The Plight of Refugees–the Risk and the Call of Christ

The Plight of Refugees–the Risk and the Call of Christ February 8, 2017

How should Christians respond to the Trump administration executive order relevant to refugees? In the flurry of activity since the new President took office last month, it has been difficult to stay on top of happenings in the news, obtain clear facts about them, and then think clearly about a biblical, Christian response. I work from home and have more time to devote to following the news than many do. But even so, I have been overwhelmed with the amount of information to digest and check. I can only imagine how difficult it is for those who work labor-intensive jobs outside of the home and come home exhausted to try to get a read on all that is going on. Things are moving fast.

In this post, I hope to provide some helpful resources to enable you to sort through the current administration’s policies in regard to refugees and foreign visitors and to think about those policies from a biblical perspective.

Nuts and Bolts of the Executive Orders Regarding Refugees and Foreign Visitors

President Trump’s executive order that I will be referencing here, which he signed January 27, 2017, bans immigrants and visitors from seven countries for ninety days. These countries–other than Syria–are not listed in the ban itself but the Trump administration has repeatedly affirmed these are the impacted countries: Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia and Yemen. It has been unclear off and on whether green card holders from these countries are impacted, although the latest word seems to be that they are not. The executive order does allow a provision for the exceptions to be made on a case-by-case basis by the Secretaries of Homeland Security and State. The executive order also suspends the refugee program altogether for 120 days, and the Syrian refugee program indefinately. You can read the whole executive order here. You can also read the Department of Homeland Security explainer (released a couple of days later) here.

The Claim That the Obama Administration Did Similar Things

To justify the new policy, Trump administration officials have said that they based the countries involved in the ban on an Obama administration list of terrorism-associated countries. Politifact Wisconsin reports,

The Obama-signed law contains provisions that restrict travel to the United States for people who lived in or visited Iran, Iraq, Sudan, or Syria since March 2011. They must have a visa to enter the United States; they can’t use what is known as the Visa Waiver Program, which allows 90-day U.S. visits to other foreign visitors.

The law was soon expanded by Obama’s Department of Homeland Security to cover Libya, Somalia, and Yemen. They were identified in the agency’s announcement as “countries of concern,” a phrase used in the law.

It is true that the Obama administration made a specific change in reaction to a threat that had been revealed and did suspend the Iraqi refugee program for six months in 2011. This was because two refugees with a history of attacking US troops in Iraq and with continued ties to terror had entered the US through the refugee program. In response to this lapse, changes were made to the refugee vetting program. However, some refugees from Iraq continued to enter the country throughout the entire year of 2011.

An Incompetent Roll-Out That Caused Unnecessary Confusion and Suffering

The book of Proverbs, seeming more relevant by the day, tells us, “For lack of guidance a nation falls, but victory is won through many advisers” (11:14 NIV). The old king seems to be advising the reader: Don’t go off half-cocked on the advice of a couple people. Seek out other views, find out the whole scope of the situation, talk to people who have knowledge and experience in this area. Don’t assume you already know everything. You don’t. Unfortunately, this advice is the opposite of what our President did here.

It’s not so much that the Trump administration wanted to make sure the vetting of refugees, immigrants, and foreign visitors to the United States in place was adequate to national security. Rather, it’s that the policy seems to have been developed by a small internal group, with little consultation with other government agencies and members of Congress that had knowledge of the procedures already in place. As Republican Senator Rob Portman told CNN’s Jake Tapper, “This was an extreme vetting program that wasn’t properly vetted.” And then, the communication of how to implement the procedure was so poor that unnecessary confusion and suffering resulted. When you proceed with knee-jerk plans to fix a problem that might not even exist–and if it does exist, a problem you don’t fully understand from all angles–you make things worse, not better, for national security. In many advisers, there is wisdom. Without them, there is foolishness.

The incompetent roll-out caused a lot of suffering to well-vetted, innocent people who had been waiting a very long time to come to the United States. I wish every American, particularly those who support the new policies, would listen to the latest episode of NPR’s This American Life, which documents the effect of the new policies on refugees bound for the US and on a refugee held in a US airport fearing for his life if he were sent back to Iraq. The stories you will hear are heartrending, and you should know about them.

The Claim That Current Refugee Vetting Is Insufficient

Yes, any time any person comes to this country, by birth or immigration or as a refugee, there is a risk that person may do something harmful. However, the risk posed by refugees is very, very low. According to CBS News, in story in November of 2015,

The Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington, says that of the 784,000 refugees cleared for resettlement in the United States after Sept. 11, 2001, only the two Iraqis in Kentucky and a third man from Uzbekistan were later arrested for planning violent acts. Of the roughly 2,200 Syrians admitted to the United States as refugees since the start of the civil war in 2011, none has been arrested on such charges, according to the institute.

