Sunday, November 22, 2015

Shutting Out the Refugee

                I am deeply ashamed of my country right now. Please don’t misunderstand, I love my country very much and wish the very best for her, but the decisions of more than half of the states to turn away all Syrian refugees and of the US House of Representatives to “require the head of the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security and the Director of National Intelligence to sign off on each refugee as being ‘not a threat to the security of the United States’” ( is an over-the-top isolationist response motivated by fear and inconsistent with the Good News of Jesus that many of those supportive of this legislation say they embrace. I long for American Christians to wake up and see the contradiction between faith in a God who reaches out to a suffering world, coming Himself that we might have life, and our hard-heartedness towards those fleeing war and death and destruction in a complex conflict between four sides.

                Throughout the Bible, God’s concern for the alien and sojourner is demonstrated again and again: Abraham and the patriarchs, Moses and the people of Israel, Ruth, David and others. The theme is explicitly addressed in the book of Hebrews as we are described as aliens and sojourners. Provision was even made for Cain – a less than worthy example of a sojourner – who God marked as a warning to those who might mistreat him. God is described as our refuge no less than 45 times in the Psalms alone; If we look to God as our refuge, do we have any right to shut the door in the face of those who are being slaughtered by ruthless murderers? More than any specific command, the call for Christians to open their hearts to refugees is based in who we see God to be: “the Lord, the Lord, a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness…” (Ex. 34:6) He calls us to be like Him because if we refuse to show mercy to the refugee then we are denying the very principle that we depend on as we appeal to Him. To do so is to saw off the limb we are sitting on (see Matthew 18:23-35, Matthew 6:14-15).

                So why are Christians unwilling to take in Syrian refugees, some of whom are our brothers and sisters in Christ? The reason is clear: They fear that among the legitimate refugees there may be some terrorists infiltrating the US with the intent of carrying out attacks similar to the ones that happened recently in Paris. It is no secret that Daesh and other terrorist organizations wish to inflict massive destruction and carnage among Americans and other European countries which do not bow to Islam, specifically their brand of Islam. Ironically, fear is precisely the response that “terror-ists” want us to have, because fear clouds our reasoning and gives them more power, not just against us but also on the world stage. A knee-jerk response such as the recent isolationist moves by US states and the House of Representatives runs the risk of playing right into the hands of true enemies. Like too many of our foreign policy decisions of the past 14-years (and more!), it is short-term savvy and long-term stupid.

                What are the real risks of accepting a large number of Syrian refugees? Can some of the risk be ameliorated? A thorough treatment of these questions would require a much longer treatment than I can give here, but to ignore these very real questions would be irresponsible.
                As of 2011, roughly 10% of the population of Syria was Christian, more than 70% were Sunni Muslim (including Kurds, Arabs, and others), 16% were non-Sunni Muslims, and there was a small population of citizens of Jewish, Greek and other backgrounds (; see also for more information). I have not yet found any demographic studies of the refugee population that include religious background. Nonetheless, it is safe to say that the refugee population is diverse, not even of a uniform religious background. In this mix, would it be reasonable to expect that some of the refugees are “wolves in sheep’s clothing”? While it is certainly possible, it would be unlikely to be a preferred method of Daesh for infiltrating the West for two reasons: (1) refugees undergo more scrutiny than those coming short-term as students, businessmen, or tourists (see Scott Hicks’ post on the immigration process for refugees, and the risks of being exposed would be much greater than other avenues of entering the US and (2) the whole philosophy of Daesh is to call Muslims from around the world to go to a physical caliphate which is being established in Syria and Iraq. Absence from the physical caliphate would be primarily short-term, and the refugee process at this point in history (as Daesh sees it) would take too long.  It is worth noting the many Daesh recruits who have left Western countries (including the United States) to join the jihad in Syria. There could well be other terrorist organizations which might use this strategy, but Daesh would be more likely to try to radicalize those already in the immigration process. And that is where the real danger could lie: hundreds of thousands of refugees stuck in camps, unable to return home yet with little hope of moving on and beginning life anew: What better recruitment ground could Daesh find? And that is precisely why Daesh doesn’t want the West to take in refugees! This is why refusing to take in legitimate refugees plays right into the hands of our enemies. This is why, while in the short-term it seems safer to close our borders, in the long-term such a response empowers those who hate us and will result in our country being embroiled in continued conflict. So let’s look not just at the risks of accepting refugees, but at the risks of not accepting refugees.

                If security is your concern (as it should be a concern), then ensure that the vetting process is not short-circuited. Carry out good studies on who the refugees are and how to best help them. Provide good English and cultural adaptation training for those who come. Implement a careful (not draconian) follow-up process that makes sure that immigrants are adjusting well and that those who at some point could pose a security threat are flagged early to enough to either help them or (if necessary) revoke their privilege of living in America (or any other host country). There are costs involved, but it might be worth comparing the costs of a well thought-out resettlement program with the costs (in dollars and lives) of protracted war.

                There are other concrete steps that we as Christians can take. First, we need to turn from our fears and start living the compassion that Jesus calls us to. Second, we need to understand the lives and beliefs of those who come to live among us. I have not made some of the naïve theological statements that sometimes litter the political discussion of conflict in the Middle East and terrorist attacks in general: I am under no illusion that “Islam is the same as Christianity” or that “Islam is a religion of peace”. These kinds of statement are uninformed wishful thinking, willful denial in hopes that “tolerance” will make the problem go away. It won’t. On the other hand, we do need to understand that the average Muslim is a human being trying to live their lives faithful to what they understand to be true and good. I highly recommend Georges Houssney’s book, Engaging Islam for a basic understanding of some foundations of Islam and how we can begin to follow Jesus’ command to “Love our neighbor as ourselves” and (if you consider Muslims your enemy - not Georges' position!) how to “love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you”. We must overcome fear and ignorance, the combination of which has led to horrible injustices committed in the name of Christ, and which are at the core of our current isolationist tendencies.

                There is much we can do as a Christian community. I believe each church should prayerfully consider sponsoring and hosting a refugee family. Personal engagement and demonstrating the love of Christ are the most powerful way of overcoming the hate and distrust that fuel the current conflict. And let’s not forget about a very different “IS” already in our cities: International Students. These students are our easiest opportunity to demonstrate Christ’s love and show hospitality in ways that could change the world. Of course, there are many other immigrants around us who we can be reaching out to. But if each Christian were to befriend someone from another country and learn about their cultures and beliefs while growing deeper in their own understanding of the Word and of our almighty, loving God, we would have an impact on the world, drastically reducing any dangers we might incur by taking the risk of welcoming refugees.

                I find the timing of the current refugee crisis more than a little ironic: As we approach Christmas, how is it that our hearts are hardened towards people fleeing death and violence? Or have we forgotten about a young couple forced by political whims to travel over 100 miles by foot only to be denied housing just as the woman was about to give birth? Or that same couple with a young child fleeing a murderous tyrant, ending up as political refugees in Egypt? Brothers and sisters, if we refuse to open our hearts to the refugees out of fear that some terrorists might slip in, we would not be shutting out the wolves; we would be shutting out the Lamb. Will He be ashamed at our lack of faith? Will we?

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