Accepting refugees into our community is vital despite intolerant, xenophobic attitudes
According to theologian Walter Wink, we all live within systems of power. We are surrounded by the jurisdiction of powers that work for us, or perhaps against us, or which have a particular mandate that does not consider us. In some cases we benefit from the operation of those powers, and in other cases we subject to abuse by them, whether or not that abuse is intended. In his fourth and summary work of his “powers” trilogy, Wink adopts as a title the phrase that appears in the apostle’s Paul’s letter (in the King James translation of 1611) in reference to those forces under which we live: “The Powers That Be.”
The powers that be, in this poetic phrasing, are at work all around us. As Wink notes, they staff our hospitals, run city hall, and sit around tables in corporate boardrooms go-verning states. But they are more than just the people who run things.It is the system itself, “the institutions and structures that weave society into an intricate fabric of power and relationships.” The powers surround us on every side, and some powers are good, some are evil, and most exist on a continuum somewhere in between. They might even have good motives but result in poor outcomes. The powers can support life, or create victims, but they cannot just neutrally exist.
What are the powers? For centuries, people understood them as demonic forces at work in the lives of individuals, but that would almost be preferable to a much darker reality. The powers, in Wink’s terms, are the ethos, the personality, the soul of an organization or entity. And we all deal with the powers – there are national and local powers, and corporate and ecclesiastical powers. Some do good, but some are brutal. We see evidence of the evil powers at work when we read the news of a bombing in Paris, a hostage-taking in Mali, a civil war in Syria, a terrorist campaign in Afghanistan. Such powers are collectives concerned more with holding on to their own power than with using their power to accomplish anything redemptive, constructive, beneficial or good.
In Sackville, the powers of evil are at work as I have discovered in chairing a working group seeking to offer asylum and a fresh start to Syrian families displaced by war and wandering Europe as refugees. I have been cyber-attacked, slandered, accosted and maligned by those who represent the powers of racism, bigotry, hatred and xenophobia.
Nonetheless, our work continues and we push back not with retaliation, but by continuing to seek to be kind and compassionate toward those whose power and voice have been taken from them. We have so much, and we seek to share that goodness in welcoming refugees.
Refugees, as we know, are those displaced from their homeland by persecution and war. And their story is as old as the human story. Scripture speaks to the plight of the marginal, in the Old Testament, calling for kindness and mercy. The prophets of the Old Testament preached a message that was often countercultural, calling on people to avoid a hypocrisy of religion and to make their true religion their actions: reaching out in kindness to the marginal and most vulnerable. In essence, the prophets preached a pushing-back against the powers that be to create a power structure which came from the weak, the marginal, the low, and gave them strength, and a voice, and participation.
Who was marginal and vulnerable in the prophets’ day? The examples they often gave included the widows, the orphans, and (in the King James English) the sojourners. The sojourner was a resident from outside, not a Hebrew, someone who lived in a place that was not their own. We might translate the Hebrew as the foreigner, the alien. Who were they? Often they were war captives, or families of foreign soldiers. They were displaced people. Be kind to them, said the prophets. Treat them like they were Israelites – in other words, give them rights and dignity. Accept them as one of your own. Don’t subject them to unjust powers, but let them into the power structure which includes all people.
Jesus himself fell into this category. Turned away from the inn, his parents were with the animals when Jesus was born and the infant Jesus was laid in a feed trough. And then the violence began, a genocide of young Jewish males. Mary and Joseph fled to Egypt – this made them refugees. Like some refugees, what they most wanted was to return home, which they eventually did. But in our world, this is impossible for many. Jesus knew the experience of fleeing, of being a refugee, of the powers that be destroying life.
This informed his teaching and pushes back against the powers of darkness, hatred, oppression. He talks about the life in the new Kingdom of God, the ideal to which we should be working, and the responsibilities of that life. I was a stranger, he said, and you took me in. When did we see you a stranger. Inasmuch as you did it to the least of these.
Now, we are called to push back against the powers of destruction, to see the face of Jesus in the stranger, and to welcome in that stranger as one of us. We have the opportunity to welcome Syrian refugees to this community and to know that the powers that be can also be powers of redemption and hope, a small light shining in a world of darkness.
Rev. John C. Perkin is the chaplain of Mount Allison University.