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What does the Bible really say about taking in Syrian refugees?

November 22nd, 2015 Leave a comment Go to comments

bonhoeffer again

There is an article making the rounds on social media that seems to have traction among conservatives who are seeking a way to justify turning their backs on Syrian refugees and still feel good about it.

What does the Bible really say about taking in Syrian refugees?

Unfortunately, this article doesn’t deliver on its promise of telling the reader what the Bible really says, in fact it almost skips the Bible entirely and the one Biblical reference it does make doesn’t say what the author says it does. It is in fact correctly categorized on the referenced page: Politics.

The basic argument appears to be that scripture differentiates between the role of the state and the responsibilities of individuals. There is no passage in scripture that differentiates between what God requires of the state (really not a Biblical concept) and the individual (also, curiously, a concept predominant in modernity but mostly foreign to the Biblical writers). Biblical references to nations point to what we would consider ethnicities (usually “us” vs. “them”: Jews vs. gentiles, Jews vs. Greeks, Greeks vs. barbarians, etc.) and not socio-political entities confined to a geographical area. The nation-state we are familiar didn’t come into existence until the eighteenth century. Of course people are individuals and each is either blessed or cursed by God, but the understanding of the Biblical writers would have been community-centric. If one sinned all suffered, and if one was blessed, all were blessed. In our time, the welfare of the individual is of the utmost importance. In ancient times it was the community (extended family) that was preeminent. As Spock pointed out: “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one.” It is misleading to say that “Scripture draws a clear line between the responsibility of the individual and the role of the state.” One may infer from certain passages within a hermeneutical framework the responsibility of the individual and the state, but it is far from clear or explicit.

The author references Romans 13 as the basis for his argument. I wonder if Mr. Calabrese has ever actually read the chapter. He writes, “French is quoting Romans 13, which lays out clear lines of responsibility for governments – particularly the imperative to protect the innocent from wrongdoers.” Well, not really. Here is what it says,

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed. (Romans 13:1-7 ESV)

These verses enjoin Christians to submit to the lawful authority of the ruler (unspecified), because according to the Apostle Paul, “he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.” (Romans 13:4 ESV) So, yes one might presume that would include protecting the innocent, but it is hardly explicit, and it doesn’t infer that the safety of God’s people overrules God’s demand for justice and mercy. The very clear message of the Bible throughout is that the people’s safety is in God alone.  The three Jewish servants Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, faced with the fiery furnace for choosing to obey God before the King, answered the King’s query about who could save them from from death with confidence that God was able to save them. “But if not,” they continued, “be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.” (Daniel 3:18 ESV) They were more concerned with obedience to God than to the king (of a city that, by the way, God had told the Jewish exiles through the Prophet Jeremiah 29:4-7 they were to serve faithfully) to the point that they were willing to die a horrific death.

Further, God’s commands, in both the Old and the New Testament are almost always addressed in the plural, signifying universality. Kings and rulers do have responsibilities to the people (and to God) but those responsibilities are intended to facilitate God’s redemption of creation, to create a people who will exemplify God’s character and be “a light for the nations.” (Is. 49:6) God doesn’t have a different standard of justice for the government and the people. That would have been a distinction the Biblical writers could not have imagined. God’s commands are addressed to everyone and everyone is responsible for obedience. This is true whether or not they have specific knowledge of the written law. Indeed, Paul writes of those who haven’t received the law, “what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.” (Romans 1:19-20 ESV) The verses in Chapter 13 don’t in any way lay out clear lines of responsibility for governments as opposed to what is required of individuals. They admonish the believer to obey the law in order to avoid just punishment. And, these verses relieve neither the Christian nor the Church (nor the government) from God’s demand that his people practice justice and mercy, especially toward the stranger, the widow, and the orphan.

There are a number of passages in scripture that call upon believers to submit to lawful authority but there are also a number of  passages that support defying the state when it contradicts God’s commandments (as above). And underneath all of this is the theological reality that Christians are sojourners, owing no allegiance to the earthly state, but whose “citizenship is in heaven.” (Php. 3:20) The people of God obey the laws of men as foreigners obey the laws of the land they are travelling in. But they have no other ruler than God himself.

In fact, the overall conclusion must be that God demands justice and mercy from his people regardless of what the state does or does not do.

Here’s what the Bible really says:

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’

“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” (Matthew 25:31-46 ESV)

Don’t be fooled. Bonhoeffer warns, “Silence [inaction] in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”

 

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