On Syrian Refugees and the Sin of Vicarious Hospitality

Over the last couple of days, I have been witness to a wide range of sentiments regarding what should be done with and for the Syrian refugees. I believe, it is without question a situation that must be addressed. However, the way that it is addressed will have consequences and implications for all those involved. I am still trying to make sense of the situation that is before me as an individual and pray that the decisions that must be made by those in the highest offices of our nation are in accord with wisdom and not political expediency.

As I have read, watched, and listened to what has been produced (and it has been a lot), I have found myself conflicted by all that I have seen. It is not just that people are taking sides. What has truly been bothering me is the manner in which we (and by “we” I mean Christians) have been skewering those who do not agree with what “we think Jesus would do.” The polarizing rhetoric is so stark, it has left me troubled by how far we are from embodying the grace we claim to have experienced.

A Renewed Mind is Necessary for Renewed Thinking

When the apostle Paul wrote that we should not be “conformed to this world,” he was indicating that there is a very real tendency toward this (Romans 12:2). As a matter of fact, it may be one of the greatest temptations for those who have been plucked from the clutches of sin. As fallen and yet redeemed sinners, we have been unshackled from the bondage of sin but, we are still making our way out of the prison of this fallen earth. We are no longer trapped and without hope but the struggle to walk out our faith by walking out of the prison is still an arduous endeavor. There are no shortcuts on this long walk from sinner to saint, from condemnation to glory.

What makes this idea of non-conformity so powerful is that Paul clearly identifies what we are to avoid—this world and its entanglements. The call to distance ourselves from the world is not a casual warning. It is a call that is only amplified by what follows. [su_pullquote align=”right”]There are no shortcuts on this long walk from sinner to saint, from condemnation to glory.[/su_pullquote]

Paul goes on to tell the Romans that we are to fight against conformity to the world and we are to be renewed in our minds. The intellectual faculties of the human mind truly set the species apart from all of God’s creations. The mind serves as a distinguishing characteristic, one that the apostle points to as the guide away from the temptation to become enthralled by the seductive allure of the world. John actually marks in greater relief this compulsory schism by saying that “if anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him” (1 John 2:15b ESV). We may not like this demarcation but, we cannot explain it away. We have to grapple with it face on.

This conundrum regarding the Syrian refugees has been a match to the kindling of the passions of a good many people. This is why Paul’s admonitions are an ancient clarion call to sober thinking in our time. Especially in times like these. Our passions are God-given gifts but, they are to follow the mind that has been renewed by the truth of God’s word. How do we know? We know because Paul spells out for us the purpose for the renewing of the mind. So that “by testing [we] may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

The essence of what Paul is saying is that we come to know the will of God because our minds have been changed, not because our hearts and passions have been roused. This is one of the perils of allowing ourselves to be carried along by the turbulent waves of societal turmoil. This is why we must think more clearly than ever before about what needs to be done and how it ought to be accomplished.

The Sin of Vicarious Hospitality

There are many within the Christian community who are calling for the President of the United States to proceed with the plan of domiciling around ten thousand Syrian refugees within the continental United States. Arguments are being made for a wide range of reasons. It’s the right thing to do. We have to show the compassion of Christ. We have to act like Christ himself. All of these sentiments are nice and maybe even correct. However, this is not the problem I have with the reasoning. This is the problem I have. Who is being asked to take in the refugees? Who is being asked to bear the brunt of the logistical and financial burden? The short answer is the government.

[su_pullquote]We come to know the will of God because our minds have been changed, not because our hearts and passions have been roused.[/su_pullquote]To all those who are calling for the reception of the refugees, to all those who are doing so and call themselves Christian, I would ask you to reevaluate your position. Not because what you desire to see happen in wrong. No, I ask you to take a look inward and ask yourself if what you truly desire is to show Christian hospitality or only a bastardized version of it.

The globalization of Christian hospitality is not hospitality at all. It is an abdication of our prerogative to serve the needy for ourselves. Or do we think that the government has the ability or even the inclination to apply a gentle hand to this situation? No, it does not. The reality we have to face as a church is that hospitality, in order for the word to have any meaning and moral substance must be pushed down to the individual. It is the individual who demonstrates compassion. Not some faceless, impersonal bureaucracy.

