My heart has been deeply troubled of late with the polarizing discourse on the Syrian refugee crisis. I am not an expert on international affairs, nor do I have any special credentials in the area of national defense. But, I am a minister who is passionate about offering genuine kindness and care to guests and strangers who come into our lives seeking refuge from a painful world.
Christmas is especially a season to remember the plight of a refugee. Jesus himself was born into a world where a jealous king hunted him and caused his parents to flee with him to Egypt. And although this is a complicated issue magnified by fears that the security risks are great, I would argue that the greater risk is losing an extraordinary legacy if we are not the people we claim to be. Here is why:
- We are all refugees. We have all at some time in our lives been like them – the ones we keep arguing about helping. We have all at some point lost something deeply important to us. We have all needed shelter from a danger or struggled with abusive powers around us. Every one of us can think of a time when we needed a rescue. And if that rescue had not come, we would have been distraught or destroyed. We are called to love our neighbors AS ourselves, and if I know there is a refugee experience within me, then I must be able to ask the question of how I am to love the refugee neighbor in my world.
- Rescue is at the heart of God’s story – to enter into our devastating situation and rescue us because we could not rescue ourselves. And that is the story we are called to live into if we say we love God. Safe refuge is at heart of the American story too, extending a strong hand of hope to the tired, poor and “huddled masses who are yearning to breathe free.” If refugees are fleeing a horrible danger, they yearn for people of faith to meet them in the midst of their helplessness and to bridge the gap between their loss and their future.
- Wisdom trumps excuses. I choose that middle word very intentionally. No where in scripture can I find a theology for self-protection. There is plenty about living wisely amidst corruption and evil, but no green lights on looking out for myself, only. Am I allowed to defend myself? Yes. Is it ok to judge someone’s heart on God’s behalf? No. Yet that is what we are in essence doing; claiming that our first priority is to preserve what we have and deciding that an entire people group are not worth the risk because of a few. This crisis does not have a one-size-fits-all response. It must be multifaceted. But our willingness to send aid, provide resources for those administering help, and to partner with other countries to provide shelter in our homelands for those who have lost their homes is the wisest option. It communicates our belief that all people deserve to be safe and have a place to belong. Sure it’s idealistic, but we must not give up striving for such ideals, even if we know we can’t always be successful.
- Our path will either be courageous or fearful. Courage is not the absence of fear, it is the willingness to be steadfast in the face of it. My country and my faith, though not one in the same, have both taught me that courageous love and hope win out every time. I truly want to see our leaders ask what the path of courageous hope and love for our world looks like. I am tired of hearing about the path of fear. We can’t solve every problem everywhere it pops up, but a civil war that has affected millions over the course of five years certainly rises to the level of answering that question with tangible actions.
My all time favorite moment in a story is in Les Miserables when Jean Valjean has just come from prison for stealing a loaf of bread years earlier. He finds refuge in a monastery after many rejections because his yellow passport brands him as a convict wherever he goes. He was lonely, hungry and had no idea how he was going to begin his life again. After the priest has shown him genuine hospitality, Jean Valjean steals away with silver from the dining supplies. When he is caught, the priest does an incredulous thing. He first treats Valjean as a friend, then asks why he left so early and why he did not take the rest of the precious items he’d be given!
Here stood a guilty ex-convict and the priest knew this was a life or death moment for Jean Valjean. But he also knew that before Valjean was a criminal, he was a victim. So, he chose to give him life because he also saw before him a broken, hopeless man who needed to know the world had not turned its back on him. The priest made a calculated risk not knowing if this man would actually embrace the redemption he was being offered.
Those who need our help now are victims. And they are our neighbors. We don’t really have the luxury to say their crisis is not our problem. Their story is a part of our human story, and we cannot simply skip chapters we don’t like about the world we are a part of. Certainly, we should not be naive to the challenges we’ll face in helping a refugee. Hospitality and compassion are costly. It takes time, money, energy, creativity, empathy, more time, more money, and more sacrifice than we will first anticipate. But my faith tells me that God took a chance on me so that I would know how very much he cares for me. My hope is that we would risk something on our part for these innocent neighbors in hopes that they would know the world has not turned its back on them and experience the kind of compassion that changes the course of their lives.