Syrian Refugees and the Teaching of Jesus

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.

What I Learned About Peace From an Imam

by Ryan Gear

The recent photo of two­-year old Aylan Kurdi’s body washed up on the beach in Turkey shocked the world. Human beings with any sense of decency were cut to the heart at the loss of this little boy and the thousands of other children and adults he represents who ave been killed in recent Middle East conflict.

As European countries rightly welcome Muslim refugees from Syria, anti­-Muslim and anti-immigrant fervor is rearing it’s ugly head once again. A nationalist party in Britain released a fear­-mongering anti­-Muslim/anti­immigration video featuring wild math about birthrates and a ludicrous doomsday ending. Closer to home, we are witnessing a level of both anti-immigrant and anti-­Muslim nationalism in our current presidential campaign that has never been higher.

With irresponsible and even dangerous rhetoric increasing, we cannot afford to remain silent any longer. It is past time for all peace­-loving Christians to stand up and speak out loudly in favor of empathy and hospitality toward the immigrant and the Muslim. This is not simply a “liberal” cause. The need for Christians to speak out is based on this undeniable fact– the most vitriolic and xenophobic language in America is not coming from Muslims; it is coming from far right wing nationalists who claim to be Christians. The Muslims I know speak out for peace regularly but find it hard to gain media coverage.

This past May, I scheduled a series of sermons at One Church entitled Religions of the World. During that series, I invited a rabbi and an imam to speak on Judaism and Islam respectively. They both represented their faiths very well.

Prior to the series, I had been looking forward to having lunch with a local imam named Khalil. He speaks regularly at interfaith gatherings and flatly condemns all violence in the name of Islam. He is one of the moderate Muslims who is accused by right wing persons of not speaking out enough against terrorism. Like many American Muslim leaders, however, he speaks out against violence continually. It’s just that he has trouble getting his message into the news media.

I suspect that the cable news channels that complain that Muslim leaders do not speak out rarely invite Muslim leaders on air to speak out. After all, if you invite Muslim leaders on air to condemn violence, you can’t induce fear and rage in your viewers by claiming that Muslim leaders won’t speak out. Fear and rage drive up ratings, but what kind of ratings do calm, reasonable Muslim voices get you? Depending on the news outlet, inviting them to speak might drive away viewers.

Khalil and I had a very pleasant, thoroughly enjoyable conversation over a two­and-­a­-half hour lunch. We shared stories of how we entered the ministry and what our respective religion means to us. To him, Islam means peace. He beautifully articulated how Islam provides a holistic way of life, and I was struck by how similar it sounded to a Christian’s explanation of why she or he wants to follow Jesus. We joked about the common experiences that clergypersons have, regardless of their religion. As our server kept pouring fresh cups of coffee, we discovered that we have a great deal in common. I now consider Khalil a friend.

After our lunch, I drove home and saw the headlines that ISIS had burned Jordanian pilot Moaz al­Kasasbeh alive. ISIS commits revolting, brutal murders on video in order to recruit more terrorists and provoke endless conflict with the West. As you know, a war with the West is part of their fundamentalist, apocalyptic fantasy.

Curious to see all opinions, I typed into my browser and read an article titled “ISIS Burns Jordanian Pilot: Mr. Obama, when will you get angry about radical Islam?” In two sentences, the author called for vengeance and dehumanized the enemy. “America wants to know, when is President Obama going to get angry? When is he going to slam his fist on the desk, demand vengeance, put aside his incessant campaigning and call out the Islamic radicals of ISIS as the animals they are?”

I support thoughtful U.S. intervention on behalf of innocent people, but on a news outlet known for catering to conservative Christians, what does angry, dehumanizing vengeance have to do with the teaching of Jesus?

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” (Matthew 5:43­-45)

Just as famously, Paul (in Romans 12:19) referenced Deuteronomy 32:35: “Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord.” The King James translation is still the best remembered, saying, “’Vengeance is mine; I will repay,’ saith the Lord.”

I believe in protecting the innocent from terrorists like ISIS, but this opinion piece and much of the news coverage of Muslims is an example of violent, vengeful, dehumanizing war rhetoric that is diametrically opposed to the teaching of Jesus.

And do we even need to remind everyone of the recent dehumanizing statements toward Latino immigrants by a presidential candidate?

Progressive Christians speak out regularly in defense of peace-­loving Muslims in our communities. Following the inflammatory anti­-Muslim protest in Phoenix this past spring, we saw how beautiful solidarity can be between Christians and Muslims.

Progressive Christians also speak against xenophobia and urge immigration reform that welcomes immigrants into the United States as though we were welcoming Jesus, Himself (Matthew 25:35).

This, however, can no longer be only a progressive Christian cause. Now, I think it’s time to ask a different question:

When are moderate Christians going to stand up and condemn this kind of un­Christian, vengeful rhetoric toward immigrants and Muslims?

Millions of Christians consume xenophobic and inflammatory “news” on a daily basis. When a prominent piece such as this one goes unchallenged by a large number of moderate Christians, I have to ask, where does their allegiance lie—with a cable news channel or with Jesus Christ?

The fact is, my lunch with an imam was far more peace­loving than the opinion piece I read afterward. Who has the inside track on making peace?

Ryan Gear is the founding pastor of One Church, a nondenominational progressive church in Chandler, Arizona. He is the founder of, a growing national directory of churches willing to wrestle with questions and doubts. Ryan writes regularly for religion blogs such as OnFaith and Convergent Books and has been featured in Real Clear Religion. Ryan also serves as an initiator in Convergence U.S., a national movement bringing together forward-thinking Catholics, Evangelicals, and mainline Protestants, along with ethnic and peace churches and other willing colleagues.

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