Refugee crisis and loving thy neighbour: Are we really making a 'catastrophic error' by following Jesus?

Former Australian prime minister Tony Abbott said following Jesus' command to love thy neighbour is "leading much of Europe into catastrophic error."Reuters

The late, great activist and Priest Brennan Manning said, "The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today is Christians: who acknowledge Jesus with their lips, walk out the door, and deny Him by their lifestyle. That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable."

He was, of course, spot on. How many times have you heard the Church, or Christians, derided by the media as 'hypocritical?'

We all fall short of God's standards and none of us claims to be perfect as Christians, but acting in direct contravention to Jesus' words is just going to make us a laughing stock. We'll be ignored, told we're irrelevant or even worse – we'll be praised for 'growing up' and realising that all that Jesus stuff was silly in the first place.

Someone who really should know all this is a politician who began training for the ministry himself before switching course and heading into elected office. Tony Abbott was in London this week to give the Margaret Thatcher Lecture. Among other topics, the former Australian Prime Minister used the platform to lecture Europe on its response to the refugee crisis.

But did he chastise our governments for being too slow, too timid and too cautious in response to one of the greatest human tragedies since the Second World War?

Well, no. Instead he used it as a chance to say we hadn't been draconian enough – and into the bargain that Jesus was wrong.

Here's what he said: "Implicitly or explicitly, the imperative to "love your neighbour as you love yourself" is at the heart of every Western polity. It expresses itself in laws protecting workers, in strong social security safety nets, and in the readiness to take in refugees. It's what makes us decent and humane countries as well as prosperous ones, but – right now – this wholesome instinct is leading much of Europe into catastrophic error."

That's right. The Christian former Prime Minister of a 'Christian country,' speaking to other 'Christian countries' just suggested one of the central teachings of the Sermon On The Mount is "leading much of Europe in Catastrophic error."

This is worrying thinking. If Abbott was just any old secular leader, then we'd expect a lack of true engagement with the radical nature of the gospel message.

But Tony Abbott should know better. He should know that when Jesus told stories about and interacted with Samaritans, he was talking about a hated race and rival faith group (think of how some cultures demonise Muslims today). He should know that when Jesus engaged with the Roman authorities – even declaring the Centurion to have great faith – he was giving credence to the violent, repressive occupying power. He should know that by eating with 'sinners and tax collecters' Jesus was straying well beyond the acceptable limits of his society. In other words, Jesus words and actions are tough and sometime unpalatable to emulate.

None of this means that we should open the borders forever and allow anyone who wants to arrive the UK to settle here. There are serious discussions being had about how many refugees the UK should accept. A pan-European response is required and we must acknowledge the huge amount of good being done by British aid in the Middle East itself which is being given at a rate higher than most other western nations. We must continue to examine the right course of action – does allowing refugees to enter the UK and other European countries encourage dangerous journeys over land and sea? We must be wise as serpents as well as gentle as doves. But we mustn't be drawn in by bizarre assertions such as in this week's Spectator that, "The migration crisis today is not due to an outbreak of war and poverty: we're living in an unprecedented era of peace and prosperity." There is a horrendous war going on in Syria and Iraq. Chaos in Libya rarely makes the headlines, but continues apace. South Sudan is in the grip of starvation and brutality. The list goes on...

What is clear is that there is a crisis of epic proportions. Loving our neighbour means more than saying the right thing. We must engage more seriously with Jesus' command to love our neighbour as ourselves if we want to be truly Christian. It's why Abbott has been rebuked by leaders in his own country. According to the Sydney Morning Herald, "Retired Bishop Pat Power told Fairfax Media he was 'absolutely astounded' and 'appalled' by Mr Abbott's use of the Bible to preach a 'narrow-minded' and 'hard-hearted' approach to some of the world's most vulnerable people."

By loving our neighbour as ourselves, we may have to sacrifice things. A spare room, some money and clothes, our time, a part of our lives. This isn't easy teaching, but that's the point of it. Jesus demands a lot from us. The sermon on the mount is far more radical than most political manifestos. As GK Chesterton masterfully remarked, "The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried." Tony Abbott may like it to stay that way. Jesus has got other ideas.