Love the Stranger as Yourself: An Exhortation Written to an Imagined American Christian Audience Uninterested in, or even Hostile to, the Refugee and the Migrant

NoOneChooses

“The stranger who sojourns with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” – Lev. 19.34

“…I was a stranger and you welcomed me…” – Matthew 25.35

Dear American Christian Uninterested in, or even Hostile to, Refugees and Migrants,

Did you hear that Secretary of State John Kerry said yesterday that the U.S. will increase the number of refugees it will take in over the next two years?  Currently we take in about 70,000 a year but by 2017, we will see 100,000 coming to the U.S. That’s a lot, right?

Well, on the other end of the spectrum, I heard on the radio not too long ago that Iceland’s government has agreed to take in fifty Syrian refugees (you read that correctly: fifty) as a way to help alleviate the burden of other European nations trying to help these migrants.  But what struck me as I listened to this story was not the small number of Syrians Iceland has decided to accept.  Instead, what caught my attention was the story of a group of private citizens of the small Scandanavian country that are offering their homes to refugees in order to do what the Icelandic government cannot, or will not, do, which, of course, is to provide hospitality to those who have been forcibly displaced.

I was moved and inspired as I listened to this story by the fact that, while governments may busy themselves with the business of governing and law making and debating policies, groups of people, outside the official channels of governance, regularly have to take it upon themselves to respond to the moral crises of the times and in this case, love these strangers as themselves. So while governments do what they do, ordinary people, without any official sanction, go about doing what governments are unable to do—in this case, give generously to those in need.

How much more should the church be involved in this kind of response to one of the great moral crises of our time? Of all the different communities in society, we are the ones who should “know the heart of the stranger” because we, of all people, should have the ability to empathize with others in their need.

When God was forming and shaping his people, the Israelites, he made it clear that they were not only to welcome the stranger but to treat him as though he were a “native.” But then, he took it a step further and told his people to “love him as yourself.” The stranger was not only to be considered “one of our kind.” God’s people were to treat him as they would want to be treated if they found themselves in the same position—a position, in fact, they once were in when they were “strangers in the land of Egypt.”

It should be no surprise then, that when God became man, at the core of Jesus’ message was the truth that with the measure one uses to judge others, that same measure will be used against him—that we were to do unto others as we would have them do unto us. Jesus’ followers, God’s people, should be characterized by an ability to empathize and a courageous compassion that reaches out to the stranger because they have the ability to listen and be moved to action by the story of another in need. We have been loved much and out of the overflow, we are more than willing to love others—even when our politicians, and others around us, are worried they’ll be a drain on our resources or are clamoring for walls to be built or other drastic security measures to be taken.

In light of such political rhetoric, it’s important for Christians to consider that Jesus was once a refugee. In the first years of his life, Mary and Joseph had to flee their home with the Christ child to escape the wrath of Herod. They sojourned to Egypt where they lived for a time. This means that when God became man, he submitted himself to every experience imaginable in order to take on our humanity in all its fullness—even forced displacement. We’re familiar with his taking on sin and death, but how often do we think about his taking on our “less spiritual” conditions—such as being a refugee, in this case? What does this mean? That we worship a God who has made himself vulnerable to the full gamut of our experience? It means that we should follow suit by following Jesus in his identification with us.

In following Jesus, we adhere to the values and economics of God’s kingdom—a kingdom where the worthiness of those in need is not ours to judge. A kingdom where the concerns of the nation state—scarcity and plenty, threats and security–do not dictate our behavior. Why? Because there’s always enough in God’s economy (it’s the foundation of his economics) and the only threat to his kingdom is the threat of one’s love growing cold. When love’s potency becomes diluted by the cares of this world—the love of money, the lust of the eyes, and the boastful pride of life—then we can be sure we are acting not as the sojourning followers of the slaughtered lamb but rather as the conquered subjects of Caesar. We are to live as “resident aliens,” existing in the tension between “in and not of,” and resist the forces that seek to shape our hearts and imaginations to that of the will of this world.

