In the providence of God, he allowed his people to experience an extended period of slavery. This slavery was no passing trial to be endured and forgotten. It marked them and undergirded their ethical reasoning. God called upon his people to remember:
Do not oppress a foreigner; you yourselves know how it feels to be foreigners, because you were foreigners in Egypt. (Exod 23:9)
Thus the instinct of Israel, born of the experience, was compassion. Compassion on those who had nothing to appeal to other than Israel’s good will. The foreigners who resided in Israel would not have shared Israel’s religion or many of their values. Foreigners were in Israel, but not of them, a people apart. Nonetheless, God called upon the Israelites to show them the compassion that Israel had longed for in Egypt.
During Israel’s long period of slavery, I am sure that some Egyptians may have been personally opposed to Israelite slavery. Maybe in polite company, they lamented the excessive abuses meted out on those poor foreigners. But we lack a record of an Egyptian abolitionist society. It was much easier for Egyptians to focus on worshipping their gods and raising their families. After all, those pyramids weren’t going to build themselves. God, however, called his people to a higher standard. He told them to have compassion and to remember the whip and the chain.
Judaism and later Christianity, then, is not the religion of the powerful (like the poor the powerful are welcome at the foot of the cross). It is the religion that tells the broken and the weak that they too are children of God.
For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. (1Cor1:26–29)
Therefore, the church is made up of those who have known suffering and our ethics are forever marked by that truth.
But what of the Christian who is not bound by the Law? Should the compassion of the Israelites inform public policy in a country that formally is neither Christian nor Jewish? One response might be let the nihilist vote on the basis of his nihilism and let the Christian contend for her beliefs in the public square. But the answer requires more reflection.
The Christian has always believed that humans, despite our brokenness, bear the image of God. At times (not always) when we contend for Christian convictions in the public square the truth that God has implanted within all people comes to the fore. People, who do not share our worldview, say,“Yes, those Christians have some funny ideas, but on this they are correct.” The Christian, then, who argues for a compassion first attitude towards the foreigner is actually saying that people can be more than their basic instinct for self-preservation. Skeptics, who heed this call, might even begin to ask why this Christian was able to find this compassion within herself so quickly when for me it was a battle? What is this gospel that they believe that calls me to be the person that I somehow know that I was created to be? What is broken in me that my first response was hate or fear? Stated differently, Christian values proclaimed winsomely in the public square can be a preparation for and a partial embodiment of the gospel
But the inverse is also true. If the Christian forever stands on the side of power, if our first instinct is always fear, then how can we proclaim with integrity the good news of the one who did not save himself, but gave himself for the sins of the world? The words of the angels are still relevant: Do not be afraid.
The question of danger cannot be a part of the Christian calculus because we believe that Jesus has overcome death. Instead of danger, we see the refugee as God’s gift to us, a new arena opened for evangelism and mercy. What the tyrant of Syria (or anywhere else) meant for evil God can use for good. So for the Christian whose sole unqualified allegiance is to the Messiah, whose heart beats for the evangelization of the nations, how do we do anything but open wide our hearts and say come?