The world is mired in a humanitarian crisis. Millions of refugees are vulnerable and yearning for sanctuary around the world. Fresh reports from the U.N. on Syria’s use of chemical weapons, devastating famine in Yemen, and South Sudan’s deepening crisis highlight the continued trauma plaguing the world.
In the middle of this, President Trump issued a revised travel ban that the White House hoped would be less vulnerable to legal challenge. However on March 15, hours before it was to go into effect, the revised ban was blocked by a federal judge from Hawaii. Christians affirm that the government has a responsibility to protect the nation. However, we also affirm that all levels of society – individuals, civil institutions, and government – have God-given responsibilities to act with justice and compassion to promote human flourishing. Is it possible to balance those demands?
Where can we turn for help in prioritizing these questions? I propose Christians consult the book of Jonah.
Jonah and the current refugee crisis
The story concludes, not with a happy ending, but with a challenging question directed at both the reader and at Jonah. In God’s final argument for why Jonah should understand God’s passion and compassion for the troubled and tyrannical city of Nineveh, He asks, “And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh…?” (Jonah 4:11)
For God, Nineveh is not just troubled and tyrannical; Nineveh is an object of sympathy. And the people receive God’s most radical mercy. Why? They exist. “There are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people.” They are not just fearsome enemies, but people in need. “They cannot tell their right hand from their left.” Nineveh is a source of culture, power, and commerce. “There are many animals.”
With the story of Jonah, we often think of a man getting swallowed by a fish when really we should be reflecting on what this story says about God. It reveals, as clearly as any biblical text, the nature of God’s heart, the radical reasoning of God’s mercy; we could use a fresh perspective as energy wanes and tempers rise. With two slightly different travel bans of various countries, the differences between visas, refugee processes, and looming crises around the world, our current circumstances are tiring, confusing, and overwhelming. God’s question in Jonah 4, “And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh…?”, provides a needed refocusing for Christians on what is at stake in these discussions.
In Jonah we see God’s passion overflowing in his questioning. Much to the chagrin of Jonah, He expresses this concern for a wayward people who were the enemies of the people of Israel and worshipped other gods.
For Christian citizens, the refugee crisis is not just a political issue, it’s a religious one. That is why so many Christians have felt compelled to speak on the issue and compel government to take actions that more closely match God’s heart. The actions that Christians ask for do not preclude national security, but they challenge the false dichotomy that the travel ban presents between compassion and security. As people of compassionate hope, we call our elected officials to work for both, not sacrifice one for the other. Christians care about what God cares about.
Does God still care about Nineveh, which sits near the heart of our current story as well, just outside of Mosul, Iraq? Yes. God also cares for the person who lost a factory job in the Midwest and the person struggling with opioid addiction. God cares for the family worried about the security of this country. God’s compassion is not a zero-sum game, even though our political discourse often has been. The fact that the story ends with this question is a dare. The author dares the reader to disagree, and dares the reader to take up God’s call. The question is not, “How will Jonah respond?” but rather “How will we respond?”
We strive for public justice. Public justice asks what the right roles and responsibilities are of government and other civil society organizations in promoting human flourishing. It calls us as Christians to ask how government can create and sustain a fertile environment for other diverse non-governmental organizations, including faith-based organizations, to fully live out their missions in the public square.
Long before the original Executive Order was announced, many Christian organizations, from international refugee resettlement organizations like World Relief and World Vision, to local churches and faith-based colleges, have served refugees directly and advocated for the Trump administration to reconsider the limiting of refugees into the United States. Participating in the advancement of public justice in our pluralistic public square does not guarantee that our specific policy positions will always be adopted, but it does mean that we ought to ensure government continues to create space in our diverse society for diverse organizations. If enough of these organizations engage the administration with a message of their willingness to serve and partner with the government in resettling refugees, perhaps we will move a bit closer to proximate justice.
There is plenty of room in this debate to have robust disagreement about how to welcome strangers in our midst and still maintain security. But God’s challenge to Jonah makes it unacceptable for us to let fear triumph over compassion.
I am not here to argue how that gets worked out in public policy. What I will argue is that Christians are not to give up. Christians are to continue to work on behalf of refugees. Christians are to continue calling America to ever deeper compassion. Christians are to continue advocating for people of other faiths and people from other places. There are always risks involved. There are always uphill battles. There are always those who will want to close doors or say it’s not our business, and there are also those of us who are tired and don’t want to deal with the mess of the refugee crisis. But we would do well to learn from Jonah when he ran away. He ran smack into God, whose concern had not faded in the slightest. God called him again to “go to Nineveh.”
So go – go and support relief and resettlement organizations. Help their vital voices to be heard. Increase your awareness of what is happening globally. Find ways to support refugees in your local community. Promote the religious rights and protections of all faiths. And keep fighting.
After all, should we not have concern for that great city?
-Dan Carter is a husband, father, neighbor, reader, runner, and Senior Pastor of Calvary on 8th St. located in Holland, MI.