When Christians Talk about Immigration
By Teanna Sunberg
October 18, 2019
My own immigration journey began four years ago on the dirty floor of a train station where I sat across from a young Syrian couple. Their story of war and the remarkable courage it takes to flee from home were my first steps away from the media-curated feed of the war in Syria. Newlyweds from Homs who had left their city 25 days earlier, they had been married just 28 days. I began by asking, ‘Why did you leave?’ Muhammad* looked at me and answered, “Surely you know?” To my shame, beyond a couple of documentaries and the news, I had no real concept of the war that they had fled, nor their refugee journey, nor the trauma that will shape how they walk through the rest of their lives.
That interview was the first of many to teach me something significant. We watch our favorite news program, scroll our preferred media content, chat over coffee with like-minded friends, and conclude that our opinions have been vetted and are sound. The danger is that we do this from the comfort of our secure life and at the mercy of a news-media machine whose primary goal is not information but the acquisition of money through entertainment. All too quickly, we begin to exist in the echo chambers of our own consumeristic media-choices. A screen devoid of real people and real interaction both mediates for us and insulates us from the wounded hurt of our world. In reality, we have little, if any, true knowledge about the people and the events unfolding beyond our front door yet we have opinions that we are willing to war over.
A screen devoid of real people and real interaction both mediates for us and insulates us from the wounded hurt of our world.
Our chosen absence in the real world of the wounded Other has left us navigating unknown terrain in which civil, respectful, national discourse is in free-fall. We live in an era of heightened fear, somewhat of our own making, that encompasses an astonishingly broad spectrum of issues. As a nation, we are not only divided, we are polarized.
Immigration is a prime example. When the discussion turns to borders and sovereignty, displaced people and the politics surrounding the topic, tempers easily flare and stress levels rise. This is one of the most polarizing debates and it actually exists on a global scale. The topic of refugees, asylum seekers, and displaced people crisscrosses real borders, cultures, and languages, to ease itself into conversations at the dinner table, on our media feed, in our bedrooms, in our classrooms, and into our systems of government.
When the media capitalizes on immigration and turns asylum seekers at our borders into ‘marauding hordes’ and ‘illegals’, those individuals cease to be people in our minds. When the Democrat on the other side of the political aisle is ‘corrupt’, ‘liberal’, and ‘manipulative’, he is no longer John the neighbor who mows his lawn on Saturday afternoon in Bermuda shorts. Somehow, the screen reduces the conversation to bulleted talking points, and that reduces us, the consumers, into an arsenal of toy soldiers on a global game-board. I don’t know about you, but to the best of my ability, I choose not to play.
The first step toward authentic learning about the issues and the real people affected by them are relatively simple.
- Turn off your screens, or at least vary your media sources across political and ideological lines. Stop assuming that one media outlet is less biased or more honest than the other. It just is not true. Your preferred new source seems to be more truthful because they intentionally cater to your bias and they vilify those who hold contrasting biases. Why? Because when you watch . you turn them into truth-purveyors and you produce great revenue for them.
- Stop talking at people or about people, and talk to them. In the case of immigration, find a person who has immigrated. In fact, find a person who is ‘an illegal’ (I use that term here to highlight the ugliness of the term. I do not excuse or condone its use) and respectfully and kindly ask them why they made the choices they made. Listen. Just listen. Don’t school them. Don’t correct them. Don’t shame them. Thank them.
- Believers should ask God for discernment before they speak. When Jesus said, ‘The greatest commandment is to love God with all your heart, soul, and mind.” And the second commandment is like it, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” he was not kidding. He was not suggesting. He meant every word. If one has the nerve to do it, typeset those words over the image of the Sheep and Goats as Jesus told it in Matthew. That should produce a ‘Come to Jesus’ moment for all of us.
- When you do use media, fact check and reject stories that sensationalize radicalization or acts of terror as a characteristic of ALL people from a certain geographic, language, ethnic or faith persuasion.
- As the ones who bear the life-giving, living image of Christ to the world, we should submit our words, all of them, to the Lordship of Christ. This includes an active rejection of the negative narrative of fear and prejudice when we see it shaping public opinion. Confront prejudices and speak up in support of people and the pursuit of peace in your conversations with family, friends, and co-workers.
What follows are five very ordinary ideas that are practical, honest, and dignity-driven suggestions for pursuing peace through conversation in the topic of immigration and displacement.
HELP ME TO UNDERSTAND THE SITUATION IN YOUR COUNTRY.
