Jesus’ parables aren’t just stories to be read; they are meant to read us. Parables aren’t meant to affirm our rightness and everyone else’s wrongness. They can sneak past our personal armor to show us a better way to be. They can hold up a mirror (“Oh no, I’m the prodigal son’s big brother!”) or puncture our delusions (“Oh no, I’m the debtor who has been forgiven much but am unwilling to forgive a little!”), then show us where by grace we can grow in love.
The “migrant caravan”—as the large group of children and adults from countries like Honduras and Guatamala currently headed toward the US border seeking safety and better lives have been dubbed by the media—is excruciatingly real.
But in ways, the frenzied political debate about the caravan isn’t real because they’re so far from our border. Instead, what should be real is the opportunity to pay attention to love’s deep call on our lives.
One helpful way might be through the lens of a modern-day parable—and consider how it is reading us. Let’s call it the Parable of the Caravan.
* * *
Once upon a time, the world’s most powerful kingdom enjoyed a record-low unemployment rate and record-high stock market prices.
Other countries much poorer were hosting millions of refugees, but this kingdom did all it could to keep these refugees out. Then one day, a thousand miles away, a few thousand people in danger in their own land joined together with the unrealistic dream of walking—yes, walking—a thousand miles to safety and jobs in the powerful, far away kingdom.
Moms and dads and children joined this “Caravan,” though even if they somehow made it to the kingdom, they had no way past the wide moat, towering wall, thick gate, and vast army that awaited them.
Meanwhile, behind the kingdom walls, people watched this faraway Caravan on their screens.
The person concerned about safety saw the Caravan on the TV as a ragtag group of vulnerable, unarmed, powerless people made up of moms and dads, sons and daughters. He felt a tinge of empathy, but then squinted hard to look through the decoder lens provided by politicians and TV pundits.
What he saw then was a group of well-armed, well-fed, highly-trained mercenary invaders better disguised than anyone had ever been disguised. He thought, We need our troops and weapons to protect us from these attackers in disguise. He heard the ruler of the kingdom promise to protect the border from these invaders, so he felt safe. The next time he saw the Caravan on TV, he clicked on by.
A virtuous Facebooker flipped past the Caravan on screen and thought, Let them in. Whatever it costs, someone else will pay the price, and I can claim the virtue. Saying ‘yes’ will feel good without having to do anything hard to help these people in need.
She could righteously ignore those who lost a loved one in a crime, who live near the border and face cultural upheaval and economic change, who teach these children in crowded classrooms and have to buy supplies out of their own pocket, or who house an asylum-seeking family. My duty here is done, she thought. She “liked” helping the Caravan without needing to pause beyond her screen to help.
A religious person went past the scene on his laptop screen and then quickly to his Holy Book, flipping past the verses about a (similar?) caravan escaping through a miraculously parted Red Sea, past caring for widows and orphans, until he found comfort in verses about respecting authority and remembered a verse (though he couldn’t find the actual location in the Holy Book) that says, “Just take care of your own. Because if everybody is your neighbor, then nobody is.” So now that we’ve taken care of this threat to our conscience, he thought, let’s get back to a debate that doesn’t ask us to love our poor neighbors. And he clicked on by.
* * *
Back in reality, those who make it to the border won’t get in. Depending on how policy changes in the days ahead, they can enter the same legal process of seeking asylum that already handles thousands of people. But in this parable, the Caravan is a Rorschach test: what we see in it reveals who we are. We can turn this into another opportunity to be outraged at each other, or we can let it reveal areas of ours lives where we need discipleship in the way of Christ.
If we look at the Caravan and see an invading army that is a threat to the rule of law and national security, then we should confess our fears, seek God’s protection, and pray that love casts out our false fear. We should seek truth, because how immigrants and refugees are being presented to us is blinding us to what is actually going on.
There has not been a deadly terrorist attack by a refugee since the Refugee Act of 1980, when we’ve often been receiving 80,000 to 90,000 refugees a year. Studies show that, overall, communities with high immigrant populations have lower crime than communities without immigrants. Refugees become net contributors to our economy and as tax payers.
I write more about the concerns and studies in my new book, because fears rooted in legitimate concerns should be taken seriously. But other times, we must discern when legitimate embers of concern are being flamed into a fire by the media and politicians that we let blow into our lives. Instead, I would do better to welcome the Spirit of Christ to shape my heart toward wise welcoming, as God has welcomed me.
If we look at the Caravan and see an exodus of people escaping oppression but don’t help, then we need discipleship to be more practical in our love. Have we called our senators and representatives, given to someone who is helping with immigration services on the border or addressing the root causes, prayed, found a way to love our neighbors who see the Caravan differently and engaged respectfully to try to change their minds?
If we look at the Caravan and see no biblical reason to care about the plight of the people in it, then we need more time with the parable of the Good Samaritan and passages like Exodus 23:9, Deuteronomy 10:18-19, 1 Kings 8:41-44, and Matthew 25:31-46 to remember who our neighbor is and that borders shouldn’t restrict our love, just as borders can’t restrict God’s love.
It’s complicated to help, sure, but we should work to love and welcome in some way—because God first loves and welcomes us. With this theological foundation, we can grow into our most generous selves and work out what is and isn’t possible.
Parables read us. But that’s not where the work of the parable ends. We’re then left asking: how do I respond to the world in a way that better reflects God’s love?
We want to be people who see and listen, who don’t just walk—or click—past suffering. We are being read by the Parable of the Caravan, but the story doesn’t have to end here. These very real stories, alongside the biblical parables, can transform us into people who grow in the love embodied by Jesus himself.
Kent Annan is director of humanitarian and disaster leadership at Wheaton College, where he provides leadership to the M.A. program within the Humanitarian Disaster Institute. His forthcoming book is You Welcomed Me: Loving Refugees and Immigrants Because God First Loved Us.