Seeking Refuge – A Commonsense Look at the Syrian Refugee Crisis

It is with great trepidation that I enter this conversation because I recognize that I do so at my own peril.  There have been voices on all sides of this conversation, and unfortunately, people too frequently respond with vitriol.  My goal is to not create a forum for people to spew political rhetoric or make emotional appeals, but for evangelicals to think critically and rationally about these issues.  But first, let me detail my own bias.

I do not trust the Obama Administration.  The “most transparent administration in history” has been immersed in scandal after scandal.  From the State Department’s inability to secure email to the IRS targeting political enemies to the DOJ giving free guns to Mexican drug cartels to the  DHHS and their inability to build a website.  This is a short list of the most “non-contested” incompetencies.  We have a 7-year track record observing our President’s Executive Branch at work, and my honest evaluation has left me with zero confidence in this Administration.  That’s not political, it is just reality.  When it comes to the potential for terrorists to use the refugee population as a “Trojan Horse,” how can we honestly expect an incompetent, corrupt executive branch to be able to appropriately and thoroughly investigate potential refugees?  Though the investigation is ongoing, a passport found near one of the attackers in Paris suggests that the terrorist may have infiltrated the country as a refugee.  That fact is further affirmed as the news is filled with “Syrian refugees” being arrested with fake or stolen travel documents in Turkey, Honduras, Saint MaartenTexas and other locations that likely have not yet surfaced.  If you can’t tell, I’m a little leery of rolling out a red, white, and blue carpet for Syrian refugees.

However, I do believe it is possible to think through this issue biblically and rationally without interference from my own personal bias.  At the same time, I acknowledge that well-meaning people have fallen on both sides of the conversation.  When there is deep divides among believers on issues, it may very well be that the right path is down the middle.  My goal is to find the middle and shine more light on that particular path.

Authority & Purpose

As American Christians, we recognize that there are two very distinct jurisdictions in which we dwell.  The tangible jurisdiction is human government.  It manifests in various ways – from homeowners associations to the Federal Government.  In this particular issue, the Federal Government is the focus of our conversation.  In Romans 13:3-4, the Apostle Paul said, “For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain.”  Paul suggests that government exists for “your good.”  To whom does that “your” refer?  He is obviously talking to the recipients of his letter, the Roman Church.  I’m quite certain that the emperor did not always get this right, but it is clear that God’s design for government is that is exists for the good of its citizens.  

Our own Constitution defines the purpose of our government thusly:

“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

It is evident from the Preamble of our Constitution that the role of the federal government is to provide for the common defense and promote the general Welfare” for “ourselves and our Posterity.”  It is perfectly reasonable, therefore, for American citizens to demand that our government do things that are necessary to protect American citizens from those who would seek to do them harm.

The second jurisdiction in which we dwell is God’s Kingdom.  As Christians, our responsibility to this jurisdiction is ensuring that the good news of God’s Kingdom is spread to the ends of the earth.  This Good News ignores national borders and is unconcerned with national security.  It embraces people of every tribe and every language.  It is color blind and is unfazed by economics.  It is no respecter of persons.

We must recognize that these two jurisdictions coexist.  Most of the time, they coexist peacefully.  Sometimes, they contradict.

Because our feet are planted in both jurisdictions, we frequently make mistakes in our thinking.  Our first mistake is that we often forget that the government is not expected to do the job of the church.  The State cannot share the Gospel, baptize converts, disciple believers, plant churches, or send missionaries.  That’s not to say that the State can be unjust or unethical or that the State is free from the influence of the Church, but even the most just, ethical, moral governments are not able to fulfill the obligations of the church.  Likewise, the church is not well equipped to do the job of the State.   Though many Christians would gladly take up arms to defend the State, the Church does not have the authority of the sword that God gave to the State.  A second mistake is that we are prone allow our allegiance to the State to overshadow our allegiance to the Kingdom.  We are Christian Americans, not American Christians.  We are free to serve the State as long as the State’s requirements do not cause us to disobey the Lord, but in those times when serving Caesar requires that we reject King Jesus, we always obey King Jesus first.

A Double Crisis

The Syrian refugee crisis touches in both jurisdictions.  This is why there is such a deep divide, particularly among evangelicals.  The State is obligated to protect her citizens, but there is more than little evidence that the current refugee population may pose legitimate security risks.  FBI Director James Comey said in a congressional hearing last month, “I can’t sit here and offer anybody an absolute assurance that there’s no risk associated with this.”

Likewise Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper said, “I don’t, obviously, put it past the likes of ISIL to infiltrate operatives among these refugees, so that’s a huge concern of ours.”  He called the potential for ISIS operatives infiltrating the refugee population “a disaster of biblical proportions.

In spite of the guarantee of a thorough vetting process by the Administration, the actual law enforcement officers involved in the process have expressed legitimate concerns.  If the State is responsible for the security of her citizens, then there are legitimate reasons to believe that bringing Syrian refugees to the United States is a risky move.  We need to remember that President Obama suspended an Iraqi refugee resettlement program in 2011 amid similar security concerns.

At the same time, the refugee situation falls within the Kingdom jurisdiction.  There are few Christians among the refugee population. Therefore, the refugees represent a group of people who desperately need to hear the Gospel.  They have lost their homes, their homeland, and have been displaced  into places and cultures that are completely unfamiliar. They are struggling through physical needs and the church stands well equipped to help those very real physical needs and even better equipped to meet the spiritual needs of the thousands of refugees.  Just like those affected by natural disasters or other crises, we know that we have an amazing opportunity to give hope to the hopeless through Jesus.

