Tuesday, May 16, 2017

A Christian Response to the Global Refugee Crisis

There is much talk about refugees in the world today.  To be honest, I wanted to post about the refugee crisis long ago.  There was probably some fear in the decision to wait this long.  I pastor a congregation with very diverse views, and a conversation like this could have some fallout.  However, when it comes to the global refugee crisis, I cannot remain silent.  Since the time of the early Israelites, God has called his people to care for the foreigner, the alien, the refugee.  What does that look like in a Biblical sense, and what may that look like in 2017?  This article may have more questions than answers, and that is simply because this is a large, complicated topic.  The lives of suffering people are on the line, but there is an argument that assisting the lives of some puts the lives of others at risk.  I tread carefully as we wade into this topic.

I feel like the national conversation has moved far beyond the refugee crisis by this point.  However, much of the dialogue about the refugee crisis has been political in nature, with a couple of Bible verses thrown in for good measure.  I wanted to add to the dialogue by looking at much of what God is doing throughout scripture, and what God's heart is for the modern refugee.
Let's begin with defining what exactly a refugee is:  A refugee is someone who has fled one’s home country and cannot return because of a well-founded fear of persecution based on religion, race, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group (RefugeeOne, UN Refugees, World Relief).  This will remain our working definition of a refugee.  We find that in the time of the early Israelites, "refugee" was used similarly.
The God of the Mountain in the Middle of Nowhere

Let's begin our look at scripture with a mountain.  Many scholars today believe Mt. Sinai is in the Sinai peninsula.  The traditional site is Jebel Musa (Mountain of Moses), which is called Mount Sinai today.  I rode a camel up Jebel Musa in 2010.  It began as an amazing experience, and then became less fun when the pain began.  Riding a camel all the way up Jebel Musa is excruciating for a guy.  Let's just say that sitting on a camel stretches your legs apart to their limit, and then the camel bucks up and down.  But I digress.
Many scholars think Mount Sinai was actually further east, possibly around Petra.  This would be in the Jordan wilderness.  This is an area with no water around, no great source of life around, and no cities around at the time.  This was far away from Egypt and the Canaanites.  This area is a desert wasteland.  YHWH (The LORD) is said to be from Mount Sinai in Deuteronomy.  YHWH is also said to be from Teman and Paran in Habakkuk 3. YHWH is actually claiming to be from specific areas.  And these areas are wasteland/wilderness places.  Now there may be some confusion here, so let's clear that up.  YES, God is the creator of all things, and no, God is not “from” anywhere.  But at this time, people from different areas believed in various gods, and believed that these gods were from different places. And this God, YHWH, is said to be from a mountain in the middle of nowhere.
This God is an outsider.
Why does this matter?  Well, God is the one who pulled outsiders out of Egypt.  He’s the one who (as we will see) continuously calls people to care for outsiders. He's the God who cares for outsiders, and thus portrays himself as an outsider to remind the people that they are outsiders and are to care for outsiders. (My thanks to Jason Bembry for this insight)
If you follow this God, YHWH, you are to therefore care for outsiders, because you were outsiders, and the God that you follow is an outsider.
Also you shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the heart of a stranger, because you were strangers in the land of Egypt. -Exodus 23:9
"Stranger," "alien," or "foreigner" in this time period and for this Israelite culture meant not only someone foreign (well, it DID mean that…), but someone vulnerable socioeconomically.  The closest equivalent, which is appropriate in this political climate, is actually a “refugee.”  There’s a monstrous refugee crisis around the world right now, and there has been heated discussion of positives and negatives regarding refugees in America.  
It is important, therefore, to note that an "alien" would have been someone displaced by war or famine. It is someone foreign who was vulnerable, poor, below their “poverty” line (whatever that would have been), and who wouldn’t have much pull politically.  They have no leverage in society.  They have nothing.  An "alien" often had to leave their land under fear, duress, or lack of safety, and to settle elsewhere.
To put this in perspective: Having a house or land gives you power and stability. This is true today: There is safety in having a place that is yours.  There is power: you don’t have a mailing address, you’re in trouble, right?  You have walls and a bed, you have a safe place to sleep where you won’t be harassed.  Also, the more money you have, the more you can count on potential justice in life.  Technically all people have access to a lawyer in litigious situations.  But if you have more money or more to barter with, you have opportunity for a better lawyer.  So there is more opportunity for justice if you’re wronged.  This was all true in the Israelites' time as well.  And in this time, if you had land, you could grow crops.  So YHWH protects aliens because they were in a more vulnerable socioeconomic situation.
God required this partially because it’s a part of the Israelites’ past.  They were aliens in Egypt.  They had to flee because of hardship.  They were refugees.  He also required these protections  because the aliens were in a vulnerable position. The Israelites are to be hospitable.  
In Leviticus, YHWH admonishes the people: "Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord" Lev.19:18.  Later in the chapter, YHWH expands his call to love your neighbor: "When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. 34 The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God."  In Deuteronomy10:17-19 " For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. 18 He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. 19 And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt."  YHWH loves aliens, his people are also to love aliens.  YHWH loved the Israelites when they were aliens, and he continues to love aliens.  We're to follow God in loving aliens.

