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Rethinking Hospitality: Pondering the Sexual Harassment Scandal in Germany

originally published at ABTS Lebanon

Not that long ago, German Chancellor Merkel made news by flinging the door open to immigrants seeking refuge from the Syrian war and the pandemonium unleashed by ISIS in Iraq and Syria. In an ironic twist, the sexual harassment fiasco of Cologne (also Stuttgart and Hamburg) has refocused media attention on this policy and ignited a tinderbox of reaction to immigration in Germany and throughout Europe. The reaction, by any analysis, is justified—European women accosted by immigrant males shooting fireworks into a public square while surrounding the women, overpowering them, stalking, robbing, groping, raping… It is difficult to imagine a more repugnant scene—immigrants finding a new home in Europe and returning the favor by unbridled sexual deviance directed toward the citizens of their new homeland!

Surely, in the name of decency, Germany should close the doors of hospitality to these intruders who show no respect for her dignity and civility. If hospitality to migrants and asylum seekers comes at the price of sexual violation of young women, then better to leave the doors closed! The open door policy was a tragic mistake and the evidence is Cologne.

As we would expect, demonstrators are asking Germany to revoke the open door policy and embark on a new path of protecting her own from the menace of intrusion. Time for Germany to rethink hospitality! Right?

While I am one hundred percent supportive of the just punishment of the perpetrators of this crime and the need to protect innocent victims, my plea is that we must consider the problem more broadly before making a sweeping judgment that impacts all immigrants.

This week I had a conversation with a young man fleeing the war in Syria. He shared the story of a family member’s odyssey from Syria to Germany, a journey he hopes to embark on soon as well. It was a perilous and protracted voyage by air, land and sea, crossing through a number of Mediterranean and Eastern European countries before arriving in Germany. He is there now, sleeping in a room with someone he doesn’t know. The wait will be long for residency papers, housing and employment not to mention the long road to integration into German life, language and culture. Though he never wished to leave Syria before the outbreak of war, the carnage left him no other option. He is of age and conscription to the armed forces of Syria was inevitable. This senseless war had ripped apart his family and devastated his future. How could he join the fight (on either side) in good conscience? He fled.

Germany is one of only a few places that would receive a fugitive and offer him temporary help until he gets on his feet. Indeed, Germany’s open-door policy has been a ray of hope for Syrians and Iraqis in a situation otherwise rife with despair. I suggest that becoming personally aware of the plight of Syrians seeking a new life may give us pause for thought before closing the doors to immigration.

Another important angle to consider is simply the nature of justice. I live in Beirut as an American. No doubt some Americans here have broken the laws of Lebanon and been justly punished, perhaps even deported. I am glad to report that the Lebanese police have not come knocking on my door because some Americans have broken the law. Nor have the Lebanese felt it necessary to restrict the number of Americans allowed in their country. Justice must punish criminals but also uphold the rights of those who abide by the law.

First-hand reports suggest that the Cologne assailants were Arabic-speakers, likely of North African origin. If that proves true, we must resist the tendency to lump all refugees into one category. While we implicitly recognize the diversity of our own homeland (both good people and bad people come from there), we often fail to extend the same nuanced consideration to refugees and immigrants. I am not held accountable by Lebanese law for the crimes of other Americans. Nor should all Syrians be considered guilty because Arabic-speakers committed a gross crime.

Perhaps the sheer magnitude of the numbers of immigrants leads some to reject hospitality as a feasible policy. The conundrums resulting from the proliferation of displaced peoples in our world are bewildering. It’s not just Syrian refugees…there are Afghans, Sudanese, Iraqis, Somalians, Congolese, Burundians and many others who are seeking sanctuary in Western societies. In fact, it is no exaggeration to say that never before in history have so many people been simultaneously displaced due to threats to their personal safety and security.

In view of this defining moment in history, may I digress from Germany to address another nation? It’s the people Jesus referred to as his “Kingdom”—the Kingdom that overlays all the nations of this world…the one where his rule is sovereign and unquestioned.

As I survey this new challenge of our era—displaced people—I wonder if Christ’s Kingdom will rise to the challenge, demonstrating Christ-like hospitality. First, such hospitality has preventative value—potentially mitigating incidents like Cologne, assisting immigrants to integrate into Western societies peaceably and harmoniously. “Blessed are the peacemakers…” Remember? Are we willing to insert ourselves as agents of reconciliation? Are we willing to take on the costly work of hospitality?

But why should we welcome them? Why make space? Why give up our resources and time and run the risk of a debacle like Cologne? Paul gets to the crux of the motivation of Jesus-followers, asking them to remember that they were at one time alienated from God and his people until Christ broke down the dividing wall of hostility. Paul is speaking of the unity of people groups (Jews and Gentiles) whom Christ redeemed and brought into his body—the church. Yet it seems that this core motivation is to spill out beyond the church to the surrounding society as Paul later says “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children.” (Eph 5:1) Jesus is more succinct but equally poignant: “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 7:12)

Christ states that his servants follow him wherever he goes. Would he not be at the crossroads of human suffering, walking with the refugee through deprivation and displacement while also offering justice and healing to victims of events like Cologne? If you agree that Christ would be there, then we really have no option, do we?

In brief, the Kingdom of God is to act like God in the world. The body of Christ is to act like Christ in the world. We receive others with self-giving love, not because they deserve it (neither did we) nor because they are nice or like us, but because that’s what our God does. Receiving refugees hospitably and wisely can be a visible demonstration to the watching world of who God is and how He acts. That’s who He is. He is love.

Yes, hospitality is costly. It was for God. It involves risk. We’d better get the motivation right because perseverance in this life of hospitality will be tough. We won’t be able to sustain it by the “feel-good” vibes alone. But it’s important not to exaggerate the cost. Remember that Cologne was an exception—a gross evil representing a minority of immigrants. For most of us, hospitality’s cost will be giving up our time or some comforts while the rewards of hospitality will be noteworthy in new friendships and enrichment of our reality. So, when you think of Cologne, don’t “throw out the baby with the bathwater.”

Wherever you are as you read these lines, why not take a moment now to thank God for his hospitable welcome of you while you were alienated from him in heart and mind. Then take a second moment to ask “now Lord, how can I offer your gracious welcome to someone in need?”

Maybe you will be the one to welcome that young Syrian to his new home.


1 See original photo here.

2 See The Telegraph description of the event here.

3 See a UNHCR report on forced displacement here.

4 See Paul’s letter to the Ephesians 2:12 -14

5 See John’s Gospel 12:26.

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