By Rich A Rosendahl
Over the years, I have encountered some remarkable Christian organizations and individuals who are Loving our refugee neighbors in beautifully bold ways. Often making significant sacrifices and expecting little or nothing in return. But along the way, I have also noticed something quite strange that I can only describe as some Christians who seem to actually hate the very refugees they are trying to Love?
My wife and I run a Non-profit called The Nations that includes, among other things, taking teams on Middle East Encounters to Love, Serve and Learn from Refugees and on one of our more recent trips this phenomenon emerged quite clearly for one of our participants. While we were there, we ended up working alongside a Christian organization that just happened to be there at the same time as us and whose purpose included Missionary work, or sending people overseas to try to convert non-Christians to Christianity. While our organization does not participate in these practices and is not affiliated with any particular religion, we often find ourselves working alongside a variety of other religious and non-religious groups.
One day, one of our participants was chatting with someone from this Missionary organization when they confessed, “I don’t even like Muslims.” Our participant was quite shocked and confused upon hearing this and wondered how someone who has committed so much time, money and energy to be in the Middle East helping Muslim refugees could so openly state a disdain for them? Later that night our participant asked my wife and I our thoughts on how this could be.
The sad truth is, over the years, we have discovered that this phenomenon is often linked to a commonly held, but distorted, Christian theology. One that was highlighted remarkably well in an email I recently received…
I woke on a Sunday morning and started my routine; make a pot of coffee, open the shades for when the sun rises and flip on the news. Once I poured my cup of coffee and sat down to watch the news, I opened my phone to check messages and saw the subject line of an email that read – ‘End of the age? Not until we obey the Great Commission.’
It was sent to me by a Christian organization that is an affiliate of one of largest organizations serving refugees here in the US and overseas. And it is the attitude expressed in this subject line and email, that I believe helps explain why we have encountered so many Christians who seem to hate the refugees they are supposedly trying to Love, why the Missionary I mentioned said what she did and why many Christians advocating for refugees, are in fact creating advocates for the Muslim Ban. And all of this starts with the misuse and distortion of The Great Commission.
For those of you unfamiliar, The Great Commission is a term believed to be made popular less than 200 years ago by a British Christian missionary who worked mostly in China. It is rooted in something recorded in the bible that Jesus said to eleven of his disciples before he ascended. It reads, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” This verse is linked with another verse, that when they are combined, lead people to a belief that when The Great Commission is completed, Jesus himself will return – hence the subject line in the email.
These handful of words are the primary source of The Great Commission theology that for many people seem clear in their meaning. But is this so clear? What does it even mean to be a disciple? What does it mean to try to make someone else one, can people even do that? Who exactly was the intended audience of this? Who is included in ‘all nations’? ‘Teaching them to obey ALL I have commanded’ is an awful lot of stuff, is that even possible?
Now some people will be quick to have an answer to each of the questions I just posed. Like me, they have been trained to have (mostly black and white) theological responses to these questions. And like me, they have been trained to dip into some old testament verses, combined with the epistles to support what is already a commonly held belief about The Great Commission. But for those of you willing, think about all of the theological perspectives and practices that were commonly believed at one time, only to be upended later (ex. biblical support of Slavery?) Could this also be true of The Great Commission?
Here’s why it matters.
The modern results of Great Commission practices are resulting in people being treated like projects, to a degree that I think many are unwilling to admit. Think about it like this, 76% of White Evangelicals supported the original Muslim Ban, yet these same people believe Jesus (a middle eastern refugee) is their savior. The tragic irony here is almost overwhelming.
When this statistic was released, on one hand I was surprised it was so high, but on the other hand I have been watching this unfold for years – the practice of Christians treating people like projects in attempt to fulfill their version of The Great Commission. There is even a website committed to tracking ‘people groups’ around the world and the ‘success’ of Christian Missionaries evangelizing these groups, like some weird involuntary science experiment.
