Spiritual principles series
Dealing with refugees is one of the most intractable problems facing governments across the western world. Not only is it difficult to control the number of people seeking asylum from crossing borders, but there is the fear that among the asylum seekers may be Taliban of DAESH fighters bent on suicide terrorism.
Governments respond in many different ways. Ultimately, public opinion may determine government policy, so what we all think matters. So what should be a christian understanding of all this?
Many European capitals have been affected by deadly terrorism – London, Madrid, Paris, Brussels, Ankara. Yet European attitudes, overall, tend to be more peaceful than we might expect.
This is perhaps best exemplified in the response of Germans and asylum seekers after multiple assaults on women in Köln (Cologne) at New Year, allegedly by Arabic or North African young men. It isn’t certain whether many of the assaults were by recent asylum seekers, but a number of refugees decided to make their own feelings clear. Recent arrivals have held demonstrations, made videos, handed out leaflets, all condemning the assaults and asking for the actions of the few not to be seen as the intentions of the many.
One particularly touching sequence of events began when a group of asylum seeking men handed out flowers to women as a way of saying sorry, distancing themselves from the assaults and expressing gratitude for Germany’s willingness to accept so many asylum seekers. This led in turn to many German women joining a ‘Flowers for Humanity in Cologne’ campaign which included almost one hundred visiting a refugee center to present them with roses. One said:
“we Germans are at a crossroads. Will we take the road of division and xenophobia? Or will we choose the road of unity and humanity that will ultimately also keep our country safer? While condemning the despicable acts of New Year’s Eve, today, hundreds of women here and across the country are choosing to build bridges and overcome fear by reaching out in love.”
There have been some similar responses from Belgians following the recently attacks in Brussels. The Belgian ambassador said it was Belgian nationals, not recent arrivals seeking asylum, who were responsible for the recent murders. In a measured response, King Philippe committed to “continue to respond with determination, with calmness and dignity”, and the Belgian people got on with helping each other during the state of emergency which followed the attacks.
Responses in the USA and Australia
US responses have been somewhat predictable. The Republican presidential candidates seemed determined to outdo each other in the violence of their responses to terrorism, Muslims and asylum seekers, and even President Obama undertook to continue the fight against terrorism – all this despite terrorism experts warning that anything but a measured response was playing into the hands of DAESH.
Some Australian political and media responses have been similarly hawkish. Our Prime Minister suggested that terrorist attacks like those in Brussels were the result of a “perfect storm” of failed policies, open borders and dysfunction that has allowed terrorism in Europe to flourish.
But in both countries there have also been shows of support for asylum seekers and Muslims.
Is there a christian response?
I’ve seen two christian responses that encourage me.
The Vatican announced that Pope Francis would be performing the ceremonial pre-Easter “washing of feet” at an asylum seeker centre, as a gesture of good will and acceptance towards those fleeing unimaginable suffering.
And Australian minister Jarrod McKenna gave a short talk on “enemy love”, arguing that any responses christians make to asylum seekers or terrorists must start with Jesus clear command to love our enemies. He gives an example of a south east Asian pastor who respond to violent attacks by helping with the education of terrorist leaders and assisting with rebuilding after a natural disaster.
Are we following Jesus, or what?
We cannot legalistically prescribe how anyone, or any nation, should respond to terrorism or to a huge influx of asylum seekers. Every situation is different and complex.
But as christians, surely Jesus’ command to love our enemies must be the starting point?
Jesus called us to “take up our cross daily” (Luke 9:23), and we so easily forget that the cross was a sign of execution. Jesus is telling us that if we are following him, our lives are not our own, and if we lose our life for his sake we will indeed gain eternal life. It wouldn’t be an easy teaching to live up to, and I have never been tested to know how I would respond, but I fear that many western christians are placing personal comfort and survival ahead of following Jesus’ teachings.
It is ironic, at best, and humiliating at worst, to see that the people of secular Europe may be responding to asylum seekers in a more Jesus-like way than is the so-called christian country of USA.
Living in the opposite spirit
There is an old spiritual principle. If the world around us is falling into some rampant error, christians should do their best to “live in the opposite spirit”.
If we are surrounded by materialism, we should be more generous.
If we are surrounded by anger, we must strive to be more peaceful.
If we are surrounded by fear, we must live in faith.
If we are surrounded by hatred, let us (like St Francis) sow love.
We may not be able to live up to the high standard that Jesus calls us to, and we may not know exactly what his teachings require in any given situation, but let us not fall short of acknowledging that his way is best, even though its hard. After all, at Easter we recognise that we follow the one who lived up to those teachings of sacrificial love, for our sakes.
Photo: Still taken from BBC video.