This was a shockingly protective, innovative help to the disenfranchised at the time.  How does this change during the time of Jesus?

In Mark 10, we read a story about a blind man named Bartimaeus.
46 Then they came to Jericho. As Jesus and his disciples, together with a large crowd, were leaving the city, a blind man, Bartimaeus (which means “son of Timaeus”), was sitting by the roadside begging. 47 When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”
48 Many rebuked him and told him to be quiet, but he shouted all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”
49 Jesus stopped and said, “Call him.”
So they called to the blind man, “Cheer up! On your feet! He’s calling you.” 50 Throwing his cloak aside, he jumped to his feet and came to Jesus.
51 “What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asked him.
The blind man said, “Rabbi, I want to see.”
52 “Go,” said Jesus, “your faith has healed you.” Immediately he received his sight and followed Jesus along the road.  

People don’t want this man talking to Jesus.  He is disenfranchised, just as foreigners would have been during the time of the early Israelites.  Jesus, however, engages and heals Bartimaeus.
Jesus continued to show God's love to people, and continued to fight anger and hate with love to the outcasts, the disenfranchised, the outsiders. It ultimately took him to the cross.

God portrayed himself as an outsider to teach others that they’re to care for outsiders.
Jesus cared for outsiders to show his followers that they’re to care for outsiders.

There are people who are oppressed in society. There are those who have little hope.  There are those who are troubled.  There are those who are simply trying to survive.  We can debate how best to help those in these circumstances, but the fact is, the God of the Mountain in the Middle of Nowhere calls his people to be wanderers, calls his people to care for the outsider.  He is the God of the outsider.  He considers himself to be "from" the wilderness, and he calls his people to consider themselves outsiders as well.  Wanderers. Foreigners. At the end of the Gospels, Jesus doesn’t keep his people where they are, he sends them out.  God continues to call his people to be outsiders, and to care for the outsider.

God calls his people to help those who need help. This is not debatable.

Prophets and Refugees

We have those for whom we may discriminate, we have those who do evil and we consider enemies, and now we have the lowly.  In this text, God tells the people that he defends the orphan, the widow, and the aliens.  He tells the Israelites that because they are his chosen people, they are to circumcise their hearts and care for the poor, oppressed, orphans, widows, and aliens just as God does.
God cares for the aliens. God cares for the orphans and the widows. God cares for the poor and the oppressed.  This continued to be God’s message to his people throughout the Old Testament.  God spoke to Judah and Israel through his prophets.  Amos had some hard hitting remarks for God’s people. At the time of Amos, God’s people in Israel thought that the day of the LORD would be wonderful, and they thought they had favor with God.  Unfortunately, God had another idea about what this Day of the Lord might look like...
11 You levy a straw tax on the poor    and impose a tax on their grain.
Therefore, though you have built stone mansions,
    you will not live in them;
though you have planted lush vineyards,
    you will not drink their wine.
12 For I know how many are your offenses
    and how great your sins.

There are those who oppress the innocent and take bribes
    and deprive the poor of justice in the courts.
13 Therefore the prudent keep quiet in such times,
    for the times are evil.
14 Seek good, not evil,
    that you may live.
Then the Lord God Almighty will be with you,
    just as you say he is.
15 Hate evil, love good;
    maintain justice in the courts.
Perhaps the Lord God Almighty will have mercy
    on the remnant of Joseph.
16 Therefore this is what the Lord, the Lord God Almighty, says:
“There will be wailing in all the streets
    and cries of anguish in every public square.
The farmers will be summoned to weep
    and the mourners to wail.
17 There will be wailing in all the vineyards,
    for I will pass through your midst,”
says the Lord.
18 Woe to you who long
    for the day of the Lord!
Why do you long for the day of the Lord?
    That day will be darkness, not light.
19 It will be as though a man fled from a lion
    only to meet a bear,
as though he entered his house
    and rested his hand on the wall
    only to have a snake bite him.
20 Will not the day of the Lord be darkness, not light—
    pitch-dark, without a ray of brightness?
21 “I hate, I despise your religious festivals;
    your assemblies are a stench to me.
22 Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings,
    I will not accept them.
Though you bring choice fellowship offerings,
    I will have no regard for them.
23 Away with the noise of your songs!
    I will not listen to the music of your harps.
24 But let justice roll on like a river,
    righteousness like a never-failing stream!
God’s message through Amos is that right living involves more than songs and festivals.  If the poor and the innocent are being oppressed, then you are not living according to the will and ways of God.  Then, later, Micah had a similar message for the people of Judah. 
With what shall I come before the Lord
    and bow down before the exalted God?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
    with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
    with ten thousand rivers of olive oil?
Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression,
    the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
    And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
    and to walk humbly with your God.

