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Middle Eastern refugees at the train station in Passau, Germany (January 2016).

Stewarding Mercy

The Role of Churches in the Refugee Crisis

Roger Mielke

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As a senior official of the Evangelical Church of Germany, the country’s national Protestant church, Dr. Roger Mielke is a leading spokesman for a Christian approach to public policy. We asked him how German churches are responding to the massive changes sweeping their country.

How should Christian churches respond to the unique and urgent challenge of the refugee crisis? What is the special responsibility of the body of Christ – including the major churches, religious orders and communities, and individual Christians – one year after the opening of Germany’s borders, which resulted in the influx of more than a million refugees and migrants? And what does the New Testament have to say about what the church’s political witness should be and how it can be lived out?

Where We’re At Today

Before tackling these questions, it would be good to review the events of the past year from a political perspective, and explain the role churches have played so far.

Though the refugee crisis in Europe may seem to have burst out of the blue, already in 2012, when the civil war in Syria escalated, relief organizations and political experts were warning of a looming humanitarian disaster including mass displacement of populations. There had been similar warnings about Libya since 2011, when its government disintegrated into factional violence following the Western military intervention. Because of Libya’s continued instability, it became the launching ground for refugees making their way to Europe across the Mediterranean. Human traffickers organized crossings in overloaded and haphazardly constructed vessels; each year thousands of refugees lost their lives making this journey.

Italy was left with the burden of receiving the refugees who survived the crossing, with precious little help offered from other European Union nations. No country was more emphatic than Germany in rejecting Italy’s pleas for a quota system that would distribute refugees among EU member states. Instead, Italy’s neighbors insisted on enforcing the so-called “Dublin system,” whereby the first EU country that receives a refugee must accept responsibility for his or her future.

At the end of summer 2015, the refugee situation was worsening dramatically. Drastic cuts were made to monthly food rations in the refugee camps in the Middle East supported by the United Nations. This threw camp residents into total hopelessness, compounded by a lack of access to education or jobs. Now in addition to the main Mediterranean route, refugees also started traveling into Central Europe by way of the Balkans. Their way led through Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia, and Hungary as they sought to reach Germany, Sweden, Austria, and (to a lesser extent) the Netherlands.

“Germany is a strong country. We can manage this.” Angela Merkel, September 2015

By early autumn, the Dublin system had largely collapsed. Italy began allowing refugees arriving on the small island of Lampedusa to continue northward without registration. Likewise, Greece, Croatia, Hungary, and Austria started sidestepping refugee registration, contravening the Dublin rules. The horrifying image of the drowned two-year-old refugee boy Alan Kurdi, whose boat capsized while crossing from the Turkish mainland to the Greek island of Lesbos, shocked the world and became a symbol of the need for humanitarian action.

It was about the same time, in September 2015, that ten thousand refugees from Syria became stranded in Hungary. The Hungarian police rounded them up and held them at a train station in Budapest. In the midst of what had become an extremely explosive situation, German chancellor Angela Merkel agreed to allow these ten thousand refugees into her country. The floodgates had opened.

Initially, Merkel probably intended her decision as a one-time humanitarian gesture aimed at encouraging a generous policy by other European nations. News photographs of trains arriving in Munich filled with the refugees from Budapest went global. The chancellor welcomed the refugees and encouraged her fellow Germans to stand ready to help them: “Germany is a strong country. We can manage this.”

Many Germans embraced this Willkommens­kultur (culture of welcome). Throughout the country, ordinary people opened their hearts and their homes. Volunteers and authorities worked together with surprising efficiency and effectiveness, despite the inevitable problems that arose as ten thousand people crossed into Germany each day between October 2015 and early February 2016.

In real terms, the border was now open; border controls were extremely minimal. What had been intended as a one-time humanitarian gesture became a lasting state of affairs. Public discussion pivoted from Willkommens­kultur to the less rosy term Kontrollverlust (loss of control).

The influx only slowed when, as a result of prompting from Austria, first Macedonia and then the other Balkan states closed their borders to refugees. (Hungary had already cordoned off its borders to Croatia in mid-winter, a move that earned a sharp rebuke from the German government.) April 2016 saw the implementation of the European Union’s deeply problematic and much-criticized agreement with Turkey to reduce the number of refugees fleeing via Greece and the Balkan route. By that time, in the period between September 2015 and March 2016, about 1.3 million people had entered Germany. The exact number is still unknown because many failed to register with the authorities (some perhaps deliberately), while others continued their journey toward Scandinavia, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom.

