One of the [few] advantages of my season in life after more than three decades of vocational ministry is that just by ‘waking up’ and ‘showing up,’ my resume looks impressive – at least on the surface. But one of the most meaningful ‘honors’ I’ve received actually doesn’t appear in my CV. A few years ago I was made an ‘honorary refugee’ inside the Nyarugusu Refugee Camp in central Africa on World Refugee Day. I have no identification card or certificate for the honor, but I received it nonetheless.
I spent eleven summers traveling to this remote part of the world and had the privilege of teaching, encouraging, and helping thousands of refugee pastors and church leaders. I brought my wife, Linda a number of times and she was able to help establish a vocational school for women refugees inside the massive camp.
The thousands of photos I have taken inside these refugee camps over the years capture so many emotions and memories; I can’t even recall them all.
So, when my fellow Americans, including some running for president, hurl vitriolic and hateful epitaphs about refugees with such certainty and moral authority, I have silently cursed and called them names. That hasn’t helped either.
Some of my friends have posted or shared blogs and articles discussing the Old Testament passages about how to treat the alien and foreigner, or how Mary & Joseph, when taking Jesus to Egypt were “middle eastern refugees,” while others immediately post their responses with titles like, “Why the Bible does NOT tell us to accept refugees,” or “how liberals are twisting the Scripture to make us feel guilty!” (Both views often show a theologically simplistic perspective that those Scriptures probably aren’t addressing specifically, though don’t even get me started on Jerry Falwell Jr.’s absurd comments recently!)
So, as an ‘honorary refugee’ myself, and (forgive my bragging) also as a guy with a doctorate in missiology / cultural anthropology and more actual time in refugee camps than anyone else I know (other than the refugees) I finally decided to share my own thoughts and convictions. This isn’t a policy or political blog – I don’t have a ‘dog in that fight,’ but this is addressed to my fellow Evangelical Christians. My thoughts:
- The last place they want to be is in a refugee camp!
These people exhausted every other option. When left with the choices of seeing their families killed or starve, they head out with others hoping for something, anything and end up in these camps. Whether in crudely made mud huts or canvas tents, it provides shelter and little else. There is no sense of dignity, privacy, or (in most cases) little protection against sexual abuse. Meager daily UN rations are supplemented by whatever the refugees can grow, barter, or gather on their own. Health care is sparse, though the UNHCR is certainly doing the best they can.
2. More than anything else, they want safety, stability, and a future for their families.
I count numerous refugee families as my friends. I’ve sat in their huts and had tea with them. They love their children. They celebrate births, they mourn the dead, and I have stood next to the graves of their children and wept with them. All of them talk about the day when they will go back to their country of origin and live a normal life again (even though in most cases, they’ll never return again).
- Many of them truly admire the US – they know that we are a generous and mighty nation and that we have helped people all over the globe!
I’ve been given crudely made American flags and even been given letters for me to deliver to the US President (whom they are pretty sure I know personally). It is always odd to see how far reaching American culture is and how much they want to be like us. Even Muslim refugees have told me how they love America.
- The Bible does actually tell (command) us to be kind to people in these sorts of circumstances!
From the story of the Good Samaritan to the stinging imperatives in the Sermon on the Mount, being kind to others, even our ‘enemies’ is certainly what Jesus had in mind for us. To come to any other conclusion is to simply ignore the clear text of Scripture.
- The Bible also makes it clear that our allegiance is to God over our allegiance to our country.
John Piper (with whom I disagree almost as much as I agree) notes in a recent article that we are the people, “whom the Bible calls ‘refugees and exiles’ on earth, namely Christians!” Of course I care about our country’s security, but I am a follower of Christ before anything else and that must inform and direct my opinions on all things.
Our Better Selves?
I have heard some political leaders chastise other politicians for hateful comments toward refugees. They usually say something like “We are better than that,” meaning that inherently, Americans are morally good, kind, and accepting. I actually take exception to that noble, but inaccurate view of humankind. No, “We” aren’t better than that… we are exactly that way, as is every son and daughter of Adam.
As Alexander Solzhenitsyn so eloquently said, “If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”
It is only because of Jesus and through Him we can receive the grace to actually love our enemies and be truly kind to the stranger, receiving him / her as we would Christ Himself.
So, let’s rise above who we are ‘naturally’ and be whom Christ has called us – ambassadors of His reconciling love to a world in need. And, just to be clear, let’s make sure that includes refugees!