 At the time of Micah, sin offerings were sacrifices.  Animal sacrifices, or as we see in this text, if it came to it, child sacrifices.  But Micah says that what the LORD requires is for the people to act justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly.  God isn’t looking for sacrifices.  He’s looking for justice.  God wants Mercy.  He wants Humility.
God wants the people to love the oppressed and the aliens among the people.  This did not end with the early Israelites.  The message from God for Judah when Judah and Jerusalem were prospering is that God does not care for assemblies, offerings, and feasts if justice is not being done.  Act justly, love mercy.  This was only enhanced by Jesus, who called people to love their enemies.  To love and pray for enemies, the ones they hated.  Why?  Because, like we see in this text from Deuteronomy, God loves everyone in the world, and he has a special care for the orphan, the widow, and the alien.  They are to be loved and defended.

Sharing the Body and Blood with Foreigners, Refugees, Immigrants

           The people are in slavery.  They are held captive by Pharaoh, and forced to do heavy labor.  God shows up and tells Moses that he is going to use Moses to lead the people out of slavery.  He is going to rescue the people.  On the night that he intends to save his people, God tells the people to eat a meal.  The preparation of this meal is very specific, and each family is to follow these instructions to the letter.  So all of the Israelites take a blemish-free lamb on this night, roast it in the fire, and eat it with unleavened bread and bitter herbs.  They eat this meal fully dressed, as God commanded them to do.  And, they place the lamb’s blood on their doorposts, as God also commanded of them.  This meal became the first Passover.  God told them to make it a tradition.  This meal also became a transition point for the Israelites.  They transitioned from being a people ruled by Pharaoh to a people who were ruled by God.
           One year later, God tells Moses to command the Israelites to have the Passover meal again.  This second Passover will mark another transition.  The Israelites have been training and receiving laws and statutes over the past year.  Many, many laws.  If you have ever read the book of Leviticus, you know what I am talking about.  God has given the Israelites these laws to guide them in the sort of people they will become.  Now, at the time of this Passover, the people will transition from a people who learn and receive laws, to a people on the move.  As the first Passover transitioned the people into a people under God, this Passover will transition them into a mobile people.  In Numbers 9, we learn about this second Passover:
    The Lord spoke to Moses in the Desert of Sinai in the first month of the second year after they came out of Egypt. He said, 2 “Have the Israelites celebrate the Passover at the appointed time. 3 Celebrate it at the appointed time, at twilight on the fourteenth day of this month, in accordance with all its rules and regulations.
4 So Moses told the Israelites to celebrate the Passover, 5 and they did so in the Desert of Sinai at twilight on the fourteenth day of the first month. The Israelites did everything just as the Lord commanded Moses.
           God commanded the people to meet together for the Passover, as they did in Egypt.  So those who were able met together and shared the Passover meal.  Not everybody could meet together, however.
But some of them could not celebrate the Passover on that day because they were ceremonially unclean on account of a dead body. So they came to Moses and Aaron that same day and said to Moses, “We have become unclean because of a dead body, but why should we be kept from presenting the Lord’s offering with the other Israelites at the appointed time?
Moses answered them, “Wait until I find out what the Lord commands concerning you.”
“How important is it for me to come?”  That’s what the people were thinking.  They were ritually unclean from touching a corpse.  For the Israelites, being ritually unclean was seen as a contagious condition.  So they really couldn’t join the Passover meal, or everybody else would be unclean as well, something that took seven days to undo.  So they’re saying “How essential is it that I share in the Passover meal?”  Moses says tells them to wait.  “I’ll check with God,” he says.
Then the Lord said to Moses, 10 “Tell the Israelites: ‘When any of you or your descendants are unclean because of a dead body or are away on a journey, they are still to celebrate the Lord’s Passover, 11 but they are to do it on the fourteenth day of the second month at twilight. They are to eat the lamb, together with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. 12 They must not leave any of it till morning or break any of its bones. When they celebrate the Passover, they must follow all the regulations. 13 But if anyone who is ceremonially clean and not on a journey fails to celebrate the Passover, they must be cut off from their people for not presenting the Lord’s offering at the appointed time. They will bear the consequences of their sin.
14 “‘A foreigner residing among you is also to celebrate the Lord’s Passover in accordance with its rules and regulations. You must have the same regulations for both the foreigner and the native-born.’”
