Risks and Refugees Worth Taking

I am, by nature, averse to taking risks. I have always admired friends who, despite the potential of failure, choose to embark on new ventures, open businesses, establish non-profits. This tolerance for risk is not a trait that comes easily to me. From my earliest recollection I have been one who seeks to control my environment, and taking risks does not square with my felt-need for predictability. I seek to limit the possibility of failure, and I work hard to maintain my sense of control. This is my nature.

And then, a year ago, I found myself in the office of my spiritual director, desperately seeking to find a vocational context that was more life-giving than the one I was in. I did not lack for vision; I knew exactly what I wanted. I did not lack for desire; my passion was fierce. I did not lack for encouragement; I was surrounded by folks spurring me on. But what I did lack was any willingness to take the risk of leaving a job that had become toxic and to step into the unknown. I feverishly named all of the risks I would face in resigning in order to set up my own practice as a spiritual director. I articulated every reason why going that route would be difficult and uncertain and would offer no guarantee of success. And then my director posed a simple question: “What are you risking by staying where you are?” And in an instant, I realized it. I was taking a risk no matter what decision I made, and risking my health and well-being and sanity were not risks worth taking in order to retain presumed sense of security. The next day I made the decision to resign and open my practice.

My director’s question took my once (I thought) airtight reasoning and flipped it on its head. I could no longer believe that one option was full of risks and the other secure. I realized that no matter what I chose to do, no matter where I found myself, I was facing risks, and ultimately, I had to decide which were worth taking.

And this either/or mentality rears its ugly head as we evaluate potential responses to the overwhelming global refugee crisis. Not since WWII has the world seen such a surge in men, women, and children escaping hell on earth and seeking refuge. Recent weeks also have been marked by a surge in discussion about appropriate responses to the crisis, as Americans—average citizens and federal judges alike—debate the implications of President Trump’s travel ban. American Christians wrestle with their dual identities (i.e. Christian, and American), wondering which trumps which.

The mindset is this: we (and how this “we” is defined is crucial) cannot risk exposing ourselves to the potential threat of terror that may be hiding in the shadows of the refugee population. Inherent to this logic is an assumption that 1) we already are safe, and 2) that this must be protected at all costs. And I just wonder, when did safety become the highest virtue worth pursuing? When did we begin to measure our presumed sense of safety with greater value than human life?

I’m not belittling the human penchant towards safety, or our desire to protect our families. These can be good values that are worth pursuing. But I am critiquing the false belief that one option (i.e. to embrace refugees) involves risk, and the other (i.e. to not embrace them) does not. We are taking risks no matter the option we pursue. Might we risk the “safety” of our nation by opening our doors wider? Yes, there is risk here, for which there are no guarantees. But the other option is to offer up our humanity on the altar of presumed safety and in doing so find that what we sacrificed was our very dignity as human beings. Is this a risk worth taking?

When our desire to feel safe outweighs our willingness to embrace the humanity in others (and thus not forfeit our own), something is askew. It becomes painfully clear that the fundamental narrative by which we operate is not the kingdom of God, but rather a bastardized American co-option of the Christian faith that will choose self-preservation every single time. And what kind of life is worth preserving when it necessarily dismisses the cry of others to live theirs?

As I explore the Sermon on the Mount with my students this week in a Biblical Ethics class, these questions run through my head. And I wonder, what beatitudes might Jesus articulate were they not framed for a first century Jewish audience living within the Roman Empire but rather a 21st century Christian audience living in America?

Blessed are you when you take risks, for you will find yourself freed up from the illusion that you could control and predict anything in the first place.

Blessed are you when you extend your arms wide open to embrace the “other,” for you will find that perhaps there is no action closer to God than this.

Blessed are you when you release your grip from whatever helps you feel safe and thus be awakened to the reality of God as your protector and source.

Blessed are you when you seek to uphold the humanity and dignity of others, and in doing so discover your own.

Recently I saw a makeshift sign stating the simplest of declarations: “Refugees are human beings.” Yes indeed, refugees are human beings. Are we?