Photo from flickr by Freedom House (CC BY 2.0).

Seeing Jesus as a refugee

The Church is bringing concrete hope into a world of despair

The heart-breaking images that went viral this past week of three-year-old Alan Kurdi, the Syrian boy who washed ashore after drowning off the coast of Turkey, have shocked the world.

In what has been deemed the greatest refugee crisis since the Second World War, hundreds of thousands of refugees, primarily from Iraq and Syria, are arriving on Europe’s doorstep desperate for safety and shalom, many tragically drowning along the way.

The world is in shock. God’s heart is in pain. Yet what would God know about being a refugee?

It was first century Judea, a nation under Roman occupation, when the Jews found themselves under the tyrannical reign of King Herod. He liked to call himself “king of the Jews,” but was an Edomite—seen by the Jews as an egomaniacal, reckless, paranoid and tax-grabbing dictator, willing to do anything to keep his grip on power, even kill his own sons.

Upon hearing from the Magi that the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem, Herod devised a plan to kill the infant child Jesus who posed the greatest threat to Herod’s corrupt throne. An angel appeared to Joseph in a dream commanding the Holy Family to escape to Egypt.

The Son of God was a refugee. Let that burn into your heart for a second. He can relate with people who are displaced because of war and persecution—people who are fleeing for their lives seeking refuge from the brutal forces of war and terrorism.

This King that Christians follow, Jesus, doesn’t come into the world sitting pompously in a fortified palace, but in the weakness and humility of human flesh, in an infant refugee seeking shelter from the brutal forces of the fallen world.

“He does not enter in [the kingly robes of God],” writes Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Rather, “He goes incognito, as a beggar among beggars, as an outcast among outcasts, as despairing among the despairing, as dying among the dying.” And we can add, “as a refugee among refugees.”

That little Syrian boy, laying helpless, lifeless, hopeless on the shore, and the millions who have been displaced, killed, drowned, because of war and terror in the world, Jesus knows them intimately. He can surely relate with their suffering and hopelessness—in the crib and on the cross. And He calls His Church to enter into that pain with them out of suffering love.

“Knowing Jesus was a refugee changes the face of the refugee for people in our congregations,” says Steve Kabetu, Canada Director of Christian Reformed World Missions. “Sometimes we can be afraid of those who are different than us. But when we see Jesus as a refugee, it brings down our barriers and helps us see and welcome [refugees] as part of God’s family.”

So there’s hope in Christ’s body—the Church—God’s living missional agency. There’s hope in Christ’s body, because it’s the body of the savior King. A King who understands what it’s like to experience the paradoxical realities of life and death, hope and despair, peace and terror.

This is a God who collides with the world’s evil at the cross and overcomes the forces that terrorize humanity. He overcomes the world with an all-encompassing and concrete love. God’s love. Christian love. There is nothing else like it. It is good news in a world of bad news.

“The good news is that denominations and local congregations across Canada have already been mobilizing to welcome refugees fleeing conflict in Syria and Iraq,” says Bruce Clemenger, president of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada (EFC). “Christians stand ready to respond with love and compassion; to open our homes and communities and to receive those in desperate need of a place of loving embrace.”

Karen Hamilton is the general secretary of the Canadian Council of Churches, an ecumenical body where evangelical denominations make up one-third of its membership. “We must pray for the Church to come together,” says Hamilton. “The issues are complicated, but we have the expertise and creativity to deal with this crisis quickly.”

Hamilton believes that the nation of Canada has a “high and holy calling” to welcome refugees. She calls Christians to speak this truth to “all politicians” at this time when the world needs Canada to step up its efforts as it did when we welcomed the “boat people” during the Vietnam War.

Alluding to the same crisis when Canada welcomed Vietnamese refugees, Clemenger from the EFC agrees: “We have done it before. Together we can do it again.”

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