God gives those who are unclean a way to share in the meal as well.  Unlike the original Passover, which was supposed to be shared on one specific day, God makes an exception for those who are unclean, and those who are away during the Passover meal.  They are to share the meal together the following month.  The unclean would have a chance to become ritually clean again, and those who are absent will have returned from their journeys.
In addition, God invites the aliens among the Israelite people.  Those who would normally be cut out of the ceremony are given the opportunity to join the people in sharing the Passover.  Some have said that the “aliens” among the people may refer to those who have aligned themselves with the people and live under Yahweh’s rule, but have not yet been circumcised.  Nevertheless, whether “aliens” refers truly to non-Israelites, or merely to those who have not yet been circumcised, it is striking that God invites the aliens to join in the Passover meal.
God invites the ritually unclean.
God invites the aliens.
God includes those who would not normally be included.
This passage is much more inclusive than exclusive.  The only people who God speaks of in a negative way in this passage are those who are ritually clean, are able to take the Passover, and do not take it.  In Exodus 12, when Yahweh is first giving the instructions about how to take the Passover, he says “You shall observe the festival of unleavened bread, for on this very day I brought your companies out of the land of Egypt: you shall observe this day throughout your generations as a perpetual ordinance.”
Aside from this one stipulation, however, everybody is invited to join in the Passover meal.  Israelites with foreigners.  The clean, the unclean.  Those on a journey, and those who have remained at home.  The people join together, and communally remember God’s love and providence for them.  All are invited, and all are connected with each other through this meal.  God does not exclude any from joining in the meal.
Many, many years later, another Passover meal brings a transition for God’s people.  A small group of people joins together to share the meal, and the one who was leading the meal took the bread.  Instead of remembering the exodus from Egypt, however, he said, “This bread is my body, broken for you.”  Then he took the cup and said, “This cup is my blood, shed for you.”  The Passover tradition was changed, and this Passover marked another transition for God’s people.
What is striking about this meal, however, is who was present.  Jesus is leading the Passover meal, and Judas Iscariot, the man who was to betray him, is at the table.  In addition, present at the table is Simon the Zealot.  Zealots were Jewish people who believed that God was going to intervene in what they saw as a fallen world, and in order to join with God, they believed that they had to take radical, violent action against their oppressors.  In this case, their oppressors were the Romans.  So they killed Romans.  In 21st century America, we would probably call these people “terrorists.”  Joining Simon the Zealot at the table is Matthew, who is a tax collector for Rome.
A tax collector for Rome.
A man who kills Romans.
Jesus brings together Simon, Matthew, and Judas with him at the table.  Like the second Passover meal, at this table all are invited, and all are connected together.
           In the book of 1 Corinthians, we see Paul responding to a crisis in the church.  As people come together for the Lord’s supper, many are not receiving any food.  Some of the people in the church are taking a lot of food and drink for themselves, and leaving nothing for others.  Paul commands them to share in the meal equally, to “wait for one another.”  He tells the Corinthians to allow all people to eat together.  Like the Passover meals, Paul says that at the Lord’s supper all should be invited.
           So where does this leave us?  Every single week, we hear a short communion meditation, the elders come forward, take these trays, and pass them across the rows.  Everybody eats a Chiclet of bread and takes a shot of juice, and we normally hear a message about how Christ died for us.  It’s a very personal event.  I think something more is going on in this meal, however.  As we look at the Passover meals and the Lord’s suppers throughout scripture, it is clear that there is something much more corporate going on.  As we share the bread and the cup, we are connecting ourselves to the people around us.  We are joined to those who are taking the bread and the cup with us.  We are acknowledging that we are one with everybody else taking this meal.  Even those people we may not like.  The church is meant to be an inclusive group of people, who do not show favoritism between different people.  We are a community of love and acceptance.  If we cannot be that people, then we really should not be sharing in this meal at all.
           Jesus modeled love, inclusivity, and acceptance.  He joined those at the table who by all accounts should not have been in the same room together.  Through his example, we can see that our guiding principle should be love.  We should not play favorites.  We must understand that those who profess themselves as Christians and take this meal with us are joined together with us.  As we consider the refugee crisis, we must remember that God called the people to share in the Passover meal with the foreigner, the alien, the refugee.  If we are taking communion each week at church, and we're supporting a ban on refugees, then we have missed a major theme of communion, which is communing with all people who profess faith in God.


