Featured Theology

The day Jesus washed ashore

The heart-breaking images that went viral a year ago this month of three-year-old Alan Kurdi—the Syrian boy who washed ashore after drowning off the coast of Turkey—totally shocked the world.

In what has been deemed the greatest refugee crisis since the Second World War, hundreds of thousands of refugees, primarily from Iraq and Syria, have been arriving on Europe’s doorstep desperate for safety and shalom, many tragically drowning along the way.

The refugee crisis has left a deep emotional imprint on the world. God’s heart, I believe, is in pain. Yet what would God know about being a refugee?

The refugee God

It was first century Judea, a nation under Roman occupation, when the Jews found themselves under the tyrannical reign of King Herod. He liked to call himself “king of the Jews,” but was an Edomite—seen by the Jews as an egomaniacal, reckless, paranoid and tax-grabbing dictator, willing to do anything to keep his grip on power, even kill his own sons.

Upon hearing from the Magi that the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem, Herod devised a plan to kill the infant child Jesus who posed the greatest threat to Herod’s corrupt throne. An angel appeared to Joseph in a dream commanding the Holy Family to escape to Egypt.

The Son of God was a refugee. Let that burn into your heart for a second. He can relate with people who are displaced because of war and persecution—people who are fleeing for their lives seeking refuge from the brutal forces of war and terrorism.

This King that Christians follow, Jesus, doesn’t come into the world sitting pompously in a fortified palace, but in the weakness and humility of human flesh, in an infant refugee seeking shelter from the brutal forces of the fallen world.

“He does not enter in [the kingly robes of God],” writes Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Rather, “He goes incognito, as a beggar among beggars, as an outcast among outcasts, as despairing among the despairing, as dying among the dying.” And we can add, I think, “as a refugee among refugees.”

That little Syrian boy we found on the shores, lying helpless, lifeless, hopeless at the edge of the world, and the millions who have been displaced, killed, drowned, because of war and terror in the world, Jesus knows them intimately. He can surely relate with their suffering and hopelessness—in the crib and on the cross. And He calls His Church to enter into that pain with them out of suffering love.

Prophets of hope

There’s hope in Christ’s body—the Church—God’s living missional agency. There’s hope in Christ’s body, because it’s the body of the savior King. A King who understands what it’s like to experience the paradoxical realities of life and death, hope and despair, peace and terror. There’s hope at the cross of suffering solidarity; the cross where God is hidden in pain and vulnerability—the infant refugee.

And that is what is totally unique and unfathomable about our faith in the God of cruciform love. A God who can feel our pain and relate deeply and lovingly with refugee children. “The concept of divine suffering,” writes Warren McWilliams, “is not only the core of our faith but the uniqueness of Christianity.”

In the Cambridge Companion to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Geffrey B. Kelley offers this marvelous statement:

God does not offer Christians a rational, logically ordered answer to the why of their afflictions. God suffers with them….God in Christ will not offer glib, evasive explanations for the agonising problems faced by those whose lives have been menaced by the murderous forces of twentieth-century evil. God chooses to suffer with those who suffer, all the while raising up prophets of hope who are spiritually empowered to free God’s people from their captivity.

This is a God who collides with the world’s evil at the cross and overcomes the forces that terrorize humanity. He overcomes the world with an all-encompassing and concrete love. God’s love. Christian love. There is nothing else like it. It is good news in a world of bad news.

God’s pain sparks missionary unrest

When God’s heart is in pain, God’s ‘prophets of hope’ (the Church) are certainly called into missionary unrest. As C.S. Lewis said: “Pain is God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” This includes the Church.

A new UNICEF report estimates that 50 million children are now refugees or displaced migrants in the world right now. And many of them are travelling alone. Alone. Are they alone? Is not Jesus walking, even drowning, among them?

And so, if we take seriously Jesus’ theology (and theology is what it is) that whatever we do for the most weak and vulnerable of human beings we are doing it for Him, we will come to realize that Jesus washed ashore that day and continues to suffer with His beloved refugee children in the pain, fear and loss that they face on a daily basis.

The question we should ask ourselves is: Will we—God’s prophets of hope—help Him? If “only the suffering God can help,” as Bonhoeffer famously quoted, will the Church also enter the suffering and be the concrete good news that God’s love actually saves?

This is perhaps one of the greatest questions facing the 21st century Church in post-Brexit Europe and Trump-mania America.

The way I see it we have two options: We can choose fortified power or vulnerable love. Ceasar or Jesus. It’s your choice. Choose wisely.

Josh is an award-winning faith and culture writer and the author of the upcoming book, God Incognito: Bonhoeffer's Theology of the Cross for the Trump Era and Beyond. He holds a master's degree in theology from Tyndale Seminary in Toronto and is the recipient of the Dr. Ross and Carol Bailey Theology Award. He lives in Murillo, Ontario with his wife and their two adorable daughters and has a column at ChristianWeek.org.

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