All of the calls for compassion, all of the accusations of hard-heartedness, all of the self-righteous indignation at those who “don’t get it” only reveals that we are not as hospitable as we would like to think. All of this reeks of manipulation and intimidation. Most of those who are complaining about the “rest of us” do not truly appear interested in getting their hands dirty with the hard reality of serving the “least of these.” As the body of Christ on earth, vicarious altruism can no longer be accepted as a substitute for authentic, humble servanthood. When we do not see this for what it is we have become complicit in the injustices we say we are fighting so hard to avoid. The sin of vicarious hospitality is pernicious. But, it also blinds us from truly identifying with those suffering terrible injustices.

Bullies within the Gates

Finally, I want to say something about, what I would call, the unnecessary accusations being flung around by those who say “yes” to bringing the refugees here to the lower forty-eight. Just because people disagree with a course of action, that does not make them fearful, bigoted, racist, ignorant, or unChristian. As a matter of fact, I would say that this kind of language is not in line with what Jesus would want for his followers, regardless of where you fall on the social justice spectrum.

I am one of those who has not made up my mind. I honestly do not know what the best way of handling this would be. I am glad this is not my responsibility but, I will be affected by the course chosen by those who do have to make the call. And because I will be affected I would like for some wisdom to be exercised, particularly in light of what happened in Paris. To take a moment’s pause is not outside the question. And, while I doubt it will happen, rethinking the plan may be in order, rather than proceeding with a business-as-usual mentality. This is such a big issue, it cannot be reduced to simple answers. Or to answers motivated by feigned compassion when no skin is actually at risk.

However, I want to focus on the inter-Christian exchanges I have seen that are unfortunate at best, and horrifying at worst. The bottom line to me is that making people feel stupid, calling people names, calling people’s motives into question (particularly people you don’t really know) is not going to win people over. This kind of behavior and attitude will not win anyone over.

Jesus’ own brother provides some needed parameters regarding how to proceed.

14 What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? 15If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? 17 So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. 18 But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. 19 You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder! 20 Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? (James 2:14-20 ESV)

Do you believe that Jesus would want for the refugees to come to here? Then call your local congressman, call your senators and tell them you will buy a ticket for one refugee and house them. Show me your faith. Don’t just tell me that it is the right thing to do. Don’t just allow the impersonal, anthropomorphized arms of the government to do what should be done by the body of Christ. Allowing the government to shoulder the burden to bring them and then counting that as an act of hospitality is a farce. But, in the process don’t demean me or try to shame me into agreeing with you. Don’t hurt me when I am not there yet. Live out what you believe and help me to see it in your example. Extend some grace to those of us who find it harder to jump into this particular pool head first without looking.

That’s unrealistic. That’s just plain dumb. Maybe. But, I’m sure the first-century believers who sold everything they had to feed the widows and orphans were probably accused of the same thing too. Or have we become too sophisticated in our time to do the same? Have we evolved beyond that kind of thinking? Could it be that it really is just too inconvenient? As a nation, we do not appear to be interested in results anymore. We are so easily pacified with some impassioned lipservice.

Paul put it this way when he was correcting the practice among the mature in the Roman church about eating meat sacrificed to idols.

20Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God. Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for anyone to make another stumble by what he eats. 21 It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble. 22 The faith that you have, keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the one who has no reason to pass judgment on himself for what he approves. 23 But whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats, because the eating is not from faith. For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin. (Romans 14:20-23 ESV)

Your strength of faith does not give you the freedom to beat me up over my weakness. Paul said, “that for the sake of food,” and I say, for the sake of refugees, do not destroy the work of God in me. Imagine that. Paul is saying that even when considering something as mundane as where we get our food we should not cause others to stumble. How much more important then when we are talking about people who are in need. If you think (or even know) you are right, then win me over. Do not run me over. I am not equating. I am applying the principle that Paul himself provides.

If this is the right thing to do, then let’s put our money, our homes, and our lives on the line. This would be a radical hospitality I can cheer. Otherwise… well, I do not know what the otherwise is. I am still trying to figure that one out.

Posted by

I am a disciple of Jesus Christ, husband, father, student, uncle and pastor in Columbus, Georgia. I am also an occasional blogger and growing twitter user.

6 thoughts on “On Syrian Refugees and the Sin of Vicarious Hospitality

  1. As long as we as Americans remain silent on the fact that we allow welfare recipients to purchase expensive Starbucks drinks with their food stamp money….. then I can certainly as a Christian expect my government to lend financial resources to these people fleeing oppression this nation hasnt seen.