When I speak to somebody who is angry about something I've said in a sermon, as I listen it becomes clear that this person is angry about what I haven't said.  "Why didn't you address abortion?"  (inner monologue: "Because it was a message about stewardship").  There's often a fear of something being talked about in the world that concerns this person--something that I didn't address in that week's sermon.
Fear dictates many of our reactions as humans.
Fear is not a bad emotion.  In fact, fear is life-saving at times.  Fear causes us to look both ways before we cross the street.  Fear causes us to duck under something or throw our hands up if we see someone with a gun.  Fear causes us to study hard when finals are approaching.  Fear causes us to use a walker or a cane when our legs are not working in the ways that they should.  Fear is a motivator, and it can be very effective.
Unfortunately, fear can also lead to uncritical thinking.  It can lead to unnecessary or unwarranted outbursts.  
Fear is what drives America to attack its enemies with drone strikes which can and have caused the deaths of civilians.  
Fear causes people to demonize, vilify, and throw baseless accusations at another group of people simply for wanting a particular person in the White House.  
Fear causes people to put many who are mentally ill into prison instead of giving them the help and support that they need and deserve.  
Fear causes Christians who believe in a God who cared for the oppressed and the alien throughout the Old Testament (see Exodus 22:21, Exodus 23:9, Numbers 9:14, Jeremiah 29:10-14), and who was himself an alien (Matthew 2:13-18), to want to shut refugees out of the country.
We think that most of these examples are motivated by anger, but in actuality they are motivated by fear.  Fear of the unknown.  A desire for safety.  Fear of what could be.
It seems that those who have made the decision to reform immigration are aware of the power of fear.  Each time that this plan is presented to the American people, it is under the guise of “people are coming in to kill us, and we need to keep them out.”  Fear is a great motivator, but it is not how we are to engage the world as Christians.
On top of this, according to World Relief, the refugee screening process is extremely thorough already.  The average time before a refugee enters the US is 18 months to 3 years.  In that time, first, the UN High Commissioner identifies whether or not somebody would qualify as a refugee. They are then referred by the United Nations to possibly the US, or possibly somewhere else. Two security checks are done, Homeland Security does an in person interview, then they must be approved by DHS, medically screened, partnered with a sponsor agency, trained in cultural orientation, checked at the airport, and finally are admitted to the US. A terrorist coming to the United States via the refugee system would be a terrible terrorist. He or she would never get through, and it would take years for that decision to be made.  (For more on the refugee process)
Conversely, if we are trying to keep people from becoming radicalized, then banning immigration into the country is probably working against that end.
Fear should not be our motivator.  The statistics show that barring people from safety to keep terrorists out is an unfounded fear.
We should always, always, always look to God's work in the world, and how God is calling his people to act.  Throughout scripture, God calls his people to care for the foreigner, the oppressed, the alien, the downtrodden, the refugee.
Franklin Graham recently said:  Some are also criticizing Christians who support the president's position on immigration—and I'm one of those being criticized. But we have to realize that the president's job is not the same as the job of the church. As Christians, we are clearly taught in the Bible to care for the poor and oppressed. At Samaritan's Purse, we have been working in the Middle East for over 30 years. We've provided things like food, heaters, blankets, coats, shelter plastic and more for tens of thousands of refugees there and in other places around the world. We just opened a 55-bed field trauma hospital in northern Iraq where we're treating Muslims who are being wounded by other Muslims in the fight over Mosul. As Christians we are commanded to help all, regardless of religious background or ethnicity, like the Good Samaritan Jesus shared about in the Bible. Our job is to show God's love and compassion. I believe the best way to help is to reach out and help these people in their own countries. I support the establishment of safe zones inside Syria and Iraq that would be protected by the international community until a political solution is found. We need to pray for political solutions that would bring peace and allow them to return to their homes as they desire.
Graham does reference the Good Samaritan story, and seems to be sympathetic to the call for Christians to bring peace around the world.  And while it is true that there is a large conversation that can and should be had about immigration and national security, from the beginning God calls his people to care for the poor, the disenfranchised, the orphan, and the refugee. God is not a God of boundaries. God makes this command again and again throughout the Old Testament, and Jesus reiterates these commands in his Sermon on the Mount.  Fear causes us to want to look inward to our own country, and leave out those who are fleeing oppression and devastation.  God spelled out very clearly throughout scripture that we are to invite in the disenfranchised.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
   for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
   for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
   for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
   for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
   for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
   for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
   for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
   for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.  Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
(Matthew 5)

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