I’ve been unplugged for most of the past week.
When I heard about the Paris attacks, I was packing up for a 2 week trip to Nashville. I spent the next day driving across the country. About a day or so after arriving in town, we made an unexpected trip to the hospital (thankfully everybody is ok now).
When I finally plugged back in, I returned to a world – and a Church – gone mad.
Though always terrible and inexcusable, xenophobia proliferates exponentially when it’s incubated in the fertile soil of fear and wrapped in the euphemistic pretense of security. So, though deplorable, it’s not altogether surprising to me to see so many Americans call for a blockade against Syrian refugees – or worse, a militant round up. It’s not unlike how American fears after Pearl Harbor led to the creation of concentration camps on American soil or how fear pushed 67% of those same Americans to demand that Jewish refugees be turned away on the brink of World War II .
Sadly, we are still poor students of history apparently incapable of learning from our past mistakes.
What did surprise, almost shock me about the response to the Paris attacks was the sheer number of my fellow Christians who blindly and almost gleefully jumped on the anti-refugee bandwagon in the sacred name of security.
By now, you’ve surely heard from a whole chorus of voices denouncing the repugnant absurdity of the anti-refugee movement. From ignoring our fundamental identity as a nation who welcomes the tired the poor, and the huddled passes to the so-obviously-hypocritical-it-hurts-your-brain rhetoric of anti-refugee folks who say one potentially dangerous Syrian is enough to close the borders but one potentially dangerous person with a gun shouldn’t force us to act on gun control to the simple fact that over 750,000 Syrian refugees are already in the United States and have been for years and not a single one of them has turned out to be a terrorist, the problems inherent to the American anti-refugee movement are legion.
But for anti-refugee Americans who also claim to be Christian, the problems are much, much worse and it is to that chorus of voices already shouting this truth out from the mountaintops that I want to add my voice.
Because being anti-refugee is antithetical to the Christian faith at the most fundamental level.
At its core, Christianity is about a radical act of welcoming the other even at the risk of One’s self. It’s a faith defined by a God who gives life to the radically other, makes them His neighbors, and risks to live among them in order to same them even though they could and eventually would kill Him.
Without this divine act of love and risk there is nothing.
Without this sort of radical love and risk taking there is no Christian faith.
And without it being continually reenacted in our own lives, there is, according to Christ himself, no hope for salvation.
We live and move and have our being because God so loved the other regardless of how radically different – and potentially dangerous – we are as human beings who, though made in the image of God, are yet deeply and disturbingly sinful.
We have the gospel because a family of refugees found safe haven in a foreign land. As we will hear once again this year when the calendar turns to Advent, out of fear of a potential threat, King Herod ordered every male child in the place of Jesus’ birth to be executed. Warned by an angel of the impending danger, Jesus’ family fled their homeland and became refugees in Egypt. Had a foreign country not welcomed this refugee family, Jesus would have been killed before he could even take his first step
Before he could ever preach his first sermon
Before he could ever carry his cross up the hill of Golgotha.
Had a foreign country no welcomed this family of refugees, there would be no Christian faith to believe in, no gospel to preach, no Jesus to follow.
But even though this refugee family did find safe haven and though as Protestants we cling fervently to the notion of salvation by faith alone as if simply saying the right words and believing the right list of things is true will save us, Christ made it unequivocally clear that not everyone who says “Lord, Lord” will enter the kingdom of heaven, for apart from loving the least of these, without feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and caring for the sick and imprisoned whenever and wherever they may be, there is no salvation.
When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.”
Then the King will say to those on his right, Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”
Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?”
The King will reply, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”
Then he will say to those on his left, “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.”
They also will answer, “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?”
He will reply, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.”
Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.
This isn’t a cherry-picked proof-text.
It’s the very heart of Christ’s life and teaching, an incarnational ministry that blessed the poor, loved enemies, and welcomed those the rest of the world wanted nothing to do with.
That made faith not merely an act of intellectual assent, but a particular and peculiar way of life.
It is impossible to understand Jesus and just as impossible to be his disciple without this central focus on loving, embracing, and defending the least of these.
But this story of the sheep and the goats is also the fulfillment of a calling to care for the stranger that runs throughout the entire Hebrew Bible, from the Pentateuch’s demand that Israel remember its own time as refugees in Egypt and care for the stranger among them, to the words of Isaiah – the prophet most often connected with the promise of a Messiah – who warned that without defending the oppressed, taking up the cause of the fatherless, and caring for the widow, God would neither listen to Israel’s prayers nor accept their sacrifices.
Nowhere in the Bible’s continued, vehement, and undeniable call to care for the stranger among us is there any opt-out clause for the potential danger of making the other our neighbor. Any notion of such an idea is obliterated by Christ’s call to take up our cross and follow him, to love and embrace the other no matter the danger that love may put us in.
Listen, I get it.
Fear is an incredibly powerful force.
It can cause us to abandon even our most core principles in the quixotic pursuit of perfect safety.
And it’s true, there is a risk in loving others, especially others we don’t know who look and think and eat and speak and act differently than we do.
But God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.
Or as the apostle Peter put it, “Now who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good? But even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed. Do not fear what they fear and do not be intimidated.”
As Christians, in moments like this our calling is clear.
While our fellow countrymen worry and fret about what might possibly happen and ban together in the fraternity of fear and prejudice in the vain hope of keeping themselves safe from even the mere specter of danger, we must allow God’s perfect love to cast out our fear and take the risk demanded of us as followers of Jesus to defend the oppressed and care for the least of these whenever and wherever they may be.
If we don’t do that, if we cower in fear at what might happen instead of daring to love those in need, then we will have utterly abandoned the way of Jesus.
And we will have no right to call ourselves his disciples.