.
The Church is without borders. It is above geography—though not apart from it. We worship in spirit and in truth, not at a holy city or on a sacred mountain, and so we can never let distance, terrain, or statecraft be a hindrance to our worship and service.
Above all, the Church is fueled by the infinite power of the Spirit, given the example of the Savior of the universe, and directed by the Father and Master of all. What is impossible for men is possible with God, and the Church is his main instrument on earth.
Whereas governments and international organizations might create self-mandates to act charitably or to serve the poor, they are never bound to anything but their own ideals, noble as they may be. At the end of the day, these entities always have access to excuses. The Church is without excuse (2 Cor. 4:5; Gal. 5:13). Our King and exemplar came not to be served, but to serve (Mark 10:45). Likewise, God has called us to care for widows and orphans, to welcome the stranger, feed the hungry, and clothe the naked.
The Church’s mandate is not manmade. It comes from the King. And by living in the promptings of the Spirit, by joyfully serving in obedience to the King, we become more like Christ, and therefore more fully human.
The role of the democratic State is to represent the people’s will to power. The State must be self-interested. The statesman’s chief virtue is patriotism. The role of the Church, on the other hand, is to represent God’s will to serve (and love, sanctify, teach, correct, and save). It must be God-centered and outwardly focused. The Christian’s chief virtue is her love for the Lord and for the other.
John F. Kennedy asked us how we could serve our country. Jesus asks us how we can serve the whole world—and then he tells us to go do it. Therefore, love as service—this imitation of Christ—is the privilege and duty of discipleship.
To be sure, many governments and NGOs do excellent work and the world’s refugees would be much worse off without them. Often, they actually put the Church to shame in their generosity of money and manpower. But while these entities should serve, the Church must serve if it is to be the Church at all—not in an objectifying way, but in a truly humanizing way. What is more, the Church must live up to its call even when other bodies fail, even when the Kingdom work comes into conflict with the worldly workers. This is to say the Church’s role in providing safety and care for the stranger may at times put it in tension with the State.
While the Church is commanded to respect the State, it must have a greater respect for the divine law, of which care for the stranger is integral. At the same time as we live in the powerlessness of the cross—demonstrated in a history of harassment and martyrdom—we also live in the power of the cross—the power to sacrifice for the sake of love, to persevere in the face of incredible suffering, and to empty ourselves of all but faithfulness.
2. Jesus Showed Us How to Respond by Responding to Us
Jesus is often painted like a divinely-appointed guest worker. He took on a human body 2,000 years ago and dropped into our land, visiting for a few decades to accomplish his mission. The popular narrative describes him as an alien among us, one who must be tolerated by the native population.
While not a wrong perspective, the more appropriate telling begins with the fact that the world belongs to Jesus and not us. We are the aliens here. We are the guests. We are the exiles, not Jesus. His response to the world is one that comes with legitimate authority because this is his world and the rest of us are just living in it. When we recognize this simple fact—that we are the wanderers and God is host—we permit ourselves to see Jesus’ response to humanity as the model for the Church’s response to all those who are lost and lowly.
When Jesus talks about hospitality he says:
When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous. – Luke 14:12-14
The words may sound cheap. The work is priceless.
Jesus lived them out.
He was criticized by the elites of his day for associating with the world’s throwaways. But Jesus’ business was living amongst prostitutes, lepers, and tax collectors, those that more respectable persons prefer to ignore, if not oppress and marginalize.
This perspective is made even more relevant to our time by the fact that when Jesus came, humanity was not only alienated from God, it was actually an enemy of God. Especially since 9/11, the view of the stranger as an enemy is the default position. Global refugee policy has shifted from a stance of hospitality toward a stance of “anti-terror.” Policy and the cultural attitude are not for something; they are against something, distrustful, afraid. In terms of refugeeism, that “something” is usually people. Fortunately, God’s policy toward the alien is not so fearful. The Church’s policy toward the alien cannot be fearful either.
