Refugees, the migration crisis and gifts from God

That picture this week of the body of a three year old Syrian boy washed up on the beach in Turkey broke our hearts.  2464When his family’s petition to migrate to Canada was turned down, they found hope only in using other means to try to move on.   Those (we) who had the means to help we did not reach out to them.  And now we feel guilty.  And everyone suffered a loss.

It seems like we are all afraid to lose something by accepting refugee immigration.  For those of us who are already stable here, it feels like a loss and, in the context of global terrorism, it can make us more vulnerable.  We sometimes fear immigrants exploit our prosperity and that we will lose our “way of life”.

The loss, of course, is greater for refugees.  They suffer the unfair loss of their stability, and of their homes and of loved ones who die on the journey.  In the case of Syria, their status as victims of a geopolitical and religious conflict, they also suffer the loss of trust by those who might help them.


The doors have been shut to most places where they might resettle, because people are afraid they might bring terrorists with them.  With the depopulation of parts of Syria, the world is losing one of the most religiously diverse societies along with its long historical and spacial record of the development of those religions and of their interaction.

Just before the picture of Aylan’s little body was published, I met a German man on the plane from Frankfurt to South Africa.  We got talking about Syrian refugees and their migration to Germany in such great numbers. He is from the Palatine–from whence so many starving Germans emigrated in the two centuries before WWII. He has visited relatives in USA, Brazil and Canada, and they are grateful for the freedom their ancestors had to migrate to these places. This is what motivates him to be on the welcoming end this time. He said, “it is a sacrifice to give up our comfort and wealth for Syrian refugees. But the ones who are making the greater sacrifice are the Syrians.”

This got me thinking…..

It is pretty common, in the other wealthier nations of the world, to fear  overburdening society, or to feel like real threats come along with the refugees.

Meanwhile many of the world’s poorest countries are hosting huge refugee populations, “huge” both in absolute terms and in relation to the size of their economies.

We need a little perspective.  Here are some thoughts I am chewing on:

  • In the Old Testament, migrants and refugees predominate — not only as the targets for God’s promises, but as the bearers and agents of God’s blessing.  In reality, the entire first five books of the Bible are about God’s dealings with people who are not rooted in the land, but wanderers, subject to the whims of landed rulers.  For a time they are slaves.  Much of the time they are fleeing their slavery.  The Torah ends before they settle into the land.  When they are in the land, they wander further and further from the Lord God who brought them there, and they don’t really re-encounter him until they go into exile.
  • In the New Testament, Israel is hoping the exile will end with the coming Messiah.  As it turns out, the announcement of messianic blessing leads to further scattering of the followers of the Messiah and, though it is not recorded in the NT, with the destruction of Jerusalem, and the scattering of all Israel.  But this scattering is related to the gospel: the announcement that the promise of blessing through Israel is now to be made available to all peoples.  The scattering and movement of peoples is related to God’s project to prepare a new heaven and a new earth.  For this, he invites the participation of those who will recognize “the lamb” of God to be the rightful King of all the earth.
  • There are portions of the history of Europe and the Americas that we don’t like to remember, and when we do, it makes us feel bad.  Our ancestors made peoples into refugees, sending them away from where our ancestors wanted to live.   Many died on the journey.  Others were forced to migrate here, and they did some of the work that made our country wealthy.  The city of San Francisco created a prison-like detention center for incoming immigrants at Angel Island in 1910, where officials screened and deported dubious incomers.
  • Portions of our story that we do like to remember are the stories about how the USA received immigrants (the story of most white Americans is a story of migration to a “land of opportunity”).   We celebrate Ellis Island.  The Statue of Liberty includes a stirring provocation to other nations.

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty
woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Migration is a gift.  To migrants and to all who welcome them.  In God’s view, migration has something to do with the good of the world.  I pray our eyes can be opened to see that good and to welcome and receive this gift from God!

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