In the words of Pope Francis, America is experiencing a “humanitarian emergency.” Fleeing instability and violence in Central America, a human tide of thousands of refugees, many of them unaccompanied children, has been flooding across our southern border.
As children often traveling alone, these refugees are uniquely vulnerable. And yet their arrival has been met, in many instances, with ugly scenes including displays of rank nativism, cruelty, and hatred. They seek sanctuary, but based on the reactions of many Americans, they are clearly not welcome here.
As a result, the “humanitarian emergency” at the border is also a crisis of conscience for American Christians.
Migration has been a constant throughout human history. As a species, humanity has always been on the move. This will undoubtedly be the case in the future as well.Â Indeed, we can expect even more people to take to the roads and seas in search of safe harbor in the days ahead, as societies become increasingly insecure and brittle under the stress of social, economic, and environmental degradation, and the political instability and violence they engender.
As Christians, we owe a special duty of care to refugees. Scripture warns repeatedly against the mistreatment of refugees and immigrants. It identifies them, along with other powerless persons on the margins of society like widows, orphans, and the poor, as being under God’s protection- He watches over them. They are among “the least of” our brothers and sisters (Mt 25:31-46), and in caring for them, we are literally serving the Lord himself.
This isn’t surprising- migrants and migration play a central role in the history of our faith and God’s unfolding plan for humanity. Jesus Christ was himself a refugee- the Gospel of Matthew tells us that the Holy Family fled to Egypt to escape Herod’s terror. Going further back, so too were the patriarchs of Israel- according to the Book of Genesis, famine drove both Abram and Jacob into Egypt. And as people of faith, Christians can say along with Israel that we have lived as strangers in a foreign land; that we have been uprooted and exiled.
But we are more than the spiritual heirs of migrants and refugees, as Americans we are their literal descendants as well.
And yet today many among us would deny entry to those driven from their homes by fear, insecurity, and violence.Â We curse those who seek refuge among us with every vile calumny imaginable. We describe them as lecherous criminals, as looters, as diseased, and compare them to a pestilence, a barbarian horde, or an invading army. Ironically, our own ancestors often faced the same toxic mix of fear and hatred when they arrived in America that we now direct at others.
Finally, we must also acknowledge our own role in creating this “humanitarian emergency” in the first place. Here, the young people journeying to the border are quite literally the children of our own drug war. Put another way, the violence tearing their societies apart is fueled by our own insatiable appetite for drugs- by the demons of our own addictions. As a result, we bear a significant share of the responsibility for their suffering. Sin, after all, is never a private matter. It always has social consequences.
As Pope Francis has stated, “[a] change of attitude towards migrants and refugees is needed on the part of everyone, moving away from attitudes of defensiveness and fear, indifference and marginalization — all typical of a throwaway culture — towards attitudes based on a culture of encounter, the only culture capable of building a better, more just and fraternal world.” Pope Francis’ words and the example of his own journey to Lampedusa in Italy teach a simple lesson- we must encounter these refugees not as alien “others,” but as what they truly are, our own brothers and sisters. Today, American Christians have an obligation both to help shape the tenor of the discussion in a way that recognizes and respects the fundamental human dignity of the refugees and to render them effective aid and assistance.
Strangers, in desperate need, are arriving at our door. As Christians, we cannot respond with cold hearts and locked gates. We must minister to their suffering by offering them shelter and a share of our own abundance. As Christians, we must welcome them in.
(Michael Stafford is the author of “An Upward Calling.” Michael can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)