Welcoming the Stranger

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Imagine that you suddenly hear a massive explosion. Close enough that you can see buildings collapsing and dust filling the air. You can hear the screams of those nearer to the epicentre. This is followed by another explosion, and another, each one closer than the last.

Now imagine that this is a daily occurrence. You live minute to minute filled with dread, fearing for your own life and the lives of your family members.

What would you do to escape this horrible uncertainty? Where do you go? You barely have time to pack a few belongings, knowing that you must carry whatever you bring throughout the long trek ahead.

You are faced with an impossible choice. If you happen to reach the relative peace of a refugee camp, do you remain there, crammed together with hundreds of others, fighting for food and clean water, living a life in limbo? Or do you try to find a way out? Any alternative is fraught with danger. Maybe you pay an exorbitant amount of money for fraudulent travel documents, or else risk your life on a perilous journey across land or sea, aware of its illegality, but desperately hoping for a fighting chance at a decent life.

And when you get there? When you finally manage to survive this entire ordeal – you are greeted with accusations that your claims are “bogus.” That you have unfairly “jumped the queue.” That you are taking advantage of the country’s generosity and tolerance, and any stories of trauma or persecution are unworthy of consideration because you didn’t arrive through “regular channels.”

The circumstances described above are such that most of us could not begin to fathom, yet they are a reality that thousands must endure. And once they reach safety in Canada, after having suffered unimaginable trauma, many are then forced to confront the increasingly punitive measures put in place by our government in the name of protecting the integrity of our immigration system. These measures include mandatory detention for certain groups; expedited processing and no right to appeal for refugees from countries the government has deemed “safe;” and limited access to life-saving medical treatment. One can only assume that these newly implemented policies are in response to negative public perception towards immigrants. Indeed, in 2012, then Immigration Minister Jason Kenney stated that the government wishes to “avoid the disconnect between popular opinion and policy on immigration that we’ve seen in Western Europe.”

How, then, should Christians respond? If we examine our own intentions, can we honestly claim that we do not harbour the same prejudices and discriminatory attitudes that seem to have fuelled our government’s hardline approach to immigration? God calls us to “extend hospitality to strangers” (Romans 12:13). Our responsibility to respond to the needs of the most vulnerable is not based solely on moral considerations, but is in fact biblically mandated. Deuteronomy 15:7-7 states, “If there is a poor man among your brothers… do not be hardhearted or tight-fisted. Rather be open-handed and freely lend him whatever he needs.” The heart of this message is that we should demonstrate mercy and compassion towards the needy, and who so fits this description more clearly than those who have fled life-threatening situations with barely more than the clothes on their backs?

Jesus states plainly, “Truly I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of my brethren, you did it to me.” (Matthew 25:40) Forsaking those in need of protection then is essentially a rebuke against the Lord. It is a denial of Jesus Christ. As individuals, we often have a natural tendency to view newcomers as outsiders and treat them with wariness, or even view them as a threat. But as Christians, we are called to overcome this instinct; to open our eyes and see the face of God reflected in every human being we encounter, regardless of nationality, creed, social status, or any other characteristics. We are called to welcome the stranger, recognizing that ultimately we are all brothers and sisters. It is crucial that as Christians we connect our treatment of others with the teachings of our faith and their implications for our relationship with God, because these are fundamentally intertwined. We must deeply reflect upon our own attitudes and ensure that they are truly aligned with the approach Jesus calls us to take in our interactions with one another.

But we must also go further by challenging the institutions in place that prevent us from fulfilling this mandate. If our government is keen on advancing policies according to public opinion, we must make it clear that we firmly support action that will protect those who come to us seeking refuge. We must emphasize that what is important is not the method of their arrival, the legality of their status, or our perception of the country they have fled, but the fact that they are human beings in need. It is only by achieving systemic change that justice can truly be served.  In the admirable words of former Archbishop Desmond Tutu, “Christians shouldn’t just be pulling people out of the river. We should be going upstream to find out who’s pushing them in.”

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