By the summer of 2016, the once-overwhelming support for Merkel’s policy of Willkommenskultur was giving way to deep divisions. Polls in July showed that 83 percent of Germans regard the influx of refugees as the nation’s biggest political problem. The refugee crisis has become a key issue in regional elections for those who favor the right-wing populist party Alternative for Germany (AFD).

Germany has taken in 1.3 million refugees – an event that will permanently transform the country. 

The symptoms of the breakdown of Willkommenskultur have a kind of symmetry. On one hand we see an alarming number of attacks on refugees and their housing, and on the other hand there have been the New Year’s Eve assaults on women in Cologne by immigrant young men and terrorist attacks committed by migrants. Worries that the German state was losing control were only underlined when, after July’s coup attempt in Turkey, voters watched as mass demonstrations of immigrants battled out domestic Turkish political disputes on the streets of German cities.

The polarization of German society comes at a time when the institutions of the European Union, which could play a fruitful role in the refugee situation, have become increasingly paralyzed. The EU debt crisis, an outgrowth of basic flaws in the European monetary union, is far from over; the European Central Bank’s current policy of quantitative easing is only postponing the day of reckoning. Meanwhile, youth unemployment in Southern Europe is stagnating at a level that jeopardizes the legitimacy of the entire political system. Europe is also split over how to address the war in eastern Ukraine and how to confront Russia. And increasing centrifugal forces within the EU are threatening to divide it further, as Brexit demonstrates; several other European governments are anxious about upcoming elections in 2017.

Germany’s place within the EU is marked by increasing isolation as a result of Merkel’s response to the refugees. Her policies have met with rejection, ranging from cool rebuffs from the French and British to the enraged, resentment-laden protests of Eastern European nations. These countries argue that they cannot be expected to share in bearing the consequences of a crisis that they regard as caused by Merkel’s recklessness, pointing out that Germany neither consulted them in advance nor involved them in decision making.

Many of the 1.3 million refugees will likely seek to remain in Germany, a demographic shift that will transform the country. What’s more, asylum law permits family members to join an eligible asylum seeker in Germany. It’s not surprising that some German citizens react to the prospect of the coming social shift with withdrawal, fear, aggression, or an exclusionary stance. From their perspective, the already painful pressures that the globalized economy has brought to bear are now being aggravated by the mass influx of refugees.

Between this position and that of the Willkommenskultur runs a fault line along which German and European politics will play out for the foreseeable future. Political elites will do well to offer policies that are plausible to a broad base of their electorates rather than reacting with their own forms of exclusion toward those unwilling or unable to follow the liberal mainstream.

Pro-refugee demonstrators protest a rightwing populist march in Berlin (July 2016).

Pro-refugee demonstrators protest a right-wing populist march in Berlin (July 2016).
Photograph by Jörg Carstensen / EPA.

Middle Eastern refugees at the train station in Passau, Germany (January 2016). Middle Eastern refugees at the train station in Passau, Germany (January 2016).
Photograph by Armin Weigel / EPA.
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German Churches in Action

From the beginning of the refugee influx, German churches have seen themselves as an integral part of the Willkommenskultur. Bishop Heinrich Bedford-Strohm, chairman of the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD), and Cardinal Marx of Munich, chairman of the German Catholic Bishops’ Conference, both joined Merkel at Munich’s main station to welcome the first trainloads of refugees.

Across the country, German churches and parishes have formed the backbone of civil society’s efforts to care for the refugees sent to cities and villages after their initial processing. In many German towns, “round tables” have served as forums for local citizens to discuss and solve questions of how to receive and integrate refugees, supply their immediate needs, and deal with any problems that arise. Local churches generally play a significant role in these forums, possessing as they often do a strong anchoring in community and regional affairs.

