Editor’s Note: This post first appeared on the Biblical Theological Seminary blog in November 2015.
I found the photo below in the Oct 19, 2015 issue of Time, which covered the movement of some 60 million refugees on the move worldwide right now. I found this photo and others in the magazine documenting the masses of refugees trying desperately to get to safety and a chance to start over in a new country, riveting.
I have a 9-year-old son. If I had been living in Syria or Turkmenistan, Abdullah could have been my son, or I may very well have been one of the countless fathers who recently piled their families on overloaded boats, hoping against hope for the best. I could have been the father of the 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi whose little body washed up on Turkey’s shore couple of months ago and riveted the world’s attention on the massive humanitarian crisis that has been playing out in that region of the world for some years now.
This would have been the case especially if I were a Christian in Syria or Iraq. Targeted by the ISIS and other extremists, many Christians have had to flee the only homes they have known, join the throngs on the move, and try to make their way to a new life elsewhere.
Beyond the shock, the outrage, the prayers, the appeals to politicians, the sending of help, the advocacy, the activism, and — for a few who are able go — the work of direct relief on the ground, I found myself drawn to meditate on my identity as a Christ follower now living far over here on the other side of the globe, in North America.
Refugees: The First Missional Christians
As I looked through the portraits of the refugees and their stories, I was reminded of the early church. In the book of Acts, when the first Christians faced persecution, they too had to flee the violence and seek refuge elsewhere in the world. In Acts 8, immediately following the death of Stephen, persecution broke out against the church, and the church scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. Acts 8:4 tells us what happened as a result: “Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went.” Consequently, new communities of believers — first Jews, then Gentiles — formed in cities in Judea, Samaria, then in Asia Minor, Rome, and beyond.
This passage and others like it in Acts show us that the gospel of Jesus started to spread throughout the Mediterranean world via refugees fleeing persecution and violence. These were the first “missional” Christians.
When we think of missions, we have been trained to think of heroic, larger-than-life figures like the Apostle Paul or David Livingstone or Hudson Taylor. Missionary Sundays at our local congregations prominently featured seemingly super-spiritual men and women who sacrificed all for the sake of mission work in a foreign land among foreign peoples, who were several levels beyond the reach of everyday believers. Missionary Kids like me know better than the hype, but such has been the image portrayed by the modern missionary movement.
However, Andrew Walls, the great historian of World Christianity, has shown that the gospel mainly spread instead through people movements, the great migrations, that have occurred throughout the ages. People fled wars or poverty or famines, and made their way to new lands and engaged with new societies looking for work, new opportunities, and safe communities to raise their families. They brought their faith in Christ along with them, and shared the news with their new neighbors, and invited them to join in.
Rather than missions being dependent on prominent leaders like Paul, missions was carried on by the countless, often nameless clouds of witnesses like Priscilla and Aquila who ran a small family business, or like the Philippian jailer working his blue-collar job, or like the impoverished, enslaved young woman from whom an evil spirit was driven out. They appeared to be hapless victims of evil and the dispassionate juggernaut of history, but they carried with them treasures in jars of clay.
Thanks to people like them and their lives over the centuries, I too have been included in the faith.
An Identity Shaped by Exodus
I read about a German church which was welcoming the refugees and where, as a result, hundreds of Muslim refugees were converting to Christianity. Much of the chatter around the story had to do with whether the conversions were genuine or they were instead a ploy to better the chances of the refugees being granted asylum.
I rather tend to think the burden of judgment goes the other way. As people shaped by the biblical narrative, how do we not see ourselves as one with the refugees and their plight, that their story is our own, that we have been formed as a result of great migrations such as these over centuries, and as a result, this drives us to offer them our hospitality and embrace? Has our Western privilege, individualism, and contempt for the Two-Thirds World masses blinded the Christians here from seeing our own identity as strangers and aliens who have been welcomed in to the family of God not by birthright but by adoption at the cost of the Son’s blood?
Five times in the book of Deuteronomy, Moses instructs Israel to follow the commands of God, which includes taking care of the foreigner, the fatherless, and the widow, by repeatedly citing this phrase: “Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the LORD your God redeemed you from there.” (5:5, 15:15, 16:12, 24:18, 24:22) The people of God were a redeemed people in their core identity, strangers and aliens, refugees fleeing slavery and oppression, but by God’s grace settled in his presence and given an inheritance of their own. This identity forms the basis for their ethic of love as God’s people, and the motivation for blessing the nations.
Moses knew that, after experiencing the good life in the new land, having amassed wealth and securing a measure of security and comfort, the temptation for the people would be to forget that they once were slaves that had to be rescued, and they would become hardhearted, proud, and stingy towards the foreigner, the fatherless, the widow.
We need to hear the message of the gospel according to Deuteronomy again for our own moment in history. A people formed by grace cannot hold the suffering of the earth at an arm’s length because we happen to find ourselves in a more privileged situation. Instead, a people whose identity has been shaped by their deliverance believe that what they have is not due to their own know-how and outstanding industriousness; they believe that by God’s grace they have had heavenly treasure delivered to them by fellow refugees, strangers, and aliens. If we are attentive, we may hear Moses telling us today, “Do not forget…!” the same way he said it to Israel.
If we are to love the refugees from overseas, as well as orphans and widows at home, a good place to begin would be to come back to our identity as people that God had to redeem. The refugee, orphan and widow are not projects or causes or nuisances or threats. They are us.
Kyuboem Lee, DMin, is the Doctor of Ministry Program Director and Assistant Professor of Missiology at Biblical Theological Seminary. He is also the general editor for the Journal of Urban Mission. He has served as the founding pastor of Germantown Hope Community Church in Philadelphia, and has practiced and taught urban mission for 20 years. See his full Bio Here.
Please note that the views expressed do not necessarily represent those of everyone associated with G92 or any institutions with which the blogger may be affiliated.