When it comes to refugees, our country seems to be torn between a desire to open our arms and hearts and a desire to be safe from all harm — as if those fleeing war are really just aggressors themselves, waiting to spring a vicious trap.
Xenophobia? Sure. Islamophobia? Double sure.
But there's another scary idea at play: Refugees are an existential threat because they force us to confront the inconvenience of radical compassion.
Refugees arrive in our land with little more than the clothes on their backs, struggling against language and cultural barriers. Some of them are physicists and doctors and university professors, now scrubbing dishes or emptying bedpans in nursing homes to make ends meet. And while giving thanks for their own resettlement, many help the next group of new arrivals and work to strengthen their adopted communities with a humility that perhaps only fleeing war can bestow.
Their generosity brings to mind Luke 18:22, when Jesus said, paraphrasing, “None of this temporal stuff matters. Please sell everything you own and use the money to care for the poor and disadvantaged. You’ll be fine, because this is what God is really concerned about.”
Refugees shame us by throwing into stark contrast the real division between “haves” and “have-nots,” and our responsibility to the latter.
This is a consistent tension in our belief systems.
The Old Testament mentions caring for the stranger, no fewer than 36 times, because “You were once strangers in the land of Egypt.” The New Testament is chock-full of more exhortations to the same. Set your search engines to Exodus 22:21, Deuteronomy 10:19, Matthew 5:1, Leviticus 19:33, Deuteronomy 27:19, Matthew 25:25, 1 Corinthians 12:12, Galatians 5:14, or Luke 10:29.
The Quran is likewise insistent upon showing compassion for those displaced by war or disaster. Similar searches of Sikh and Hindu and Buddhist and Wiccan and Secular Humanist texts will reveal the same message: Be a radical welcomer, because that is what humans need to do.
This kind of compassion is part of our national civic-religious-ethical fabric, but that doesn’t make actually doing it any easier. For Christians, refugees force our eyes up the cross until we find the broken body of another Middle Easterner, crying and bleeding, and yet still forgiving those who trespassed against him.
And that can cause us to lash out against our own shortcomings.
If my fellow Christians were honest about the deep shame that we feel when we don’t live up to the example of Jesus, we wouldn’t need to convert that shame to loathing and heap it upon those whose only sin was being born in a part of the world where violent men wield weapons of war against civilians.
This past Sunday, I hoped in my heart of hearts that my priest would spit fire about Catholics’ obligations toward refugees — especially of the Muslim kind — as we Catholics were once similarly despised in America. Instead, he focused on the value of humility — of clearly recognizing that sic transit gloria mundi, “thus passes the glory of the world.”
Luckily, in addition to the gospel reading of the Beatitudes, our second reading was from 1 Corinthians 1:26, which, among other things, says, "God chose the lowly and despised of the world, those who count for nothing, to reduce to nothing those who are something."
Refugees threaten to reduce us to a holy nothing. In so doing, they free us from our own selfish pursuits. And that is scary.