Strangers in a Strange Land

By Scott Yi


What should be our relationship with faith and politics? Especially in today’s world, we wonder how involved the church should be in the affairs of the outside world. On one end you have pastors who are really boisterous about trying to win the so-called “culture war,” in some cases even telling their congregation how to vote. On the other hand, you have pastors who are afraid of saying anything at all that sounds even remotely political, because they don’t want to upset anyone in their church. But we should say something, especially when people are looking to us for guidance and wisdom.


One of the major political issues of our time is the debate over immigration. It’s also an issue that’s vitally important to the future of the church, because how we think about outsiders will influence how we go about our outreach and church growth. For example, how should we in the church respond to President Trump’s travel ban on visitors from seven Muslim-majority countries? It has sparked a lot of controversy and confusion across the country. The latest version of the travel ban was deemed unconstitutional by a federal appeals court, prompting the Trump administration to bring up the case to the Supreme Court itself. But whatever the outcome, we know this isn’t the last time we’ll be hearing about immigration in the news since the Trump agenda also includes building a border wall and deporting undocumented families. So this issue of what we should do with foreigners is definitely going to keep coming up over the next few years.


Supporters of closed borders want to make sure America is safe. Supporters of open borders point out we’ve always been the land of opportunity for persecuted minorities, going all the way back to the pilgrims. In this national conversation about border security, each side wants to dehumanize the other side. There’s no room for understanding; it’s just all so hostile. However, we in the Church need to be able to face these divisive issues and discuss them in a spiritually mature way. I believe part of the reason these conversations have gotten so contentious is that the church has refused to take the lead and act as a moral compass for our people. Of course it’s not about picking one political party over another. We must never make the gospel subservient to a certain political figure or political movement. What I mean by spiritual maturity is developing a perspective about politics that comes the closest to what Jesus would have done. So that means we do things differently from the world—while still remaining engaged with the world. Like the world, we should fight against injustice; but unlike the world, we must never fight from a place of hatred. Like the world, we should advocate for doing what’s right; but unlike the world, we confess that evil starts with us, that evil isn’t just out there, but each one of us is a sinner in need of God’s salvation. When we remember how ignorant we’ve been in our lives, when we remember how much mercy Jesus has shown to each one of us, it keeps us from getting pulled into the hateful rhetoric.


Part of that means we need to be sensitive to the different viewpoints people might be coming from. We know political opinions come from a lot of different places. For example, if you’re from a city where factories are closing down, you’ll feel a certain way about economic policy. People are entitled to their political opinions. But, it must be said, whatever your view is on what the White House should do regarding outsiders, here in the church, the life of Jesus only allows one kind of action. If you wanted to, you could certainly call your senator and demand the government close our borders to outsiders. But as you put this demand on our lawmakers, know Jesus Christ is putting a completely different demand on you: that you would never close your own heart to those outsiders. There are a lot of arguments out there for keeping out immigrants. Some arguments sound better than others. But the one thing you can never, ever argue is that turning people away is something Jesus would have done. Jesus cares about the outsiders, and he wants us to care just as deeply.



In Luke 4:27, in the middle of Jesus’ first public sermon, he makes a reference to Naaman the Syrian. Naaman was an enemy of Israel, and yet God chose to heal this man who, for all intents and purposes, was an enemy of the state. In response to this seemingly simple teaching, Jesus’ Jewish listeners turn violent and actually try to throw him off a cliff. That’s because they understand what he was implying. The people demanded to see miracles from Jesus, and he basically said no. God’s mercy is not for you alone. God’s mercy is for the vulnerable, the minority, the oppressed. God’s mercy is even for your enemies. Jesus was challenging his listeners to love their enemies. That’s how far you should go to care about the outsiders. God’s compassion goes beyond borders. That’s even clear in the Old Testament, in passages like Isaiah 2. But it’s easy to miss what God is saying about outsiders because the Bible uses different words than we do today. What we call “migrants,” “refugees,” and “foreigners,” the Bible terms “sojourners,” “aliens,” and “Gentiles.” They mean the exact same thing. But the people of Israel intentionally overlooked this message of togetherness. What they did instead was twist their religion, to use religion as a tool for their nationalism, as an excuse to exclude other people from their blessing. Jesus says no, you’ve got to take care of the outsiders. He declared the goal of his mission in Luke 4:18: to proclaim good news to the poor and liberty to the captives—that’s a mission that tramples all over the concept of borders.


Jesus had no interest in helping the Jews establish a new world empire 2000 years ago, and he still doesn’t have any interest in protecting empires today. Now don’t get me wrong. It’s a great thing that a lot of our American values overlap with the Bible. Things like looking out for those who are weaker and showing hospitality to strangers, those things should be celebrated. I don’t think the United States gets enough credit for being the most charitable country in the world. So I’m not saying that we should never be patriotic. But I am saying that we should never love our country at the cost of disobeying Jesus.


In my experience, refugees are the people who are the closest to having nothing. They are at the mercy of violent events that have completely destroyed any sense of control over their lives. When they’re forced to flee their village, that’s the last time they’ll ever see their house. Once they make it to the refugee camps, they can spend five, ten, fifteen years at these camps, waiting until they finally get approved for a travel visa. When they finally do make it to the States, it’s a weird mix of joy and fear for them, because they’ve actually made it to the land of opportunity… but they don’t know English. They don’t have any marketable skills. They don’t have any work history or job references. It’s embarrassing for the fathers to live off of government assistance and stay cooped up in their apartment, when all they want to do is work. But who’s going to give them a job? So when people in power tell me we should be afraid of refugees like this, I find it hilarious. Refugees are probably the most vulnerable, the most powerless group of people I can think of. They need all our love and support.


It’s not about trying to be politically correct. We don’t try to help because it makes us feel better. We’re not trying to get good publicity for the church. None of these things will ever give us lasting motivation. The only thing we need to remind ourselves of is Jesus. He cares about the outsiders. And more than that, everything he ever did was out of love for the foreigner. When you think about it, Jesus came down to earth because he was fueled by a love for people whose spiritual status was completely different, completely foreign, from his own. He is as holy and merciful as we are sinful and selfish. So you could say Jesus was the ultimate foreigner. But he was also the ultimate migrant. Jesus left a home that had borders so secure only the morally perfect were allowed to enter. Jesus left a home so desirable that the word “paradise” barely begins to describe it. Jesus left the ultimate comfort zone, and made himself a human, a refugee, a minority, a stranger in a strange land, so he could find whoever would believe in him, and bring us home to his kingdom. Without his grace, we would all still be outsiders of his kingdom. But because of the cross, we’re not foreigners anymore. Jesus exchanged his citizenship status with us. Another way that Paul says the same thing is that Jesus made himself poor so that we could be made rich. Now if Paul was living in our times, he might say it like this: Jesus made himself illegal—so that we could become legal.



Scott Yi is the lead pastor of International Alliance Church in Providence, Rhode Island, a multicultural congregation dedicated to empowering the powerless. He graduated from Brown University and received his M.Div. from Gordon- Conwell Theological Seminary with a specialty in Urban Ministry. Scott is also the director of the Youth Collaborative, a nonprofit that equips urban teens for success through entrepreneurial training and community innovation.


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