  2. Thank you SO much for this. It is well thought out and well stated. I couldn’t agree more, but even those that don’t agree on this topic will be convicted to stop and think. I would like to point to one verse you referenced…15If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?…and mention the fact that this is in reference to “brothers and sisters”, not anyone else. My husband has been doing a specific study on this very topic, in an attempt to find examples where we are commanded to show this same hospitality to unbelievers as we are to brothers and sisters in Christ. So far, he cannot find support for this idea in scripture. As clarification, he does not desire to get out of doing good to anyone, but is trying to figure out how the church should minister in terms of “programs” in the church.

    1. Susan,

      Thanks for taking the time to read and respond. One of the dangers of bad theological thinking is assuming that God’s commands to the church for the church apply to everyone indiscriminately. This is not the case. I would be interested in hearing/reading what you and your husband finds (or doesn’t find).

      We all need to stop and take a breath. The attacks only seem to be intensifying, which is truly disturbing and heart breaking.

      1. And while you ‘stop and take a breath,’ sitting in comfort and plenty, how many seeking a home or trapped in a violent country where they’re being slaughtered will continue to suffer? It’s really easy to say ‘hey, guys, we need to stop and think about this and question whether Jesus really told us to help people (He did)’ when you are not the one suffering or in imminent need.

  3. So much justification and evasion. No offense, sir, but this is a load of malarkey. Christians are not calling for the refugees to be taken in because they want to credit it to themselves as righteousness; they are calling for it to be done because it is the right thing to do. And they are calling on the government to do ti because A. Without government permission, no one will be let in, and B. Without the resources and infrastructure of the government, only a small fraction of the people WHOSE LIVES ARE IN JEOPARDY can actually be evacuated from the war-zone in which they are being murdered.

    Do those facts click through to you? That people- women, children, families- are *dying*? You want to make this about hospitality and the shouldering of responsibility. Fine. We can have that debate. Meanwhile, PEOPLE ARE BEING KILLED. They are seeking escape. And while you try and make up your mind about what to do, and exhort others to pull together their resources for a ticket and a space in their homes, people are DYING.

    Are we called to provide give food to those who are hungry, water to those who are thirsty, clothes to those who are naked ourselves, not just exhort someone else to do it? Sure. Does that mean that if we do not have the resources to individually take in a single refugee (that’ll be a big help to the families fleeing the danger), the logical extension is therefore ‘Well, I can’t individually help, so let’s not let them into the country?’ Of course not- that would be imbecilic.

    To my mind, what Christ calls us to is absolutely clear, and I’m not going to accept someone saying “well, we should sit and think and figure this out” while people’s lives are in jeopardy. Pray, sure, if you think there is any legitimate doubt about what Christ has already directed us to. I don’t. I think it’s crystal clear, and any attempt at denying it is ‘conforming to the world’ and its fears. As for me, I will help wherever I can with the refugees- but if I cannot muster enough to save a man by myself, that doesn’t mean he should then be left in the warzone until someone else can.

    1. Hello Zarm,

      I would like to respond to a few of the things from your comments.

      First, I said from the beginning that something needs to be done. I also mentioned that I do not know what that would look like or how to best accomplish it. I will not, however, concede that this situation can be dealt with by just opening the gates and letting people into the country. People are dying all over the world because of conflict, in which the majority are caused Islamic terror groups serving as the aggressor. If we were to apply your thought process to all of the situations in the world, we would create a serious problem for ourselves here. So, to paint me as uncaring and unChristian is just ridiculous.

      Second, you seem to have misunderstood the purpose of my post. I was not trying to argue against government interaction. I was speaking to the cannibalistic nature of the conversation among believers on this issue. You do not have to agree with me or like how I am processing the problems. However, you don’t have to attack me in the process to make your point.

      I take offense at your insinuation that because I do not want to indiscriminately accept Muslims in our country that I do not understand Jesus’ commands to love our neighbor. What I find interesting is that even Jesus, when he told the parable of the good Samaritan, did not necessitate for the Samaritan to receive the wounded man into his home. The man was taken to an inn. You do not have to like it, but that is what happened.

      Third, where was all the outrage from the government, politicians, and those who are now clamoring for aid for the Syrian Muslim refugees over all of the Christians in Iraq and Syria that are, even now, being displaced, tortured, beheaded, and in some places, exterminated outright? The same government that now wants to help the Muslim refugees has done and is doing next to nothing to help these people who actually are our brothers according to the faith. The President says that there should not be a religious test for accepting refugees but, that does not seem to apply to Christians from the same region.

      Finally, I know from your tone and point of view that we will not agree. I just hope we can agree to disagree without calling into question one another’s character.

Join to the Conversation...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s