President Donald Trump followed through on his campaign promise and issued an order freezing travel between the U.S. and seven Muslim-majority countries for 90 days and freezing refugee resettlement for 120 days. The order left several stranded in U.S. airports, including some with permanent resident (green card) status.
The rationale behind this order is that the United States is not properly able to screen incoming persons from these countries to ensure that they are not terrorists or otherwise hostile to American interests. The swiftness and reach of the order seems to have caught many off guard. Many are labeling the order as a “Muslim ban”, as most persons and countries affected are Muslims.
The affected countries include Syria, which has been plagued by government instability and the rise of ISIS. Hundreds of thousands have died in the nation’s civil war, and hundreds of thousands more have fled for their lives, many to Europe and some the United States. In much of Syria, the choice is to either leave or die.
Given the typical overlap between conservativism and Christianity, many Christians have opposed refugee resettlement and praised this move by Trump as a good move to improve America’s security. But is this the proper Christian response?
The question runs deeper than just a matter of national policy. It strikes right at the heart of what we as Christians should prioritize and how we should relate to world.
I have written before that as Christians, we hold dual citizenship. Our first and primary citizenship is in the kingdom of God, one consisting of God’s elect from every tribe, tongue and nation. Citizenship in this kingdom comes with responsibilities: to proclaim the Gospel to the ends of the earth, to obey God’s laws and give heed to His word, and to strive for God’s glory in all that we do. Our second citizenship is in our country, in this case, the United States. This also comes with responsibilities. We are to follow the law and participate as Christians within society, as far as doing so does not come into conflict with our first citizenship in the kingdom of God.
So how does our first citizenship dictate how we should approach the issue of immigration and refugees in our second citizenship?
There are obviously conflicting answers to this question, even among Christians. But I am going to advocate that the consistent biblical witness is that we, as Christians, are to be people of self-sacrifice and compassion, and this will affect how we should relate to those around the world who need our help.
Who is My Neighbor?
In Luke 10:25-37, Jesus has a conversation:
And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” (Luke 10:25)
This is a fair question. This isn’t the only time someone comes to Jesus with this question. In Luke 18, a rich young ruler comes to Jesus with the same question. No matter one’s station or status in life (be they a lawyer or a ruler, both positions of success by worldly standards) there is always the question of what happens after this life.
He (Jesus) said to him, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.” (Luke 10:26-28)
The lawyer correctly cites two commands from the law of Moses (the command to love God from Deuteronomy 6, and the command to love neighbor from Leviticus 19). All of the other commandments hinge on these; Jesus even says so in Matthew 22:36-40. But this lawyer isn’t content to leave the answer there, and he presses Jesus further:
But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29)
The text says the the lawyer is trying to “justify himself”. There must be someone he hopes is not his neighbor so he doesn’t have to love them. Jesus knows this, and proceeds to tell a story that most of us have heard before:
Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’ Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.” (Luke 10:30-37)
This story is usually retold as a general instruction to help people in need. But that is not all that is going on here. We have some particular information about the characters. We don’t know much about the man who was attacked, but given the Jewish context that Jesus is speaking to, the implication is that this man is a Jew. The first two that pass by are a priest and a Levite, respectively. Priests and Levites held positions of Jewish religious leadership. Religious as they are, they would not extend a hand of mercy. But who does? A Samaritan. Now why does this matter?
A little background information is helpful. The kingdom of Israel in the Old Testament divided after the death of King Solomon. The northern kingdom, referred to as Israel or Ephraim, established its capital in the city of Samaria. Against God’s command to continue to worship at the temple in Jerusalem, they also established their own systems and places of worship, which were thoroughly influenced by paganism. Eventually, the northern kingdom was destroyed by the Assyrians, and its people were carried into captivity from which they never returned. The few that were left behind intermarried with other people from the area. They were essentially treasonous, half-breed Jews. The Jews of Jesus’ day were the descendants of the southern kingdom, who did not intermarry and, despite periods of apostasy and a time of captivity in Babylon, still maintained their cultural heritage and the temple worship. The result of this history was that Jews and Samaritans were enemies. So, this Samaritan was reaching across a great deal of racial, religious, and cultural animosity to help this man.
What Jesus is advocating in this story is not only a general command to help others in need, but that we should help others regardless of their country, ethnicity, or religious practice. By reaching across those lines, this Samaritan was truly upholding God’s command. Our “neighbor” is not a particular person or group of people, it is anyone who needs mercy and God’s grace that we have the capacity to help.
Jesus put this into practice himself in John 4:1-45. I won’t retell the whole story here, you can look it up yourself if you would like. The brief summary is that Jesus and his disciples came into Samaria, the city of those treasonous, pagan half-breeds, and Jesus met a woman at the well. They have a conversation (unusual because the Jew-Samaritan feud was so deep that they typically did not even speak), in which Jesus calls her out for being a serial adulterer and pagan worshipper, but then reveals to her that He is the Messiah, and offers her the gift of salvation, which also led to many other Samaritans believing. Jesus was not interested in establishing the Jewish kingdom. He was interested in establishing His kingdom.
Jesus’ final conversation with his disciples before he ascended into heaven was this:
“So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” And when he had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.” (Acts 1:6-9)
The disciples were looking for an earthly kingdom. But Jesus had other ideas. They would be witnesses in Judea, among their own country and people. But they would also bring the gospel to those treasonous half-breeds in Samaria, and not just there but everywhere else. That calling is not just theirs, it is ours. As Christians, our top priority is not to see our earthly nation prosper, but to see the gospel go forth to the world. Growth and prosperity in the nation of our first citizenship takes priority over the second.
How does this apply to the question of refugees? Well, there seems to be a parallel between the Jew-Samaritan relationship and the American-Arab relationship. There is bad history. There has been violence. They worship a false god and a false gospel. But as Christians, we don’t get to consider that. We are to proclaim the gospel and show love and mercy to our neighbor, whoever that may be.
But What About Security?
The question that always follows is “but what if they are terrorists? What if they are radicals? What if they want to kill us?” Refugees have always gone through a screening/vetting process for security purposes, but what if it’s not good enough and enemies slip through?
Again, this is a question of priorities–what our first citizenship demands versus what our second citizenship desires. America is a nation that wants, and for the most part has had, safety, prosperity, and security. I think that those who want to take precautions on immigration have a sincere, well-intended desire to keep things that way. But it is here that our first citizenship becomes more demanding.
Jesus never sold Christianity as a path to ease, prosperity, and safety. Instead, He said things like this:
“And he said to all, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself?” (Luke 9:23-25, emphasis mine)
“If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. (Luke 14:26-27, emphasis mine)
This sounds harsh, but God is not particularly concerned with our safety, security, and prosperity. If we are not willing to take risks to see His name glorified and the gospel proclaimed, its time to start asking ourselves if God’s priorities are really our own. Many among the nations are in need, not just materially, but in need of the gospel, which is the only way to salvation. This includes Syrians, and this includes Muslims. We get about 80-90 years on this earth, and trillions and trillions of years in eternity. Why are we so focused on preserving those 80-90 that we neglect what will matter in those trillions? Are we willing to echo Paul in saying, “But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. (Philippians 3:7)”?
If we are not ready to suffer or die for Christ, we are not ready to live for Him. If the one-in-millions chance that welcoming “the nations” into our country will let in someone who will do harm is enough for us to disregard God’s command to love neighbor, maybe we are not citizens in His kingdom at all. ♦