The major churches’ public statements since summer 2015 have been insistent in urging Germans to embrace a culture of mercy, humanity, acceptance, open-mindedness, and diversity. In fact, by autumn 2015 the churches’ official appeals had come to emphasize a language of human rights similar to that of the No Border movement, which demands freedom of movement as a fundamental human right and ultimately regards national states and borders as unjustified encroachments on this freedom. If anything, the Catholic Church has encouraged openness to migrants even more strongly than the (socially more liberal) Protestant churches. Perhaps Catholic theology’s essentially critical view of nationhood plays a role here, as does its emphasis on the natural-law basis for human rights. Pope Francis’s emphatic advocacy has only cemented this tendency.

What unites both Catholic and Protestant churches, however, is a resolute rejection of the right-wing populists and their penchant for invoking Christianity as a touchstone of German cultural identity. For instance, church leaders have denounced the populist slogan calling on Germans to defend the “Christian Occident.” This consensus has been shared by evangelicals, a group that, despite enjoying a certain influence thanks to numbers and commitment levels, is often marginalized in a landscape dominated by the national Protestant church. While evangelicals have highlighted issues such as the persecution of Christians by Muslims or attacks on Christians housed in refugee homes, they have also taken on board the need for structural changes to German churches and congregations in order to reflect a more diverse society.

In the public square, what has lent special credence to the voice of German churches is their direct links to churches in Iraq and Syria. This gives churches a unique form of firsthand access to reports about refugees’ experiences of war, terrorism, and displacement. Yet it must be said, too, that the churches’ appeals for a sustainable foreign policy to address the root causes of the crisis have been largely ineffectual, partly because their recommendations to the government have fluctuated, at times calling for a nonviolent solution and at times giving a tentative blessing to the use of military force.

Nor will the churches long be able to ignore the public’s growing skepticism toward immigration and the social changes it portends. After all, this skepticism is already surfacing among their members.

The leaders of Germany’s Catholic and Protestant churches welcome the first trainloads of refugees in Munich (September 2015).

The leaders of Germany’s Catholic and Protestant churches welcome the first trainloads of refugees in Munich (September 2015).
Photograph: Johannes Minkus/ EPD.

Mercy and Stewardship

The obligation to care for the vulnerable and marginalized lies at the heart of Scripture, especially its teaching about the Trinity: the community of love that exists within God himself as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God, by his very nature, is a relationship-seeking God whose life is one of communion. This love overflows itself. By calling Israel out from among the nations and accompanying her through history, God opens a way for a fallen and hostile humanity to share in his life of love. Through the cross of Jesus, the incarnate eternal Son of God, this suffering and vulnerable love overcomes evil, renews human beings through the Holy Spirit, and destines them for eternal life in communion with the Triune God within his transformed creation.

This very brief summary of the biblical gospel offers the most fundamental basis for shaping a response to the refugee crisis. Jesus Christ commands his community of disciples to go with him on his way of suffering love and reconciliation. He frees them from their compulsion to pursue their own self-serving interests in competition; he frees them to serve. Like him, they are to receive and care for the lost, the wounded, and those in need of protection. In every suffering human face, the body of Christ is to see Jesus himself. The church is to encounter each person with an unconditional commitment that extends far beyond the circle of fellow Christians, reaching out to include every person as a creation of God who, though lost, is someone Jesus came to save. As Matthew 25:40 teaches, “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”

This passage, which contains the core of the New Testament’s attitude toward those most in need of care and protection, is set in a framework that is significant: that of the farewell discourses in Matthew 23–25. If we’re attentive to this framework, it can teach us how we as the body of Christ should discern the signs of the times and understand our task in the political realm. Here at the end of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus, faced with death on the cross, confronts the political and religious elite of his day, proclaiming to them the imminent end of their power. He puts the political realm into the context of the end times, announcing: The kingdoms of this world will come to an end; they are destined to pass away. But the kingdom of the crucified and risen one has arrived.

In every suffering human face, the body of Christ is to see Jesus himself.

According to Matthew, then, political affairs belong to the interim period that will conclude with Jesus’ return at the end of time. This interim period is a time of confrontation between evil – which, though conquered, still remains powerful – and the kingdom of God, which was inaugurated at Pentecost. In Matthew 23–25, Jesus teaches his disciples, and through them the body of Christ today, the ethic that should guide their political role during this interim. Though it’s only possible here to sketch out the main contours of this ethic, its main features include:

  • the insight that the body of Christ has been stationed in a disintegrating, and therefore violent, world. The church is to confront this violence with nonviolence and with the spirit of suffering love;
  • the clear conviction that only a close relationship with Jesus and loyalty to him will enable us to stand firm in our confrontation with evil;
  • the practice of mercy, that is, the foundational virtue of providing love and care to the hungry, thirsty, homeless, naked, sick, and imprisoned.

