What should be the Christian response to the columns of refugees currently making their way across Europe? Since the picture of little Aylan washed up on a beach went viral, it appears that there is only one proper response: we must open our arms, our hearts, our purses and our homes.
On Thursday the Archbishop of Canterbury released a statement commending the government on the £900,000 already donated, but urged it to go further by offering a safe haven, saying: “The Church has always been a place of sanctuary for those in need, and Churches in the UK and across Europe have been meeting the need they are presented with. I reaffirm our commitment to the principle of sanctuary for those who require our help and love.
“The people of these islands have a long and wonderful history of offering shelter and refuge, going back centuries – whether it be Huguenot Christians, Jewish refugees, Ugandan Asians, Vietnamese boat people or many, many more.
“It has always been controversial at the time it happened, always been seen as too difficult. Yet each time we have risen to the challenge and our country has been blessed by the result.”
Churches have responded by vowing to “welcome refugees”, citing Matthew 25:35-41, in which Jesus said “for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me … Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
Seems a pretty open and shut case, right? Aren’t we always reminded as Christians that we should never simply walk by on the other side?
However, nothing is simply black and white. All solutions have pros and cons. 1 Corinthians 10 reminds us: “Brothers, do not be children in your thinking. Be infants in evil, but in your thinking be mature.” So we must weigh up all the possibilities before us in the light of the best evidence and decide, should we really throw our charity at the first people we see, or do we need to delve a little deeper?
What would Jesus do?
John 5 tells the story of a man who Jesus found by the pool of Bethesda, by the gates of Jerusalem. The pool was surrounded by disabled people, blind, lame, paralysed, waiting for the waters to be stirred by angels, whereupon they would dash into the pool and the first in would be healed.
One man, who suffered from lameness, had lain by the pool for 38 years waiting for a chance to be healed. Jesus strides up to him and asks “do you want to get well?” The man replies “Sir, I have no one to help me into the pool when the water is stirred. While I am trying to get in, someone else goes down ahead of me.”
How many people with less serious conditions must that man have seen healed over his four decades by the pool? How many people younger than he, fitter than he, more capable than he were able to jump ahead of him, time and time again, to take for themselves the healing that he so craved?
Jesus bypassed those people and went straight to him, the man at the back of the queue.
Jesus is not concerned with helping those who can help themselves. In fact, the Bible exhorts us to enjoy our ability to do so. In Ecclesiastes 3:22, King David notes: “I have seen that nothing is better than that man should be happy in his activities, for that is his lot.”
Jesus is concerned with helping those who cannot help themselves. Those who lie quietly on mats at the back of the queue, elbowed past, with no-one to help them step forward.
In this week’s Spectator Paul Collier describes the migrants making their way across Europe, packing themselves into trains and lorries, and when that fails, simply walking, the hope of prosperity in the rich West before them.
“Of Syria’s 20 million people,” he writes, “around half are now displaced. This ten million are the submerged iceberg: the group to whom we have some duty of rescue. They are displaced through circumstance rather than choice.
“The tiny minority (about 2 per cent) in the sea and camped on our doorstep are part of our duty of rescue, but they should not be allowed to crowd out the needs of others: for one thing, they tend to be richer and more resourceful.”
It costs at least £1000 to buy a ticket across the Mediterranean. Those who don’t make the trip aren’t necessarily staying behind out of choice. They too old, too young, too alone or too poor to make the trip. They are sitting on mats, waiting to he helped into the pool.
Yet others are simply too honest. Rather than opt for the illegal route, they submit legitimate applications and get in line at the back of the queue. Yet we consistently reward those who do not do the right thing, handing them the asylum places which by rights ought to have gone to those who played by the rules.
The Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan recently volunteered in Italy, renovating an old school to shelter unaccompanied migrant children. While there, he watched an Italian coastguard boat dock with 693 people on board, mostly Eritreans but around 40 percent of those crossing by sea are Syrians.
“I have seen refugee columns before, and they tend to be made up disproportionately of women and children. But more than 80 per cent of the people disembarking here were young men – the classic indicator of economic migration,” he noted.
A video shot by Hungarian police at a train station this week shows migrants, predominantly young, predominantly male, all well dressed and well fed, snatching food and water offered by police only to throw it onto the tracks and wave the officers away.
Meanwhile back in Syria, the Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarch Gregorios III, one of Syria’s most senior Catholics, has written an emotive, passionate letter begging Syria’s young Christians to stay in the country or risk the church disappearing there altogether.
“I say again, despite all your suffering, stay! Be patient! Don’t emigrate! Stay for the Church, your homeland, for Syria and its future! Stay! Do stay!” he implored
Western countries fret about a ‘brain drain’ when their own young are heading abroad, knowing full well that any country needs a capable young workforce to keep it alive, but we seemingly have no problem allowing other countries to be similarly gutted of their best and brightest, selfishly putting our own narcissistic need to be seen to be doing good ahead of their reality. And then we wonder why their problems aren’t solved.
Sure, it’s not fun being a Christian in our society. No one wants to be the adult, having to say ‘No’ all the time. And yes, the Bible calls on us to help those in need, to love our neighbours as ourselves. But it says nothing about making ourselves feel better by jumping on a bandwagon fuelled by unthinking emotion, nor of helping the first person in the queue, rather than the person most in need.
So, when it comes to the refugee crisis, what would Jesus do?