Asher Witmer

rediscovering Jesus

Can You Be a Christian and Not Accept Refugees? refugee crisis part 1

Without adding to the meaningless noise of opinions on the current refugee crisis, in this post I want to wrestle with some questions specific to those of us who claim to be disciples of Jesus Christ. Can we say we are “little Christs” and not accept refugees?

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Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?” (Matt. 16:24-26 ESV)

This is perhaps one of the most quoted passages among Christians about following Christ. Yet when I look around, I don’t see it being lived out. Not very consistently, at least.

We consider it high integrity to budget well, to plan in advance so we don’t risk any unforeseen dangers afflicting our families. When we’re struck with sickness it becomes our sole ambition to find healing. We live away from danger, where it is safe for families to be raised without wrong influences. All the while doing this, we neglect the Gospel of Christ.

Sure, we do just enough “ministry” to deflect those who call for more, to hold as our example of evangelism (even when it’s not a daily norm). The reality is, we put more time, more thought, and more energy into our jobs and family than anything else.

Following Christ is an extension to our lives, not the conviction of it.

To be honest, we seem more centered around saving our lives, then losing them for His sake.

Can you be a Christian, and worry about safety? I am not asking “is it wrong to worry about safety or taking care of my family?” I am asking, can someone be a true disciple of Christ and have their family’s safety as their highest priority?

The reason I ask this is that when I sit and listen to all the babble going on about how to handle the refugee crisis, the common denominator in those saying we shouldn’t take them in has to do with protecting our families.

Before I go further, let me clarify. I am a twenty-five-year-old husband of one, father of two, and school teacher of ten. I am young, but I am not naïve. I have not lived as long as those in their sixties—duh! But I have lived long enough to see the utter evil in the world. I have been a teenage boy handed a porn mag by unbelieving friends. I have had drunks laying on my shoulder spewing forth obscene jokes, drunks who when sober led the most modest and respectful lives of some of the people I know. I know how bad the world is!

Furthermore, I know the immeasurable pleasure of fathering, and sharing love with an intimate comrade. I am not writing as one who has not wrestled with God’s call on my life and my affections for my family.

In our first year of marriage, my wife and I lived on perhaps the most notoriously dangerous street in North East LA. We lived there, as one would live on a pleasant farm in the middle of Indiana. I worked and my wife set up house. A day never went by without interacting with our neighbors who did not live holy and pure lives. Many of them caught up in pleasures of this world—drugs, alcohol, immorality. Once a week, we had kids clubs, and the connections made through our time on Drew Street are still being nurtured and fostered by our church family today.

Within two years of marriage, a child born and another on the way, God led us overseas to teach school at a small international school for missionary children. By that time, we were desperate for peace and quietness, so we moved into what felt like a luxury home hidden away in a gorgeously lush muban on the south side of Chiang Mia, Thailand.

Our three years here have been refreshing, and restful. But even within the comfort of a quiet and peaceful neighborhood, the people next door are heavily involved in idol worship. Sometimes we wonder why we feel so tired, or irritable. Sometimes our boys seem to lose their temper with no reasonable cause. Sometimes we lose our tempers and aren’t really sure why. I have no doubt the influence of darkness just twenty feet away wears at the Powers of Light surrounding our home.

Now, in just a few months, we are moving back to LA. Back to our church family. Primarily, to pursue further education, but also because we can’t get the people of north east LA off our minds and hearts. As we anticipate our move, I find myself struggling with a feeling I didn’t expect.

I don’t want to leave.

There are many reasons I don’t want to leave, but perhaps the strongest one is that it tears me apart to think of pulling my boys away from what they have come to know and love: the creek we stop by once a week and throw rocks and sticks into, the little restaurant where we go and fetch our Cashew Chicken, or our motorbike we take for a spin almost every day. We’ve made a lifetime of memories for them, so far, and now I am asking them to leave it all.

Another reason I don’t want to leave is that I can’t bear the thought of removing my wife from relationships she has’s come to treasure. Meaningful relationships take time to develop and I know she will deeply miss people here. I will miss the friends and coworkers we’ve gotten to know in our few years here.

Sometimes my feelings are so strong, I second guess our decision.

I say all this so you know I am not flippantly risking safety and family. The questions I am about pose are ones I have wrestled with deeply.

We all long for the close fellowship of those we love. We all want to feel secure and know life will be okay. But I can’t shake the reality that while we live on earth Christ calls us to lay down those longings so He can restore a broken world to Himself.

