Christ, the foreigner, and the refugee

In today’s Gospel reading of the Beatitudes, Jesus preaches an encouraging message: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied…Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” His message is not primarily about the comfort of heaven for those who suffer on earth, though I am certain that is also a true result of God’s loving care. As the theologian Lucas Chan SJ argued, he is speaking about the virtues of those who live Christian lives. He is encouraging those who are working for the betterment of this world, for its peace and justice, to persevere through their struggles, here and now.

A different Gospel passage has been in the back of my mind the last few days: “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” (Mt 25:35). Jesus’s words are a direct command to welcome the stranger because in the stranger, we find Christ. Christ is present in the encounter. Christ is already present in the other, and when we welcome him or her, we are welcoming God.

The word for “stranger” in Greek is xenos. A xenos is not just someone you don’t know–a more accurate word is “foreigner,” an outsider, a non-citizen who does not belong to your land. It’s where we get the term xenophobia, or fear of foreigners. Jesus’s words are clear that our response to the outsider is to be not fear but love. Another translation is even more direct: “I was a foreigner, and you took me in.”

Policies motivated by fear harm real people. Policies that ban refugees will mean death for some of those that we turn away. Policies like these lead to the incarceration of children in immigration detention centers, for months or years. These policies are anti-Christian. They go directly against Jesus’ words to welcome in the foreigner. When we refuse the refugee and the foreigner in need, we refuse Christ, who was himself a refugee in Egypt when Joseph and Mary took him to flee the terror created by Herod.

My grandparents and parents (on both sides of my family) were refugees in the United States, immigrating here after being sponsored to leave displaced persons camps in Germany, where they lived after fleeing from the Soviets who took over Latvia, their home country. Generous sponsors got them started, and, despite living in quite impoverished conditions—for example, my father lived in a house with no internal plumbing and just an outhouse at first—their hard work also helped them to succeed later. Without a more open US policy that welcomed them, I would not be here today. I am personally thankful for the welcome that they received as strangers in a foreign land. I cannot, myself, look at the current political situation and not see the great danger of hypocrisy when a land of immigrants and refugees refuses others in a comparable position. It brings to mind the story of Lazarus, who goes to the table of a rich man, who is too busy to bother with him because his own comfort stands in the way of seeing the poor man’s needs (Luke 16:19-31). Our own current comfort ought not stand in the way of remembering our own families’ prior dependency, and our obligation to extend the same hospitality that we received to others.

Jesus’s words in the Beatitudes are meant to encourage those who strive for justice and peace. But how can we be encouraged when the success of our own work is unclear?  Jesus is reminding those who work for justice that God is present to them in their work. He is already here with those who strive for peace, justice, and love. When Jesus says “blessed are,” his word for blessed is makarios, which means “happy.” Happy are those who work for peace. Happy are those who hunger and thirst for justice. Jesus promises those who follow him that despite the many obstacles that may stand in their way materially, that there is a joy in following the Lord’s way and not the way of the world. There is joy in walking the way of love and not the way of fear. So we are encouraged to persevere.


One thought on “Christ, the foreigner, and the refugee

  1. Thank you Marina. You confirm and encourage us to hold to our beliefs and the truth of who we are here in the USA … my grandparents immigrated, too from Quebec. Blessings …

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