Christ the Refugee #WorldRefugeeDay2015

This a Guest Post by Dena Nicolai.

Syrian refugee Mahmoud, in the underground shelter where he lives with his family in El Akbiya, Lebanon, Friday, September 20, 2013. He shares a tiny room measuring 2.5m x 3.5 metres with his parents and eight siblings. UNHCR/S. Baldwin https://flic.kr/p/hWbYL6

Syrian refugee Mahmoud, in the underground shelter where he lives with his family in El Akbiya, Lebanon, Friday, September 20, 2013. He shares a tiny room measuring 2.5m x 3.5 metres with his parents and eight siblings. UNHCR/S. Baldwin https://flic.kr/p/hWbYL6 

We think of him as safe beneath the steeple,
Or cosy in a crib beside the font,
But he is with a million displaced people
On the long road of weariness and want.
For even as we sing our final carol
His family is up and on that road,
Fleeing the wrath of someone else’s quarrel,
Glancing behind and shouldering their load.
Whilst Herod rages still from his dark tower
Christ clings to Mary, fingers tightly curled,
The lambs are slaughtered by the men of power,
And death squads spread their curse across the world…
But every Herod dies, and comes alone
To stand before the Lamb upon the throne.1“The Holy Innocents,” Malcolm Guite, accessed May 1, 2015, https://malcolmguite.wordpress.com/2014/12/27/the-holy-innocents-3/.

While living in the Middle East, I travelled the road from Bethlehem to Egypt many times. I did it for work, or for vacation; I did it from a position of privilege – as a white person, as a Canadian passport holder. And on air conditioned buses (well, air conditioned if I was lucky). And yet, despite these privileges, I can tell you that the road is desolate, it is barren (crossing two different deserts), it is long, and even still today, it can be dangerous.

Christ and his family took this road while fleeing for their lives. Yes, they did it with faith in God, as he had told them to go, but still, they did it in fear, Mary and Joseph trying to save the life of their child. They fled their home suddenly, with little warning. They fled without privileges. They fled on foot. They fled not knowing where they would stay, or if they would be accepted by those in the new country. And they fled not knowing if they would ever be able to return home. They were refugees. Christ, was a refugee.


Today, there are 51 million displaced people worldwide. 33 million of them are internally displaced, forced to move to another place within their own country, very possibly a refugee camp. 1 million of them are asylum seekers, that is people who have applied for protection as refugees and are awaiting to hear if they’ll be given this legal status; and 25% of these, currently, are Syrians – Middle Easterners like Christ.2http://www.worldrenew.net/refugeesponsorship

51 million people.

This is the first time since WWII that the number of refugees, asylum-seekers, and internally displaced people around the world has exceeded 50 million.

And Christ identifies with these people. With every single one.

Christ, whom we worship. Fully Divine. But also fully human. A paradox that is no small thing! That the Word made Flesh, that God, our sovereign majestic God, the Creator of the Universe, would “make himself lower than the angels” as the book of Hebrews says. It’s an uncomfortable thing for some, but it’s at the heart of our gospel: That Christ would make himself so vulnerable that he would identify so personally with some of the most vulnerable people in our society: refugees.

And because this is who Christ is, this is who we are. But how? And how do we keep holding together Christ as fully human, and Christ as fully divine, with our call to remember Christ as refugee? Is it good enough to conclude that since Christ is a refugee we should care for refugees?

No. This is a start but we can’t simply leave it there. Because just knowing that Christ is a refugee is not enough to ground us. It’s not enough to tell us who we are, and what our identity is. It’s not enough to send us out in right response and mission. We need the rest of the story – we need not only Christ as refugee, but also Christ’s death, resurrection, his ascension, his promise of coming again, and of course His sending of the Holy Spirit, from his place in Heaven, on Pentecost. For it is only because Christ is seated once again at the throne, at the right hand of the Father, that we can pray, “your will be done on earth as it is in Heaven.”

Only once we recognize that Christ, who is also a refugee, has ascended, can our work and our mission in this world begin.  We need this hope and this confidence, and we need to keep talking about who we are, as a new humanity, a new Israel in Christ, if we are ever to engage the brokenness of this world.

In the alternative economy of Christ, a Christ who identifies with refugees, every human being on this planet is made in the image of God.  Every one of them.  When we forget that we are a new humanity in Christ, we often forget this. And when we forget this, it becomes too easy to forget that refugees are people first. It becomes too easy to call them “other”:  “others” of whom we should be afraid; “others” who are going to steal our jobs; “others” who are going to change our way of life.