Therein lies the conflict.  In the government sphere, it is completely reasonable for the State to take actions that ensure the safety of its citizens.  When the State refuses to take those necessary actions, then the citizens of that State have a right to question the intentions of the governing authorities.  In the Kingdom sphere, we should find ourselves eager to love and serve the nations, even as the nations are relocating to our own backyard.

This means both sides have a point…

This means that government officials who are nervous about bringing in refugees because of the security risks are right to think that way.  That is not being unChristian or lacking compassion, it is simply being sensitive to the situation at hand.  If a government entity or official is acting out of their God-given and Constitutionally mandated responsibility to protect the citizens of the State from the demonstrable risk of terrorism, then it is wrong to vilify them.  It is certainly your prerogative to disagree with them, but not to demonize them.

But this also means that Christians who are acting out of compassion who wish to “rescue the perishing” are also right.  In fact, one could fathom, in this particular situation, a Christian member of Congress who is opposed to bringing Syrian refugees into the United States and sponsors legislation to stop refugee resettlement, but at the same time gives a generous financial contribution to his church’s efforts to evangelize the refugees who are already here.

What is inappropriate is when an official of the State acts against prudence and endangers the citizens of the nation.  Likewise, when a Christian allows fear and/or prejudice to cloud his Kingdom vision for spreading the Gospel, then a needed correction should take place.

How Should We Respond?

First, we need to have all the facts.  As with most criminal investigations, the story develops over time as more facts are known.  We are quick to reach a verdict without having all the information.  This story is still ongoing.  French police are still conducting raids.  Arrests are still taking place.  We honestly don’t know how polluted the refugee population is with jihadis.  It is good to have all the information before we rush to judgments.  Likewise, we need to listen to trustworthy experts and reliable media.  Just like I have a bias against our current administration, much of the media that people trust is biased in the other direction.  This is only prudent to do so

Secondly, we must stop making emotional appeals and encourage people to listen rationally to the truth.  Placing pictures of Syrian children on social media does not help bring people to a well-reasoned conclusion.  There are children sleeping in rotten places all over the world.  A trip to your local DFACS could likely yield a picture that is just as heart-wrenching.  The President accusing Republicans of being afraid of Syrian widows and orphans only serves to deepen the divide, not come to a responsible compromise.  Accusing people of fear and islamophobia only creates resentment and comes nowhere near anything helpful.

Thirdly, we have to stop misusing Scriptures.  I have never seen so many misquoted, misrepresented scripture texts.  It’s like we looked up every biblical reference on hospitality and taking care of the poor so we could use it in the arsenal of our arguments.  Christians are expected to exude hospitality – but that doesn’t mean that you are required to open the door when the thief comes knocking.  Nations are in a different boat.  They certainly aren’t prohibited from open borders, but they aren’t required either.  Remember, the United States is NOT the nation of Israel.  Israel caring for the sojourner is not a biblical commendation for a weak immigration policy.

Finally, we must take advantage of every opportunity to share the Gospel.  The only hope a refugee has is to trust Jesus Christ as Savior, not just as a prophet.  Apparently, 2,000 or so refugees have already resettled in the US.  If you live near one of these refugees, then you have got to ask yourself the question, “How do I love my new neighbor?”  Loving them supremely means doing what you can to keep them out of hell.  If we ignore them, then the reality is they will likely never assimilate into our culture.  When that happens, then it is easy for these unassimilated communities to become hotbeds for radicalization.  Even if you are opposed to refugee resettlement, you are not exempt from doing what is necessary to love your neighbor.  So if your church does some sort of mission work focused on refugees, you must not allow political opinions to cloud your judgment of that work or prevent you from participating.  We are not exempt from the Great Commission simply because we disagree politically with the decisions that opened the door for ministry among a refugee population.

A Middle Ground

I mentioned earlier about trying to illuminate the middle pathway.  The middle ground in this case means not moving refugees around the world.  In my mind, this makes a lot of sense, especially when one considers the high birthrate of Muslim populations.  There is an inherent risk to host populations to relocate large numbers of Muslims, particularly when those large numbers do not assimilate into the host culture.  The Center for Immigration Studies, recommends keeping refugees close to their homes.  They said in a recently published document entitled The High Cost of Resettling Middle Eastern Refugees: 

  • On average, each Middle Eastern refugee resettled in the United States costs an estimated $64,370 in the first five years, or $257,481 per household.
  • The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has requested $1,057 to care for each Syrian refugee annually in most countries neighboring Syria.
  • For what it costs to resettle one Middle Eastern refugee in the United States for five years, about 12 refugees can be helped in the Middle East for five years, or 61 refugees can be helped for one year.

From an economic standpoint, more refugees can be helped if that help happens closer to their home.  When the conflict is finished, then they can return home and begin rebuilding.  If they are resettled in developed countries, the reality is that these refugees will frequently be dependent on the welfare system, becoming a greater economic strain on the host nation’s fiscal wellbeing.  That certainly cannot be the only consideration in the conversation, but it is one that needs to be had.  When a country is approaching $19 trillion in debt, real conversations about fiscal responsibility are needed before taking on additional fiscal liabilities.

We simply need to remember prudence in the conversation.  Prudence does not equate fear or fear-mongering.  It equals, what the Center for Immigration Studes calls a “wise welcome.”  There’s nothing unChristian about looking for wisdom.

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