Earlier this week I attended an evening hosted by SYLF – Sweden’s Young Doctors’ Association – about migration, which is a hot topic of conversation in Sweden at the moment. Refugees are pouring into the country and people are wondering how this is going to work. There were three talks: the first given by a friend of ours about a clinic that has been set up for beggars in our city of Örebro, the so called Stefanus Clinic, the second given by registered nurse from our hospital who spoke of his experiences with Medicins sans Frontiérs in Libya, Syria and Liberia, and the last one by a representative of the Immigration Department here in Örebro.
In the talk by the Department of Immigration figures were quoted to give some feeling for the magnitude of the situation.There were 10,553 asylum seekers who arrived in Sweden last week, and of these, 2,942 were unaccompanied minors, the majority, it would seem, from Afghanistan. The number of asylum seekers was over 800 more than the previous week. The total number of asylum seekers for 2015 to 11 November was 134,883, already over 50,000 more than the number who arrived in the whole of 2014, when only 81,301 asylum seekers arrived in Sweden. The three biggest contributors were Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq.
These are mind boggling numbers. No-one, including the Immigration Department, has any idea how the country is going to absorb these people into the society. However, the Department is doing its best to provide shelter and food for everyone, a task which is becoming harder by the day. Here in Örebro the local council has resorted to using hotels to provide temporary accommodation for unaccompanied minors. But there are places all over the country, unused buildings, which are being turned into accommodation. There is talk of tent camps being erected, but Sweden is winter is not really a pleasant place to live in a tent. Voluntary organisations, including churches, are providing accommodation and various kinds of support to the refugees. There is a constant demand for people to teach Swedish.
There are many in the world who believe that Sweden is naïve in accepting so many foreigners into the country. There are predictions of a decline in the economy, and of the country being literally overrun by foreigners. There are groups in Sweden who are very unhappy about this and some potential refugee accommodations have been burnt down by Swedish protestors before refugees have moved in.
But as I cycled home I couldn’t help thinking of the Old Testament and how it encourages us to be kind to foreigners. Here is what it says:
In Leviticus 19:“‘When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.”
And in Deuteronomy 24: Do not take advantage of a hired worker who is poor and needy, whether that worker is a fellow Israelite or a foreigner residing in one of your towns. Pay them their wages each day before sunset, because they are poor and are counting on it. Otherwise they may cry to the Lord against you, and you will be guilty of sin.
And in Ezekiel 47: You are to allot it as an inheritance for yourselves and for the foreigners residing among you and who have children. You are to consider them as native born Israelites; along with you they are to be allotted an inheritance among the tribes of Israel.
Of course Jesus echoed these sentiments in his teaching too.
“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”
I couldn’t help thinking of the words of God, so famously quoted by Eric Liddell, Scotland’s great olympic hero, from the Old Testament, 1 Samuel 2:30:
Those who honor me I will honor, but those who despise me will be disdained.
Sweden is a land of contradictions. It is a land where secularism appears to have triumphed, but is at the same time a land whose values are deeply embedded in the Judeo-Christian worldview, as embarrassing as that might be to the unbelievers among us. Australia, my other home, has become known as a land that is tough on asylum seekers, infamous for “turning the boats around.” Some see this as a triumph of foreign policy. Others see it as an embarrassment. Sweden has become known as being a soft touch for refugees, one of the few countries in Europe that has refused to close its borders.
I can’t help thinking that Sweden, for all its noisy secularism, might have an approach that is closer to God’s heart than it cares to admit. However, it does not perform its acts of kindness in the name of the God of the Bible, but in its own name. Its kindness may have its roots in the Judeo-Christian ethic, but will that kindness prevail if Sweden refuses to acknowledge its real source, namely Jesus Christ and what he shows us of the Father. For ultimately that kindness will require self sacrifice, another aspect of God’s character that we humans find hard to adopt.
If we as a nation continue to perform acts of kindness, even though it costs us dearly, but we continue as a nation to turn our backs on God, will he honour us? If Sweden prevails without acknowledging God, will that be a triumph of secularism? Will Sweden triumph because of its Swedishness rather than its godliness? If we are godly in our behaviour, does it matter if we acknowledge God? What of the other secular countries in Europe that are taking an increasingly hard line against refugees and asylum seekers. Will they be the winners in this battle of humanitarianism?
I am a foreigner in Sweden myself, and I have been welcomed, as has my family. I understand the sentiment expressed in the Leviticus passage: Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I have experienced something of what it is to be a stranger in a strange land, and though it has been easier for me as an Australian, it has had its challenges. As I see the enormous influx of foreigners and strangers into our comfortable and secure society, even as I recognise the potential problems, how can I possibly look the other way? What will I do? And in whose name will I do it?