Thoughts on Refugees, National Security, and True Discipleship
As an evangelical Christian pastor who abhors partisan politics but cares deeply for the flourishing of all who bear the image of God, I support efforts to enhance national security and doing everything possible to help the world’s most vulnerable refugees get out of harm’s way as quickly and safely as possible. I support both of these commitments because in Jesus, my conscience is bound by both. And, as Luther once famously said, “To go against conscience is neither right nor safe.”
This is not a new subject for me or for the church that I serve. For two years strong, Christ Presbyterian in Nashville has embraced every opportunity availed to us to give a cup of cold water to the least of these, especially Syrian refugees who are out there on the run, as well as the sixty thousand or so who now reside in Nashville. Currently, we have several missional communities and member-led nonprofits focused on refugee care. We have deployed over $150,000 toward relief efforts, partnering with organizations such as World Relief, World Vision, and Preemptive Love Coalition. As for me, I have preached sermons, written essays, and spoken at conferences on this crisis. Our oldest daughter is majoring in Global Studies, volunteering for a refugee resettlement organization, and planning to learn Arabic in the Middle East so she can return to the States and minister among Muslim refugees as a Christian. My wife has recently become engaged in the crisis locally. Finally, I have written about this humanitarian crisis in chapter 18 of my latest book, Befriend, a book about creating belonging in an age of judgment, isolation and fear.
Lest the reader interpret this as some sort of left-wing partisan stance, it is not. I stand for the vulnerable refugee in the same way that I have always stood for the vulnerable unborn. It is a biblically-driven justice and human rights stance, plain and simple. I have no personal beef with President Obama or President Trump. For this reason, my liberal friends sometimes suspect me of being a Republican and my conservative friends sometimes suspect me of being a Democrat. You might say that I am one of those pastors who feels too conservative for his liberal friends and too liberal for his conservative friends. If this is an outcome of following the whole Jesus instead of merely following part of him, then sign me up and so be it.
In addition to being for the unborn and for the refugee, I am committed to a stance of honor regarding any leader, especially when said leader holds the office of President. Our church has supported my commitment not to insult, belittle, or speak ill of either President Obama or of our new President, Donald Trump (I wrote more about this in a previous post, which can be seen here). Instead, our people have joined me in the equally Christian commitment to show respect for all leaders, including those whose policies and personalities may at times stand in contrast to Christian convictions and beliefs. To the church in a decidedly anti-Christian Rome, Paul wrote the following under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit:
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. (Romans 13:1)
This was true of President Obama. It is also true of President Trump.
Thankfully, as an evangelical Christian, I am not alone in my desire to honor our leaders and remain committed to refugee care.
Recently, I joined evangelical leaders across North America including friends like Tim and Kathy Keller, John Perkins, Ann Voskamp, Sandy Willson, John Yates, Max Lucado, Eugene Cho and many others, by adding my signature to this petition to our President. (Most unfortunately, certain news outlets have attached inflammatory, partisan headlines to the story that have, in the experience of many, caused the actual substance of the petition to be lost. For example, one outlet called the petition a “denouncement” of President Trump. The use of such a word is an inflammatory overreach, to say the least. Please ignore the headlines and read the actual petition.)
The petition itself states both affirmation and concern. For example:
As Christians, we have a historic call expressed over two thousand years, to serve the suffering. We cannot abandon this call now. We live in a dangerous world and affirm the crucial role of government in protecting us from harm and in setting the terms on refugee admissions. However, compassion and security can coexist, as they have for decades. For the persecuted and suffering, every day matters; every delay is a crushing blow to hope.
Specifically, we are evangelical Christians concerned for refugees who (a) are running for their lives from religious and/or political persecution, (b) have been shown through existing processes to pose no threat, and (c) have been banned from entry into the United States for a minimum of 90-120 days. While we fully support and appreciate President Trump in his stated mission to protect U.S. citizens from harm, we are similarly concerned for the safety and protection of refugees—some of whom are Christian, most of whom are Muslim, and nearly all of whom come from the homeland of Jesus himself. We express this concern not in spite of our Christian beliefs, but because of them.
To those who wonder why our Christian call to compassion includes Muslims, the answer is made clear in Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan. In this parable, an at-risk Jewish man—having been mugged and beaten and left vulnerable to further abuse on the side of the road—is rescued, escorted to safety, and loved back to life by his religious opposite, a Samaritan. The merciful foreigner is the antithesis of the victim’s two fellow countrymen, both professional clergy, who ignore the victim’s cry and quietly walk by on the other side of the road (Luke 10:25-37).
