Last night I went to a church service where there was a movie shown espousing effective Christian evangelism. In the lobby immediately afterwards, a heated debate ensued about not letting Syrian refugees into the U.S. because of the terrorist threat. Appalled by the hostile and accusatory language spoken by church staff and volunteers alike, I took my son out of the room, leaving my husband, a recent immigrant to the U.S., to fend for himself.
When the pilgrims came to this continent, the Native Americans welcomed them, disregarding the potential future risks, the stripping of their lands, the annihilation of their cultures and languages, and the debasing of their bodies and minds with disease and alcohol. Rather, because their culture expected it of them, when they saw someone sick, they took care of them; when they saw someone hungry, they fed them (hence, the American Thanksgiving holiday); when they saw someone alone, they welcomed them.
In the encounter recorded in the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 25, Jesus is asked,
“Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’ and he answered, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.”
Today, who could possibly fit the category “the least of these” more than Syrian refugees who have suffered at the hands of terrorists far more than we ever likely will?
In a recent sermon, Pastor Ryan Marsh of Church of the Beloved recounted a conversation he had with a colleague of his, an Imam who is also a hospital chaplain. “I did the math. I added up the populations of every Muslim extremist group, Isis, Taliban, Al Qaeda, Boko Haram . . . it’s about 100,000 people. But Islam is a religion of over 2 billion people. That means Muslim extremists make up 0.00005 of Islam. And you know who they kill most often? Other Muslims! Like me! And yet the USA, my country, makes it sound like all Muslims are terrorists . . . My religion is a religion of peace . . . My wife is part Cherokee and I was born in Iowa, and yet we’ve been told to ‘Go back home’ and I don’t think it’s because I’m from Iowa.”
How can we, who tout ourselves as a “Christian nation,” damn those who are sick and alone and hungry and under threat? Being Christian doesn’t entitle us to safety. The apostle Paul went to Rome not because it was safe but so he could preach the Good News. In recent times, after the missionary Jim Elliott was murdered by members of the Auca tribe in Ecuador, his widow, Elizabeth, returned with her child to that tribe. Surely she had justification to remain in the U.S., safe from Aucan threat.
Of course, there is a vast difference between someone who chooses to express their Christian faith by going into potentially hostile territory versus someone who teaches Sunday school to 3rd grade boys. (On the other hand, a game of “Slug Bug” with my 9-year-old son can get pretty wild!) And while I’m not advocating a Pollyanna approach to very real dangers, we are told in John 16 that we will have trouble in this world.
According to Jesus in Matthew 5, we’re to love our enemies (real or perceived) and pray for those who persecute us. That is a mandate that doesn’t line up with the American vetting process for receiving refugees, Syrian or otherwise. I would ask us to consider the possibility that even the most secure vetting system will not ensure us peace of mind as much as following God’s heart with regards to those in dire need.