I have spent the last week vacillating between rage and deep sadness over the president’s executive order concerning refugees.
The days since the order brought a cascade of stories of people whose lives have been upended, each more frustrating or heartbreaking than the next. I have felt compelled to read these stories to understand exactly who this order was affecting: doctors who are now banned from their medical research, babies prevented from traveling to receive life-saving surgeries, families who sold everything to come here now with nowhere to go, a 2 year old burn victim now in the States without his family, and thousands of people who have spent years assembling the paperwork they needed to make this journey who are now without hope or answers.
I understand we cannot take in all those who suffer, but I also believe one of our responsibilities as a global superpower is to shoulder our fair share of the burden. As the wealthy neighbor, we should provide sanctuary to the downtrodden. Closing this door to some because of how they worship is unconscionable.
A friend from the DRC recently noted in an online post that the United States doesn’t always have the best track record when it comes to caring for the afflicted. When it is happening far away or to people who look different from us, we tend to lose interest and return to our lives unaffected. The movie Hotel Rwanda captured this tendency in a devastating exchange between the hotel manager Paul Rusesabagina (played by Don Cheadle) and an American cameraman. As a brutal genocide was ripping his country apart, he asks why nobody was coming. The cameraman responds that Americans watch it on the news and say “how awful,” then go back to eating their dinners.
He is not wrong.
The current calls for more extreme vetting of refugees from Muslim majority countries are a sham. It is plenty hard to get here legally already. People now being turned away from our country have spent years gathering documents and jumping through legal hoops. Might one of these people some day become radicalized and perform some atrocity in the US? Certainly it is possible. But so could that kid next door who spends all his time reading internet conspiracy websites. So far, the people who have committed acts of terror here since 9/11 have not been citizens of the countries from which immigration has been suspended, nor have they come as refugees. This is racism and xenophobia, plain and simple.
I expect it from our current president. The people I am most disappointed in are the Christians who agree with him.
I am not entirely sure how you can read the gospel and also support policies that traffic in fear, take resources from the poor, and shut out orphans, widows, and “the least of these.” I’m wondering if maybe years of prosperity gospel bullshit has led too many of us to mistake Jesus’s teaching about plenty as a message to us as individuals, not a body of believers. Have we become so greedy and entitled that we are afraid we won’t get our fair share?
I come away from the gospel with the impression that Jesus expects to see us at the gates of heaven with empty pockets, unless we’ve already shed our pockets because someone asked for our cloak and we remembered to give away our tunic also. (In that case, I think He hopes to see us naked and empty-handed.)
Time and again, Jesus warns against the pitfalls of greed. He warns us that it is an impediment–a camel has better odds fitting through the eye of a needle than a wealthy man into heaven. He reassures us that we needn’t worry about what we will eat or what we will drink or what we will wear. He tells us He will care for us. Consider the lillies and the birds of the air. Don’t store up treasures on earth, He says.
If we believe any of this, why are we so worried that there won’t be enough to go around?
In the last few months, I’ve seen a variety of text images making the rounds on Facebook. One today talked about how we need to feed our homeless vets instead of refugees. (I am willing to wager that none of the people so eager to share it then went and signed up for a shift at the soup kitchen.) Another begins with the header, “Doesn’t make much sense does it?” and goes on to suggest that somehow it is impossible or illogical for us to care for refugees and immigrants while people within our own country (the elderly, veterans, homeless) struggle. It’s true–it doesn’t make sense–but not in the way the author intended.
Following such logic, I should never help anyone less fortunate than me because my own problems are consuming enough. I read these posts and the song from the Veggie Tales Good Samaritan lesson ping pongs through my head, “Busy, busy, shockingly busy! Much, much too busy for you!”
