As we continue to develop this discussion, we are turning to a different topic. Admittedly, there are many aspects of immigration policy that we have not directly addressed. Topics such as “amnesty”, “deportation”, “sanctuary cities”, “services for undocumented immigrants” and “assimilation” have only been given cursory attention – if they have been referenced at all. As we said from the outset, there is more in this subject than we could possibly hope to cover in six weeks. It is not our intent to be exhaustive and it is not our goal to resolve every issue. Instead we want to explore a breadth of topics related to immigration and try to forge a dialogue that is balanced and biblical. There is room for Christians to draw different conclusions on these matters.
This week we will discuss “Refugees.” It is important to note from the very beginning that refugees are different from other types of immigrants. While immigrants choose to relocate – usually for educational or economic reasons; refugees are forced from their homeland – usually from fear of violence or famine. This important distinction should have an impact on our policy considerations. Refugees are people who are in need and have little choice in the matter.
Many readers of this blog may know that last summer, I spent two months with my family working with refugees in Athens Greece. Some of the people that we spent time with were from Afghanistan, but most were from the Middle East – especifically Syria, where a long civil war has driven millions out of their own country. Through our experience, we had a window into a huge worldwide problem. The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) estimates that there are 21.3 million refugees worldwide, over half of whom are under the age of 18. The largest numbers come from Somalia (1.1m), Afghanistan (2.7m), and Syria (4.9m). While Greece receives a great deal of visibility for their refugee care, they only host about 60,000, while Turkey has more than 2.5 million refugees (see statistics here).
It has been challenging for many countries to know how to respond. Germany and France has wrestled with these issues publicly, and this past winter, the presidential travel ban put the US refugee resettlement program on hold. (The halt to the refugee program has since been delayed in the courts.) How should Christians think about this difficult issue?
- Biblical Precedent. Many of the biblical references to “sojourners, exile, or strangers” most clearly refer to people who are refugees. For example, Joseph and his brothers went to Egypt because of a famine in their own land (Gen 47:4). Ruth’s father went to Moab for the same reason (Ruth 1:1). Joseph, Mary and Jesus fled to Egypt to avoid political violence (Matt 2:13). The early church spread across the near east as they fled persecution (Acts 8:1.) Refugees are an essential part of the biblical narrative.
- Challenges of Assimilation. It is rarely easy for refugees to assimilate into a new cultural context. Many European countries have had difficulty assimilating recent masses of refugees from the Middle East. High profile cases in France and Germany have highlighted the challenges that come from large scale refugee resettlement. Many of these European issues are rooted in deep historical complexities. (For example, much of the current conflict between Muslims and the secular west in countries like France can be traced primarily to the lingering effects of North Africa’s inclusion in the French colonial empire.) It is also true that refugees have not been linked to any terrorist activities in our own country. At the same time, we cannot dismiss the reality that refugee resettlement does involve risk.
- Risk assessment. It is challenging to think clearly about the level of risk that refugees pose. Because of the presence of Islamic-related terrorism around the world, Muslim refugees are a group of concern for many. It is important to note that refugees currently undergo a thorough vetting process before they enter the US – they undergo a process far different from that of a typical immigrant. When we look at refugees as a distinct subset of people, there is a notable absence of violence among refugees in America. The following is a quote from Tim Breene, CEO of the Evangelical ministry “World Relief”: [Currently, refugees coming to America] go through a multi-step process that generally lasts anywhere between 18 months to 3 years, and includes fingerprinting, biometrics, retina scans, and multiple interviews by different agencies, including the United Nations, State Department contractors, and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security...The effectiveness of the process is demonstrated by the fact that, of the roughly three million refugees admitted since 1980, none has ever killed a single American in a terrorist attack. (Emphasis mine.)
- Hardship. The refugee situation differs from the broader immigration discussion because refugees are – by definition – people who do not have the realistic option of returning to their homeland. They didn’t choose to leave their country for economic reasons, but were forced out. During our time in Athens, I was surprised to discover how many refugees came from middle class backgrounds, like myself. Teachers, doctors, and lawyers had given up their status and all of their material possessions to seek a safe place to live. Many (if not most) refugees are resettled in countries where they will scrape out an existence and that lies far below the one they have previously known.
- Mercy is Costly. When Jesus was asked what it looks like to love his neighbor, he responded with the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10). As I spent the summer working with refugees, I was repeatedly reminded that the actions of the Samaritan man were risky. Love is risky. We are called to be wise as serpents (Mark 10:16) and not incur unnecessary risk. However, it is impossible to engage in ministries of mercy without risk. The kingdom does not advance without risk.
- The Nations are Flowing to God’s Mountain. It would be wrongheaded for a Christian to engage in any mercy ministry merely as a tool for evangelism. Love cannot be contingent on someone’s response to the gospel. On the other hand, love for our neighbor, necessarily compels us to share the Good News of grace in Jesus Christ. Without being mercenary in our care, we should not miss the fact that the current refugee crisis has opened doors for Christian witness. It has relocated millions of people from nations closed to the gospel to nations where gospel proclamation is legal. The desperate need of many is the backdrop for the display of Christ’s sacrificial love. This is no small thing. It is clear that God is working to draw people from every nation to his holy mountain – through faith in Jesus Christ. As followers of Christ we should be looking for every opportunity to be involved in this great purpose.