Paul exhorted the Philippians to “work out their salvation in fear and trembling.” He goes on to say that if we are poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrificial offering of our faith, we are to rejoice.

In other words, if our blood is spilled because our faith in God leads us to do dangerous things, we should rejoice.

He says all of this on the tail end of recounting what Christ did for us. Look it up in Philippians two. Jesus Christ left his home in glory where it would not have been robbery for Him to stay and be equal with God. He is God. He was then, and always will be. He did not have to come and die. But He did.

Jesus didn’t just risk His safety, He completely gave it up so that we could have relationship with the Father.

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Now, Paul is saying in remembrance of the salvation we receive from Christ, we are to go and do the same. Without grumbling. Without disputing. We are to shine our lights in a crooked and twisted world, holding fast to the word of life.

Most American Christians are more concerned about mercy then they are about love.

We know we are fallen. We know we cannot get to heaven on our own. We revel in and worship God’s overwhelming mercy.

But I am beginning to wonder if we know anything about love.

If we truly loved, as Christ loved us, we wouldn’t be arguing about whether or not we should let refugees into our nation. People’s lives are at stake, and we could do something about it. Many of these people aren’t walking in relationship with the Father, and we could show them how.

Instead, we are afraid of losing our freedoms or being blown up in our own land. As “disciples of Christ,” we are arguing over statistic numbers while thousands are ending up dead.

Can you really call yourself a follower of Christ and refuse refugees?

In first John, we are told to lay down our lives just as Christ laid down His life for us. If I receive Christ and the free gift of salvation, without turning and taking it to others who do not know Him, I am as foolish and worthless as the servant who hid his talent in the ground. I am not multiplying that which Christ gave me.

No matter how many times I read my Bible, I cannot see anywhere in Scripture that indicates being a Christian is simply a matter of salvation. We repent and believe and receive salvation. Not of our works. It is the gift of God for eternal life. I understand all of that. But here’s the thing: eternal life is relationship with God. And when I am walking in true relationship with Him I care about the things on His heart, I am grieved by what grieves Him, and I love what He loves and how He loves.

John goes on to say, “if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.” (1John 3:16-18 ESV)

If I see someone who needs refuge, and I close the door because I am concerned about my family’s safety, does God’s love abide in me?

Being a Christian, a disciple of Jesus Christ, is always requires me to give the rights of my life over to Him. There is no place to pursue safety, if I am going to follow Christ. There is not time to build wealth, if I am going to be His disciple.

Jesus was addressed by a rich young ruler, a hipster entrepreneur of sorts, asking “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He was wondering about what it takes to be a Christian. Remember what Jesus told him? “Sell all you have and give it to the poor.” Our young entrepreneur went away sad because he had much wealth and many possessions.

Turning to His disciples Jesus said it is easier for a camel to go through the itty-bitty eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God. (Mark 10:25)

Have we in the American church become so obsessed about the cares of this world and deceived by riches, and have we become so in love with other things that God’s word has been choked out of our midst and we are proving unfruitful?

If we do not accept refugees, can we claim Christ as our Lord? If we do not commit to suffering for the Gospel, can we expect to share in the resurrection?

Perhaps the most difficult thing for me to hear from Christ is when He said, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26 ESV)

I have fought with God over this passage because it goes against everything I was taught as a Midwestern Mennonite. What is He meaning when He says “hate”? Surely, He isn’t thinking what I mean when I use that word. Am I really supposed to hate my wife as I hated Donny Johnson for tearing my ball glove in fifth grade? Am I supposed to despise my children as I despised Stewart Howe who dated my high school crush?

These are made-up names and instances, of course, but you get what I am wrestling with, right?

Some have suggested Jesus was simply saying we are to love them less than we love Him, and I accept that as a possible interpretation. But when I compare all He says about following Him, about His calling for us to deny ourselves and take up our crosses, I suggest that interpretation remains significantly incomplete.

The loving less philosophy simply fosters our thinking that we can have both this life and Christ. Which is a lie.

I love my boys with incredible passion. But I love my wife even more. I look forward to the day when my boys leave home, when I become more than just “Dad,” and step into a mentor relationship with them. But I can’t stand the thought of ever not having my wife. You could say I love my boys less than I do my wife, but if I were to translate it from the Greek into English I would not have chosen the word hate to drive home my point.

No, I think Jesus is getting at something much deeper than a simple placement of love.

