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One of the most moving photos on HONY captures a woman in a colorful head covering and a zip-up hoodie holding her head in her left hand that still wears her wedding ring. Her face is scrunched up, sobbing, as a hand appears to the right, consoling her as best as it can. And here’s her story:
“My husband and I sold everything we had to afford the journey. We worked 15 hours a day in Turkey until we had enough money to leave. The smuggler put 152 of us on a boat. Once we saw the boat, many of us wanted to go back, but he told us that anyone who turned back would not get a refund. We had no choice. Both the lower compartment and the deck were filled with people. Waves began to come into the boat so the captain told everyone to throw their baggage into the sea. In the ocean we hit a rock, but the captain told us not to worry. Water began to come into the boat, but again he told us not to worry. We were in the lower compartment and it began to fill with water. It was too tight to move. Everyone began to scream. We were the last ones to get out alive. My husband pulled me out of the window. In the ocean, he took off his life jacket and gave it to a woman. We swam for as long as possible. After several hours he told me he that he was too tired to swim and that he was going to float on his back and rest. It was so dark we could not see. The waves were high. I could hear him calling me but he got further and further away. Eventually a boat found me. They never found my husband.” (Kos, Greece)
Millions of people – men, women, and children – have been forced out of their homeland in search of safety, and the above conditions are safer than their current living situation. It’s been reported that during the recent Syrian War, over 140,000 children have been born stateless. Stateless children are more at risk of exploitation, drug abuse, and homelessness, and in most places, those living their lives as a question mark do not have access to education, health care, and employment opportunities.
Europe is bursting at the seams, America faces its own border control issues, yet there still remains millions of people running for their lives toward any city on a hill that may take them in and help them take back their humanity. And how America responds is crucial.
I’m in the middle of a terrifying series that explores what Jesus said and thought about some of the issues that we Americans face today. (And no, I didn’t take a two…three week break because I was that terrified. I just had a writing project, two papers due, and a new job. Please be impressed with my mediocre time management skills.) As the Presidential race continues with debate after debate, propaganda after propaganda, and promise after promise, we Christians have a responsibility to vote according to our conscience. And while there may be a legal separation of church and state, that’s not a call for us to separate our ethics from our voting records.
I feel sorry for Thanksgiving. Christmas has taken over the month of November, and Thanksgiving never gets its time in the spotlight. Once Halloween is over – and I refuse to allow Halloween to be overshadowed – the Christmas decorations come out. And that’s fine. Because I’m going to talk about the Christmas story right now. We hear it at least once a year, usually on Christmas Eve at a candlelight service or something. Joseph and his pregnant fiance Mary travel to Bethlehem to be counted for a census, and when they get there, nobody has any room for them. So a family opens up their stable (more likely a cave, but whatever), and they spend the night with the animals as Mary gives birth on a not-so-silent-night. Then the shepherds come, and we see a little drummer boy, and three rich looking dudes with headdresses show up, and the stable usually has lots of hay and a cow, horse, and a lamb or two.
But let’s talk about those rich looking dudes for a second – the Wise Men. This group of men from the East – we’re not even sure if there were three – see a sign in the night sky that lines up with a prophecy about the savior of the world. So they travel west and appear before King Herod, asking where this new and upcoming king is. Herod, the king that he is, feels threatened by this, so he sends the men from the East to find the baby boy and come back to the palace with information on his whereabouts. When the men from the East don’t do that, Herod gets pissed and calls for a massacre of all baby boys under the age of two. If he can’t kill off the one baby that threatens his throne, he’ll kill ’em all. Infanticide.
Joseph is warned in a dream about the massacre, and he is told to flee to Egypt. So he, Mary, and their new baby boy make their way to a whole new country, away from their friends, their family, everything they ever knew.
Jesus was a refugee.
Actually, Jesus came from a long history of displacement and wandering. The Jewish people have been a people on the move – both by choice and by force, depending on the era – since the beginning. When Abram (we know him as Abraham) was a child, his family moved from Ur (modern day Iraq) to Haran (modern day Turkey). When God called Abram as an adult, God asked him to leave his entire life behind. Take his family and his possessions, and just head south. “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.” And so Abram and Sarai packed up and went. Genesis 12 tells us a little bit of their journey: they left with their household, and headed into Canaan, where other peoples were already living. Sarai and Abraham were immigrants. They wandered throughout the region until they finally settled near the Negev, which is the southern tip of modern day Israel. That’s a lot of travel.
Then a terrible famine struck. Abram, Sarai, and their nephew Lot were forced to relocate. They were refugees. They headed toward Egypt, where conditions were much better, but they feared for their lives. So much, actually, that they felt they had to lie about Abram and Sarai’s relationship in order to secure safety for themselves. Eventually, the pharaoh found out, and they were deported. They went back to the Negev, then traveled north again and settled into Bethel.
