Note: The author would like to thank and acknowledge Rev. Michael Ericson for his substantial contributions to the drafting of this article.
A short while ago, discussion of the Syrian refugee issue was virtually everywhere. It was the first time in my memory that such a matter has been so prominent in our national dialogue. Even in the midst of the Vietnamese and Cambodian refugee crisis of the late 1970s, (where perhaps millions died trying to escape to other countries) I’m not sure there was as much debate over what the United States should or shouldn’t do as we had been having recently. It strikes me as a more politicized debate as well, with rational discussions of the issue being supplanted by emotional attacks on or defenses of President Obama’s position, which is to allow 10,000 Syrian refugees into the U.S., and to veto any congressional legislation that aims to stop him from doing so.
As part of the defense of President Obama’s plan, it is frequently suggested that we have a moral obligation to help these refugees by allowing them to come here, especially if we are among those who may consider the United States a Christian nation. Often you will see Old Testament passages such as Deuteronomy 26:12, 10:18-19, Exodus 23:9, and Leviticus 19:33-34 cited as Biblical mandates for unconditionally accepting refugees. To be sure, the Bible does have much to say about the treatment of “the stranger” or “sojourner”. I agree that there are real obligations that we have to them. However, I simply do not see that a nation, Christian or otherwise, is obliged to take in every refugee and every immigrant in every instance. Surely there are factors that we need to take into consideration as opposed to simply asserting that the Bible teaches an unqualified moral obligation to take in refugees or immigrants.
There may be more, but there are at least four general categories of qualifiers relative to this matter:
With regard to proximity, the question arises as to whether the obligation set forth in Scripture is the same if the refugees in question are in a bordering country or if they are half a world away, as they are in the case of the Syrian refugees. Does the obligation still exist? If the obligation remains, is it lessened in any way?
There are no specific Biblical texts that I know of that deal with proximity in relation to refugees or immigrants. There are some texts, however, that may give us some insight as to how proximity is viewed in relation to duty within other contexts: For example, I Timothy 5:8 makes it plain that an individual’s first concern and responsibility is to his own family. Provision for anyone else comes secondarily. Proverbs 27:10 seems to suggest that distance makes even familial responsibilities difficult.
Augustine, when dealing with the question of proximity and moral obligations, said this: “…all people are to be loved equally; but since you cannot be of service to everyone, you have to take greater care of those who are more closely joined to you…whether by place or time, or any other such circumstance [emphasis added].”
What Augustine speaks of is found in the very idea of neighbor, which its root and usage containing the notion of one that is near. We recognize that the idea can be abused, but one must admit the Samaritan (Luke 10: 25-37) was very near to the injured man. Additionally, he put the needy man up locally, didn’t take him home with him, or transport him halfway across the world.
We cannot assume that we are morally responsible to accept refugees from such a distance as Syria. It seems to me that if we are morally responsible for them at such a distance, then there is no one world-wide that we are not responsible for. This is simply unreasonable. Their neighboring countries can and should take them in and give them aid.
As far as numbers are concerned, are we obligated to help all refugees? If not, how many is enough to meet any moral obligation that exists?
I know of no mass refugee entrance into the nation of Israel that can be found in the Bible. Nonetheless, the Bible does have something to say about stewardship and the appropriate use of resources. An example of this is found in Luke 14:28-30, where it is taken for granted that everyone understands the necessity of counting costs and considering resources in numerous areas of life. And in the narrative of Joseph in Genesis chapters 39 through 41, he was always put in charge, in God’s providence, because he utilized the resources available for good, and exercised great care in his stewardship.
The United States has quietly allowed over 100,000 Syrian immigrants into the country since 2012, and the 10,000 refugees the President has currently agreed to allow into the U.S. are apparently just the beginning. He has acknowledged his intention to bring in more. Regardless, one would think that there would be more discussion about how a particular number is arrived at. The refugee issue, like the immigration issue, needs to have an objective examination as to what can be realistically done. There needs to be a critical analysis of the number of people we can help with the resources we have available for this purpose. This analysis needs to be comprehensive in its scope, taking into consideration resources required over the long term. If we are morally obliged to take in some of these refugees, surely we are not obliged to take in any more than our resources will allow. Perhaps our government has done a critical analysis with respect to our resources in this connection, but I doubt it.
