Refugee Crisis: 'What Would Jesus Do?'

White paper boat onto world map with 'Help' sign on it and barbed wire.
White paper boat onto world map with 'Help' sign on it and barbed wire.

As a recent drone footage reveals and confirms, Europe is dealing with a refugee crisis and not simply a migrant crisis. Hundreds of thousands of refugees flee war-torn areas that have been completely destroyed since the beginning of the conflict in Syria in 2011.

A strong show of (belated) solidarity surfaced in the aftermath of pictures of Aylan Kurdi's body on the shore of the Mediterranean. However, sentiments have hardened since the Paris attacks in November 2015 and an anti-migrant and anti-refugee discourse has resurfaced following the dreadful Cologne incidents on New Year's Eve.

As Alexander Betts has explained, there's a familiar pattern at this point: "a negative incident occurs that implicates refugees, the media pounces, the far right mobilizes, and the center-right shifts inches closer toward tightening borders."

A religious argument also surfaces time and again in relation to the crisis. For some, it's the "elephant in the room" while others spell it out explicitly. For example, Hungarian PM Viktor Orban justifies his calls for building a 175 km long fence by warning of an impending threat to Europe's Christian roots. Slovakia for its part has decided to accept only Christian refugees and Czeck President reiterated similar cultural concerns.

In the US, similar and at times more outrageous views have been expressed, most notably by Republican presidential candidates in relation to only welcoming Christian refugees and even banning Muslims altogether from entering the US.

And in response to appeals to welcome refugees out of humanitarian considerations, or for respect of international law and human rights, I always hear and read views that dismiss such considerations as liberal "politically correct" values that do not take the reality of the threat into account.

But are calls for helping refugees and avoiding further unnecessary lives lost - in the oceans and while crossing borders - mere "liberal values", or can one make an argument that they should be espoused precisely by those who seek to follow and uphold "Christian values?"

In other words, can we derive a list of "best practices" from a cursory reading of the New Testament in answer to the question: what would Jesus do if faced with a refugee crisis?

What would Jesus do, for example, if he heard reports of children drowning at sea?

The language of the New Testament is straightforward. If a follower of Jesus wants to welcome Jesus, he/she should welcome "one of these little children." And whoever welcomes the little children welcomes not just Jesus, but "the one who sent" him, i.e. God the Father in Christian spirituality.

"Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me."

What would Jesus do if he heard of scores of people who are "strangers" in need of shelter, food, drink, and safe passage?

One answer can be through a reading of an extremely telling text that deals with Judgment Day. Jesus narrates a parable where God welcomes people into his "Kingdom." Why?

For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.

And when those righteous individuals ask him:

"Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?'"

The rationale for their righteous behaviour is as follows, according to Jesus:

'Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.'

And the rationale works in the reverse as well for those who would not enter God's Kingdom:

"Then he will say to those on his left, 'Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.'

"They also will answer, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?'

"He will reply, 'Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.'

Furthermore, the parable of the "Good Samaritan" is equally clear in that one has to "love your neighbor as yourself" in order to inherit the Kingdom.

And when asked "who is my neighbor?" Jesus tells the following story where he first describes what it means to not love one's neighbor:

"A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side."

And then he explains what it means to love one's neighbor:

"But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denariie and gave them to the innkeeper. 'Look after him,' he said, 'and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.'

Jesus then asks his questioner who was the person who displayed the right behaviour in this context, and his interlocutor replies:

"The one who had mercy on him."

Jesus told him, "Go and do likewise."

Ideally, there need not be an appeal to religious values when it comes to the respect of fellow human beings. But when politicians invoke Christian values, including PM David Cameron who spoke of Britain as a Christian nation, it is important to remind them - whether one believes in the New Testament or not - about what Jesus actually said when it came to the needy, vulnerable, and marginalized people in society.

One can only hope that those who choose to invoke these religious values would put the same effort to ensure they are respected in practice and policy, rather than using them as justification for xenophobic populist discourse, shutting down borders, tightening up immigration policies, and not doing their share in terms of welcoming larger numbers of refugees.

This is a time when international solidarity is urgently needed to deal with a global problem that is primarily not one of culture or religion, but of human beings in need of compassion and hope.