In accordance with this ethic, there is only one possible way for the body of Christ to respond to the vulnerable and marginalized, including today’s refugees and migrants: with unconditional love. In a nutshell: we must practice mercy.

Rally of the populist movement PEGIDA (Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the Occident) in Dresden (February 2016)

Rally of the populist movement PEGIDA (Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the Occident) in Dresden (February 2016).
Photograph: EPD.

Yet that is not all that Matthew 23–25 can teach us about the Christian’s role in politics. There is a second lesson, found in Matthew 25:1–30, that we must also take to heart. Here Jesus tells two parables that deal with boundaries and limited capabilities: the Parable of the Ten Virgins and the Parable of the Talents. Here Jesus calls for the prudent use of the natural and spiritual talents entrusted to us – precisely because we are accountable to him for how we use them. Wisdom in using these talents is expressed both through practicing generosity and through remaining aware of our own limits. We could call this an ethic of stewardship.

Jesus’ message in these two parables is in accord with the interim nature of politics: “The present form of this world is passing away” (1 Cor. 7:31). In this transitory world, God has instituted ordinances to restrain the power of evil, ordinances to which, for the time being, both believers and nonbelievers are subject. The relationship of the body of Christ to the state, then, must be one of distance – but also one of loyalty.

How does this look in practice? We can gain insight by examining the role of human rights. Though the origins of the concept of human rights are diverse, any attempted genealogy will end up acknowledging that the two most important sources are (1) the Enlightenment’s rationalistic theory of natural law and (2) the core biblical axiom that every human being is created in the image of God, and so enjoys an inalienable dignity.

Human rights, by their very nature, precede the political realm and all positive law; they remain valid regardless of whether a given political regime recognizes them or not. Nonetheless, these rights remain empty without a political community that enforces them in a concrete way, enshrining them as both the source and the measure of its laws.

This is why the Christian church has such a strong interest in the healthy functioning of the political community surrounding it and of the rule of law. In most of the world today, the political community can only function healthily if it is secured by democratic legitimacy, usually expressed in the form of a national state. Since this is so, the church cannot regard the national state in which it finds itself as something foreign. Rather, the ethic of stewardship demands that the church see itself as both responsible for, and loyal to, the state. Exactly this is what the ethic of stewardship demands.

How can we apply these principles to the refugee crisis? A sizable number of German voters (and even bigger percentages elsewhere in Europe) believe that the forced acceptance of so many refugees and migrants is endangering the healthy functioning of their country. This viewpoint expresses itself through increased polarization, rising rates of violence, and voting results that have given populist parties political influence (even while leaving them outside national or regional governments). Such a polarized environment allows the logic of exclusion to start determining political reality. In an ugly symmetry, exclusion of immigrants on the one side mirrors the exclusion of right-wingers on the other.

The church must oppose both kinds of exclusion, whether from the left or the right.

To be sure, we must welcome our fellow citizens’ renewed engagement in political affairs, coming as it does after a long period of executive and technocratic domination of political life. Yet there are dangers. Political passions can easily undermine social solidarity, lead to exclusionary politics, and threaten the healthy functioning of the political community.

The Christian church must vigorously oppose both kinds of exclusion, whether from the left or the right. Our task as the body of Christ is summed up well in the saying: “You are in the world but not of the world” (John 17). In other words, the church must act out of a deep commitment to care for the vulnerable by showing mercy – and yet at the same time, it must concern itself with the health of the political community to which it belongs with a commitment that is almost (!) equally deep.

The ethic of mercy and the ethic of stewardship are both in their own way anchored in the heart of the gospel. Both need to be reflected and balanced in the public witness and practical actions of the body of Christ. At the end of the day, however, the political realm will have passed away, bearing as it does the mark of the transitory. What will remain is mercy.


Translated from German by Peter Mommsen and Dr. Andries Conradie.

Contributed By Dr. Roger Mielke

A member of the High Consistory of the Evangelical Church of Germany (EKD), Dr. Roger Mielke leads their Office for Questions of Public Responsibility.

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