Redeeming the Time: The Refugee Crisis in Europe

Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil.
— Ephesians 5:15-16 (NRSV)

The Crisis

More than three years have passed since the beginning of the “Arab Spring,” a term that symbolized hope for the people of the Middle East. However, this hope rapidly evaporated as the “spring” morphed into a cruel and endless winter. Millions have sought shelter in neighboring countries, while others have moved to safer cities and towns in their own lands, patiently waiting in hopes of returning to their homes. However, the crisis we witness today in Europe indicates that many refugees in our region have lost hope. Having lost faith in their own kin, they now look to strangers for basic needs, searching for someone to receive them despite religious or ethnic differences, longing for acceptance simply as human beings.

We observe the human tragedy unfolding as thousands of refugees come ashore fleeing war, oppression, and privation in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. Political structures groan beneath the weight of this predicament—so too does the human spirit, let alone the Christian heart. The crisis is captured in images of a solitary child’s body washed up on a Turkish beach. It is also told in the statistics of mass migration unmatched in Europe since the Second World War. There can be little doubt that “these days are evil.”

Regardless of the geopolitics that have led to this moment, we must respond. We write as two Christians from the Middle East hoping to join God’s people whose hearts rend as together we seek the Spirit’s leading and respond. We, the people of Jesus, “sojourners and exiles” ourselves, must act with vision reflecting the heart of the Father himself that transcends narrow cultural, social, or national concerns.

The View from Ephesians

The charge in Ephesians 5:16 to “redeem the time” or to “make the most of the time” in these “evil days” is primarily aimed at those within the community of God’s people. Nonetheless, this challenge is surely relevant to the church in our day as we look outward upon the crises of mass migration, political turmoil, and human suffering.

Ephesians speaks to us in apocalyptic terms of evil forces loosed on God’s good earth—of a spiritual struggle for the destiny of our world. But it does not speak of the “apocalypse,” as popularly imagined. It does not refer to a “flesh-and-blood” conflict; it does not herald a coming chain reaction of global wars in a titillating “last days” scenario; it is not obsessed with “date-fixing.”

Rather, Ephesians comes as a “latter days’ revelation”—as a call to perceive the revealed mystery of the in-breaking of God’s power, God’s salvation, and God’s redemption into a world of hardened hearts and confused minds taken captive by the “ruler of the air” (2:2; 4:17ff.). And so, throughout the letter, the power of God is underlined—a power that will one day upend evil and renew all creation (1:8-10, 21-23; 3:10; 4:24).

But for now, God gives power and wisdom so the believer can discern the world—not as it appears on the surface, where evil runs amok—but as it is from a transcendent point of view, so that we may gaze upon our world with faith, hope, and love. Paul exhorts his readers to understand the times in which we live and to live accordingly. Adopting God’s interpretation of present realities, we are to respond now, in the face of overwhelming evil. This is the “apocalypse” (which literally means “uncovering”) in Ephesians—the unveiling of God’s truth to God’s people.

Participating in the Divine Agenda

In Ephesians 6, the people of God join the battle. But this war is not waged through fleshly machinations; rather we are filled with the Spirit, endued with the very power, presence, and character of God himself. “Redeeming the time” is indeed a call to battle, but of a different sort. It is a Spirit-empowered struggle to form and re-form the people of God in our urgent hour. We are called to be transformed, to “imitate God.” Joined to our Head, we serve another order as citizens and children displaying a likeness to our King and Father. In this battle for the very life of the world, we are called to live as “children of light.” Our way of joining the fray is to live lives of transparency, love, and joy as a community standing in radical contrast to the societies of the world. God’s compassion breaches every worldly boundary, and the Gospel of the cross is a word of renewal, restoration, and reconciliation across all borders.

This is the agenda of God for his world, not least for the suffering Syrian and the wounded Iraqi. This sets the agenda for God’s people as we takeup our small role(s) within God’s movement in human history: to live as his people and for his purposes. In this, we redeem the time.

Responding to the Crisis Today

Many overwhelmed churches in the Middle East are helping thousands upon thousands of refugees who are flooding into places such as Jordan and Lebanon. We thank God for the generous support that churches in the West have given to these initial relief and mercy efforts. However, as we face the influx of these needy populations into Europe, we must “redeem the time” with further creative, transnational, and Spirit-empowered responses. Any activism on our part must flow from our identity as a community being conformed to Christ. The redemptive influence of Christians (European, Arab, and otherwise) in his world makes its impact as we become what we “already are” in Christ: one body “rightly joined together,” growing up, and “working properly” under our Head, the Lord himself (4:12-16).

Specifically, this present time may call for another flow from “East” to “West.” In God’s counterintuitive scheme, the church in the West may need to call on the Middle Eastern church for help and support. This may involve consultation and cooperation between European and Middle Eastern churches (whether those in the Middle East or the minority communities in Europe) in extending assistance, comfort, and the hope of Christ to the refugees. It may involve utilizing the cultural and linguistic resources of Middle Eastern Christians—which may include bringing in committed Arabic-speaking believers from the Middle East—to assist the European church in engaging the newcomers. In response to the current population flows, the Global Church must encourage her own synergistic flow of financial, human, prayer, linguistic and cultural resources across the Mediterranean.

The issue is pressing and we do not submit a dogmatic prescription for others to follow, but surely now is the time to respond. The current eruption of turmoil and suffering clearly presents an opportunity for the community of Christ to link arms across geopolitical and cultural boundaries with restorative effect. We must not miss this door the Lord has opened for us to be a blessing in the lives of many. Let us redeem the time.

Azar Ajaj

Azar Ajaj works for Nazareth Evangelical College in Israel. In the past, his ministry involvement has included pastoring a local congregation, working with the United Bible Society, and serving as General Secretary for the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students. ScholarLeaders supports Azar for his PhD in Church History at Spurgeon’s College in the UK.

Brent Neely

Brent Neely has served in the Middle East for eighteen years in theological education, church ministry, and with the Evangelical Alliance Israel.

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