The New York Times helpfully lays out the extensive steps of the vetting process in a recent article. Likewise, a November of 2015 Associated Press story posted on Fox News details the extensive vetting process, adding,

The U.S. has helped resettle about 2,500 Syrian refugees since the war started in that country in 2011. The Obama administration said about half that group is children, while about 2.5 percent are people over the age of 60 and roughly 2 percent are single men of combat age. The overall group is almost evenly split among men and women.

The aforementioned This American Life episode interviews a US refugee security screener, as well. He reports that if there is a question as to the trustworthiness of a refugee, or if he cannot decide whether they are truthful or not, he will err on the side of caution and will not approve the person to be admitted to the US. This is the opposite of what many people think occurs and demonstrates the importance of being well informed as to what the process to come to this country actually involves.

God’s Heart Toward Refugees

It is not unchristian to have concerns about security and safety, particularly for the sake of family and other citizens of the country. A desire to keep others safe can indeed be a selfless one. But when that good desire turns into irrational fear and that irrational fear becomes justification to allow harm to continue to innocent people, that’s where we must check ourselves as Christians. The arguments presented above should hopefully help to show that the risk of terrorism from refugees, particularly as the program stood at the end of the Obama administration, has been greatly overblown by the Trump administration. It is true that there is a small risk, and certainly continuing to analyze the program to look for ways to improve is reasonable and prudent, but it is also true that we must balance that risk with the benefit refugees bring to this country and with our responsibility as a country to share what we have been given with those in need.

Particularly for Christians, the call of Christ to serve those in need and to share the Gospel with the whole earth are relevant here. Do we throw overboard families who are vulnerable and in fear for their lives out of our disproportionate fear, a fear not accurately based in actual the level of actual risk? Or do we welcome them, knowing that they are the ones we are called to love and serve?

Jesus memorably told his followers,

 For 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.Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.–Matthew 25:35-36, 40 NIV

And in the Old Testament, in Deuteronomy 10, we read,

He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt.–vv. 18-19 NIV

(Relevant magazine has a list with even more passages relevant to the cause of the refugee.)

Not only are we to care for the suffering and needy, but we are also to be mindful of Christ’s call to preach the Gospel to all nations (Matthew 28:18-20). An antiglobalism can too easily mutate into a rejection of a world Christ came to save.

In this video, conservative Baptist pastor John Piper passionately reminds the Church that our call to care for the suffering is not something constrained by government policy, and in fact, if our government turns its back on this imperative, we should go to the suffering refugees and help ease all of their suffering, by bringing them practical aid and the Gospel. In this sermon snippet, Piper properly frames this issue within the framework of mission, which evangelical Christians have traditionally seen as the purpose for their existence.

Finally, an evangelical Christian, Lyman Stone, recently wrote a surprising piece for the hyper-liberal website, Salon (“Conservative Christians are divided on Trump’s stand on refugees–but they can be convinced”). Stone speaks the clear language of our evangelical tribe, appeals to mission-mindedness and the better nature of his fellow evangelicals. This is the way I grew up and what I was taught. I want to believe that love and compassion for the whole world is still central to the hearts of my fellow Christians. I have seen evidence of this in some, but not in others. I hope and pray it can awaken again so that we can glorify God by serving the world he has made, particularly the suffering orphan and widow–the most vulnerable of society–in the midst of it. I hope and pray some of the resources in this post will prove to be of some small help in the cause of standing up for those who need help so desperately.

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Because this is a Christian blog, the things I’m talking about will obviously be topics that people feel strongly about in one direction or another. Please keep in mind that this is a place for substantive, respectful, constructive conversation. All perspectives are welcome to discuss here as long as all can treat each other with kindness and respect. Please ignore trolls, refuse to engage in personal attacks, try not to derail the conversation into divisive rabbit trails, and observe the comment policy listed on the right side of the page. Comments that violate these guidelines may be deleted. Vulgar remarks may result in immediate blacklisting. For those who clearly violate these policies repeatedly, my policy is to issue a warning which, if not regarded, may lead to blacklisting. This is not about censorship, but about creating a healthy, respectful environment for discussion.

P.S. Please also note that I am not a scientist, but a person with expertise in theology and the arts. While I am very interested in the relationship between science and faith, I do not believe I personally will be able to adequately address the many questions that inevitably come up related to science and religion. I encourage you to seek out the writings of theistic or Christian scientists to help with those discussions.

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