When The Great Commission results in this sometimes subtle and always significant project mentality, Love is often absent, even unnecessary. If we have the power to get Jesus to return by simply getting enough people to become Christian, then those who don’t convert can be easily discarded, left unloved or worse. And if our secondary goal is to motivate other Christians to live out this version of The Great Commission, it becomes very easy to use Fear as that motivator. Which can include attempting to highlight anything negative about Muslims, then suggest Christianity and following (our version) of The Great Commission is the solution. Which is quite common.
You see, one of the main reasons we are seeing so many Christians support the Muslim Ban is because instead of building friendships, increasing understanding and sharing the Love that accompanies those two things, the Evangelical world has been inaccurately focused on how to obey their version of The Great Commission, converting Muslims to Christianity and getting other Christians to do the same thing. This has created an often Loveless vacuum where irrational Fear can thrive.
It was in Churches across America where this version of The Great Commission was heavily leveraged with guilt (even shame) with phrases like ‘End of the age? Not until we obey the Great Commission.’ Intended to convince others to join in this project, this task.
It was in Churches across America where Christians who had been on ‘Mission trips’ to the Middle East would return with newfound and seemingly instant credibility while further spreading The Great Commission project mentality. Maybe this is even why the Missionary who said, ‘I don’t even like Muslims’, ended up in the Middle East in the first place. Maybe guilt and shame were used to motivate her to go with all too common phrases in the Evangelical world like, ‘you are either going, sending or disobeying (God)’
What if instead of all of this Great Commission stuff, treating all of this like some task that needs completed, we just followed Jesus’ Great Command and tried to Love others?
Well, here are the two most common rebuttals when we start to talk about Love alone being sufficient. The first claims, ‘Loving others and The Great Command are not Mutually Exclusive.' Here’s the deal, I have heard this so much, with such similarity, that this has become like some weird almost cult-like programmed response. Not going to lie, it kind of creeps me out. But, for this rebuttal to be true, we have to make some pretty complex theological leaps. They of course can be mutually exclusive and we see examples of this all around us. Including wildly aggressive, dismissive and degrading Evangelism tactics that are as far from Loving as you can get.
The second is, ‘If we aren’t sharing ‘the Gospel’ and just trying to Love others, isn’t that just humanitarian work?’ There are so many issues with this one. First, what is ‘the Gospel’? Ask a 100 Christians what ‘the Gospel’ is and you’ll likely get 100 different answers to what must be included, not to mention how it should be shared. Really, there is no such thing as one Gospel, no matter how certain we are that ours is correct and all inclusive (unless the answer is Love but that’s for another blog) In addition, just trying to Love others is no small thing. In fact, it was the MOST important thing according to Jesus! When asked, what is the most important command, he responded with ‘Love God and Love others.’ Diminishing the significance of ‘just trying to Love people’ is in stark contrast to the significance Jesus placed on it. I could go on for a while on this one but hopefully you get the point.
So, am I saying (Christian) advocates for refugees should stop trying to live out The Great Commission?
YES. There are many Christian organizations and individuals who should completely stop what they are doing. They are making things much worse for our refugee neighbors, spreading a project mentality and creating advocates for tragic polices like the Muslim Ban.
Is this true of ALL organizations and individuals? Of course not. But how can we tell?
One of the ways I have found to start on a path toward correcting this phenomenon involves asking ourselves, and answering honestly, this question: “Do I care more about seeing my refugee friend become a Christian or do I care more about Loving them like Jesus - which is most important to me (or our organization)?
Inevitably, many/some will jump right back to rebuttal #1 when they hear this question. Which might even be a red flag that the Great Commission is becoming THE most important thing to them. In fact, in an article published last Spring on a major news site, written by a man considered a great theologian and darling of the Evangelical world, he said, “Don't be shocked that your friends think Jesus' last words (The Great Commission) should be their first priority.” Don’t be shocked? Really? No, we should be shocked, this is lousy theology presented by someone considered to be a great theologian and contradicts what Jesus himself said should be the priority.
So if you are a Christian advocate of Refugees, I want to invite you to consider the question I posed regarding priorities, while also considering the ramifications of how The Great Commission is being misused and distorted, spreading a harmful, task-centered, project mentality toward our refugee neighbors. All too often this ideology is usurping the most important command and our most important role in all of this – Love others.