Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Top 5 Demands of Christian Hospitality

Syrian refugees arriving into Greece.
Source: http://tinyurl.com/ha535a5
Discussions about refugees and immigrants almost invariably include people who strongly express the need to protect borders.

Pope Francis has a helpful perspective that hits the nail on the head:

A person who thinks only of building walls, wherever they may be, and not of building bridges, is not a Christian.

The key word here is "only." 

Protecting our borders is important. I can't think of a single Christian denomination that does not value the need to protect borders, big or small. After all, most of us lock our houses and cars. Similar reasoning can apply to the borders of a nation.

However, protecting borders should be one of the last things on our minds as Christians--not the first. The biblical demands of hospitality are pretty strong, especially given so many statements by Jesus himself.

So if protecting borders isn't the only consideration, what else should a Christian do?

1. Welcome.  If someone is a stranger in your land, the least you can do is acknowledge them kindly and be nice to them. You don't know the circumstances that brought them to your land. Even if you do, the Bible would not give you license to be mean to them.

Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. Romans 15:7

2. Compassion and Dialogue.  If someone is at your doorstep begging for entry, you ought to at least ask why. Sit and talk with them. Hear their story. I've found that people who want to uniformly exclude refugees and immigrants are those who have never had a meaningful conversation with them about their circumstances. Their position is based on what they have heard from other sources.

The world "compassion" literally translates as "to suffer with" someone. Being compassionate means you have listened so deeply and are so emotionally invested that it is like you are walking right beside them in their struggles Then and only then are you in any position at all to make a decision that may impact their lives (if ever).

They will neither hunger nor thirst, nor will the desert heat or the sun beat down on them. He who has compassion on them will guide them and lead them beside springs of water. Isaiah 49:10.

3. Benefit of the Doubt. No amount of dialogue can ever replace the visceral experience of walking a mile in another's shoes. We still have to try, but it can be a long process to truly understand someone else's situation. I have struggled with this. I have heard people talk about all sorts of issues ranging from addiction to racial discrimination to mental health problems to political views. Sometimes it has taken years before I finally get it and understand their point of view. In the meantime, before we "get it", we can at least give the benefit of the doubt. This means that I may not fully understand someone else's point of view, but I will trust that something has brought them to this place in life and respect that. When in doubt, I will trust their testimony unless I have very strong reason to believe otherwise.

1 Corinthians 13:4-8 is a great guideline here: Be patient and kind. Do not be resentful. Bear a burden for your brother or sister. Trust in them and know there is a deeper reason for everything. This is how we should relate to others, especially when we are in that limbo phase of not truly understanding their situation.

4. Recognizing Rights. Christian churches almost universally affirm that people have the right to migrate to support and protect their families. Most people generally want to stay in their native land and only move when circumstances are extremely dire. Many families are caught in an impossible situation--either respect a border and watch their family suffer or break a law in hopes of saving their family. What would you do in this situation?

The Bible reminds us that we have all benefitted from a warm welcome from others when we ourselves were facing hard times:

Do not mistreat or oppress a foreigner, for you were foreigners in Egypt. Exodus 22:21.

5. Protecting borders. I've worked in homeless shelters. Most are places of enormous hospitality for people who often find little of that on the streets. However, nearly every shelter has well-established rules for conduct and access. For example, most shelters would not allow someone who comes to the door in a drunken rage wielding a loaded gun. As hard as it may be to refuse entry on a cold night, it may also be wrong to put the whole community at risk just to offer a bed to someone who is actively a threat.

Excluding someone is never a happy circumstance. People will often feel like they have "closed the door on Jesus." Based on Matthew 25, there is a solid biblical reason to feel this way. But a small shelter trying to make the best decision in a world of limitations has to make tough choices.

Excluding someone should never be taken lightly. It is always a very sensitive, delicate matter. The duty of a Christian is to welcome, give the benefit of the doubt, walk in compassion and recognize the rights of others long before putting up a wall. All throughout, the duty is to listen--and then listen some more--and then listen still further. At some point in the process, you may come to an unfortunate place where the only decision you see is to exclude someone, and pray to God you are making the best possible choice. But it should only be the method of last resort. You should be able to easily demonstrate that all else has been tried. 

Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?  And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing?  And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ Matthew 25:37-40.

Refugees Today

In light of the above criteria, it makes no sense for the US to turn away refugees at this time. Our vetting system is one of the most effective processes of the whole government. There is no evidence that refugees bring with them risks of increased crime or terrorism. They are some of the least dangerous and most productive members of society.

Refugees are in a dire situation. They are literally fleeing for their lives from war and most have generally lost everything. By definition, this is what makes them a refugee in the first place. The risks are minimal and the needs are great. On what grounds can we possibly refuse them from a Christian standpoint?


I hear Christians making impassioned arguments about the need to protect borders. It often seems to be the only consideration they express. I'm left with the eerie feeling that many Christians spend enormous amounts of energy justifying why they should NOT reach out to their brothers and sisters in need. Protecting borders is a sobering, responsible consideration. However, it should be the method of last resort after all else has been reasonably tried.

This crisis which can be measured in numbers and statistics,
we want instead to measure with names, stories, families.
Pope Francis, Homily from a Mass in Mexico


  1. This is one of the most thoughtful and thought provoking pieces I've read about the demands of Christian hospitality.