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Perhaps you are like me. I have been trying to put myself in the place of a refugee, a person who has been forced to leave their country because of a war or because they are being persecuted. Perhaps you are like me in finding this more poignant in the plight of the Ukrainians, where the fighting age men are left behind to face an invading enemy while their families’ become refugees. I am wondering why I have not felt this quite so powerfully before in the cases of other refugees like the Afghans and the economic refugees at our southern borders. Refugees are refugees anywhere. They all must have compelling reasons to take such risks in losing so much. It hurts to imagine this, but I must believe we must. We must at least go there a bit in our hearts, minds, and imaginations. If we do not, we relinquish any claim we might have to be a sentient part of humankind or any semblance of a believer in any faith, most especially in Christianity.
It is popular to reflect that we citizens of the United States are an emigrant nation. Once upon a time, we came from some place else, except for the Native Americans. We came as a matter of choice, except for the African Americans. We conjure up sentimental images of white folk on the Mayflower and raggedy but hopeful Europeans on crowded ships passing the Statue of Liberty. Closer to the truth, we are a nation founded and continued by refugees, a less romantic, more painful image, fraught with risk, loss, and danger. We were refugees from religious persecution, economic deprivation, political oppression, and even endless war. And, let’s be honest. We made refugees of the civilizations of Native Americans and refugees of African Americans in their seemingly endless escape from the effects of slavery and racism. And let us remember our refugee citizens from the Far East. We are a nation of refugees. Wherever refugees are, so are our roots as a nation. To not yearn for the freedom and ultimate well-being of all refugees is fundamentally un-American. To not identify with the refugee is to forget what has made us a better nation.
But perhaps you are like me. Mere identification with the refugee is a beginning but alone is impotent. As a nation founded in the plight of refugees and forged in their presence, what can we as a nation do for our refugees of today? What can you and I do? A beginning, modest though it may be, is a shift in language and understanding. We might begin by seeing any oppressed, persecuted, and displaced persons as refugees who cannot stay where they are and thrive. The television images of Ukrainian refugees touch us. The forces that make them refugees are raw evil. I cannot accept the prejudices of anyone who might see this otherwise. I am particularly movedby these specific refugees and am aroused to anger with the evil that besets them. I am also realizing that I am somewhat less moved by other recent refugees like Afghans, multinationals at our southern borders, Syrians, and the revolving targets of the Chinese. I am ashamed of that, but I am beginning to embrace the reality that refugees are refugees anywhere. Even within our nation there are refugees, in the sense that they are persons who cannot stay stuck where they are and thrive. They beg our attention and stir our convictions as the Ukrainians lately do. We can at least come to grips with this, imagine this as if it were we, and allow this to form and reform our political priorities beyond the confines of our cultural blinders.
The First Testament of the Christian Bible contains a special word that could be a synonym for a refugee. That word is the sojourner. The sojourner is any foreigner passing through your land, usually in flight from an enemy or in search of a better life. This first, almost two-thirds of the Bible, contains numerous laws and expectations for the civil and compassionate treatment of the sojourners by the believers. The sojourners are to be treated as neighbors by the believers and howsoever the believer welcomes and helps them is in direct correlation with their love of and service to God. Jesus believed this. His and Paul’s only bible was this First Testament, which was not so old to them. As we pick and choose what we like and don’t like in the Bible (and we all do, truth be told), we might well remember the sojourner. And we might remember the refugees, all of them.