The media is buzzing with chatter about immigration and the heartbreaking refugee crisis in the Middle East. Yet even as we learn more about the types of suffering and oppression that these people are fleeing, the temptation to look inward remains.
All of these cases involve a range of complex considerations, to be sure. But in a nation as big and as prosperous as ours, we should find it easier than most to err on the side of welcoming the stranger. Further, as citizens of a country whose success is so deeply rooted in the entrepreneurial efforts and exploits of immigrants and escapees, we ought to understand the profound value and creative capacity of all humankind, regardless of degree or pedigree.
But even before and beyond all that, as Christians, we offer a type of justice that so clearly begins with love of God and neighbor. Ours is an approach that recognizes the importance of rightly ordered relationships, and as with all relationships, that means an embrace of vulnerability and struggle and imagination. Ours is an ethic that relishes in the risk of sacrifice and is willing to deny our man-made priorities of security and comfortability. All that but one might be saved.
This doesn’t mean that we ignore or bypass considerations of political prudence, the rule of law, and the various practical constraints of any free and orderly society. But it does mean that our hearts, hands, and words ought to reflect a basic motivation of love, mercy, and hospitality. For the Christian, building a wall might be the right and just policy outcome for a particular situation, but it ought not be our shining characteristic.
As Evan Koons reminds us in Episode 4 of For the Life of the World: Letters to the Exiles, “Seeking order means acting in accord with a true vision of our brothers and sisters,” and as we see throughout the rest of the series, that includes the stranger and the exile.
As an image of what that sort of model might look like, we would do well to consider the popular conversion tale of Jean Valjean, who as a young thief, is transformed by the love, grace, and mercy of Christ, as demonstrated by a caring bishop.
In Episode 4 of the series, the scene is beautifully re-imagined:
As Koons concludes later in the series:
Justice requires love, because you won’t have justice unless you remember the image of God in each person. Unless you remember each person’s dignity as a glorious, creative, capable gift to the world, Unless you are willing to give yourself away to keep that memory alive. But we must do more than just remember the dignity of all, and especially the stranger. We must welcome the stranger, make a space for him in our lives, to make a place at our tables for that gift in whom God himself delights.
As we continue fighting against individual or systemic oppression or dysfunction, and as we continue to debate how we might welcome the immigrant and the refugee, let us remember that along with the fight to change the system at the top, God has given us the wisdom, relational capacity, and, above all, love and grace to begin repairing the fragments of society at the ground level.