You might wrestle with what I am about to suggest because we can all think of people who have missed their children because they were so heavily involved with the doings of ministry. I think of the missionaries who sent their kids away to a boarding school because they were too busy with “the work of the Gospel” to have them live at home.

But what drives someone to sacrifice their family on the altar of ministry will also cause them to sacrifice their family on the altar of work. It’s the same thing that keeps dad glued to his phone when his son is tugging at his leg.

Sacrificing family has nothing to do with the level of devotion and risk we take in following Christ. It has everything to do with emotional wounds and what we are trying to get them healed.

So, before I suggest something that runs the risk of being taken wrong, let me assure you I am not suggesting a foolhardy neglecting of family.

Scripture is full of exhortations for us as parents to train our children in the way of righteousness. We are to teach them all things Christ has commanded us as we sit, work, play, eat, sleep, and so on. Neglecting my family makes me worse than an infidel, as Paul exhorted Titus. There is no doubt we have a high calling to our families.

However, as a disciple of Christ, I am called to sometimes do things that will risk my family’s safety in this world. Things like taking in a homeless alcoholic and helping him get his drivers license, or helping Muslim refugees set up a new life in my birth land.

When following Christ or playing it safe is in question, I must follow Christ. When God is leading us to do something my family would rather not do, I am to gently lead them in following God. Not capitulate to their desires.

I suggest Jesus is saying our commitment and devotion to Christ and His glory will lead us to do things that literally seem like hatred of family (our own lives). We don’t do these things because we want a thrill, or to be popular for doing risky work. We do them because we remember what Christ did for us, and love Him and His creation so much we want to see them restored.

Really, the question in balance isn’t who do I love most, it is who do I love?

“Any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:33 ESV)

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The cost is great; have you counted it?

The refugee crisis is far too complex to solve in a blog post, but what I am wrestling with the most is whether we can say we follow Christ and spend time arguing about whether or not it’s good to let those who need a home come to our country?

Are we listening to the voice of God and responding to His invitation in being a part of his work of reconciliation? Or are we too busy trying to save our own lives?

Of course, being a Christian is risky. But Jesus also said, “There is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first.” (Mark 10:23-31 ESV)

In the end, losing my life for Christ is the ultimate accomplishment of life. Trying to protect it only ensures eternal disappointment.

“Is not this the fast that I choose:

to loose the bonds of wickedness,

to undo the straps of the yoke,

to let the oppressed go free,

and to break every yoke?

“Is it not to share your bread with the hungry

and bring the homeless poor into your house;

when you see the naked, to cover him,

and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?

“Then shall your light break forth like the dawn,

and your healing shall spring up speedily;

your righteousness shall go before you;

the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.

“Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;

you shall cry, and he will say, ‘Here I am.’

“If you take away the yoke from your midst,

the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness,

if you pour yourself out for the hungry

and satisfy the desire of the afflicted,

then shall your light rise in the darkness

and your gloom be as the noonday.

“And the Lord will guide you continually

and satisfy your desire in scorched places

and make your bones strong;

and you shall be like a watered garden,

like a spring of water,

whose waters do not fail.

“And your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;

you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;

you shall be called the repairer of the breach,

the restorer of streets to dwell in.

(Is. 58:6-12 ESV)

This is part one–there is more to come. Help me understand if I am missing something. According to what Jesus said, can you and I really be His disciples and not accept refugees, regardless of their religion? Share your thoughts in the comments.

*Read part 2 here.

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About Asher Witmer

I am a son of God, husband, father, and difference maker. I love helping people sort through hard questions they face and rediscover Jesus. I have written three eBooks dealing with church frustrations, and send out daily posts addressing faith, church and relationships.

  • Melanie Beachy

    Thanks so much for this post, Asher! It’s says beautifully so many of the things that have been burning on my heart these past few weeks especially.

  • Nelson Martin

    Thank you, Asher. This message does need to be heard. I agree with Chris that we need to stay free of purely political involvements, either from the sometimes hypocritical, activist left as well as from the confused “religious” right.

    I find it very easy to agree that we can’t turn the refugee away as Christians, but I admit I’m still wrestling with the issue of safety for a family in more challenging ministry settings. To be fair, I guess that’s what everyone else says they are concerned about too when turning them away from America.

    So I’m trying to count the cost realistically, but trust the safety of those I love to my Father, who cares more about them much than I do. In the end, no one gets out of here alive anyway. So I choose to live fully for Him and carry the burden of love, both for those who need asylum, and for those given to me whom only God can ultimately protect.

