Is Pope Francis right that Christians who chase away refugees are hypocrites?

Q. What is your opinion on the following quote by Pope Francis?

“It’s hypocrisy to call yourself a Christian and chase away a refugee or someone seeking help, someone who is hungry or thirsty, toss out someone who is in need of my help. If I say I am Christian, but do these things, I’m a hypocrite.”

(According to the Catholic News Service, Pope Francis made these remarks on Oct. 13, 2016, while answering questions during an audience with Catholic and Lutheran young adults visiting from Germany.)

Let me say first that I admire Pope Francis tremendously. Even though I am a Protestant, I have been experiencing the same “Francis effect” that many Catholics have been reporting. My faith has been strengthened and energized by his leadership and example.

As for the quotation itself, as a biblical scholar and former pastor, I am entirely in agreement with the spirit of it. I believe it expresses the essence of Jesus’ teaching that “as you have done so for the least of these, you have done so for me”:

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.”

The only word in the statement I have a slight issue with is “hypocrite,” though this may be due to my Protestant perspective. In his capacity, Pope Francis likely has every right to use it.

Hypocrites are people whose inward attitudes, priorities, and commitments do not match their outward statements and claims. Put simply, a hypocrite is someone who’s pretending to be a Christian, but really isn’t. The Protestant tradition emphasizes how no one but God really knows another person’s heart, so I don’t feel I’m able to say definitively that a particular person who claims to be a Christian is only pretending to be one. I can say, however, in full agreement with Pope Francis, that if we truly want to follow Jesus, we should put his teaching and example into practice and care for the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger (foreigner), the poor, the sick, and the imprisoned. Anyone who is actively opposing such ministry, or who is indifferent to it, can indeed be asked to “show cause” why they should still be considered a Christian.

I think Pope Francis is within his powers when he applies the word “hypocrite” even more strongly. As the spiritual head of the Catholic Church, he is responsible to define what Christian belief and behavior mean for the members of that communion. And so it’s valid for him to say, “If you chase away refugees, you’re not doing what we’re doing, so though you might still claim to be one of us, you’re really not.”

I recognize that the world’s refugee crisis is a complex problem and that people of good will can believe that differing approaches are called for to address it. I respect that. But whatever approach we take should be characterized by a compassionate desire to welcome and help people who have had to flee from their homes because of war, persecution, natural disaster, or other dangers.

Even measures that are taken, by their own description, to try to get a handle on the refugee crisis so that it can be addressed more effectively need to express compassion and consideration. I don’t believe I’m being inappropriately political on a blog devoted to non-partisan answers to questions about the Bible when I say that President Trump’s recent executive order suspending refugee admissions to the United States for 120 days (1) should never have been issued, but (2) if it were going to be issued, this could have been done with a far more charitable spirit. To give just one small example, people already cleared for entry who were on flights to the U.S. when the order took effect should certainly have been admitted. There was no reason to create such anguish for them and their families. The executive order could simply have applied to future processing, and let cases already approved go forward. I trust that in the days ahead, through the advocacy of concerned Christians and all people of good will, the unfortunate situation created by this executive order will be resolved in a compassionate, humanitarian way.

Thank you very much for your question and the concern behind it.

Detail of a stained glass window depicting the parable of the sheep and goats, Church of St Mary the Virgin, Gunthorpe, Norfolk
Detail of a stained glass window depicting the parable of the sheep and goats, Church of St Mary the Virgin, Gunthorpe, Norfolk



Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is an an ordained minister, a writer, and a biblical scholar. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the New International Version (NIV) that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He was also a consultant to Tyndale House for the Immerse Bible, an edition of the New Living Translation (NLT) that similarly presents the Scriptures in their natural literary forms, without chapters and verses or section headings. He has a B.A. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

3 thoughts on “Is Pope Francis right that Christians who chase away refugees are hypocrites?”

    1. Since the link you provide suggests that Trump and his associates are effectively mounting a coup to seize unlawful power over the United States, I assume that by “pulling a Bonhoeffer” you mean taking back the government by any means necessary, including violence. The situation that Bonhoeffer and his fellow Germans faced under Hitler is one of the most extreme examples and most difficult moral dilemmas known to me, at least, from history, and while it appears that we are certainly living in extraordinary times now, I would encourage all of us to address them by making extraordinary use of ordinary means: peaceful protest, advocacy, voting, and protection and support for those targeted. I have been greatly encouraged to see masses of Americans rising up to resist the recent threats to our democratic values and freedoms. Only a minority ever supported Trump enthusiastically in the first place; he got elected thanks to a significant “hold your nose” vote. His support level has been steadily sinking since even before he took office. Those who voted against Trump need to welcome those who voted for Trump as allies in any and all situations where they can work together to resist encroachments on our liberties and values. If we are all active and energized and do our part as concerned and involved citizens, extreme measures should not be required. Our institutions will not save us, but we can save them if we make responsible and concerted use of them. Violence is a shortcut that creates as many problems as addresses. We need to put in the time and the hard work to resolve the current situation in a peaceful, creative, constructive, and lasting way.

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