Friday, December 18, 2015

What to Do If Syrian Refugees Relocate Into Your Neighborhood

     If you have a Facebook page, the chances are good that you've seen this meme; probably more than once, and perhaps more than you'd care to see it - not because you object to what it says, necessarily, but simply because seeing it over and over again begins to feel as if you're being bludgeoned. Other than acute overexposure, however, there really isn't anything objectionable to the message being conveyed here. The small print sets out the crux of the matter, at least for those of us who profess the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, as it urges us, as Christians, to follow the example of the Good Samaritan, and to not be like, "the other guy"; a misnomer, given that, in the parable as our Lord taught it involves two other "guys" - a priest of the Temple and a Levite. But before this becomes a Bible study or a commentary, let's agree that the meme encourages us, rightly, not to panic in the event that we find ourselves living in the vicinity of refugees from Syria (or elsewhere in the Middle East); and to react to them as neighbors should when encountering people in need: by reaching out to them to meet their needs, beginning at the practical level, and continuing to the higher levels of friendship and community, insofar as all are willing to partake and receive.

     Now, if this was all there was to the matter, I wouldn't be writing, as the meme is quite clear on its own. But part of the conversation that has taken place in response to this idea appearing on various timelines speaks of a fear that the act of reaching out to a refugee family will put the person showing the hospitality of a neighbor to a refugee at risk of harm, or even of death.  Sometimes the recent tragedy in San Bernardino, California, in which fourteen people were killed and twenty-two were injured when two self-professed jihadis attacked a Christmas party attended by coworkers and their families, many of whom had done for one of the shooters what the meme calls for us to do as neighbors, is mentioned as a reason for caution, or even for the rejection of showing the kindness the meme suggests. Friends have expressed their concern for the "good people" they know, not wanting them to put themselves in harm's way - an understandable sentiment, to be sure. How, then, should we respond?
     To me, the answer to this question is twofold. The first approach is by analogy, and considers the act of giving, especially (but not exclusively) in its charitable sense. Usually, when you give someone a gift, it's theirs, and no longer yours. You don't own it any more, and they can do what they want with it - no strings attached.  A common example - and a common dilemma - is the person on the street corner with a cardboard sign, asking for help. We have a tendency, first of all, to want to keep what we have for ourselves, don't we? "After all," we say to ourselves, "I've worked too hard to just throw my money away!" Of course, when we throw our money away on ourselves, well, that's different, isn't it? So we must begin by overcoming this selfishness, in which we are assisted by recalling our Lord's teaching, as summarized by the statement, "It is more blessed to give than to receive." (Acts 20:35) The next obstacle is the thought that the recipient of our charity will not use what we intend to give for the stated purpose - usually, for something to eat. We think, "They'll just use it to buy drugs, or booze! Why should I give them money when they'll only use it for their destruction?" Having talked ourselves into giving, we can just as easily talk ourselves out of it again, unless we also grasp this aspect, which is also the relevant point when it comes to our discussion about the risk of helping Muslim refugees: our part is not to decide what the recipient of our alms might do with them; our part is to decide to give, We will not be held accountable if the recipient takes the money we had given them to buy food and uses it for some other purpose; they will be the ones who answer for their actions, as we will be for ours. If we had the opportunity to give alms to a beggar and did nothing, because our hearts were hardened, we shall suffer the consequences for our failure to show compassion; and, in the same way, if we have the opportunity to show compassion to a refugee because our hearts were fearful, we will bear the consequences for our failure to love our neighbor as we love ourselves - another commandment given to us by our Lord.
     The second approach is more direct. Christians have been at risk of torture and death since the day our Lord Jesus Christ was crucified. From the Day of Pentecost, when the Church was established by the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the apostles and disciples gathered together, until the Edict of Milan was issued in the year of our Lord 313 by the Emperor Constantine the Great, Christians were persecuted by various emperors, governors, and other imperial officials. As the Gospel was brought to new lands by missionaries, many more were martyred for their faith: some upon encountering pagan peoples, and, as Islam began to spread, when Christians and Muslims came into contention. Persecutions and martyrdom continue to this very day and hour - the Syrian refugees whom some people say we should fear might very well be Syrian Christians fleeing the persecution that has driven the Church from the place where it has been for almost two thousand years. Hundreds of thousands of Christians suffered at the hands of the Bolsheviks, with uncounted numbers of martyrs within the last one hundred years in every land where the yoke of Communist oppression has fallen. Dying for the sake of Christ is not new; and it is not old. Those of us in the western world have been blessed with safety and prosperity - and perhaps we have grown soft, and have forgotten, even as we are aware of the history of the martyrs, that to be a Christian has been, and is supposed to be, at some level, a dangerous thing. Our adversary, the devil, does not need to attack us with any intensity if we are only going through the motions when it comes to living our faith in Christ; but when we begin to take it seriously, we threaten his dominion, and we should not be surprised if the attacks and temptations we experience begin to increase. Perhaps how we respond to the danger of the refugees is part of that temptation. Is our fear of death greater than our love?
     Which brings us to this: If we know who we are as Christians, we should not fear death, except to the extent that we are not ready to stand before God to give an account for our lives. Apart from being judged, however, death is not the end: it is simply the doorway by which we depart from this life and enter into the life to come. Let me put it another way: THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS DEATH. Granted, at some point, for some reason, our bodies cease to function, and the person we are, as a combination of immortal soul and mortal body, is no longer present as such in this material world. We describe that state as, "death"; but such a death is not the end. As Christians, we know that we do not cease to exist, for Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death.  Death is no longer something to fear, but rather something for which we need to prepare, so that we might be ready to meet our God.  So, if our lives in this world are cut short as were the lives of those fourteen who died at the hands of a coworker whom they had befriended in San Bernardino, what have we lost? NOTHING. It would be better, I think, to reach out with the love of Christ to meet the needs of the refugee family next door, or down the street, even if that causes my death at their hands, because of their hatred, than to do nothing because of my fear. Who knows whether our showing them Christ's love - even if we never get the chance to speak of Him to them - might be a step toward overcoming their hatred - or their fears?  Let us do the right thing, and trust in the Lord, being fearless in the grace of God; and let us love our neighbor, no matter where he, or she, or they, may be from, as we love ourselves.