“For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have?…And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others?…”
My grandfather was a refugee. His family fled from Russia during the Russian Revolution, when the Bolsheviks (Communists) took over the country. He was just a boy when he arrived at Ellis Island. His father, who was illiterate, provided for the family any way that he could, even as a shoe shiner. My grandfather truly lived the American Dream, coming to this “land of opportunity” with nothing and eventually graduating from college and owning his own house.
I suspect that many people reading this have a story like this in their past, which makes it surprising that many Americans have such xenophobia, or “intense or irrational dislike or fear of people from other countries.” Most of us are descended from immigrants and refugees, so how does that add up? It’s even more surprising how many of my fellow Christians have these same attitudes, since teachings like “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers” are inextricably woven into the fabric of the Bible. I’ve noticed that plenty of American Christians dislike or distrust foreigners, or at least don’t see a point in helping them. This kind of thinking contradicts the message of Christianity for the following basic reasons, but thankfully I’ve seen- as a leader of a ministry that serves refugees and immigrants by tutoring them in English- that many Christians are truly loving their (foreign) neighbor.
God loves the foreigner
Even a casual reading of the Bible reveals that God loves and values the poor and oppressed, as well as the foreigner. Many who are foreigners are also poor and oppressed. If we call ourselves the people of God, should we not love who God loves? Of course there are too many worthy needs to fill and causes to support for any one person to give time or money to all of them, but should a Christian really be opposed to serving- or even interacting with- a group that God so clearly holds dear?
Bhanu was a young Hindu man from the country of Bhutan who, for me, put a face to “the huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” When he was growing up, his family and many other Hindus were expelled from Bhutan by the Buddhist government, and ended up in Nepal, where they lived in a refugee camp. Eventually he met a woman there and got married. His wife was pregnant with their first child when Bhanu’s paperwork to come to America went through, but her paperwork hadn’t been approved yet, so he had to leave his wife and unborn child behind. His son was over a year old the first time he saw him. As he told this story in halting English, I couldn’t help but wonder- as a husband and father- how difficult this must have been.
Helping people like Bhanu learn English is a simple act of Christian love that serves to welcome those who most likely have rarely felt welcome anywhere. Most of us can hardly imagine living somewhere where practically no one speaks your language and where you only know a few words of their language. If you couldn’t just ask Siri, how would you find your way around, get a decent paying job or get help with a medical emergency with that language barrier? How would you handle it if you were well educated in your own country, but now you have to earn a living scrubbing toilets or picking produce because of the language barrier? How much would it mean to you if a local offered to help you learn the language, instead of leaving you to figure it out on your own?
Sociologists tell us that it’s subconscious human behavior to associate with people like yourself and to be suspicious of new, different people, and I don’t doubt that. I would, however, argue for a higher standard than basic human instincts and impulses (see Matthew 5). One pattern I see in the Bible is God indirectly pointing out our wrong, natural ways of thinking and acting by directly pointing us to right ways. For example, “You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself,” (Lev. 19:34) tells me that because God knows that it comes naturally for people to treat foreigners poorly or view them disdainfully, He felt it necessary to spell out the less natural, right way. If love and hospitality were universal, instinctive human responses to “strangers,” there would be no need to demand more.
I was doing some deep philosophical reading with my daughter the other night when I realized something. Many people, Christian and non-Christian, have a “Green Eggs and Ham” attitude toward people from other countries or cultures. No one would ever say it quite like this, but “I do not like them here or there, I do not like them anywhere,” pretty much sums up a typical human attitude towards foreigners. I’m sure this is common everywhere, but if the Bible teaches otherwise should we continue to take our cues from human nature and the culture around us? One of our tutors once explained that his rationale for volunteering as a tutor was that there is so much evil in the world and the people we help have seen so much of it, so he wanted to show them some good for once. What a profound real-life example of Romans 12:21: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
Love your enemies, except…
“Love your enemies” seems to be an nice Christian phrase, but when it comes down to living it out, how many of us are actually doing it? This is a perfect example of how we seem to often turn the teachings of Jesus into tritely repeated cliches that have no actual meaning in the real world, because otherwise they cut directly against the grain of our flawed human nature. For all practical purposes we turn it into “love your enemies, except…” or “love your enemies if you feel like it.” How many caveats did Jesus give? And it’s “love your enemies,” not “love your family and friends” or even “love your frenemies.” There can be no sugar-coating that. It’s a hard pill to swallow, no doubt, but every time we add an exception to it, are we not decreasing the dosage and its intended effects?
What does this have to do with refugees and immigrants? Well, there are many Muslim refugees and immigrants in the U.S., and many of us would consider Muslims our enemies. Are we really supposed to love them, or as a fellow Christian once told me, should we just nuke the Middle East and “turn that desert into glass”? For the sake of argument, let’s assume all Muslims are covert members of the Islamic State and are planning to behead every last Christian. Does “love your enemy” still apply to our Muslim neighbors? Are there any exceptions in Matthew 5 or in Jesus’ example during His unmerited arrest, illegal trial and unjust crucifixion? I’m not sure exactly what love looks like in that scenario and the entire idea really makes me uncomfortable, but at the same time Jesus has never been about just making us comfortable.
Honestly, though, things really aren’t that bad. I’ve met a number of Muslim people, and they weren’t that different from the rest of us. They’re just people with families to provide for and children to put through school- not that different from the story of my own grandfather and his parents. Anyone can see this for themselves by choosing to interact with someone who is different, while remaining in fear or hatred is caused by a decision to stay ignorant. One of our tutors exemplifies to me a refusal to let fear or hate paralyze the hands and feet of faith in action. She is an older lady who is a little timid, but she showed true courage and faith when she once told me, “At times I lack nerve to do this but am willing to try.”
All of the previous reasons ultimately fall flat without this reason: the message of Christianity is good news for anyone who accepts it. If it’s good news worth believing, it’s good news worth sharing. In the words of the famous magician Penn Jillette, a noted atheist, “How much do you have to hate somebody to believe that everlasting life is possible and not tell them that?”
Some people might object to proselytizing, while others might object that sharing the gospel is the only important way to serve non-Christians. In answer to the first, it’s not a matter of tricking someone into hearing a sales pitch about Jesus, or trying to force someone to convert. There’s a very real need that is being met, with no strings attached. What harm comes from friendships being formed and friends having conversations about their religious beliefs?
To answer the second objection, I’d say we’re not ignoring anyone’s spiritual needs by starting with their immediate needs. If neither of you speaks the same language, how will they ever hear and believe the truths of failure and forgiveness, ruin and redemption, sin and salvation? Also, we aim to allow some time for relationships, trust and credibility to develop so that sharing our faith is happening in the natural context of friendship. I know I’m personally much more likely to at least listen to someone about any topic if we have a relationship, as opposed to being a captive audience to a stranger’s unsolicited advice. Anyone with a megaphone can talk about the gospel, but is anyone really listening to that?
Much more could be written about the topic of foreigners, including other biblical reasons and plenty of good and bad Christian examples. Don’t take my word for it, though, look into the Scriptures and into your own life. What does the Bible say, and how do your attitudes and actions line up with that?