Growing out of 'goodies' and 'baddies'
Dr Richard Shumack specialises in the study of Islam and philosophy of religion. He discusses the challenge of reflecting on the present global refugee crisis with more than a good/bad binary and invites us into a mature love that follows the footsteps of Jesus.
Much of what passes for public discussion on the present global refugee crisis fails to rise above a childish game of goodies and baddies. In this game, some refugees are the “goodies”. They are those, we are told, who are innocent, genuinely needy, perhaps Christian, and willing to totally “buy in” to Australian culture. Other refugees are the “baddies”. They are those who are, at best, queue-jumping, deceitful, opportunists; or, at worst, politically subversive, culturally separatist, infiltrating Islamists. In this game the aim is simple: to fulfil our international refugee obligations we should reject baddies and welcome goodies into our country (though not too many, and hopefully into someone else’s community).
Jesus, however, never gave his followers the option of playing goodies and baddies. Jesus never said: “Love the goodies and reject the baddies”. He never said: “Love your friends”. He never said: “Love those who like you or who are like you”. He simply said: “Love your neighbour”. When questioned on this he made it abundantly clear that his idea of neighbour comprehensively includes everyone you come into contact with – including your declared enemy (Luke 10:25-37, Matt 5:43-48).
Now Jesus never suggested that this was an easy or straightforward thing to do. His own road to the cross reveals that loving neighbours is often a painful and costly experience. Working out how to do it in a mature way is one of the great challenges all Jesus’ followers face. Working out how to do this in the case of refugees is the particular and pressing challenge that materially blessed Australian Christians face right now. What might a mature love of our refugee neighbour look like? Here are a few thoughts.
Mature love rejects simplistic notions of goodies and baddies. After only a short time working with Muslim refugees, I recognized that some refugees are nice and some aren’t. Some are obviously innocent victims; others are more opportunistic. Some are willing to assimilate with an Aussie lifestyle while others are openly hostile to Western culture. Nevertheless, once I started listening carefully to their stories, every single refugee I met was a real, often very broken, person who was behaving just as I imagined I would when faced with similar crises, or believing what I might have if I had their upbringing. Mature love of refugees, then, always sees another human for whom “There, but for the grace of God, go I”.
Mature love is both compassionate and shrewd in its handling of people. When confronted with another of God’s image bearers who is in apparent need, the first response of the Jesus follower must always be to cry tears of the heart, and to offer help wherever possible. Sometimes, however, compassion is abused. Refugees I have known have turned a cold shoulder to compassion – or even repaid it with hatred. Some refugees I have played soccer with were secretly planning terror attacks on our community. We need to be shrewd about this. Jesus said to be gentle as doves, and wise as serpents. But loving shrewdly does not mean withholding compassion or the offer of help. Genuine grace must always remain open to the possibility of abuse, otherwise it is merely treating people as they deserve. It is not grace to in effect say: I’ll only love you if you’re a goodie. Instead, loving shrewdly means moving beyond merely helping or welcoming someone to establishing relationships that are based on truth and justice. This sort of mature love speaks truth and challenges lies. It sets individual and community boundaries that protect the weak. Mature love holds to its core convictions without compromise. Again this is tricky in practice – all relationships are! Still, mature love always wrestles to maintain a hard head and a soft heart.
Mature love recognizes that politics has to negotiate the same tensions. The government has the difficult job of developing refugee laws that are both compassionate and take seriously the need for the security of our country – especially given the clear and present threat from militant Islamism. It is not inappropriate, or unloving, for the government to have stringent tests that prevent terrorists entering our country. Again, love strives for justice. Even a terrorist, though, remains human and should be treated by the government accordingly.
Finally, mature love aspires to transform personal and social relationships for the better. Again, loving like Jesus is complicated and costly. It takes great wisdom and perseverance – especially when the people we are trying to love are both broken and very different from us. Abraham Lincoln points to a way forward here. When faced with a hostile political rival he observed “I do not like that man. I must get to know him better.” When he went further and appointed one of his political enemies to key office he answered an objector with: "Why, madam, do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?" Like Lincoln, the Jesus follower will aspire to build the sort of close relationship with any refugee they encounter that makes even enemies friends. This sort of approach to refugees leaves goodies and baddies in the school yards.
Dr Richard Shumack is a research fellow specialising in philosophy of religion with the Centre for Public Christianity in Sydney. He is on the faculty at the Centre for the Study of Islam and Other Faiths at Melbourne School of Theology and part of the Understanding and Answering Islam team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries. He teaches regularly on ministry in Muslim contexts in Australian colleges, universities, churches and schools. His publications include Witnessing to Western Muslims and the philosophical apologetic The Wisdom of Islam and the Foolishness of Christianity. He lives in Sydney with his wife and four sons.