Kent Annan, You Welcome Me: Loving Refugees and Immigrants Because God Loved Us, advanced reader copy, Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2018. Pp. 118.
Kent Annan’s You Welcomed Me: Loving Refugees and Immigrants Because God Loved Us is a timely reflection on the refugee crisis facing the West with a particular focus on American politics. Throughout the book Annan mixes anecdotes, statistics, and theological reflection to argue that Christians ought to adopt a more welcoming stance toward both refugees and immigrants. The book is an adult education tool that clearly has small groups in mind while still being an accessible read if you’re reading it on your own . Audiences are directed to a site which features online curriculum and a family toolkit. The book itself includes practices for individuals and groups to engage in to help foster a more welcoming attitude.
Throughout the book Annan seeks to create more nuance in the conversation. The subtitle references both refugees and immigrant but Annan is clear to emphasize that these two different categories of migrants even if political discourse tends to flatten and conflate categories. It becomes clear that Annan believes that theological conversation around such topics need to not only be nuanced, but it should also be evidence based. Theology, at its best, brings Scripture and traditional teachings in dialogue with the situations that people and communities face in their life.
One way he seeks to expand the conversation is to make the narrative bigger than one often sees in the media. Annan acknowledges that how the issues are portrayed in the media are, typically, reductionist. Migrants are reduced to paragons of virtue, valid policy and security concerns are brushed aside, and the role of host nations and peoples are minimized. Rather, the conversation needs to be expanded so that how one understands themselves, their community, and how they relate to their neighbours can be part of that complex conversation.
At the same time, there are instances where Kent Annan is clearly writing in a way that shows his work is a product of that same, problematic discourse. At one point in the book Annan states that the perspective he’s advancing “isn’t a political statement” but that “[w]elcoming refugees and immigrants gives [Americans] a chance to live toward Statue of Liberty ideals” (p. 38). Such a statement is plainly political and pointing to the Statue of Liberty is obviously meant to appeal to the American political imagination – this is clearly political rhetoric. Yet despite that quibble, the source of Annan’s hesitance to acknowledge the political nature of his espoused theology is probably explained when Annan offers an anecdote where he was questioned about a previous project: “I talked with some people who liked the practices and vision in my book [Slow Kingdom Coming]. We had coffee or exchanged emails. They wondered if ‘confessing privilege’ was code for liberal politics” (p. 41). This demonstrates a challenge that the book will face in audiences – many audiences are simply afraid of politics (or, at least, afraid of liberal politics).
Many Christians are wary of being political or identifying with “liberal politics.” They do not see that how faith is expressed often will have a political dimension. Welcoming refugees and immigrants is a Christ-like stance to take, but they does not mean it is not political. I suspect that Annan is trying to ensure the phrasing does not turn away those who believe religion and politics are separate spheres (and never shall the twain meet). Theology need not succumb to partisan politics, but Jesus (and the community that forms in His name) is certainly political. This political nature of Christ perhaps needs to be owned and affirmed by believers even if “politics” is too often seen as a dirty word. To deny the political nature of Christian faith is to limit the conversation in ways that I suspect are counter-productive.
The theology behind the politics is a great strength. It would be easy to attempt to bring a Christian nuance into the conversation by relying on simplistic readings of the Biblical story, but Kent Annan pulls from Old and New Testament sources adeptly. The Parable of the Good Samaritan permeates the book, as one might expect. But, just as importantly, the Old Testament also permeates the discussion because Israel’s history is that of a wandering nation gifted land by Yahweh. A gifted nation which is commanded, in turn, to likewise care for the poor – including resident aliens within the land – precisely because that was the grace God showed Israel. In fact, it’s a grace that continued to be experienced by Israel whenever the people were not in exile and whenever they were assured protection from enemy nations. And this Biblically sound approach to politics permeates the book.
Where there are no direct references to Scripture, it is easy to make Biblical parallels on your own – in the margins of I drew connections to other Scriptural passages outside of the ones being explicitly referenced. While reading, I got the impression that my own Biblical literacy was assumed; at the very least, the reading experience will be heightened if one is familiar with their Bible. This is perfect for a group setting as there is more than enough room left for readers to make their own connections to their spiritual life and their own spiritual readings.
Overall, Kent Annan’s approach to reading the Bible and thinking through the issue theologically highlights the ultimate strength of the book. He can acknowledge that there is a simple imperative we find throughout Scripture – the New Testament vision of God’s community is one that is open. But the Old Testament history also demonstrates that when the community which is supposed to be welcoming and a blessing to the world is also a nation, that vocation is not so simple. As a Canadian, I get the sense that this is will resonate with many American Christians’ political imagination. Annan does not necessarily challenge that vision of Christianity and America, but rather demonstrates the challenges that this worldview brings. Plain imperatives are made complex when the issue is not merely “how can I or my congregation be welcoming to refugees and immigrants?” but “how does my country welcome refugees and immigrants?” While some of the fears people might have are statistically unfounded or not backed by historical precedent, there still are questions that need well-reasoned answers. But this also highlights why Christians should acknowledge that their faith is political – to ignore the politics of faith is to remove faith as a way to interpret policy decisions our governments make on our behalf. Christian theology can provide a framework to understand the information bombarding us. Our story as Christians, as people who are called to be imitators and co-workers with Jesus, should ultimately have precedence over how we engage in political issues. This does not mean that we have easy answers, just a way to navigate complex issues.