Whether you believe in the teachings of Jesus or just the Enlightenment, social contracts–where we surrender a little bit of ourselves and our autonomy to help our fellow man (in exchange for a life that is not so nasty, brutish, poor, and short) are what makes our world work. (And pssssst, if you believe you and your neighbor shouldn’t kill each other just because you feel like it, or you drive on a mutually agreed upon side of the road, or pay someone for services rendered rather than just stealing it, or elect officials to govern you, you’re in a social contract, baby.)
Now, the really bad news is that believing in the teachings of Christ makes the you-scratch-my-back-I-scratch-yours of the social contract look like child’s play.
In Luke 10: 25-37, a lawyer asks Jesus what he has to do to inherit eternal life. Jesus turns the question back to him: “What does the law say?” He answers, “Love the Lord your God with all of your heart and all your soul and all your strength and all your mind; and Love your neighbor as yourself.” The lawyer asks a clarifying question, “And who is my neighbor?”
Jesus tells him a story.
The neighbors in this story? One is a Levite bleeding in the ditch by the side of the road. The other is a Samaritan–half-bloods so reviled by the Levites that even touching one violates their belief system–who stops to help.
To inherit the kingdom of heaven, you need to love your neighbor, even if they don’t look like you or worship like you do. Loving them means getting your hands dirty. It means picking up your neighbor and putting him on your own donkey (which means you’re going to have to suffer a little and walk), cleaning and bandaging his wounds, spending two days’ wages on his care, and then love means coming back later to make sure he is healing ok. It is not sanitary. It is not without sacrifice.
Now, it is possible that love could sometimes mean hitting a donate button on a website too, but love as Jesus described it is mostly inconvenient and dirty work, and often with people you wouldn’t ever choose.
This is how Christ tells we will inherit his kingdom: by loving people from nations or people groups with histories so fraught that we might be afraid even to touch them.
If you buy into the fear that there isn’t enough for everyone and that we have to take care of our own before caring for others, we are not following Christ. He told us when someone asks for our cloak, we should give them our tunic too. He offered no caveats about “unless you’re short of cloaks at your house, then maybe give him a gift card for a sandwich at the Jerusalem Chik-Fil-A-Fel.
I guess this is why the current crackdown on refugees had me thinking about the feeding of the 5000 last weekend. It is clearly an important story, since it appears in all four gospels. I suspect the reason we are supposed to hear this story four times is because Jesus wanted us to be really clear on this: there is always room at the table.
In the story, Jesus had been teaching all day. The crowd is kind of in the middle of nowhere, it is getting late, and the disciples are getting antsy. They ask Jesus if maybe it would be a good idea to send the people away so they can all get themselves some food in town. Jesus says, “No, we need to feed them.”
They protest. They mention the budgetary constraints of feeding such a huge crowd. There is no way they can afford to buy that much food. But he insists and tells them to gather what they can. He blesses it, they pass it around, and in the end they have 12 baskets full left over.
I think, xenophobia and fear aside, some of what is driving the fear of refugees is a basic fear that the rest of us will be left fighting for scraps. We distrust the gospel promises that we will be cared for. We distrust that there will be enough to go around, even if we pool our resources. We work hard for what we have and don’t think it is fair that others might get it for free. So we say that there’s no room. That it isn’t safe or practical. That money is already tight and we have our own people to take care of. That the troubles of our country–our crumbling infrastructure, our dwindling social security accounts, our veterans in need of better care, our homeless populations–require our attention first, and when we fix all that, if we have anything left, then maybe we can help.
But if we wait until then, it will never happen. All of our problems will never be solved. And more importantly, this isn’t what Christ taught us to do. We are called to love. To love with abandon, and to be unafraid while we’re doing it.
Loving the people who are just like us is easy. Giving to people who give us something in return is easy too. But this is not the love of the New Testament. Just in case we might be tempted to misinterpret Him, Jesus very specifically defined our neighbors as the people who are NOT like us. And just to be clear on how much this matters, He staked our very entry into His everlasting kingdom on this point.
I get that it is hard and scary. I am also scared that I won’t know how to answer this call. But if I call myself a follower of Christ, what He requires of me could not be more clear.