A Pastor’s Response to the Refugee Ban

Living in Tension


In this time of political turmoil, the consciousness of the church is being stirred, poked, and prodded. Will we wake up? As we’ve witnessed an executive order to ban refugees and the subsequent responses from the ACLU and the judicial branch, where is the church? Will we respond in ways that reflect what Jesus taught and embodied, or will we remain asleep, blissfully ignorant or complacent as we silently slumber away with our comfortable, self-interested versions of the gospel?

As a pastor, I serve at an Austin church that is predominately Caucasian, politically diverse, and spiritually made up of people who fall between a wide spectrum of faith, from questioning to leading. I love our people, and everyday, I’m learning more how to love and serve people who may think, look, and act differently than me. And everyday, I’m reminded that God’s call was never meant to be easy. The call of Jesus has always entailed dying to ourselves, picking up our cross, and following Jesus. There are days when this feels nearly impossible for me. But there are also days when I catch glimpses of another world entering into our own, giving us a foretaste of God’s kingdom. Oh, that this would be a day when we see the kingdom of God coming!

So I pray, “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it in heaven…”

So What’s With the Uproar?

If you’re reading this and you’re wondering why some have responded so viscerally to the executive order to ban refugees, I invite you to listen, just for a few moments. Aside from serving as a pastor, I am the son of immigrants, the child of a refugee mother who fled to Hong Kong during the political unrest of China’s “Great Leap Forward,” and I am deeply disturbed at the rhetoric that is now priming to become policy in our country.

The executive order to temporarily close our country to refugees does not only assault my personal sensibilities, it offends the very fabric of our Christian faith and our shared humanity with all people. As Pope Francis, speaking on Matthew 25, recently stated,“It’s hypocrisy to call yourself a Christian and chase away a refugee or someone seeking help, someone who is hungry or thirsty, toss out someone who is in need of my help. If I say I am Christian, but do these things, I’m a hypocrite.”

The imago Dei in each of us runs above any nationality that we might claim, or any religion we might profess. Human dignity does not primarily reside within our citizenship; it arises out of God’s image being placed inside of us. So when our neighbors seek our help, no matter their political, religious, social, ethnic, or racial background, we are called to recognize their God-given dignity, to love them, and to welcome them. Refusing to love and advocate for those in need breaks relationship between us and our neighbors and also between us and God. 


But What About..?

As Christ followers, we may disagree with how we vet refugees. We can debate over the efficacy of our current process. Some of us may rightly fear terrorism and ISIS and desire governmental action. What we cannot escape, however, is God’s call for his followers to “love the stranger among you, for you were strangers” (Deut. 10:19). Ultimately, we are not people of fear, but people of faith, hope, and love. As theologian Miroslav Volf has written, “Exclusion is barbarity within civilization, evil among good, crime against the other right within the walls of the self” (Exclusion & Embrace). Myopic exclusion on the basis of religion, race, or national origin leads to violence towards ourselves and the other. It feeds into the cycle of hate and division in this world. It results in things like the slavery of African Americans, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the Japanese internment camps in 1940s America, and the concentration camps of Nazi Germany.

Martin Luther King, Jr., in describing his approach to nonviolent resistance, minced no words when he wrote against faith that is useless:

“Any religion that professes to be concerned with the souls of [humanity] and is not concerned with the slums that damn them, the economic conditions that strangle them, and the social conditions that cripple them is a dry-as-dust religion.” (Pilgrimage to Nonviolence)

Both Volf and MLK show us that faith, if it is any faith worth having, must always find a concrete expression in our everyday ethics and relationships. For MLK, an embodied faith led him to struggle against segregation and the racialized structures he saw around him. Following Jesus cost him.

What will an embodied faith look like for us today?

The Refugee God

For some of us, we may want to consider who our faith is built upon before we consider what our faith should look like.

It was Jesus who showed us to love those who are different from us. When he entered into Samaria on the way to Jerusalem, he intentionally crossed over political, religious, social, and gender lines to meet a woman who had been tossed aside by her own people (John 4). While most Jews would have traveled around Samaria to avoid its people, Jesus intentionally opted to enter into the region. He risked ostracization among his own followers. He challenged the social and political norms of interaction because he was on a mission – “to seek and save the lost” (Luke 19:10). Jesus refused to bow down to fear, hypocrisy, and hatred.

It was also Jesus who taught us to “do to others as you would have them do to you” (Luke 6:31), to love God and to love your neighbor as yourself (Mark 12:30-31), and to love your enemy (Matt. 5:44).

And finally, it was Jesus who came to us as a refugee. In Jesus Christ, our God entered a world in which his parents were forced to flee from a political leader set on eliminating him and an entire generation of Jewish infants for fear of losing his power and authority. Jesus is the refugee God who came to rescue us.

This Jesus calls us to follow him and discover life (Mark 8:34). Faith is much more than belief. It involves actively following Jesus and living out God’s commands.

Let’s act.

A wholesale ban or a religious test on refugees should alarm us, for it runs counter to the very faith that Jesus calls us towards. While we have yet to fully determine the long-term aim of the current ban, we can begin to embody our faith. Throughout the expanse of scripture, God has always called his people to care for the orphan and to welcome the foreigner among you:

  • Learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause. (Isaiah 1:17)
  • When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God. (Lev. 19: 33-34)
  • How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? (1 John 3:17)
  • The Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37)

God doesn’t call us to love people who are just like you; God calls us to love strangers – the very people who are not like you. If we were to modernize the parable of the good Samaritan, we might call it the parable of the good Muslim (see Luke 10:25-37). We are called to choose faith over fear, to risk love for our neighbors, to compassionately welcome those who are different from us, and to seek individual and systemic justice for others who are powerless to seek it for themselves.

Today, we are faced with the largest refugee crisis in human history. Refugees represent some of the world’s most marginalized and victimized people. Through no choice of their own, they have been forced to flee their war-torn home and neighborhoods, only to enter into a foreign country that may not altogether want them there. Their future in our country remains unclear. In the midst of these realities, our faith urges us to love out of a prophetic imagination.

How will you respond?

May your kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven.

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