[This is too long for a single post, but I couldn’t find a good way to split it and spread it over two or three days.]
The Pottery Barn rule
The civil law question of who should get into the country and on what terms is a very different question governed by considerations that don’t apply to the church as the church.
There is no biblical command to the USA as a nation-state to be hospitable, although the moral argument is very powerful — just as was true of Sodom and Gomorrah. After all, we’re the ones who helped make such a colossal mess of the Middle East. It was Thomas Friedman who applied the Pottery Barn rule to foreign policy: You break it; you own it.
This is why so much of the world is outraged at the American refusal to allow immigrants from Syria. We helped break it. We should help fix it. And maybe immigration isn’t the best solution. But that’s a political question having to do with nation building, the use of the military, relationships with the Russians, and lots of other things that the Bible wasn’t written to address. The Bible can inform our foreign policy, but it’s not really a manual on how to do good government.
I’m not saying that the scriptures are irrelevant to government; just that we really need to stop assuming that the US is theocracy subject to the biblical commands given to Christians. It’s a form of avoidance; we talk about the government’s responsibility under Torah when we ought to be talking about our responsibility to sojourners. In fact, if the church would honor its obligations to sojourners, the politics would change for the better because the politicians would, for purely self-interested, political reasons, follow the example of the churches.
The hard question
So I think we’re finally ready to tackle this question:
If as a Christian I believe I’m bound to show hospitality to immigrants, even at some risk of my life and my family’s lives, is it sufficient to accept that risk only if the President happens to ask me to take in an immigrant family? Or am I obligated to pro-actively seek out one or more immigrant families to provide hospitality to, knowing that many families and many communities will shun the immigrants? Do we, like Lot in Sodom, offer hospitality to strangers when all others refuse?
There is no church program for the poor or oppressed that is without risk. Anytime you deal with strangers, you take a risk. The human mind is hardwired to perceive the unknown as dangerous. For example, if you work in a jail ministry, you subject yourself to the risk of physical harm by an inmate, but the degree of risk is actually quite small — at a level most of us would consider acceptable. No one promised us a risk-free evangelistic environment — just an eternity in bliss.
Just so, if a refugee family moves into your neighborhood or attends your church, the risk of terrorism or criminality will never be zero. But it can be acceptable. And while there have been some crimes and terrorist acts committed by vetted immigrants, the vast majority of vetted immigrants — immigrants that the US government has approved following an investigation into their background — are not dangerous.
Where the rubber hits the road
Face facts. It’s easy to talk theology as theory. But the rubber hits the road when an actual Christian hosts an actual non-Christian immigrant family in their home or neighborhood. I mean, I can self-righteously post on Facebook about how generous and kind my nation ought to be or sign a petition telling the government how to act — when the odds that I’ll be personally affected by my theology are nearly zero. Even 100,000 immigrant refugees spread across a nation as large as ours would make it highly unlikely that I’d suffer any consequences even if every one of the immigrants proves to be a terrorist. The numbers make it all so … abstract and theoretical. And Christianity isn’t supposed to be that kind of thing.
But if my church were to write the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services or Welcoming Refugees or World Relief to offer to host a family, well, that would shift the odds of being personally committed quite a lot and show Christian hospitality in fact, not just in theory. And there are churches that do exactly this. There are.
World Relief, the humanitarian arm of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), took on about 11,000 cases last year—a record high since 1999—and had almost 1,200 churches volunteer to help.
“Evangelical Experts Oppose Trump Refugee Ban,” Christianity Today (Jan. 25, 2017) (emphasis mine).
But for most of us, we just like winning arguments. Well, we mainly just like arguing, because we never persuade anyone. I mean, has anyone on Facebook ever persuaded anyone of anything?
So it seems to me that if I were convinced that we should show hospitality to refugees (which has nothing to do with illegal immigration, just legal immigration), the best response of the church to the refugee crisis and Trump’s executive order would not be a Facebook post or a petition or a rally. Rarely is a political act the highest Christian response. It’d be a letter to a resettlement organization offering to host a refugee family to help them resettle.
Imagine the government receiving 50,000 such letters from 50,000 churches. Wouldn’t that change Trump’s political calculus? Wouldn’t it moot much of the concern? And wouldn’t it be an extraordinary means of lifting Jesus up as a beacon of light in a deadly dark world?
Now, your church should not write such a letter without talking with the members and getting their input. Obviously. And this would require educating the members about the risks and the history of the refugee program. And we could all use the instruction and dialog. I mean, dialog and personal interaction with refugees would change a lot of hearts. It’d build a bridge across party lines. And it would force those who want to preach about sojourners — left and right — to answer the hard questions. I mean, the right wingers would have to explain how they avoid the biblical mandates. The left wingers would have to explain how the risk of terrorism or criminality or unacceptable cultural practices, such as honor killings, are to be handled. We can’t play Pollyanna with the lives of our neighbors.
