Tuesday, October 6, 2015

The Migration Crisis and the Orthodox Missionary Imperative; and/or, How Not to Do Orthodox Missions


The desire amongst us Christians to stay at home and be with family and with my own people and find plenty of Christian things to do and be here in our own context is completely understandable.  It is also understandable that we would feel put-upon should our way of life be threatened by an influx of people who are different than we are.  And yes, it would certainly be easier if those people would just go away and bother somebody else.  Understandable and easier, yes; Christian, no.


Christians have struggled from the very beginning with comprehending the radical call on our lives that comes as part of the total package we call ‘salvation’.  The Church in Jerusalem was relatively comfortable with their growth and evident success in penetrating all levels of Jerusalem society.  But Jesus didn’t just say, ‘You shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and Judea’; he added the much more uncomfortable ‘and in Samaria and even to the ends of the earth.’ (Acts 1:8)  The persecution unleashed after Stephen’s martyrdom sent many Jerusalem Christians packing, pushing Christians and their leaders out of their comfort zone.  Only at this point do we hear about Philip in Samaria and then with the Sudanese official on his way back to Africa.  Only then do we hear about Cornelius and the gospel breaking through to the Gentiles.  Only then do we hear about Saul and Barnabas being sent by the Church in Antioch to Cyprus and Asia Minor, launching a movement that would eventually reach many of us reading this.  None of this was comfortable; none of this was easy.  But reaching out to, going to those who are not like us, is simply what being a Christian and being Christ’s Church is all about.


So it is not surprising to read in my Nairobi paper this morning that the Bulgarian Orthodox Church is saying – NO MORE MIGRANTS!  The actual headline is even more unflattering: Halt Muslims Inflows [sic], Says Orthodox Church   http://www.nation.co.ke/news/world/Halt-Muslims-inflows/-/1068/2887248/-/nc9jym/-/index.html  I’ve already read the comments of the usual crowd of ‘better-than-the-rest-of-you’ folk who are ‘OUTRAGED’ (such an overused and tiresome word) that Christians – CHRISTIANS, FOR GOD’S SAKE!! – could be so,  um, un-Christian in their attitude towards these poor people streaming from their destroyed lives in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, not to mention the others coming from north Africa and the Sahel.  Tsk.  Tsk.  Tsk. 


With exceptions, most of these displaced people are Muslim.  Never mind that most of the Outraged have never had to live in a Muslim-majority culture.   And so the Outraged can lob their affronted indignation from the safety of their computer screens far from the millions of people affected by more than a decade of war across the Middle East.  Those who are actually on the front lines, in churches, NGOs and government institutions attempting to address the flood of human need inundating Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, lob away, I suppose.  But just remember, the Ottoman Empire is not so long ago for folks living in Bulgaria.  And that wasn’t a pleasant experience for Bulgaria’s Christians, as I recall.  So perhaps it helps to put the current migration crisis in the wider context of the times when Muslim armies conquered their way across Christian lands in Asia Minor, Greece, Bulgaria and the Balkans.  Or more recently when Christians in Greece, Turkey, Cyprus and Armenia were dealt with pretty poorly in places where Muslims were in control.   Memories are long here.  And in many places Christians suffered.  In many places Christians are still suffering.  Simply for being Christian.  I know that there are times when Christians have not behaved like angels, but that is not what I am talking about now.


So I think I understand the many reasons behind the hesitation (or outright refusal) on the part of Orthodox Christians in Bulgaria to facilitate the unprecedented movement of people, again mainly Muslims, through their country, and allow some to settle there.  I understand how hard it is to be levered out of my chair in my house in my way of life in my neighborhood in my city in my country where we all speak the same language and share the same culture – I understand how inertia works.  I understand how fear of ‘them’ works.  I, as an American from South Carolina, also understand how racism works.


But the Gospel calls us to get up from our easy chair; away from our dinner table with family and friends; out of our neighborhood, out of our mostly monochromatic and monocultural world where we are all on speaking terms, usually; out of our ethnic ghettos.  We may believe the headlines that war or deprivation or the desire for a better life is driving these people over land and sea to risk their lives and families for something better than what they were experiencing in what used to be their home.  We may feel justified as we take a stand to keep those people out of our back yard. 


The Gospel calls us to see these people not as a threat to our way of life but as an opportunity to share with them what has been given to us (St. Basil says that the things God has given to us belong not to us but the poor for whose sake God has blessed us), to extend a hand of help to them at their point of greatest vulnerability, to love them as Christ himself has loved us (at the point of our own greatest vulnerability).  In the case of the Jerusalem Church, unhappy circumstances pushed Christians out of the city and into the places where all ‘those people’ lived who had never heard of Jesus.  In the case of Bulgaria, unlooked for and unhappy circumstances are bringing ‘those people’ and their world of need right here to where we are.


It’s totally understandable that the Orthodox in Bulgaria feel the way they do.  It’s totally understandable that they are afraid of what might happen to them as this crisis continues to unfold.  But for the Church’s leaders to stand in the doorway and block the way for any more of ‘those people’ to come through, a la Governor George Wallace blocking the big door at the University of Alabama to keep out those, um, people of color from ever darkening that beloved (white) institution – well, I think you get the picture.  It doesn’t look good.  And that's because it actually isn’t good.

George Wallace, Governor of Alabama, preventing an African American woman
from enrolling at the University of Alabama on June 11, 1963.

Why do you think God is allowing all of these very needy, desperate Muslim people to come to the very gates of your country, your city, your Church?  Could it be that God knows that you, Bulgarian Christians (and Hungarian Christians, and Polish Christians, and Russian Christians, and American Christians [think of the children from Central America!], etc) have the only real solution to their crisis?  They would never stand a chance of being loved by a Christian, or being cared for by a Church family, or of hearing the Good News about Jesus had they stayed in their homeland.  And now they’ve risked everything and have come to you.  And you want to chase them away?


My Orthodox Patriarchs, Bishops, Priests and Deacons, and my Brothers and Sisters, this crisis is a gift from God.  An opportunity like this comes once in a lifetime, sometimes not even that often.  This is your chance – this is our chance to show to Muslims and to the rest of the world the difference that Jesus makes in our lives.  At the very least, do unto them as you want them to do unto you!


But the real reason to mobilize yourselves and your churches and reach out and welcome and help and love these people is that these people, these men and women and children – they are actually Jesus.  ‘When did we see you hungry and not feed you, or thirsty and not give you something to drink, or a stranger and not take you in, or naked and not clothe you, or sick or in prison and not come to you?’  Then the King will answer them saying, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did not do it to the least of these, you did not do it to Me.’ (Matthew 25:44-45).



Enlightened self-interest would be enough of a motive to repent.  But love makes so much more sense, in cases like this.