The humanitarian crisis in countries like Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Afghanistan is arriving at our doorstep, as hundreds of thousands refugees are seeking refuge in our countries. EU’s political leaders are struggling to find a way how to deal with this and how to divide them evenly among the member states. Some countries are building walls to keep them out, others increase their border security. Nevertheless: refugees keep coming, whether is by boat, plane, foot, train or hidden in trucks. In their desperation they leave behind their spouse, family, property, family heritage and in some cases their dignity.
We can argue long about the reasons for this humanitarian crisis. Questions, like: Should the West have gone to Afghanistan and Iraq to help set up our kind of democracy there? What if the West had supported president Assad earlier? Is it all to blame on IS, Al-Quaida and other militant groups that use religion as their banner? I guess that people with more insight into history and political maneuvers can give elaborate answers to these and similar questions. I pray that God will give wisdom to our political leaders to come up with solutions that will bring stability back into the Middle East. While they work hard at this, the refugees keep coming. Historically, Europe has received many refugees. These gradually found their way into the mainstream of society. I wouldn’t be surprised when forefathers of many of our church members were refugees. There have been refugees from the Middle East that stayed in the region (e.g. Palestinians in Lebanon and Jordan), but now they come to Europe with hundreds of thousands. How does the church respond?
I have heard about great initiatives from churches and Christian organizations across Europe, who have mobilized thousands of volunteers and staff, to do all they can and more in order to provide shelter, food, health-care, sanitation to the refugees arriving in their towns and villages. This is very encouraging.
I also have come across Christians who, while admitting we need to help people in need, add a little word with great consequences, namely “BUT”. Their words and faces express a “YES…BUT” attitude towards the stream of refugees. They are particularly concerned that many of the refugees are Muslims. They fear that when these Muslims are given houses and jobs, they will gradually transform our countries, our values, and our societies into an Islamic theocratic state, where Christians will be discriminated and persecuted.
Such a scenario is not totally unrealistic. There áre Muslims in Europe already who want to establish Sharia law, and no doubt among refugees there áre IS-sympathizers, who are eager to create a European version of IS. Of course, they make up only a small minority among the predominantly ‘normal’ Muslims, but it only takes a few to create havoc. We have had terrorist attacks in Europe and I think more will come, despite the great work of our security services. It is very likely that with the growing number of Muslims refugees setting up a new life in Europe, more violent incidents caused by extreme Muslims will take place.
Nevertheless, I believe that an attitude of concern and fear and a YES …BUT is hard to maintain in light of the truth of the Gospel. Some Christians are concerned that with the arrival of thousands of new Muslims our European (Christian?) values will disappear. This is a real possibility, but such disappearance is not caused by external forces (be it Islam or humanism, secularism, materialism), but by our own sinful hearts.
In fact, its disappearance is seen in the way so many Christian respond to the refugees coming to Europe. It seems they want to defend Christian values with an attitude that goes against such values.
Some years ago I developed the course Sharing Lives to help Christians overcome their fear of Muslims and share their lives with Muslims. God has used this course throughout Europe, and perhaps more Churches and Christians can benefit from it.
I believe that the hundreds of thousands of refugees, among whom many Muslims, give the Church of Europe an opportunity to testify that we are followers of the Man of Peace, who when a baby had to flee from violence and together with his parents found refuge in another country. Jesus, Who as an adult had no place to lay down his head and who was willing to give up his privileges in order to reconcile man to God. Jesus came to exemplify grace and it is grace that should determine our response to the refugee crisis in Europe. In order to clarify what this means, the following five guidelines that together are an acronym of the word ‘Grace’, might be helpful:
God is sovereign
With all the struggles in the world and all the turmoil around us, and the rapid changes that take place, we don’t have to doubt who is in control: God. He, the sovereign Lord (history is His Story) fulfills His eternal purposes. He uses world leaders, even corrupt ones, to carry out His eternal plan. We are safe in His eternal, almighty hands. The Church of Europe is safe in His hands. He will continue to build it, with or without persecution. Knowing our Heavenly Father is sovereign, means that we are eternally secure. This provides us with the freedom that might seem naive, to take risks, to love our enemies, open our hearts and doors for those who may take advantage of it.
Remember that we are aliens ourselves
It is a great privilege to live in one of the richest continents on earth and in societies where there is social security, freedom, law enforcement, hospitals, schools etc. It is great to be a European; nevertheless, we need to remember that while Europe might be our earthly home, it is not our eternal destiny. Christians are essentially, sojourners, aliens on earth. We are ultimately citizens of heaven and it is there we need to gather our treasures. As Luther sang: Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also; The body they may kill: God’s truth abideth still, His kingdom is forever.
Accept Muslim refugees as human beings
It is important to remember that the refugees are not in the first place Muslims; they are human beings, created in God’s image, which we are called to treat with dignity. They have been de-humanized in the places they had to leave. We need to ask our Heavenly Father to see beyond or behind the name Muhammad, a father who is desperate to bring his family into safely; to see behind the veil worn by Fatima, a woman, who has lost her three children in a bomb attack. We might see the teenager Boutrus as a potential terrorist, while God looks upon him as a potential Church planter. (He has done this before in the life of the Jewish Boutrus: Saul).
Compassion has no limits
Jesus challenged His followers: “If you love those who love you, what reward will you get?”…And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others?” (Matthew 5:46, 47) We are called to reflect our Father who loved us unconditionally, who died for us, while we were His enemies. The more we are overwhelmed by the unconditional, acceptance and love and grace of God, who knows all about us, the more this love and grace will spill over to others, even to those whom we dislike. The more we realize that God’s compassion has no limits, the more our compassion grows in the same direction.
Enter into their lives
We can calm our fears, worries and concerns for our future, safety, society with regard to the refugees, in the sovereign loving presence of our Heavenly Father. We can drink freshly from the unquenchable source of His loving grace and compassion for our well-being. When we do this, the Holy Spirit can fill our hearts with compassion, to not be put off by the color of someone’s skin, religion, language or culture, but recognize a fellow-human being whom God created and for whom Christ died. God will then give us a desire and with it practical ways to enter into the lives of people that have fled to us.
When God enables us to live out this attitude and these values then the refugee crisis becomes a refugee opportunity, namely to show our new neighbors that their ultimate security and safety is not in Europe, but in Christ, in Whom all nations will ultimately be blessed.