Among those hard questions would also be how to bring a refugee family into your town and not scare the neighbors — hardly a loving thing to do. How would you handle the public perception of what you’re offering to do? How would you alleviate fears of terrorism? Well, I imagine you’d need to hold some meetings where these things are openly discussed within the entire community. And the tone of the meeting would need to be that we’re meeting to hear from our friends and neighbors about whether to do this — not “We’re doing this and you have to deal with it.”
Again, a church that loves its neighbors would not want to leave their neighbors in fear, no matter how unfounded the fears may seem to you. Meet. Talk. Discuss. Listen. Build bridges. It would be a great thing for your church as well as your community. (Even better would be for all the churches in town — regardless of denomination — to do this in concert for several families. After all, this issue is bigger than one congregation or one denomination.)
A couple in my church adopted an infant who was born HIV-positive. And many in my church were terrified that their children might catch AIDS. But we held meetings with medical professionals and considered the real risks, and the members decided to accept the child and allow their children to play with the newly adopted baby — but only because it was discussed, questions were answered, and actual experts explained how little risk there is. The risk is not zero, but it’s pretty low. And the result was radical hospitality done in love not only for the child but for the other members. (And we do tend to forget that our actual neighbors are among our biblical neighbors.)
Just so, if you were to invite a particular family from the Middle East to live in your community and offer to help them settle in, you would no longer be talking politics and law. You’d be talking about flesh and blood. And while an abstract group of refugees may be unwelcome as potential criminals or abusers of women or terrorists, if we were to shift the question to this particular family and the risks they bring with them, well, that’d be an entirely different conversation.
So my thought is that we need to get away from abstractions and policy and, as the church, deal with people — neighbors — as people who are neighbors, and learn about this particular family and assess whether this particular family would be appropriately extended Christian hospitality. I mean, we really shouldn’t be hospitable to criminals and terrorists, but neither should our fear of criminals and terrorists cause us to disobey the command to welcome strangers who are here legally and pose little threat to our safety. (And I’m not arguing for or against sheltering illegals; there’s much more to consider on that question.)
Am I saying that you must offer to host an immigrant family to be a good Christian? No. There are plenty of other ways to honor the command to be hospitable. But I wouldn’t consider signing a petition asking the President to bring in immigrants unless I also offered to host an immigrant. I mean, it’s just too cheap and easy to make demands on others. To ask others to take risks and carry burdens. I don’t think there’s anything remotely Christian about telling the world how to live. As I understand our shared faith, it’s really about how we live. (Obviously, we are to evangelize the lost, which will affect how our converts live, but then they’ll be part of us.) So let’s get our heads out of the political clouds and follow the example of the early church by being hospitable — rather than lobbying for laws that force others to be hospitable.
On being faithful
We Christians are expected to live lives that are outside society’s cultural norms. We are to be faithful even when faithfulness seems a little crazy.
So I’m not much worried about what Trump, Congress, and the courts will do. I have no control over that. My opinion has not been requested. I’m worried about how to live as an alien in a strange land, as a colonist for Christ in a world that has little regard for Christians. How to show that the Kingdom is not like the world but better. How to lift up Jesus as a beacon of light in a world filled with darkness. And bickering on Facebook over immigration policy and signing petitions when I’m not willing to lift a finger to help an actual immigrant isn’t on my to do list.
Rather, my friends and clients who are Muslims are looking at the church and wondering what kind of people we Christians really are. And so, like it or not, we have the opportunity to answer that question. In fact, what we do or don’t do will answer that question no matter how much we might prefer to avoid it. There is no avoiding it. We will show who we are by how we act.
And then I notice that 1.200 churches have told INS that they’ll host an immigrant family. There are 350,000 churches in the US. There are probably 400 churches right here in Tuscaloosa County. 1,200 churches is less than 0.4% of all US churches. So if I’m a rational Muslim comparing Christianity to its claims, what should I conclude? After all, hospitality is among the highest obligations in that part of the world, even among non-Christians. See here and here.
And all that’s just the beginning of the argument for hosting a refugee family. I mean, in a denomination that’s declining in numbers, why would we pass up such a great evangelistic opportunity? As a denomination that strongly believes in foreign missions, why would we burden our missionaries with having to defend our refusal to help resettle refugees. You see, we see this as a political question. It’s really a spiritual question and so has to be thought through in spiritual terms.
And I know it will be difficult for church leaders to persuade their members to give up their allegiances to their political parties and candidates and to instead think through this purely on spiritual terms. But that’s a conversation our congregations badly need.