While the two clergymen continue to Jerusalem to report for religious duty, the Samaritan sees it as his religious duty to prioritize the human need before him. At great cost to himself, he offers money, transportation, shelter, food, healthcare, friendship, and persistent follow through. Despite the glaring ethnic, socio-political, ideological, and religious differences, the Samaritan recognizes in the beaten-down Jewish man a shared humanity, and on that basis loves his neighbor as himself.
Jesus concludes the parable by declaring that the Samaritan alone was a true neighbor. Unlike his clergy counterparts, he understood that charity, though it may start at home, must never end there. He understood that true love opens its arms and its heart—just as Jesus did for us—all the way to the ends of the earth.
True neighbor love is always costly. For the call of Jesus is never to deny our neighbor and take up our comforts and follow our dreams, but rather to deny ourselves and take up our crosses and follow him. Following him always includes moving toward, and never away from, the oppressed and the poor and the bullied and the vulnerable. Jesus is, unequivocally and unapologetically, the God who favors and gives special attention to the weak and the underdog. And so we must also be.
In his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, Jewish Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel echoed this truth: “Whenever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must—at that moment—become the center of the universe.”
Similarly, Dr. King said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
And John, the beloved disciple wrote, “If anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.” (1 John 3:17-18)
Our evangelical appeal to President Trump, then, is for protection of our own religious freedom—one that frees us to be pro-life in every sense of the word. Believing that God is the giver of all life, our aim is to uphold and support the dignity, sacredness, personhood and flourishing of every human soul, whether born or unborn, elderly or young, privileged or poor, healthy or sick, strong or weak, American or international, Christian or Muslim or other faiths or no faith at all.
We long to contribute to this life-movement in our time, as so many of our fellow Christians have in theirs. These Christians have fought for the abolition of slavery (Wilberforce), established orphanages for abandoned children (Mueller), advanced civil rights for racial minorities (King), fought against HIV/AIDS (Koop), provided human touch, restored dignity, and shelter for the poor (Mother Teresa), created places of belonging and contribution for people with disabilities and special needs (Tada), and fought against the sex trade and human trafficking (Caine).
Like these men and women, we, too are petitioning for a kind of religious freedom that frees us to kick darkness, oppression, and bullying in the teeth.
Why are we Christians so motivated? Because for us, loving God and loving our neighbor are inseparably intertwined. We make it our aim to love as we have been loved by Jesus, to show mercy as we have been shown mercy by Jesus, and to bear burdens as our burdens have been borne by Jesus. For it is Jesus who said that whatever we do for the least of these, we do it for him (Matthew 25:31-46). How ironic, and yet how fitting, that this same Jesus, who in love reached all the way to the ends of the earth to save us, was himself a refugee of Middle Eastern origin (Matthew 2:13-23)!
We are asking of our President, with all the respect that is due to his office, something similar to what Mother Teresa asked a sitting President at the 1994 national prayer breakfast. Humbly, respectfully, and prophetically, she petitioned for a religious freedom that would allow her and other people of faith to uphold and support the sacredness of every at-risk, unborn child, saying these words:
I want the child.
Please give me the child.
Far from insulting the U.S. President, Mother Teresa offered to come alongside him to assist in the monumental task to build a more just, life-giving society in which every soul is treated as sacred, no soul is kicked to the curb, and all souls are created equal. Far from adding burdens, she humbly offered to lift burdens by proposing a division of labor:
Let the government protect all of its citizens from violence, persecution, and injustice as government has been ordained by God to do (Romans 13:1-7).
Likewise, let the government appoint and support people of faith to do what history has proven we do best: extend mercy and a cup of cold water to the world’s most bullied, vulnerable, and poor.
Mr. President, we commend and support you for prioritizing our safety and protection in such volatile times. We can only imagine the burden that this must be, and you carry it in ways that nobody else does. And yet we similarly plead with you, sir—on behalf of the millions of souls who are most at risk—that we not turn away the vetted and vulnerable refugee. While charity may start at home, it must never end there, especially in this country of ours that we call the land of the free and the home of the brave. Let’s champion freedom, sir. And, for the love of God, let’s be brave.
We want the vulnerable refugee. Please give us the refugee.