Our Moral Failure to Welcome Refugees

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People of faith, who silently rationalize the hostility toward immigrants and refugees—which occupies such a central place in our politics (particularly those who identify as Christians)—too often fail to recall that some of the earliest memories Jesus must have had would have included his parents throwing a few possessions into the back of the minivan and stealing away from town in the middle of the night. The Holy Family fled the terror of political persecution, unwitting victims of forced migration.

According to the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus posed a threat to King Herod, who saw him as a potential political rival for power in Palestine. So, Herod did what tyrants often do when they feel threatened, he started trying to eliminate his enemies. To get rid of Jesus—a potential rival to the throne, Herod initiated a massacre of all children under the age of two in the region where Jesus was suspected to be living (Matthew 2:16–18). To escape Herod’s murderous actions, Jesus, Mary, and Joseph made the five hundred mile walk to another country—refugees seeking asylum in Egypt.

Given the tenuous nature of Jesus’ early life as a refugee, Christians today betray their heritage whenever they fail to welcome the stranger who comes to them in need.

But this responsibility to welcome the stranger isn’t just fidelity to the memory of Jesus and his status as a refugee/asylum seeker. It’s also part of the heritage of our Jewish siblings. More than any other commandment in the Hebrew Scriptures, some form of the exhortation to care for widows, orphans, and strangers is the most prominent … over three dozen times. You can find it in the Law, in the Psalms, and in the Prophets. God holds a special place in God’s heart for those who can’t find welcome in this world—as well as for those who feel compelled to provide welcome to the vulnerable—a home for those whose homes can no longer welcome them. A place to belong.

People of faith have no choice but to welcome the stranger, because in some way or another we all once “were strangers in Egypt” (Deuteronomy 10:19; see also, Exodus 22:21 and Leviticus 19:34). 

The irony should not escape us that many current citizens of the United States, the president included, are the blood heirs of refugees who came to this country to escape devastating poverty, limited economic opportunities, as well as political and religious oppression. 

Our very identity, the spirt of our heritage as a country is built on the foundational self-understanding that we were all once “strangers in Egypt.”

Unfortunately, we have a presidential administration that has stated its desire to severely limit the number of refugees who will be admitted to the United States in 2020—with a potential practical outcome of admitting zero refugees. The policy that is currently being considered would effectively tell those fleeing war, violence, and persecution that the United States doesn’t care about people who weren’t born here, especially those who don’t look like the nostalgically idealized version of what so many think an “American” looks like (and if the president’s dismissal of Baltimore is any indication, many in power don’t even care about a number of people who were born here).

Our moral failure to welcome the those who come to us in need—not to mention our national amnesia about our country’s refugee past—is contemptible, especially to those of us who claim to be guided by faith. Our inability to offer welcome to refugees and asylum-seekers brings shame on us all. 

The world ought to be be able to expect more from us. We ought to be able to expect more from ourselves.

So, I call on people of faith to rise up and meet the challenge of our commitments, and tell this administration that we want a longer table—not a higher wall; more refugees—not fewer.

[Remarks from the Rise for Refuge Rally on 8/3/19]

Derek PenwellComment