Joel Wentz

contending for thoughtful Christianity

A Theology of Refuge

The Syrian refugee crisis is the current hot-button issue in politics and social media. The country is war-torn, and the ongoing conflict surrounding its government (President Bashar al-Assad) has caused an estimated 11 million people to flee, searching for safety and refuge.

It's hard to grasp the reality of that number. Roughly speaking, this means a population equal to the size of New York and Chicago combined has been displaced. Imagine those two cities emptying out, and every occupant (many of whom are children) looking for a safe place to live.

And many Americans want to keep them out.

  Photo taken in Damascus on January 31, 2014 of Syrians lining up for food and supplies. Released by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency.

Photo taken in Damascus on January 31, 2014 of Syrians lining up for food and supplies. Released by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency.

I understand that there is a real fear associated with a massive influx of refugees from that part of the world. With the reigning terror of ISIS, many people are concerned that jihadists will use the exodus from Syria as an opportunity to sneak into America and unleash attacks on our soil. I get that.

However, while there are compelling political reasons to grant these refugees access, my own perspective is primarily theological: to deny refuge to these people would be to perpetuate a socio-political ethic of fear and moral cowardice which is rooted in an idolatry of security.

Simply put, this crisis is a matter of integrity for Christians. It takes moral fortitude to say, "We welcome you here, despite the very real evil in this world that could take advantage of our openness." I don't deny that this idea is scary - it wouldn't be morally courageous if it didn't involve something to be genuinely afraid of - but it is absolutely the stance we must take, especially as people formed around the narrative of a God who became flesh and bore wounds for our sake (see Philippians 2 & Isaiah 53). To do otherwise would be to value both our own physical safety and the might and security of our nation-state over the safety of our global neighbors, our fellow image-bearers of God, and the self-sacrificing ethic modeled for us by God-revealed-in-Jesus.

The Jewish prophets in the Old Testament had a word for this: idolatry. 

One such prophet, Amos, spoke boldly to the nation of Israel when it was in some of its worst depths of corruption, declaring: "They sell the innocent for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals. They trample on the heads of the poor as on the dust of the ground and deny justice to the oppressed." (Amos 2.6-7)

Another prophet speaking in a similar time, Micah, lamented to Israel on behalf of God, "Am I still to forget your ill-gotten treasures, you wicked house? Shall I acquit someone with dishonest scales, with a bag of false weights? Your rich people are violent; your inhabitants are liars, and their tongues speak deceitfully." (Micah 6.10-12)

These words reveal just a bit of the corruption that Israel had descended into, and it is especially heartbreaking to rewind the story and be reminded of where they came from: they were once refugees, fleeing an oppressive regime and slavery from an Empire, with no refuge and safety of their own.

At the beginning of this chapter in Israel's narrative, while still in the throes of slavery at the hands of Pharoah, during the well-known story of Moses and the burning bush, God says, "I have indeed seen the misery of my people. I have heard them crying out, and I am concerned about their suffering." (Exodus 3.7). This is followed by the famous account of the confrontation with Pharaoh, the plagues, and the exodus out of Egypt.  Immediately after this dramatic rescue, God-through-Moses builds a set of laws, of ethics, for these newly-freed slaves to live by:

"Do not pervert justice . . . do not do anything that endangers your neighbor's life . . . when a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt." (Leviticus 19)

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I can't help but notice a striking parallel here. The Israelites were called to remember that they were themselves once sojourners in a foreign land (a la the generations of European colonists that settled in the so-called "new world"), and should therefore treat their own resident aliens (refugees and asylum-seekers) with love and respect ("Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame . . . Mother of Exiles, from her beacon hand glows world-wide welcome . . . 'give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free'"). They (we) are fundamentally no different.

As the Israelites settled the land, grew into a developed society, and gained military and economic power, they increasingly desired to be "just like the other nations," (1 Samuel 8.5) and it is precisely this collective amnesia - the complete loss of their own narrative - that the prophets point to as a factor in their own corruption.

They forgot who they were, and as a result forgot how to treat their fellow humans.

They forgot God, who heard their cries, rescued them from bondage, and commanded them to be a "light to the other nations" (Isaiah 42.6), an example of God's fair and just governance. They forgot all of this, and became part of the very problem God was working through them to solve.

Thankfully, the story doesn't end there. Thankfully, God's perfect rule and reign on Earth was launched through a poor, itinerant (read: refugee) rabbi in the 1st century. Thankfully, this Kingdom continues to grow and expand in mysterious ways throughout the world, as humans get caught up in the way of sacrificial grace, mercy, justice and love modeled by a man who laid his life down and fearlessly bore wounds and suffering for others.

My fellow Christians, that is our Kingdom. That is our story, which supplants and supersedes any narratives of fear or idolatries of security which governments and politicians peddle as truth, and we dare not forget it.

There is simply no way we can both live a life formed around this redemptive narrative of God (as revealed in the Bible) and at the same time deny refuge to thousands (maybe millions) of people on the grounds that there is a small chance some radical jihadists could use the opportunity to inflict harm on us.

Maybe this sounds radical to you. I agree, and it is exactly this radical ethic that is more powerful than the radical extremism that seeks our harm.

Lord, may your Kingdom come on Earth, as it is in Heaven.