If I read our cumulative cultural geo-tracker correctly, we are in need of a little rescue. While most of us are unsure how we got here, it seems that we are living in an era of heightened fear and it encompasses an astonishingly broad spectrum of issues. While it is true that fear flows freely, it is also true that the art of productive dialogue is in danger of being tossed out of the life-boat – and by ‘in danger’, I probably mean ‘has been’. All of it mixed together feels like we are a people adrift in a sea of polarized perspectives, opinions, and statements. We are in need of a little magic – a little miracle, if you will.
When the discussion turns to borders and sovereignty, displaced people and the politics surrounding the topic, tempers easily flare and stress levels rise. This is one of the most polarizing debates and it exists on a global scale. Ironically, the topic of refugees, asylum seekers, and displaced people crisscrosses borders, cultures, and languages, easing itself into conversations at the dinner table, on our media feed, in our bedrooms, and classrooms, and our government systems. There are no easy answers but this post suggests ways to renew our commitment to dialogue that is characterized by respect, that seeks peace and that founds itself in simple courtesy.
My own journey began three years ago on the dirty floor of a train station where I sat cross-legged across from a couple from Syria. They were my first interview with people fleeing the war. Newlyweds from Homs who had left their city 25 days earlier, they had been married just 28 days. My first question was, ‘Why did you leave Syria?’ Muhammad looked at me and answered, “Surely you know?” Honestly and to my shame, I had no real concept of the conflict that they had fled, nor their refugee journey, nor the trauma that all of it created.
It has been my privilege to slowly grow in my understanding and to pray clearly and faithfully for peace both outside of my borders and within. What follows are five un-magical and very ordinary ideas that are practical, honest, and dignity-driven suggestions for pursuing peace through conversation.
1. HELP ME TO UNDERSTAND THE SITUATION IN YOUR COUNTRY.
The conflicts in countries across the Middle East and Northern Africa are complicated. As outsiders, we do not fully understand the nature and the history of the conflict, but as Christians, we clearly stand against the loss of innocent lives. In order to positively contribute to peace in the Middle East and North Africa, we must be ready to learn and to listen. We do that best by inviting the voices of people we know and trust to speak into the media sources, political pundits and social media posts that usually shape our understanding.
As Jesus-followers, we must direct our hearts, our voice, and our prayers in healthy, helpful, and respectful ways. To do that, we must take the position of learner and invite people to teach us about their culture, the situation, and their perspectives on peace. Find an asylum seeker, an immigrant, or a refugee today and politely ask him or her if they would be willing to explain their situation. Your role is to be a listener and a learner. Be sensitive in who you ask — remember that they have endured significant trauma and may not be ready to discuss it in detail. Do not push them for details that they do not offer.
2. HOW IS YOUR FAMILY?
The cultures most deeply affected by the current refugee situation share a common value in their understandings of ‘family’. Most often, the word and concept includes their extended family, and it tends to be a much wider and deeper concept than in the west. In a culture where children, parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles often share the same dwelling space, being disconnected geographically from the larger family unit is a huge loss.
Many of the people now fleeing their countries have a loved one who is still in the midst of danger. They have genuine, heart-wrenching concerns for the safety of their family members. They may be dealing with some level of guilt for leaving someone behind while they sought safety for themselves.
Be willing to lament with them over the concern and/or the loss of family – it will speak volumes. You can tell them that you will be calling upon the Lord for God’s provision upon their family and then do that faithfully. Make your prayers for their family a consistent and daily part of your talking to God.
3. WELCOME TO MY HOME.
The home is the center of life in many cultures and the guest in a home is treated with honor. The extension of hospitality is such an integral part of culture that even in their journey through the Balkans, there are a plethora of stories about refugees welcoming into and serving western strangers in their tents. I personally have experienced this numerous times as the guest in a tent.
If you have a colleague, acquaintance, or neighbor, invite them into your home for coffee and desert. There is no pressure to have a perfect house or an elaborate meal – just be warm and inviting and set aside some time to simply talk. Get to know them as a person. If your home is not convenient or seems too intimate, then try a local coffee shop as a first step.
While not wanting to impose stereotypes or stigma, one should be aware of and respect gender boundaries. Meeting together as couples is very acceptable but meeting together as one male and one female is usually a cultural taboo.
4. I WANT PEACE FOR YOUR COUNTRY TOO.
True peace is more than an end to the war – it is the existence of a just and a fair society for everyone who lives in a country. Pursuing opportunities to speak up for peace is a good beginning. Our voices influence public opinion, which then influences governments to act in accordance with the will of the people. Words have power.
That awesome wave of power begins right where scripture tells us: James reminds us that the tongue is a small member, like the rudder of a ship, but it boasts of great things. And Proverbs 12:18 reminds us that a gentle tongue brings healing. These scriptures challenge us to guard the words we speak and to use our tongues for good.
Of equal importance, these scriptures charge us to be vigilant about how we allow words to shape our minds and our attitudes.
Consume media responsibly with an awareness of both its stated and implied bias. Vary your media sources across political and ideological lines, talk to people from the countries in conflict, ask God for discernment, and speak truth about the refugee situation every chance you get. Fact check and reject stories that sensationalize radicalization or acts of terror as a characteristic of ALL people from a certain geographic, language, ethnic or faith persuasion.
So, too, in our conversations with others, including our personal social media platforms, we should submit our words to the Lordship of Christ. This includes an active rejection of the negative narrative of fear and prejudice when we see it shaping public opinion. Confront prejudices and speak up in support of people and the pursuit of peace in your conversations with family, friends, and co-workers.
5. TELL ME YOUR STORY.
As Christians, it is God-honoring to invite someone, including someone from a different faith background, to tell you their story. Be respectful. Listen. It really is that simple.
Often, Christians feel pressured to share the Gospel or even to point out areas of religious disagreement, but it is okay to simply listen, learn, and thank a person for sharing. The powerful truth is that God’s grace is already actively at work and you have carried his presence into that relational space. Be faithful to pray for your new friends, and if or when they invite you to share your story, do so in a respectful and non-manipulative manner. Ask the Holy Spirit to guide your words and to keep you authentic.
The opportunity to hear someone’s story is a gift and it should be treated with honor and respect. It is also a powerful and often unnerving means of recognizing and facing the hidden prejudices that we carry. Be open to letting God change and transform your heart and your attitudes. Allow the Holy Spirit to reveal new aspects or depths of his character to you as you see the world through another person’s eyes.
A FINAL THOUGHT
If this article motivates readers to push past fear or uncertainty in order to bridge the gap that divides us by labels, ideologies, backgrounds, and stereotypes, it has fulfilled its intent. May each of us find the courage we need for the conversations that lie ahead – perhaps God will surprise us by just how connected we really are. Together, let us pray for miracles as we map a space for our world etched in grace and gratitude and may it lead us all to a path named Peace.