Jesus came to the world he created, the world that was already his, and to the people who were outcasts and foreigners, products of their fallen nature. We can learn a great deal from Jesus’ response to people. He interacted with them, even those who disagreed with him and spoke badly of him. He welcomed people to himself. He did not lord over them, though he was their Lord. He did not neglect them, reject them, or subjugate them; he served them. Jesus treated people better than they deserved and far better than they treated him. He gave them food and water. He let them give him food and water too. Jesus asked the pilgrims around him to participate in his mission, and therefore enrich it. Even though we were foreigners, he showed us love and compassion.
When people met Jesus they might have hated him and sought his ruin, or they might have loved him and felt themselves worthless by comparison. To the first reaction Jesus answered hatred with love, threats and violence with forgiveness, and rejection with open arms. To the second reaction Jesus acknowledged and edified the dignity and value of every human person.
Refugees—and host communities—may be afraid, but God is not afraid. Refugees today may feel worthless, but that can be changed by the love of God and that love expressed by the words and works of the Church.
Christ paves the way and the Spirit empowers our good work. Let us love as Christ loves. Let us welcome as Christ welcomes. Let us serve as Christ serves.
3. We Must Make Ourselves Like Those We Are Helping
It is beautiful and terrifying that God became a man in order to save sinners. It is perhaps more beautiful and terrifying that he did not become a powerful Roman general or a renowned Jewish Pharisee. He chose the way of the stranger.
We know it was God himself who created the cosmos and so is not an alien to it any more than an architect is an alien in his own construction. For that very reason, it is amazing that God freely adopted the status of the alien. He was king, but came as a lowly wanderer. He was ruler of the world, but came as a refugee. He sought solidarity with his image-bearers.
Through this act of infinite humility—for the highest divinity to enter the lowest humanity—Jesus demonstrated that which should be our goal with regard to the alien: empathy.
Jesus became a man of sorrows. He was familiar with our pains and knew our trials. He knew rejection and marginalization. He experienced all the temptations that are common to man. He adopted poverty and homelessness, not to prove a point, but to know the dirty humanness of humanity. The Word declares the beautiful necessity of becoming all things to all men, making ourselves servants to servants. Only in this way can we speak credibly into hardship and feel genuine empathy for those who are suffering.
This should inspire real jitters in the honest Christian. If we are going to imitate Christ in the way he responded to “the other,” and if we are going to empathize with the modern refugee, a definite humbling is required.
Likely we are not all demanded to flee our homes and take up as roaming exiles among the Roma or in an Ethiopian refugee camp, but maybe some of us are. We need to be willing to get down in the dirt. Many of us, like the rich young ruler, need to give away our wealth. Maybe we need to actually live among refugees, whether that be in a neighborhood in our city, at the local food pantry, or in another country altogether. And what we must do above all is recognize that we too are the product of displacement and alienation—and the producers and beneficiaries of the displacement and alienation of others. We, like all men, are uprooted in the world.
The Church cannot be fearful of what is foreign, discriminate against what is different, or reject that which costs resources. The Church can never truly be overwhelmed, but it is most the Church when it feels overwhelmed. That is when it knows itself most dependent on God.
The State’s first obligation is to its own people. Any aid it offers to foreigners is bonus points. The Church, however, has a duty to foreigners. It cannot be self-centered; it must be self-sacrificing. Followers of Jesus are called not only to care outwardly, but to greater brotherhood and equality than has been known by any of us. We are called so far as to love the world’s untouchables—“Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me” (Matt. 25:40).
The Church has a unique faith and mission because ours is a religion of life by way of death, of joy not just in the middle of sorrow, but through it. And so even the Almighty became meek, became poor, became fragile and destitute, so that, as he promised, the last should be made first and the high places be made plains. God himself became a servant, in bondage to the polluting darkness of his once bright creation. But he overcame, and overcomes yet on our behalf. The slave is made free. The uprooted family is given a land where it can settle and grow. The homeless, in the end, find homes.