But if talk of our status as “resident aliens” and being “in but not of” is too spiritual and abstract, then we should consider whether our inability to identify with the stranger is borne out of a drive to always make sure we’re an insider and rarely, if ever, an outsider. Perhaps we’ve never been in a position where we didn’t have control or privilege—where we didn’t really have to listen to the “other” because we still held a position of power. We’ve always moved easily from one community to the next because of the connections we had or because of who we knew. What if those connections were lost? What if we gave them up willingly? To let go of such privilege and power—and in this case, in a small way—is to practice the kind of kenosis (“emptying”) we see in Jesus as the Son of God, and to practice such self-emptying is to practice conversion—the conversion from following Jesus as business as usual (Jesus as the rubber-stamper of our ideological platform, for example) to following Jesus as exactly that: a follower—one who has given up control to another to go where the other leads. Such self-emptying, arguably, is the core of the gospel. Jesus lays aside his privileges and prerogatives and enters our experience and suffers every aspect of it. Such identifying with “the other,” then, is at the heart of God’s mission in the world and we are called to follow suit.

In the climactic scene of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, the greedy, vengeful Shylock, when persisting in his demand for pay back, has no ears to hear Portia’s wise words directed at his desire for justice on his own terms: “We do pray for mercy and that same prayer doth teach us all to render to the deeds of mercy.” Shakespeare understood that we all want mercy—especially when we feel vulnerable or in need. But how often do we feel that need? How often do we find ourselves in a position to feel the need for someone’s unearned attention and help? Those who have suffered have felt this way, and that is why, while not good in and of itself, suffering is often one of the prerequisites for empathizing with those in need—especially when that person is someone from another country forcibly displaced by war or persecution.

But we are used to insulating our lives, insuring it against all manner of setbacks and potential disasters, and that version of the good life—the accumulation of wealth and property and the insuring its protection—has hardened our hearts to the way God’s kingdom operates. Sure, we all reap what we sow, but in the final analysis, love is what keeps this world going and love will have the final say. Not the kind of love conservative people imagine when liberals or progressives talk about love—not that idea. It’s the kind of deathly serious thing that led God to identify with the other (us) and to submit himself to our every experience, including death, so that he could fully love his creation. Yes, he could have loved the world without the incarnation, I suppose, but that god would be more like the god of the Deists than the God imaged in Jesus.

So if we are to follow this God, our hardened hearts must be broken and remade. And this remaking happens when we practice the conversion that comes by learning to die daily to what we think we need to be secure and in control of our lives and instead learning to follow the economics of God’s rule, best elucidated in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. As Jesus says there, if we only love those who love us how are we any different than the “tax collectors” and “Gentiles” (5:46-48)? Likewise, if the church in our time only welcomes those who can give us something in return (a sense of felt security because they don’t look different from us, for example), how are we any different from the Icelands of the world—or any other nation whose interests are ultimately ruled by Mammon? How are we any different from those who are concerned with storing up “treasures on earth,” as Jesus speaks of later in the Sermon?

The church, more than any other group, should have the courage to welcome the stranger because the church, more than any other group, should know how to hold on lightly to “treasures on earth.” When God called his people into being, he commanded them to love the stranger among them. When Jesus laid out what Stanley Hauerwas has called the “constitution” of Kingdom of God in the Sermon on the Mount, he reaffirmed this same kind of love for those different from ourselves (even enemies!).

Though we don’t see within our own borders the crisis Europe is currently experiencing with refugees pouring into its member states, each year, the U.S. takes in the most refugees of any country in the world. And that will probably not change any time in the near future. With that in mind, the church has a clear duty to seek out the refugee and migrant, not as a problem to be solved with our American ingenuity and know-how, but as strangers to be befriended, people to be loved as we would want to be loved if we were in the same position. We should go to those hidden corners of our cities and forgotten areas of town where refugees and migrants live and seek for opportunities to serve and volunteer with organizations that have been quietly living and working in those communities since well before refugees became the top story in the news cycle.

The refugee crisis that is happening in the world today is not a problem; it’s an opportunity. Governments may argue and debate about numbers and security issues, but God’s people have a clear chance to do what has always been part of their mission.  Let the politicians debate and argue, but may we Christians follow our God who suffers with us.

Peace of Christ,

Michael Funderburk

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