by Ryan Gear
At last count, 30 governors, 29 Republicans and one Democrat, have issued statements that they will not allow Syrian refugees to settle in their states. Never mind that governors probably don’t have the power to enforce state borders, their statements have come under fire from many, including evangelicals who usually support conservative political leaders.
Because this latest example of xenophobia conflicts with the details of Jesus’ life a little too closely.
First, Jesus and his parents were Middle Eastern refugees. The nativity scene, after all, is about a Middle Eastern family looking for a place to stay. Matthew tells us that after his birth, Mary and Joseph fled with the baby Jesus to Egypt. Turning away refugee families right before we put up Christmas decorations is too ironic even for those who often miss the irony of their political views and professed faith.
Second, Jesus gives an ominous description of the Last Judgment in Matthew 25 that directly speaks to the issue of welcoming the foreigner. In Matthew 25:40, Jesus declares, “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’”
Conversely, “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’ “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”
While one could argue over the definition of “brothers and sisters,” Jesus is known for universalizing the love of neighbor. It is perhaps one of Jesus’ unique contributions to moral teaching in human history. In his depiction of the Last Judgment, Jesus is the King, and He clearly states that how we treat who He calls “the least of these brothers and sisters of mine” is how we treat Him.
Who are “the least of these?”
In verse 28, we learn that one category of “the least of these” is the “stranger.” How does Jesus define “stranger?” Matthew was originally written in Greek, and the Greek word that we translate as stranger is xenos. Xenos can be translated into English as “foreigner, immigrant, or stranger.”
In other words, when we don’t welcome the foreigner, Jesus takes it personally.
Let us acknowledge that even though it’s an unpopular thought in 21st century America, Jesus says that those who reject “the least of these” will face eternal punishment. Needless to say, that statement should give pause to all of those who claim to follow Jesus Christ, yet quickly reject the stranger.
We are wise, of course, to ask questions about public safety and the possibility of terrorists embedding themselves within refugee groups. I understand the apprehension that some feel who are sincerely concerned about the safety of U.S. citizens, and I do not dismiss their concerns as trivial. There is another view, however, for us to consider.
In addition to Jesus’ warning about the afterlife, conceivably there are earthly consequences to not welcoming the stranger. Perhaps not welcoming refugees would create more terrorists who would seek to harm the United States. Turning away families in their time of need could prove to be a powerful recruiting tool for ISIS. If a mother and father seeking a safe land for their children are denied hospitality, they will not feel goodwill towards the country that rejected them. Furthermore, if their children were to die because of hardship, why would be surprised if grieving parents were to act in revenge?
Finally, one could easily make an argument that rejecting the refugees allows the terrorists to win. Their most powerful weapon is, well, terror. If we fear an attack so intensely that we are willing to deny hospitality to refugee children, who could argue that the terrorists haven’t won? Not only have they taken human lives, they will have succeeded in taking away our humanity.
Many Christians, including conservative evangelicals, realize that Jesus speaks clearly on this matter. No matter how many governors claim there is no room in the inn, the teaching of Jesus is simply too relevant to the current situation for Christians to ignore.