“when the raft in the ocean is safer than our home, we’ll go”
With the train station closed in Budapest, over 70 dead in a truck on the side of the road in Austria, millions in refugee camps, and talk of building a wall between the United States and Mexico, perhaps one thing the entire world can agree on is that we have an immigration problem.
Consensus ends there, however, as robust debates unfold in both the EU and USA regarding what should be done with the ocean of suffering that seems to be pouring into these two geographies. These are important conversations, and difficult. Solutions are costly, no matter your stance, and divisive.
Christ followers are called, of course, to represent the heart of Christ in the matter, and this demands that our response be driven by a fundamental belief that every person in this sea of suffering is made in the image of God. Some of God’s image-bearers are angry, militant. Many, most even, are children and mothers. All are made in God’s image and people of faith are invited to not only view “the problem” in its philosophical/political consideration through this lens, but to see people, individuals who are hungry and frightened. Immigration resettlement ministries, such as this one, go a long way toward opening our eyes, at the least, to the humanity of the problem, and until we see this as a human problem rather than a political one, any solution will fall short.
On the other hand, it’s equally important as Christ followers to see the folly of believing that there’s a policy solution out there that’s the magic pill. There isn’t. A little historical perspective might help here.
1. People have always fled towards sanity and safety. In the 30’s in Germany, it was Jews getting out, in search of safety. In the 19th century it was the Underground Railroad, with slaves seeking free states. It was the flight of Tutsis to the Congo during the genocide, and Cambodians to refugee camps in Thailand during the reign of Pol Pot.
The darkness of principalities and powers is real, and this means that no government or kingdom has ever been wholly just. But just as important, it means that in a world where nothing is perfect, there are kingdoms and reigns which are exceptionally evil and violent, places where safety utterly evaporates because not just one or two citizens, but whole cities and people groups are targeted for overt, intentional, oppression and destruction. When that happens, as one refugee poet writes (my paraphrase), “we’ll risk fleeing, because the risk of drowning at sea is safer than the risk of staying home.”
Overnight, architects, medical professionals, artists, teachers, willingly displace themselves when insanity reigns. And then what? They don’t know what’s next; only that the present is too unbearable to continue. This is the way of it, and bastions of sanity, precisely because they have a good measure of justice and compassion, are where people will go. We know for certain that becoming uncompassionate isn’t the solution. We know too, that there are physical limits to any nation’s capacity to absorb, and when insanity reigns more and more, the crisis we presently see will become bigger and bigger.
2. Sanity and Safety are never absolute. Read about the suburbs of Paris, and various places in England, and you come to see that relocation and receiving social services is no magic bullet. Seething racism and xenophobia can often incite a downward spiral of mistrust and anger that erupts in deep cultural fissures as the new normal in the very place which was supposed to offer hope. Whether its Chinese laborers in San Francisco in the 19th century, migrant farm workers today, or refugees unable to find any employment at all, it turns out that simply opening the doors at a political level is never enough.
Let’s remember, too, that bastions of sanity don’t stay sane forever. The Republic of Congo that offered shelter during the Rwandan genocide is now a place of violence and uncertainty. Even in more seemingly stable situations, predators, racism, and the commensurate angry and often violent response, evaporate any notion that simply a change of geography will be the answer.
While some will accuse me at this point of spiritualizing, I’ll be quick to add that this isn’t solely a physical/economic issue. People move to the San Juan Islands, or Shoreline, from Seattle, in search of “something better” whether its free parking, less crime, a slower pace, whatever. It’s always “out there” somewhere, this promise of more and better.
As a person who’s been privileged to be a pastor in some of the most beautiful landscapes in the Pacific Northwest, I’ll let you know that infidelity, domestic violence, addiction, loneliness, and all the other marks of emptiness, are fully present in the midst of dripping fir trees, stunning green, coastal views, and stunning sunsets. As one friend said to me once, “I didn’t realize when I moved to Friday Harbor, that all my (emotional/spiritual) baggage would walk on the ferry with me” That’s a good way of saying it.
This, I believe, is one of the reasons Jesus said “the son of man has nowhere to lay his head”. While it may have been true at a physical level, as Jesus wasn’t a homeowner, it was true at a different level as well. Jesus knew that his kingdom was “not of this world”, that neither Rome, nor the EU, nor the USA would ever get it fully right. That’s not an excuse for pietist disengagement. It’s just a reality. Oppression, Katrina, fires, laws, and our own failures conspire to make nirvana unreachable.
There is a shelter however. His name is Jesus.
In my years of blogging and writing, I’ve noticed that when I approach controversial political topics like gun control and homosexuality, thousands are interested in reading and many respond, often with ugly rhetoric. We really seem to care about these hot cultural topics.
Companionship with Christ though? Statistics tell me people don’t care, though they may. But as I grow older I’m starting to see that I’ve been wrong in dividing issues and putting them in bins of politics and/or spirituality. Christ is inviting us to know him as the foundational shelter, the first shelter, the shelter in whom we can have confidence so that when the floods come, we won’t be shaken. We’re afraid to say it, because it makes us sound as if we don’t care about Syria. Rubbish! Our Syrian friends need water, food, safety, and the assurance that there’s a better foundation for the future than France, England, or the USA – there’s one sure foundation, one lasting companion. It’s high time we started believing it, preaching it, and living it.