    • Amen, Nelson. Thanks for commenting!

  • Chris Stoltzfus

    I love refugees and we interact with many of them in Lancaster. However, I think we should allow the government to do their job of running the country, borders, immigration etc, and we as Christians to do our job of loving the foreigner. We don’t have to make a decision about whether or not they can come, that is what God has ordained the government to do. But we should be reaching out to refugees with the Love of Christ. For Christians, it should NOT be a political issue, rather we should ask what is our Christian duty.

    From my perspective of working with refugees every day, the anti-government protests are using my friends as political fodder. Many such folks care little about refugees, they just hate the new government and so they use the poor and suffering refugees as a tool for their own political gain. That sickens me! Refugees are NOT a tool for political gain, they are not a cause to speak out against the government, they are PEOPLE whom Jesus loves and people who Christians ought to love as well!

    • Dwight Gingrich

      Chris, many blessings to you as you serve refugees there in Lancaster! I want to say that I think you are saying something important in your last paragraph. There is a lot of hypocrisy in much political protesting we see.

      I would want to add something, though… I am also seeing others who are professing Christians who are eagerly defending the government’s recent temporary ban on immigrants. Some of these same Christian people seem to think it is okay to defend the government’s decision, but not to question it. I have heard things like people using the parable of the Good Samaritan to try to prove that refugees are NOT our neighbors or saying that we should keep Muslims out of the “American congregation.” When such things are spoken in the name of Christ, it is hard to keep silent, and I am not sure we should. When we challenge such core misunderstandings of what it means to follow Christ we run the risk, of course, of being seen as puppets of the liberal anti-Trump wing of politics. But is the answer to remain silent when the nature of what it means to follow Christ is being so distorted?

      I also wonder whether we have lost the ability to distinguish between (a) calling all nations to actions of basic justice and mercy, as OT prophets did even with pagan nations, (b) calling individual government officials to personal repentance, (c) trying to Christianize the American nation, and (d) attacking our government leaders. It seems to me that (a) and (b) are proper Christian responses in such times, but that (c) and (d) are not. However, I think I see people losing some ability to distinguish between the above responses, so that if a person speaks up at all to promote the idea that banning refugees may not be a good idea, they are seen as doing either (c) or (d), even if they have no such intention. I think I see both conservative people (who think Anabaptists should abstain from all political involvement) and right-wing politically-minded Christians (who are trying to make American Christian) confusing these responses. As I look to our Anabaptist past, I see leaders who did both (a) and (b) freely–with more gusto than I was taught was right. This current situation has been an opportunity for me to refine some of my thinking on how we should relate to civil governments.

      Please know I am not trying to argue with you; just looking to grow together in our Christ-like understandings. Blessings!

      • Dwight, something I have wondered: what does it mean for a Christian to do justice? I think we’ve done relatively well at showing mercy and walking humbly with God, but I’m not sure I know how I am called by God to do justice in our world today.

        • Dwight Gingrich

          Good question, Rosina! Another thing that makes it complicated is that so much of the “justice” discussion and efforts even within some Christian circles is about working for achieving justice for *me.* At this point my response is pretty simple: Try to speak up for justice for all others, in any situation, whether the oppression is political and systematic or personal in nature. And I am more comfortable with petitioning and appealing than with using political force.

          And of course, to “do” justice involves first of all ensuring that I am treating others with justice. But I think that even this might mean, though, that I should not remain silent when my voice could help alleviate another’s injustice.

    • Chris, thanks for commenting!

      Marcel has told me quite a bit about your work and I am excited to hear how God is using your ministry. I agree there is a lot of hypocrisy going around over this situation (both ways). Dwight sums it up well and addresses the type of feedback I was seeing that led me to begin this series. This is part one of five, and I’m going to address government and its role vs. our role as disciples of Christ more specifically in a post all on its own. In this post, I was wanting to cut back through all the political fray and ask us as disciples of Christ, can we really not accept refugees (because I have seen plenty of Christians doing just that).

      My question for you, Chris, is what can people who truly want to help do right now? You know refugees better than I do, what are the needs (States-side and abroad)?

  • I’ve been thinking about the same question–how can we say we have the love of God, and shut our hearts to our brothers in need? The New Testament has a lot to say about the marks of discipleship, and as you said, loving God and the people He created is paramount. Thanks for writing and I look forward to reading your further thoughts!

  • Matt Landis

    Good comments Asher