A couple generations and some wandering later, we find Joseph sold into slavery in Egypt. He eventually makes his way up the ranks as the adviser to the pharaoh, in charge of taking care of those who sought help in the region. After another terrible famine, the Israelites sought refuge and food westward, and in a surprising turn of events, Joseph ends up supporting his own family that sold him into slavery. The Israelites remained in Egypt for generations, and their family just got bigger and bigger. So big, in fact, that the pharaoh began to fear their power. So instead of implementing literacy tests for voting rights or gerrymandering districts to keep them at bay, he enslaved them. And after they continued to grow in number, the pharaoh demanded that every male infant be killed. Infanticide.
Because of fear of “the other.”
God heard the Israelites’ cries, and he raised up a man named Moses, who led the Israelites out of Egypt and into Canaan, the land promised to Abram all those years ago. Again, refugees. They wandered for forty years in the wilderness before they found their way into the land, in which others were already living. Immigrants.
They eventually moved into the territory, and that in itself wasn’t without its fair share of violence. Maybe someday I’ll write about Joshua, but that opens a whole other can of worms.
So the Israelites settled into Canaan, and all was great for the nation of Israel from then on, right? Wrong. Open your Bible up to any given location in the Old Testament, and I’d be willing to bet it’s set within a time period of at least a little war and violence. Whether it was violence surrounding them or violence from within, the Jewish people experienced unrest. Israel eventually split into two kingdoms, and both fell to a number of empires over the generations. First, the Assyrians; then the Babylonians, who displaced many of them from their land and forced them to learn the new customs of their conquerors; then the Persians, who allowed the Jews back into Israel to rebuild the temple and their homes; then the Greeks and the Romans, who infused Greek and Roman life into Jewish life and eventually dispersed them even farther. They had been a people on the move from the get go; sometimes by choice, more often by force. It’s no wonder that by the time Jesus came onto the scene, the Jewish people were hoping for the long-awaited messiah, the anointed king that would redeem and restore Israel.
For those who may not know, Christianity began as a Jewish movement. Jesus was Jewish, Paul was Jewish, Peter, Jewish. Our roots are distinctly Jewish. And as Christians who come from Judaism, our tradition is one of a wandering people.
And here’s the low-hanging fruit – this is also the tradition of the United States. Unless a reader is 100% Native American, your roots are elsewhere. Your ancestors wandered. Your ancestors moved here, regardless of the reason.
We are a nation of wanderers, of immigrants, of refugees.
Emma Lazarus’ poem on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty reads:
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep ancient lands, you storied pomp! cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
Are we welcoming the poor, the tired, those yearning for freedom? The huddled masses?
Even though the Jewish people themselves were a moving people, they had regulations on how to treat others who lived among them – the sojourner or the one seeking asylum. Leviticus 19:33-34 says, “When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do [them] harm. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love [them] as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. I am your God.” Deuteronomy uses harsher language for those who don’t do those things: “Cursed be anyone who perverts the justice due to the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow. And all the people shall say, ‘Amen.'” I don’t know about you, but I am hesitant to say amen to that, considering how we Christians are doing on this front.
Read the prophets; there tends to be some recurring themes that run through them, and one of those is the indictment against Israel for how they treat the immigrant. It’s right up there with idolatry. We can talk all day long about the logistics of welcoming immigrants into the United States, but one thing is certain: God cares about justice for the immigrant and the refugee. And anytime we decide to value our national citizenship over our heavenly citizenship, we’ve missed the mark.
Do your research on your candidates – if a candidate is claiming to worship Jesus Christ, who was unquestionably a refugee, how does he or she treat refugees and immigrants in both word and deed? Are the policies he or she supports in favor of helping the sojourner?
There’s only so much a government, any government, can do logistically for this human crisis; but we as individual Christians are called to radical hospitality. It’s in the DNA of the covenant God made with Abraham – “I will be your God, and through your family I will bless the whole world.” The whole world. This is the tradition from which Christianity comes, and if we aren’t willing to be a blessing to the world, who will? So, yes, consider immigrants and refugees as you do your research for voting purposes. But I believe we have to do more if we claim Christ. For some, this means literal radical hospitality – by opening and offering your homes as a place of refuge. For others in different circumstances, that just may not be possible – support those who do open their homes. Partner with churches to provide legitimate resourcing. Use your own gifts to bless others. Donate.
If you are wondering where to begin, check out We Welcome Refugees. I’ve mentioned them before; It’s a wonderful movement led by Christian thought leaders to help alleviate the Syrian refugee disaster (not crisis – disaster). They’re coming up with strategic ways for individuals to get involved, churches to take action, and they’re calling on government leaders to enact change and call for social justice.
Jesus tells us in Matthew 25 how we will be judged when it’s all said and done, and it’s not by our words of profession; it’s by our deeds done or not done to the least of these. If we feed the hungry, and give water to the thirsty, and clothe the naked, and visit the prisoner, and welcome the stranger, we do these things to Jesus Christ. But if we sit back and take no action, we’re guilty as charged – for knowingly allowing Christ to suffer without lifting a finger to make a difference.
Christ, have mercy.