But when we recognize everyone first as image bearers, it means that when our society wants to label refugees as job stealers, or queue jumpers, or “bogus refugees” (which is what our government has called some of them), we should ask what it means to see differently, to see them and love them as those bearing the image of Christ.

We don’t do this because we are good.  And in fact, refugees aren’t loved by God because they are good.  They are loved because God is good.3Peruvian theologian Gustavo Gutierrez explains this idea further in Paul Farmer et al., eds., In the Company of the Poor: Conversations between Dr. Paul Farmer and Father Gustavo Gutiếrrez (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2013).

In the alternative economy of Christ, a Christ who identifies with refugees, every human being on this planet is made in the image of God. Click To Tweet

This good God calls us to an alternative economy in which we take a position of humility, of listening. Listening to and learning from refugees – people whom God loves and who bear His image. This is never a one way relationship – never “we” help “them.” We’re in this together.

And in this together, we are citizens first of the Kingdom of Heaven, before we are citizens of Canada, or America, or any other country. So we need to be very careful when we begin to hold too tightly to our borders, or our nationalities. Not only does this deny our primary citizenship with Christ, but we also begin to forget that living here, in a country that’s safe, in a country where we don’t daily fear for our lives, is a gift.

This is what we must keep in mind when we look at our own government’s policies towards refugees.

In the last several years, despite Canada’s history and reputation as being a welcoming society for refugees, there has been a change in direction. The doors have been closing and the rules have become much tighter largely as a result of policy that has served to make entry and integration into Canada more difficult. These policies have also made it more difficult for organizations that sponsor refugees privately to do their work.4Journey with Me: Refugee Stories That Change Lives (Ottawa, Ont., Canada: Christian Reformed Centre for Public Dialogue, n.d.), 7.  A few weeks ago in the Toronto Star there was a new set of statistics regarding countries who take in refugees, and Canada was near the bottom. Did you know that Lebanon, a country with a barely functioning government, currently has over a million Syrian refugees?  That’s over 25% of its population. We, Canadians, should not be proud of our own record.

When our government, our representatives, act in this way, we should ask what an alternative economy of Christ might tell us about being more hospitable, more generous, less fearful. And we can and should take action.

What can you do? Well, here are a few ideas to start: Write your Member of Parliament – tell him or her what you think; exercise your democratic responsibility; support organizations working with the government to create more just laws; and pray for our leaders, for wisdom and courage in this area.

But of course it’s not only about opening our doors. Just saying, “everyone come on in,” is not wise, it is not realistic, and it doesn’t actually get at the root of problem. We must also engage the reasons people become refugees in the first place. We should perhaps ask how our government’s foreign policy is affecting the situations in the countries from which these refugees are fleeing. Are we acting only in our own self interest? Are we remembering our obligations to the stranger? What does our faith say about foreign policy?

These are hard questions. And I want to be clear: I’m not trying to be naive. We’re called to love God with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind… so we should think critically about this. Governments have responsibilities towards their citizens, towards security, towards the economy, and so on, of course. Rules have their place. Systems have their place. But as citizens of Canada, we have a say in these rules and these systems, and we should bring our Christian considerations to bear on them, acting always with a posture of gratitude for the gift we have been given of being able to live here.

It’s complex. Navigating these issues is hard work. But it’s work to which we are called.

I have been in refugee camps in Syria, in Lebanon, in Palestine, and in Jordan, and in refugee slums in Egypt, where refugees from every corner of the African continent have gathered. I have talked to refugees from Syria, Sudan, the Congo, Eritrea, Iraq, Burundi, Iran, Sierra Leone, Myanmar, the Palestinian territories, Bangladesh, Nigeria, the Central African Republic, Afghanistan, Somalia, Sri Lanka, and on and on. And if that list overwhelms you, that’s the point, because it definitely overwhelms me. And if there’s one thing I’ve realized, it’s that we can’t do this on our own. We can only do it together, through a Christ who gives us a new reality, who is already working, despite us.

This post is a portion of a sermon originally preached at First Christian Reformed Church Vancouver.  The full sermon can be accessed here.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. “The Holy Innocents,” Malcolm Guite, accessed May 1, 2015, https://malcolmguite.wordpress.com/2014/12/27/the-holy-innocents-3/.
2. http://www.worldrenew.net/refugeesponsorship
3. Peruvian theologian Gustavo Gutierrez explains this idea further in Paul Farmer et al., eds., In the Company of the Poor: Conversations between Dr. Paul Farmer and Father Gustavo Gutiếrrez (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2013).
4. Journey with Me: Refugee Stories That Change Lives (Ottawa, Ont., Canada: Christian Reformed Centre for Public Dialogue, n.d.), 7.