“I was a refugee, and you turned me away in your fear…”

The following is  a homily by Fr. Jacek Orzechowski, OFM, for the Feast of Christ the King

November 22, 2015

Fr. Jacek is on FAN’s board of directors and at St. Camillus Church, Silver Spring, MD

I was a refugee, and you turned me away in your fear…”

Matthew 25

Imagine the scene described in today’s Gospel. It takes place in Jerusalem at the Roman military quarters. In a room, two men are facing each another. One dressed in a white Roman toga is governor Pontius Pilate. He wears a big, gold ring on his finger – a sign of his political power and authority. The other disheveled-looking man called Jesus is a poor member of a conquered nation. Still, the governor perceives him as a security threat to the Roman Empire. The Governor knows that some Jewish men have been involved in the violent rebellion against the Roman rule disturbing peace. It’s a common wisdom in the Roman circles in Jerusalem that, no matter how benign individual Jewish men may appear to be, they are potential religious fanatics, up to no good. The Governor must be tough and decisive in action. Kindness? Generosity? Compassion? Hah!! What a foolish Pollyanna! This is not how you maintain peace in the Roman Empire!

And yet, strangely enough, it is not the mighty Roman Governor of Judea but rather a poor charismatic peasant from Galilee who demonstrates what true power is. Jesus speaks to Pilot about the truth. When asked, Jesus confirms that he’s a king, but he redefines what kingdom and power means: “My kingdom does not belong to this world,” he says.

What do those words mean? Is he telling Pilate that he is only concerned about purely spiritual realities that have nothing to do with the mundane, physical realities of his people? I don’t think so. Jesus is not a Greek philosopher. He doesn’t divide the world into strictly separate physical and spiritual parts. After all, in his lifetime, didn’t Jesus preach the message of hope and empowerment for the downtrodden? Didn’t he feed the hungry crowds, healed the sick, raised the dead? Wasn’t his life and mission about liberating the captives and letting the oppressed go free?

So when Jesus says to Pontius Pilate that, “his kingdom does not belong to this world,” he is saying that the vision and the values that he lives by are not like the vision and the values of the Governor of Judea. Jesus’ vision and values, for that matter, don’t align with any political or religious system that oppresses and tramples down on the poor and vulnerable.

Jesus’ kingdom has little to do with fear, narrow self-interest or brute force. Rather, his kingdom is about compassion, generosity, non-violence; it is about solidarity, healing and bringing together all God’s children. Jesus’ kingdom is about the truth of what it means to be fully human. And that is the authentic power. It is the power of Christ the King, who is nevertheless, no stranger to human vulnerability and suffering.

Over the last few days, we’ve heard a number of influential political leaders from our country demonizing the innocent Syrian refugees and exploiting public fears. In the aftermath of the recent deadly Paris terrorist attacks, 26 United States governors have announced that they will bar Syrian refugees from entering their state. They say they are a threat to our national security. Perhaps we can let in the Christian refugees, some of them say, but, definitely, we will not allow into our country any Muslims. Prominent public figures in our country compared the Syrian refugees to rabid dogs and rattlesnakes.

What is lost in that demagoguery are the facts that over the past few years many thousands of ordinary Syrians and Iraqis – Muslims, Christians and other minorities – have been terrorized and brutally killed by violent Islamist extremists.

Over 4 million Syrians live now in neighboring countries, more than half are women. A majority of Syrian refugees are under the age of 17, including nearly 40 percent who are younger than 12 years old.

More than 250,000 Syrians have been killed in the brutal civil war. And yet, over the last three years, our country has accepted only 2,100 refugees from Syria. They have been vetted more rigorously than any other group arriving here.

Do you wonder what does it say about us as a nation when so many of our governors, politicians, some news medias and the segments of our populations are so quick to demonize and scapegoat refugees who are desperately fleeing violence and terror in Syria?

Yesterday, the US Holocaust Memorial Museum condemned the US treatment of Syrian refugees. It compared their plight to the ordeal of Jewish refugees fleeing the Holocaust. In 1939, the US government rejected thousands of Jews fleeing Europe, fearing they were Nazi spies.

The patriarch of the Syrian Catholic Church, Ignace Youssif Younan, recently said that, “For years the so-called ISIS have received money, weapons and religious indoctrination from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries, with the supervision of the West.” The patriarch also mentioned about the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, the chaos that broke out in the region as a result of it, and which, in turn, helped create the conditions that gave rise to ISIS.

Is what ways the Feast of Christ the King could inform our collective attitudes, feelings and actions towards the Syrian refugees? In today’s Gospel, Christ the King links His divine reign with the rein of truth. And one of the most difficult truths to accept is the truth about ourselves, our shadow side. It’s about our willingness to see not just a plank in our brother’s eyes but to take notice of the beam in our own collective eye as the American people.

Recently, I read an opinion piece in the Guardian written by Nicolas Hénin.

He is a French journalist who was a hostage of ISIS for 10 month and got to know them well. This is a fragment of what he wrote after the terrorist attack in Paris:

My guess is that right now the chant among them will be ‘We are winning’. They will be heartened by every sign of overreaction, of division, of fear, of racism, of xenophobia; they will be drawn to any examples of ugliness on social media.

Central to their worldview is the belief that communities cannot live together with Muslims, and every day their antennae will be tuned towards finding supporting evidence. The pictures from Germany of people welcoming migrants will have been particularly troubling to them. Cohesion, tolerance – it is not what they want to see.

At the moment there is no political road map and no plan to engage the Arab Sunni community. Isis will collapse, but politics will make that happen. In the meantime there is much we can achieve in the aftermath of this atrocity, and the key is strong hearts and resilience, for that is what they fear. I know them: bombing they expect. What they fear is unity.”

I wondered: could it be that Christ the King may be speaking to us through this French journalist? He testifies to the truth that rises above the callous, racist views of many of our presidential candidates, the governors and some of the news outlets that purvey propaganda. The French journalist also challenges us to claim the power of solidarity and unity, of social and religious cohesion and tolerance. That is not that different from the Kingdom of God that Jesus preached. Do we dare to claim that higher power, or will we succumb as a nation to fear, brainwashing and extremism of our own kind?

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Published in: on November 23, 2015 at 11:36 am  Leave a Comment  

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