In one of my favorite Biblical parables, Jesus describes himself welcoming his faithful followers to heaven and extolling them for the good works they bestowed upon him. They respond with confusion: When did we do anything for you?
“When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in?”
“And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.”
I always thought of this conversation referring to a very figurative process: When we do something good for others, it is like we have done something good for God because he greatly loves those we help. But when it comes to strangers being turned away, this parable becomes very literal.
Did your parents ever tell you stories about your birth? About how they got up in the middle of the night, or left meetings early, or got chased by cops as they sped down the highway toward the hospital? For me, it was the story about how a flat tire nearly stranded my parents in rural Florida. Fortunately, a gas station owner loaned tools to my father in the dark hours of the morning so he could change a tire and get my mom, and me, to the hospital in time.
Jesus likely grew up hearing the following story from his mother: We got to Bethlehem with hardly any time to spare. We tried to find a place to stay, but there was no room for us in the inn! So we settled for a stable, and that’s where you were born.
The Son of God grew up very aware of the plight of people with no place to stay being turned away despite some very hard circumstances. Somewhere in Bethlehem one night 2,000 years ago, there were innkeepers who might someday ask, “When saw we thee … a stranger, and did not minister unto thee?” And yet they very literally turned away the savior of the world.
I thought of this recently when I was trying to decide where I stand on the prospect of accepting Syrian refugees into other countries, including the United States. And I ran across this gem:
if only we had a seasonally appropriate story about middle eastern people seeking refuge being turned away by the heartless
— Oliver Willis (@owillis) November 16, 2015
Is our own reluctance to accept refugees similar to the response of those innkeepers 2,000 years ago unable, or unwilling, to find a place for a child to be born—a child who turned out to be the only begotten Son of God?
Maybe. But there is another story to consider.
Fast forward from that silent night in Bethlehem about 33 years. That humble, stable-born child, now a man, entered the temple in Jerusalem and turned tables over and chased people out. His gospel was not only a message of being nice all the time to everyone. He called people to repentance. He chastised those who would not forsake their sins or worldly cares to follow him. And in this case, he actually became violent.
Just as it is important that we show charity toward those who are in need of our assistance, there are certain things that we cannot allow. It is uncharitable to our neighbor to be facilitate another person’s ability to harm our neighbor. We owe it to the weak, defenseless, and poor who are already among us to not divert aid that we could give them to someone who might harm them.
More bluntly, if the U.S. accepts 10,000 people and just one of them ends up being a terrorist who has infiltrated the ranks of refugees, how many people will he kill? And how many people would he have to kill before we realize that we have done more harm than good; we have harmed our neighbors and our children by trying to make ourselves feel good about helping everyone?
In summary, if we do not help refugees, we are turning away sons and daughters of God, but if we do not do everything in our power to ensure that the asylum process is not abused by terrorists, we are allowing a “den of thieves” to infiltrate the temple.
My own church has issued a statement encouraging church members to help refugees. To my knowledge, the church leaders (including one German native who was a refugee during WWII) have not issued a statement about whether the United States or any other country should bring Syrian refugees into its borders. However, because I believe in a prophet of God and he has issued a statement that is more concerned with offering Christlike service to refugees than on concern about potential dangers, I am not terribly concerned. This does not serve as an argument in favor of the prospect for those who do not share my beliefs, but it does open my mind to the idea.
The fact that many of the arguments against accepting refugees rely on exaggerated or non-facts (such as the belief that most of the refugees are fighting-age men) also decreases my worry.
But perhaps the most convincing thought of all: Turning away refugees does not keep terrorists away from the U.S. If you visit a conservative-leaning news site, you probably will see troubling stories that indicate ISIS is already in the country and ready to strike. If that’s the case, how will turning away widows and orphans and children keep us safe?
I am not arguing for open borders and absolute, immediate acceptance of all who apply for refugee status. But the U.S. ought to proceed in a careful, cautious way to help where we can and ensure that the refugees, and Americans, are safe at home. Every potentially legitimate concern (fighting age young men and non-Syrians among their ranks) should be addressed in the process of deciding which refugees we can help.
In the aftermath of the Friday the 13th attacks in Paris, many Americans made reference to the fact that France had stood with the colonies during the revolutionary war, so therefore we should stand with France.
But Jesus also said to love our enemies, “for if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same? And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? do not even the publicans so?” It’s easy to go to help someone who has helped you before. But it’s divine, Christlike, to help those who have never helped you and may never be able to help you.
Another thought on cleansing the temple: the world is polluted with “moneychangers” who kill for wealth and power. Americans are not the only ones facing the plight of terrorism. In fact, we have been among the least impacted by terrorist violence. For hundreds of thousands of people on earth, frequent explosions and gunfire and mass violence are a fact of life. The Syrian refugees are among the thousands who have been impacted by such violence and would give almost anything for the chance to live in relative safety and prosperity. Part of cleansing the temple and serving our brothers has got to be cleansing the world of terrorist violence. The free world should unite against ISIS, and other groups committing terrorist violence in the name of Islam, the way we should have done long ago.
P.S. One person who read this commented to that a commandment for individuals does not necessarily apply to a nation. I understand there are limitations. I’m not arguing that accepting refugees is the Christian thing to do and therefore the U.S. has to do it. But rather, that Christians should be open to the idea of the United States helping refugees. Also, a nation’s actions are really the sum of the actions of the individuals within that nation.