Much has been said about hypothetical immigration and immigrants. I prefer to wonder what my role can be in this complex issue. Certainly leading a Christian institution, I would consider it our duty and honor to be a blessing if there were immigrants in our midst to minister to. Particularly if those immigrants were actively seeking us out not just for material assistance but spiritual sustenance. But how complicated the matter would become were politics also part of the picture – as it almost inevitably would be.
So I found this letter from the Lutheran pastor of a church in Germany who is dealing with this issue firsthand eye-opening and more than a little terrifying. In Germany, those seeking asylum are evaluated as to their suitability for integration with German culture and society. One of the evaluation points centers on their faith. Christians are at least in theory given points in that they share a faith with the historic faith of German culture.
This creates a complicated situation. How do you tell if someone is simply calling themselves a Christian in the hopes of improving their odds for acceptance permanently in Germany, as opposed to someone who genuinely has converted to the Christian faith? It’s a question that the Church has had to deal with for two thousand years.
But in Germany, it is politicians and bureaucrats that are deciding who is and who isn’t Christian, and by some accounts, without an ability for themselves to understand what the basic tenets of Christianity even are for themselves. The result, according to the letter, is that those who have converted to Christianity and received baptism in the Church are being declared non-Christian by the State and slated for deportation. Despite the fact that some of them are enduring persecution for their conversion from militant Muslim refugees, and despite the reality that they will face greater persecution in their homelands for converting.
How do you sort out a Gordian Knot of this scope and scale? As a pastor, my emphasis and priority would be on preaching and teaching the Word so that people might come to faith regardless of the repercussions in their lives. But what a terrible thing to be blessed to proclaim Good News to a people who have been oppressed and persecuted for so long – by their prior fellow-adherents! – and then watch those children of God ordered for deportation. How awful to be privileged to share the Good News of Jesus Christ, only to have these converts deemed non-Christian, oftentimes by people who are not even Christian themselves but have inherited the blessings of being born in a traditionally Christian culture!
What a terribly important ministry evolves then, the ministry of preparing these people for whatever may come down the road because of their conversion. The ministry of distinguishing between the Good News of Jesus Christ, and the bad news that inheritors of Christian benefits won’t recognize these converts.
Is it a good idea to make Christianity a determination point for asylum seekers? It’s a logical one I suppose. Certainly there will be some percentage of people who claim to have converted but haven’t really, and who will take up their Muslim faith again as soon as they are safely settled for good. But Christianity has always dealt with those who seek the status of the faith when it mingles with cultural and societal status and ambition. The Church must be discerning to the best of our ability, but our discernment is necessarily imperfect and limited by sin.
How do I determine whether a person is Christian or not? I begin by acknowledging this ultimately is not my job but Christ’s. For the purposes of my work, I look for signs of the faith in a person’s life. Have they been baptized? Are they regularly in worship and hopefully also communal Bible study? Have they been instructed in the basics of Christian doctrine as outlined in the Ecumenical Creeds? I would not resort to some sort of Christian or Bible trivia game, asking for obscure details from the Bible or complex explanations of Christian doctrine. If someone comes to me seeking Christian instruction, and after receiving it indicates that they believe this and wish to become a Christian and want baptism, I will baptize them. If they continue coming to church (or I know they are attending elsewhere regularly), and if they are taking seriously the teaching of the Bible in terms of how they live their lives and make their decisions, then I acknowledge them as a brother or sister in the faith. My evaluation of that may be off the mark, but it is an evaluation with some solid criteria to recommend it which relies on something beyond an overly simplistic mastery of basic data.
The Church’s long history of discernment on this issue might be of use to the State in seeking to determine who is authentic and who is not. Again, the results will not be perfect, but they are likely to be better than having the State arbitrarily determine what makes a person Christian or not.