Over the last several months, a strong opposition has arisen in Twin Falls against refugees and the CSI Refugee Program. As I've watched, listened, and interacted with people on both sides of the argument, I've found myself perplexed, and in many cases, appalled at what's being said. I'm astonished that people want to shut down something that has brought refuge to those who had none and diversity to a city that otherwise had very little. What I've found to be most disturbing, however is not the opposition itself but that the primary dissenting voices are from within the church.* Now, I know that not all opposing voices are Christian voices. I also know that not all Christians, churches, or religious people in Twin Falls share the same sentiment as those who are being most vocal about their desire to stop refugees from coming into this city. But as a follower of Jesus and a pastor in Twin Falls, my concern is with how the church has taken center stage in this debate, even making statewide news, and how what's being seen and heard has done more to be offensive and dishonoring to the name of Jesus than it has done to be helpful.
The refugees coming to Twin Falls (no matter where they are from) are people to fight for, not against. It's because of who Jesus is, what he has done, and what he has sent us to do, that we must believe this.
Who is the refugee?
The debate at hand begins with asking the question, who is the refugee? Countless times I've heard them referred to as "those people"–the term being thrown around in more of an animalistic way than a human one. And if the reference isn't, "those people," then it's, "those Muslims"–the indication being that because they're Muslim, they are to be discarded as less than human in some way. The Bible however, does not allow us to look at the refugee like this.
The Bible says, "God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them" (Genesis 1:27). It is this image bearing quality that makes all humanity unique. People are the image bearers of God. Not trees. Not animals. People. This is the reality of all humanity regardless of ethnicity, social background, or religion. All of us, though very broken, are image bearers of God, and it is in this way that we are to see the refugee. If we don't view them as image bearers, then it becomes all too simple for us to leave them in harm's way to perish. And if we, Church, would have the heart of God, then we would not desire that any would be left in harm's way to perish (2 Peter 3:9).
On a simply human level, if we as a city and if we as the church in the city are given the privilege to provide refuge for those who have none, who are we to stop it? Furthermore, why would we?
Loving our new neighbors.
In the Gospels, Jesus was asked, "Which is the greatest commandment?" (Matthew 22:34–40; Mark 12:28–34; Luke 10:25–28) He answered,
"The most important is, 'Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.' The second is this: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no other commandment greater than these" (Mark 12:29–31).
This is where Jesus' kingdom ethic becomes far too challenging and uncomfortable for many. Jesus is saying that the command which supersedes all others is that we are to "love God." He then seamlessly extended this love of God into the reality that an overflow of truly loving God will lead to loving our neighbors. Many of us want to ask, who is my neighbor? Jesus however, doesn't allow us to ask this question. In the Gospel of Luke, a Jewish lawyer asked Jesus this very question, and Jesus responded with the parable of the Good Samaritan, teaching the lawyer the lesson that our neighbor (and thus the person we are to do good to) is not merely the person in close proximity to us and is not merely the person who shares the same or similar beliefs as us. Jesus' teaching was far more extreme. Our neighbor is every human being.
This means that the refugees coming into Twin Falls—no matter where they come from—are our new neighbors, and we who call ourselves followers of Jesus don't get to make the decision of whether we love them or not. We must. Rather than kicking them out or preventing them from coming in, we gladly welcome them with open arms. We listen to their stories. We serve them. We love them like humans—like image bearers of God.
Of course you might retort: "Muslims are dangerous." "They're our enemy." "They're terrorists." "They're a threat to our freedom." "They won't assimilate." "They won't leave their religion." And on and on and on.
Once again, listen to the words of Jesus:
"But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you" (Luke 6:27–28).
Those are some hard words to squeeze around. Jesus is clear—love everyone regardless of what they do to you or say about you and to you. In fact, go beyond that, and be a blessing to them! Pray for them. Do good to them. Welcome them. Love them.
Why would we do this, you might ask?
Because of Jesus.
Because of Jesus
A little over 2,000 years ago, when Jesus was living on this earth, he was born into human history during a time of great oppression and terror. In fact, his first two years of life were spent in hiding because a wicked king wanted him dead. And if you don't remember the story, the way that wicked king tried to kill Jesus was to issue an order to kill all male children under the age of two, living in Bethlehem and the surrounding region.