And as to the sheer numbers involved where the Syrian exodus is concerned, evidence is mounting which shows that some are simply looking for the opportunity of a better life, and not fleeing out of utter necessity or to save their lives. Once again, this is a factor that ought to be taken into consideration when discussing what obligations we might have.
Then there is the question of religion and culture. This category is probably the single most controversial, at least to those that think no religion or culture has merits beyond that of another. “How can you discriminate on the basis of religion?”, they ask. “That’s so bigoted,” they say. They are also quick to tell you how guilty our culture is of one thing or another, and what terrible hypocrites we are.
When the Thanksgiving holiday rolls around, we are frequently reminded of how evil Columbus was, and how the Pilgrims would have starved if it weren’t for the indigenous people (Native Americans) who helped them. How dare we therefore make demands on those coming here from another culture?
I’m not going to launch into a defense of Christopher Columbus, but I am going to defend the notion of making demands of assimilation from those would enter our country. As we look at the “stranger” or “sojourner” in Scripture, we see they had demands placed upon them. Even if they did not proselytize into the religion of Israel, they were still expected to obey the laws and customs of Israel (Exodus 12:49, Numbers 15:16). They were expected to obey the Sabbath laws (Exodus 20:10) and blasphemy laws (Leviticus 24:16), for example. And in Leviticus 25:45-46 there is actually a provision in the law authorizing a form of slavery for “strangers that do sojourn among you.” It’s just silly to make an argument from Scripture for the moral obligation to accept refugees, unless you are also prepared to accept that Scripture teaches that strict demands, conditions, and restrictions may apply to them.
And, yes, I do think Christians should receive preferential treatment as our nation considers helping refugees. To the extent that our nation once had a clear Christian consensus, and that much in our culture and many of our laws reflect that consensus, this should seem obvious. Their assimilation to our culture will go far more smoothly than it will for a Muslim, and we won’t have to worry about whether or not they have been or will be “radicalized.”
Also, let’s not forget the systematic and barbaric extermination of Christians that ISIS has been carrying out in Syria and Iraq, or the Christian refugees who have had to flee their homes because of the Syrian rebels. Up until now, Syrian Christians have been disproportionately represented in the acceptance of refugees into the United States: While they made up 10 percent of Syria’s population prior to the war, only 2.6 percent of Syrian refugees allowed into the United States have been Christian. We need to address this disparity. If we are to allow more Syrian refugees into our country, let’s start with the Christians. . As it says in Gal 6:10 , “As we have therefore opportunity, let us do good unto all men, especially unto them who are of the household of faith [emphasis added].”
Lastly, there is the matter of security. We cannot simply dismiss this as a concern. Every nation should have the security of its citizens as one of its highest priorities. Certainly a nation owes security to its citizens more than it owes relief to the refugee. As Rev. Michael Ericson has observed, “A nation has as much right over its borders as I do the front door of my house. The same considerations apply for letting someone in.” He goes on to point out that those considerations bear far greater weight for the civil authorities of a nation, whose job it is to see to the protection of the nation’s citizens. They have a moral duty in this regard (Romans 13:4, I Peter 2:13-14).
Israel of old clearly recognized a nation’s rights to its own borders as seen in Numbers 20:17, “Let us pass, I pray thee, through thy country: we will not pass through the fields, or through the vineyards, neither will we drink of the water of the wells: we will go by the king’s high way, we will not turn to the right hand nor to the left, until we have passed thy borders.” Genesis 42:9 demonstrates the legitimate concern for security that a ruler has with regard to those entering from a foreign land, and David, in 1 Samuel 21, pretends to be mad when he fled to the Philistines, recognizing that they had a valid concern regarding him as a threat.
In short, it seems beyond debate that Scripture supports both the duty of a nation to see to the security of its citizens and the right to govern its borders. Self defense, whether individually or nationally considered, is not an evil motivation.
Mr. Obama recently chided those critical of his plan to accept Syrian refugees. He accused them of being afraid of “widows and orphans.” But, according to the U.N., at least 62% of the refugees are men. Is he saying that the only refugees he will allow into the country will be women and children? Call me skeptical.
Using the U.N. numbers, there will be roughly 6,000 men in this initial group of 10,000 refugees that will be allowed entrance to the United States. It certainly seems plausible that at least a few radicals who mean us harm could easily be a part of that group, no matter how well vetted they might be. It is not unreasonable or, more to the point, immoral to suggest that this isn’t a good idea.