One of the things that have marked the 21st century so far is the global refugee crisis caused by warfare, genocide, and oppression in various places around the world. Some estimates place the number of displaced people at close to 60 million globally. Syria has endured a civil war since 2011, displacing nearly 14 million people from their homes; nearly 5 million Syrians have fled to other countries. The United States admitted almost 85,000 refugees from all over the world in 2016. With the refugees come opportunities, risks, and debates over what the Christian response to refugees should be.
First, all Christians should be able to agree that the issues surrounding the refugee crisis are more complex than the rhetoric on social media would have us believe. There are Christians who, in the name of compassion, believe we should open all borders and take in all refugees, no matter what. There are other Christians who, in this era of terrorism, believe we should close all borders and refuse most refugees. For one group to malign the other as “un-Christian” or “unloving” or “racist” is wrong. To insist that one’s own view on refugees is the only possible view for a Christian to have is neither helpful nor realistic. It’s not as simple as “love vs. hate” or “compassion vs. security.” There are nuances to consider. There may, in fact, be more than one Christian view on the matter of refugees.
Second, still laying the groundwork for considering the refugee crisis, we should acknowledge that forming personal convictions concerning refugees is a separate matter from setting governmental policy. Christians have many shared priorities, but the practical outworking of those priorities can vary from person to person. A government, even when informed by Christian principles, has different priorities. Governments must be concerned with national security, even if Christians give no thought to personal security. An individual Christian may be willing to risk everything in order to assist refugees, but that same Christian cannot demand that his neighbors share that risk. We must strike a balance between our (God-given) personal responsibility to show compassion and the (God-given) state responsibility to protect its citizens.
It’s good to look to Scripture for some examples of displaced people. Jacob and his family could be considered refugees in Egypt, fleeing the famine in Canaan (Genesis 46:1–4). When Moab faced destruction at the hands of the Assyrians, the Moabites pleaded for Israel to take in their refugees (Isaiah 16:3). Edom was condemned, in part, for refusing to help Jewish refugees (Obadiah 1:14). Psalm 146:9 says, “The Lord watches over the foreigner.” Ruth, who was more of an immigrant than a refugee, was welcomed in Judah, but note, in her words to Naomi, her willingness to assimilate into Jewish culture: “Your people will be my people and your God my God” (Ruth 1:16).
The Old Testament Law contained this instruction pertaining to refugees and immigrants in Israel: “Do not oppress a foreigner; you yourselves know how it feels to be foreigners, because you were foreigners in Egypt” (Exodus 23:9). This principle is reiterated in Leviticus 19:33, “When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them.”
The New Testament does not give any specific command concerning nations admitting refugees. The New Testament was not written to be a civic handbook or legal charter. What we do find in the New Testament are specific commands concerning individual treatment of others. Jesus said the greatest commandment, right after the command to love God, is “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31). And in one of the end times’ judgments, Jesus will commend those who helped the hungry, the thirsty, and the stranger (Matthew 25:35). So, without a doubt, Christians have a mandate to show compassion to the needy.
The Christian response to refugees must include love. And it’s worth pointing out that biblical love always includes risk. It’s impossible to love someone the way Christ loves us and not face a certain amount of risk. And that factor—risk—is what necessitates that Christian compassion be tempered with caution when implementing national policy. Any nation that brings in refugees opens itself to the possibility that terrorists have infiltrated the ranks of displaced internationals. The Paris attacks in November 2015 and the San Bernardino shooting in December 2015 are grim reminders of the deception employed by terrorists to gain entrance into a country.
So, a Christian forming a biblical response to the refugee crisis will do several things:
1) Commit to administering care and compassion to refugees. Christians should welcome refugees into their homes and churches as a way to show God’s love and share the gospel. Standing before the throne of the Lamb one day will be those “from every nation, tribe, people and language” (Revelation 7:9).
2) Pray for our nation’s leaders. Governing authorities have a divine responsibility to “bring punishment on the wrongdoer” (Romans 13:4) and to ensure “that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness” (1 Timothy 2:2). Pray that our leaders would have the wisdom of a Daniel or a Joseph.
3) Support ministries that assist refugees. Many Christian ministries exist to help refugees in relocation, job training, language skills, and cultural adjustment.
4) Promote government policies that are effective in screening refugees to prevent those with evil intent from entering. We must show compassion to those in need; at the same time, we must show compassion to our fellow citizens and not place them at undue risk.
5) Pray for the refugees, their families, and their troubled homelands. “Be exalted, O God, above the highest heavens! May your glory shine over all the earth” (Psalm 57:5).
6) Research the best ways to help the displaced. From “safe zones” abroad to Christian ministries at home, there are many options that deserve serious consideration.
Jesus told us to go into all the world and preach the gospel (Matthew 28:18– 20). With the surge of refugees, the mission field is coming to us, and many of those who come are from nations closed to traditional missions. Wouldn’t it be just like God to turn a bad situation into something good and full of glory?