With the Syrian civil war plodding through its fourth year, the country is being hollowed out as everyone who has the means to escape flees from the bloodshed. Ordinary Syrians are trapped in a vise between the indiscriminate brutality of Bashar al-Assad’s military and the sadistic terror of ISIS. The United Nations estimates that over four million of them are now refugees. The vast majority have gone to neighboring states like Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and even Iraq, but tens of thousands are seeking safety in Europe and the United States.
Whether they travel overland or brave the Mediterranean, these people are risking everything in the tenuous hope of finding safety in a foreign land. Sometimes that attempt ends in tragedy, as with Aylan al-Kurdi, a three-year-old boy who drowned when his overloaded boat capsized during the sea crossing. His small, lifeless body washed up like flotsam on a beach in Turkey (WARNING: potentially disturbing image), becoming a searing image of Syrian desperation and Western indifference. And it seems likely that the horrific terrorist attacks in Paris last week will multiply the suspicion and xenophobia that refugees face, even though – as many commenters have pointed out – that’s the kind of slaughter that they’re trying to escape.
President Obama has announced that the U.S. will take in 10,000 refugees, a pitifully inadequate number compared to the scale of the crisis. Yet even that small and faltering step has met ferocious opposition from conservative, religious-right governors like Bobby Jindal (Louisiana), Greg Abbott (Texas) and Robert Bentley (Alabama), among many others, all of whom have proclaimed that they won’t allow Syrian refugees in their states.
This is pure bluster, since under the Constitution, governors have no power to decide that. But it sends an exceptionally dark and ugly message when politicians believe that such brazen pandering to xenophobia is a winning move. The refuseniks are no different than the World War II-era politicians who barred Jewish refugees, driven by racism and paranoid fear that there might be Nazi or Communist agents among them.
Meanwhile, the members of the Republican presidential herd are practically tripping over themselves to be the most bigoted. Ted Cruz and Jeb Bush have both proposed a religious test, arguing that we should only allow Christian refugees in and keep Muslims out (and they’d know which is which… how, exactly?). Even the candidates who’ve made religion their watchword have joined the xenophobia parade: Mike Huckabee suggested that Syrians wouldn’t be able to live in the U.S. because it would be too cold for them; Ben Carson demanded that Congress “swiftly extinguish any programs that might allow an ISIS terrorist to infiltrate the United States disguised as a refugee“. John Kasich, who’s proposed a federal Department of Judeo-Christianity, has said he’d be too afraid to live near refugees.
It’s not just politicians, either. My Patheos colleague Libby Anne has written about Michael Farris, a leading figure in the Christian homeschooling movement, who urged his followers to contact their representatives and demand that no more refugees be allowed into the country. As Libby Anne points out, Farris has previously demanded the U.S. offer asylum to German Christians for no reason other than that they wanted to homeschool and German laws didn’t allow for it – but when it comes to people whose actual lives are in danger, he has nothing but contempt.
It’s astounding that so many self-proclaimed Christians want us to turn away refugees at the border, to greet human beings in need with a barred door and a clenched fist. Aren’t they supposed to be the ones who believe in a book that says this?
“The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt.”
“Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.”
Or especially this?
“Then the King will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’
Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink? And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee? And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’
Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’
Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to thee?’
Then he will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me.'”
In my humble atheist’s opinion, passages like this one are among the best in the Bible. The commandment couldn’t be more explicit, the lesson couldn’t be clearer. To mistreat a needy person or a stranger is to mistreat Jesus. Yet there are those who call themselves Christian, who hold themselves out as the true followers of God’s will, who scorn this passage and aspire to be the ones their own Bible sentences to eternal damnation!
I’m not going to claim that taking in refugees is or could ever be completely safe. Is there some risk in doing this, some minimal possibility that a few fundamentalist would-be killers will try to slip in among the masses of bedraggled, tempest-tossed people fleeing destruction and death? An honest answer would have to be yes. But an honest moral accounting also has to balance that bare possibility against the crushing certainty that millions of human lives hang in the balance, that we have the power to help, and that innocent people will suffer and die if we don’t act. If you demand airtight, unassailable certainty before aiding those in need, you’ll never do any good deed for anyone.
Besides, it’s an irrational fantasy to pretend that we could be safe if only we didn’t take in any refugees. The idea that we can or should erect walls all around the United States and shut the world out is sheerest delusion, peddled by carnival-barker politicians who promise the impossible. And it’s an ugly racist delusion at that, partaking as it does of the belief that people of Middle Eastern heritage are inherently untrustworthy and that we can best protect ourselves by screening them out.
Besides, how is the purely hypothetical danger of refugee terrorism any worse than the all-too-real and ongoing danger of angry, aggrieved white men who commit mass gun murder in movie theaters, or shopping malls, or elementary schools, or churches? The religious right couldn’t care less about that kind of terrorism. (The purest essence of that supernova hypocrisy is the NRA-backed Texas lawmaker who worried that Syrian refugees would find it too easy to buy guns.)
The war against violent theocracy and Islamism is at its core a war of ideas, of hearts and minds, not of bombs and bullets. If we want to win this war, the way we do it is to prove – by example – that the U.S. isn’t a crusader nation that seeks to subjugate Muslims, but a home and a haven to everyone of every country, race and creed who seeks a better life. And we’re now presented with an unsurpassable opportunity to do just that!
The people at our gates have given up everything to seek refuge. Their lives and their fortunes are in our hands. How better can we show our good will and our compassion than by clasping that outstretched hand and pulling them up? How better can we win their eternal gratitude than by offering them safe haven when they need it most? What better chance will we ever have to disprove, at a single stroke, the ISIS propaganda which says Muslims and the West are eternal enemies? And what immeasurable good will it do for us, if those people then return to their friends and families and spread the word that the United States of America saved their lives!
Image: Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me. Via Shutterstock and Emma Lazarus.