Rome was the empire reigning over Israel. As a result, the Jewish people were constantly looking over their shoulders and living in fear, because they never knew when Caesar might blow a fuse and decide to kill thousands of Jews all at once. Now, the hope of Israel was in their anticipation of the Messiah (King) who would set them free from this oppression. When Jesus' public ministry began, word quickly traveled that he might just be this long awaited King who would finally free Israel and the Jewish people from the oppression. From our vantage point in history, we know that he was. Mark begins his gospel by telling us that he was writing about the Messiah (Mark 1:1).
The problem, however, is that Jesus wasn't the Messiah everyone was expecting. What everyone wanted was a Messiah who would come into Israel, rally his troops, overthrow the Roman government by force, and set up his kingdom right then and there. This is not what Jesus did. Instead, he loved the poor, the marginalized, and the outcasts around him. Those whom everyone else was rejecting, Jesus was loving. Those whom everyone else was trying to get rid of, Jesus was telling, "Come. Follow me." He loved the Roman terrorists; he loved the “Gentile sinners;” he loved those called unclean, and he even spoke in a way that honored and loved the Roman emperor who would eventually allow his crucifixion. Jesus, more than anyone else in human history, provided (and still provides) refuge for the refugee!
Jesus didn't enter human history to create a holy huddle of people who were afraid of anyone who looked a little bit different or had a different cultural and religious background. Rather, Jesus came to create a people for himself from all the nations of the world. "Is it not written, My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations?" (Mark 11:17). In other words, Jesus came to cast out fear and enable the nations,—all ethnic groups from all over the world—to live together in such a way that had never before been experienced. That way would be under his Kingship and authority.
He accomplished this by dying a brutal sinner’s death by crucifixion. Though he was sinless, he died on a cross, was buried, and rose three days later. In so doing, he defeated Satan, sin, death, and Hell, and now in light of this resurrection, Jesus calls his followers to do the same. He calls us to love all humanity unto death, even if it means our physical death (See Mark 8:34–38).
So why, Church, do we love the refugee?
We love the refugee because we have first been loved by God in and through the person and work of Jesus. We bless the refugee because Jesus has been a blessing to us. We serve the refugee because Jesus has served us. We give refuge to the refugee because Jesus is our Refuge! And yes, we do all of this knowing that our physical death might one day be the result. But what does it matter? We are believers in and followers of the One who conquered death. Therefore, we have nothing to fear. We know that we will one day inherit a kingdom that is imperishable, and loving the refugee now is a small glimpse of that day.
Your Kingdom Come
Our role, Church, is to pray that God would build his kingdom on earth as it is in heaven (Matthew 5:10). We are to pray that God would build his kingdom here in Twin Falls as it is in heaven. If our prayer is that the refugees would leave, then we greatly misunderstand the gospel and what it means to be a citizen of God's kingdom. If our prayer is to shut down the refugee program, then we greatly misunderstand what it means to welcome the stranger and "to learn to do good; seek justice, (and) correct oppression" (Isaiah 1:17). If our prayers are to do anything but be a blessing to all nations, then we defame the name of Jesus.
One day, God's kingdom will be established here on earth (Revelation 21:3), and on that day, people from every tribe, tongue, and nation will be singing songs of praise to the one true God. The memories of terror, war, racism and other atrocities will be gone. "He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away" (Revelation 21:4). My prayer is that we would believe that Jesus died for the restoration of all things, and that we would get a small glimpse of his kingdom in Twin Falls, Idaho now. My prayer is that our churches would be filled with people from all over the world. That our seats would be filled with all ethnicities, social backgrounds, and economic statuses. And finally, that the world would look upon us with a perplexing gaze and wonder who it is that has caused such a sight, who it is that has enabled such love, and in the end, that Jesus would be seen and made known, to the glory of God.
In the midst of such a time as this, it is imperative that we, the church, not lose our first identity as followers of Christ and mistake patriotic allegiances as synonymous with an allegiance to King Jesus. The nations are being brought to our neighborhoods. It's not time for us to fold in fear, or fight in terror, but to be a blessing. Let's not miss our chance.
Christ Is All!
*When I say "church" in this article, I am referring to the church as those who claim to be followers of Jesus as a whole. This article is not in reference to any specific local church.