Begin by asking an asylum seeker, an immigrant, or a refugee to explain their situation. Learn from him about his culture, the situation, and his perspectives on peace. Be sensitive in who you ask — remember that she may have endured significant trauma and may not be ready to discuss it in detail. Do not push her for details that she does not offer.
The conflicts in countries, including our own, are complicated. We have a rudimentary understanding, at best, of the nature and the history of other cultures and the political/ideological forces that shape both domestic and international tensions. As we deal with people in conflict, it is imperative that we take the humble position of learner and listener. Keep in mind that one conversation with one person does not even begin to make you an expert.
HOW IS YOUR FAMILY?
Many of the cultures most deeply affected by the current global refugee situations share some common values in their understandings of ‘family’. Most often, the word and concept includes their extended family, and it tends to be a much wider and deeper concept than in the west. In cultures where children, parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles often share the same dwelling space, being disconnected geographically from the larger family unit is a huge loss.
Many people fleeing their countries have a loved one who is still in the midst of danger. They have genuine, heart-wrenching concerns for the safety of their family members. They may be dealing with some level of guilt for leaving someone behind while they sought safety for themselves.
Be willing to lament with them over the concern and/or the loss of family — it will speak volumes. You can tell them that you will be calling upon the Lord for God’s provision upon their family and then do that faithfully. Make your prayers for their family a consistent and daily part of your talking to God.
WELCOME TO MY HOME.
In many cultures, the home is the center of life and the guest in a home is treated with honor. For people from the Middle East, hospitality is such an integral part of culture that even in their journey through the Balkans, refugees welcomed people in and served western strangers in their tents. I have personally been the guest in a tent many times and it is a beautiful experience.
If you have a colleague, acquaintance, or neighbor from a hospitality culture, invite him or her into your home for coffee and desert. There is no pressure to have a perfect house or an elaborate meal — just be warm and inviting and set aside some time to simply talk. If your home is not convenient or seems too intimate, then try a local coffee shop as a first step. Expect and be ready to accept an reciprocal invitation.
While not wanting to impose stereotypes or stigma, one should be aware of and respect gender boundaries. If you don’t know the cultural rules, admit your ignorance and ask your friend what is acceptable.
I WANT PEACE FOR YOUR COUNTRY TOO.
Both Albert Einstein and Martin Luther King Jr. made similiar statements about true peace.
Einstein said, “Peace is not merely the absence of war but the presence of justice, of law, of order — in short, of goverment.” In the words of MLK, “True peace is not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice.”
Peace is more than an end to the war — it is the existence of a just and a fair society for everyone who lives in a country. When we care about people over defending a party line or promoting our favorite news outlet, we begin to ask questions, seek answers, and pursue opportunities to speak up for peace. Our voices influence public opinion, which then influences governments to act in accordance with the will of the people. Words have power.
That awesome wave of power begins right where scripture tells us: James reminds us that the tongue is a small member, like the rudder of a ship, but it boasts of great things. And Proverbs 12:18 reminds us that a gentle tongue brings healing. These scriptures challenge us to guard the words we speak and to use our tongues for good. Of equal importance, these scriptures charge us to be vigilant about how we allow words to shape our minds and our attitudes.
TELL ME YOUR STORY.
As Christians, it is God-honoring to invite someone, including someone from a different faith background, to tell you their story. Be respectful. Listen. It really is that simple.
The opportunity to hear someone’s story is a gift and it should be treated with honor and respect. It is also a powerful and often unnerving means of recognizing and facing the hidden prejudices that we carry. Be open to letting God change and transform your heart and your attitudes. Allow the Holy Spirit to reveal new aspects or depths of his character to you as you see the world through another person’s eyes.
Often, Christians feel pressure or impose their own pressure to share the Gospel or even to point out areas of religious disagreement. It is good and God-honoring to simply listen, learn, and thank a person for sharing. The powerful truth is that the Holy Spirit is already actively at work and you have carried Christ’s presence into that relational space. Be faithful to pray for your new friends, and if or when they invite you to share your story, do so in a respectful and non-manipulative manner. Ask the Holy Spirit to guide your words and to keep you authentic.
If anything in this article motivates a reader to push past fear or uncertainty in order to bridge the gap that divides us by labels, ideologies, backgrounds, and stereotypes, then it has fulfilled its intent. May each of us find the courage we need for the conversations that lie ahead. Perhaps God will surprise us by just how connected and similar we really are. Together, let us pray for miracles as we map a space for our world etched in grace and gratitude and may it lead us all to a path named Peace.
Teanna Sunberg is a Missiologist, Balkan & Central European culture specialist, and a Justice pastor. She is ordained with the Nazarene Church.
Posted with author’s permission. The original post can be found here.