In 2015 while I was a graduate student at Wheaton College, A professor asked me to reflect on how Christians should address the Syrian refugee crisis. It was hard to ignore the horrific images in the media—boats filled to capacity, children crying out in despair, and families huddled together in soaking wet clothes.
My classmates and I were eager to break ground on the topic. There was shared agreement that our responsibility as Christians was not to ignore these images, but to consider how we might mobilize our communities and leverage our resources to ensure their safe passage and successful resettlement in the US and abroad.
Loved as Migrants, Disliked as Muslims
Our presentations at the end of the semester were a testament to the intelligence, creativity, and compassion represented in our classroom. However, they also revealed an absence of reflection on something important: nearly all of the refugees from Syria were Muslims, and Muslims were not received warmly by white evangelical Christians in America. Most of us were members of white evangelical communities.
In the years since the Syrian refugee crisis was daily news, I have noticed that as some evangelicals warm up to immigrants and refugees, their mindset is seldom accompanied by discussion or even acknowledgement that our churches have chilly attitudes toward people of other faiths living in our neighborhoods. In our efforts to love strangers from other countries, we remain unsure how to build relationships with strangers coming from non-Christian faiths.
Jesus and the Religious Stranger
Fortunately, Jesus presents us with a picture for loving the migrant and the stranger of other religious traditions in the parable of the good Samaritan. Samaritans were despised by Jesus’s Jewish audience, and yet the Parable’s central hero was a Samaritan passerby who went above and beyond to care for the migrant left for dead. It should be startling to us that in painting a picture of loving one’s neighbor as themselves, Jesus spoke to the audaciousness—and the significance—of loving across religious divisions.
“Which of these men do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” Jesus asked the expert of the law. “The one who had mercy on him,” the man replied. Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”
It’s important that Christians, and especially evangelicals, take time to sit with the ramifications of this parable and Jesus’s closing words. As Jesus’s audience pondered whether they could love Samaritan strangers as themselves, we have to ask ourselves whether we are really prepared to love Muslim strangers as ourselves. If not, we fail to remain committed to their welfare because we haven't dealt with our chilly attitudes toward people of other faiths.
The Cost of Our Estrangement
A passion to see evangelicals improve our witness toward people of other faiths is what compelled Chris Stackaruk and I to start Neighborly Faith when we were still graduate students at Wheaton College in 2015. Since then, we have come to realize that the biggest hurdle standing in the way of a better witness is not necessarily a lack of evangelical reflection on Islam, but a lack of real face-to-face interactions between evangelicals and Muslims. It’s because of this disassociation that Muslims remain strangers to us and to our Gospel, and even worse, targets of our fears and misconceptions.
One of those misconceptions, for example, is that all Muslims are in fact immigrants to the United States, and therefore remain strangers to our social and cultural norms. I remember the first time a Muslim told me that they were an avid Yankees fan born and raised in Brooklyn. It took me a minute or two to readjust my posture in the conversation, which was only slightly embarrassing. Another subtle misconception is that Muslims would prefer that Christians leave them alone. This could not be further from the truth. Many Muslim Americans don’t interact with Christians regularly and are hoping that will change.
As Christians reflect on their posture toward strangers, and especially immigrants and refugees, we need to remember that some are in fact religious strangers to our faith. In America, where Christianity is normative in many places, this can be an alienating and marginalizing experience. While we remain ambivalent to this, our witness is fractured, and our advocacy can only go so far. We need to strive to be Good Samaritans who not only stop and show concern for the migrant in their time of peril, bandaging their wounds, but do all we can to ensure their continued welfare. This, according to Jesus, is what it really means to love our neighbors as ourselves.
Cover photo by Nina Strehl.