The difference between a refugee and sojourner is one of origin and destination. A refugee is someone forced to leave his or her country in order to escape war, persecution, or disaster. A sojourner, on the other hand, is someone who lives temporarily in different places without a sedentary home. A wanderer of sorts. Therefore, at one point or another, a refugee is almost always a sojourner. But not always. Why the lesson in biblical and political language? Because with the refugee crisis in Syria the Western world is now faced with a decision of conscience: Are thousands of Syrian men, women, and children to remain sojourners?
The terrorist attacks in Paris this weekend have changed the way Americans view these sojourning Syrian refugees. In fact, the problem has become one of mistaken identity: which ones actually are the refugees? After almost 130 people were killed and hundreds more wounded in six coordinated attacks by ISIS fighters, it was discovered that at least one of the jihadists had been disguised as a Syrian refugee seeking asylum in France. And Americans have responded with grave concern in light of President Obama’s decision to continue with the plan to “accommodate” thousands of Syrian refugees in America – just days after the discovery that a wolf was hidden among the sheep. Could what happened in Paris happen here? Is it really smart to open our borders during a time of global war? Could the American government guarantee my safety? These are the types of questions millions of Americans are asking themselves this week.
As of today, governors in at least 17 states have moved to suspend or restrict the refugee resettlement, including Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, Ohio and Texas. Louisiana is also among these states. And in this refusal to accommodate refugees one can see American government acting out its Romans 13 role. Our earthly rulers are “not a terror to good conduct, but to bad.” (v.3) Therefore the gubernatorial responsibility to protect is inherent, both professionally and spiritually. Our civil leaders perceive a clear threat growing overseas and are taking necessary precautions to ensure our safety: “for he is God’s servant for your good.” (v.4) That’s the responsibility of the state. Our responsibility as citizens, on the other hand, is to pray for these individuals in their difficult decision-making: “I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.” (1 Timothy 2:1-2) But as Christians we’re more than citizens campaigning for an issue. The Apostle Paul says we’re more than conquerors. (Romans 8:37) Therefore our heavenly cause transcends the political realm. Christian voters don’t think like secular voters. Christian families don’t think like secular families. So how is the American church called to respond? Are national defense and Christian kindness mutually exclusive? At what point does homeland security become xenophobia? These kinds of questions beg answers if we’re to reconcile statehood with brotherhood. And political rhetoric doesn’t always match biblical language. Therefore we ought to exercise caution in the way we take up Republican or Democratic agendas, testing it first against the Scriptures. (1 Thess. 5:21, 1 John 4:1) In the state of Louisiana, the current race for governor is a story of two divided parties. In the wake of the events in Paris and the news of the embedded terrorist inside the refugee ranks, the two candidates offered two very different takes on the volatile situation:
Republican Candidate David Vitter’s initial response on Twitter:
President Obama’s plan to bring 10,000 Syrian refugees to the U.S. – just like his statement made a day before the Paris attacks that ISIS was ‘contained’ – is outrageous and irresponsible. That’s exactly how at least one, maybe more of the Paris terrorists got there. These Syrians have already started arriving in Louisiana. That needs to stop immediately, and I will continue to lead that fight and protect the people of Louisiana.
Democratic Candidate John Bel Edwards’ initial response on Twitter:
As governor, I will continue to be an active participant in the ongoing conversation with federal authorities so that we can be partners in the effort to both accommodate refugees who are fleeing from religious persecution and ensure that all our people are safe.
Is Vitter’s concern justifiable? Absolutely. Defense is part of the gubernatorial job description. However, what is striking is that the Republican candidate doesn’t seem to suggest screening or profiling or assessment of any kind. In fact, his repudiation of refugee asylum coincides with a swift jab to the President. And he wasn’t alone in his complete opposition to resettlement. One state to our north, Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson also took to Twitter and espoused the same wholesale rejection of Syrian refugees. But is the church to take the same isolationist stance? Christ commanded us to leave the many to go after the one. (Luke 15) Vitter demands we leave the many because of the one. However, Edwards seemingly suggests we accept the many and forget the one. Admittedly it’s a difficult issue to address. But in this particular case, simply admitting the complexity of the situation without running to either extreme is commendable. For the Christian, this should not be a black or white issue. For the Christian, there should be some difficulty in this decision. Why? Because the Christian should understand both the role of the state in governing its communities and the duty of the believer to exercise hospitality and love toward the foreigner. We should hurt for the strangers at our door. (Matthew 25:35) We should empathize with the weak. (Matthew 9:36) But is this a realistic notion during an international crisis?
The Republican candidate appeals to national security. The Democratic candidate appeals to the minority vote. It’s a playbook you could memorize in a few seconds. But as a registered Republican, my decision on this issue isn’t as easy as punching a ticket. Can a discussion about doing the compassionate thing coexist with a conversation about national security? Both demand our attention. During election season, sometimes the hardest thing for a Christian is to map out a third option – one that doesn’t bow to political prejudices and yet acknowledges the complexities of an issue. One that doesn’t include calling foreigners “these Syrians.” One that isn’t forced to decide between complete nativism or a porous border. When the Apostle Paul waited to speak with the magistrates in the Philippian jail or appealed to Caesar in order to speak before King Agrippa, he exemplified the ethos of a Christian who believed both in his Savior and in the political process – even when that regime stood against him and his Christ. (Acts 16, 26) Paul knew this pax romana well. And he used it for the fame of Jesus in the Gospel. God’s grace doesn’t just protect us. It propels us. If we can use the common graces of American government to keep us safe, can’t we also use it to advance Christian kindness? Sometimes the difference between a ‘fiscal’ conservative and a ‘biblical’ conservative is the ability to be shrewd and compassionate. (Luke 16)
Nonetheless, a few days after Paris, neither Republicans nor Democrats can deny the need to seriously filter our borders. After all, it’s a turbulent time in our world. To add insult to injury, the ‘vetting’ process of Syrians is crippled by the fact that many of these men, women, and children have a past and a civil record nearly erased from public memory. However, fortunately for these refugees, Christians are a people ultimately obedient to God’s Word. And just before Christ talks about loving our enemies, he charges us to go the extra mile. (Matthew 5:38-48) What will that extra mile look like for our country? Maybe it’s a country that campaigns for strict background checks in order to help as many as we can…before slamming the door shut. Maybe it’s a country that loves veterans and foreigners. Maybe it’s a Republican or Democrat who decides to vote with his conscience instead of his party. After all, our Lord was a refugee. (Matthew 2:13-15) And He was taken in by a country that had turned Israel into a nation of slaves and sojourners. If there are a people who should resonate and empathize with sojourners it’s the people of God! (Gen. 15:13) We weren’t blessed to bless ourselves. We were blessed in order to bless others and to share the message of the Gospel. Are we doing that? What better way to take the news of Jesus to the nations than to see them come to New Orleans! That may not be the agenda of the American government, but Christians are more than citizens. In light of God’s grace, we’re more than conquerors. And that means patrolling borders and opening up our hearts. The next time a Republican or Democrat makes the current “refugee crisis” a political issue, do something unique. Make it a “spiritual” one. Talk about how Christians are “strangers and exiles” on this earth. (1 Peter 2:11) If you’ve forgotten how to risk something for the name of Christ, then perhaps you’re holding too tightly to a world that’s not yours in the first place. The hatred Jonah held for Assyrians is not a mission strategy we should duplicate with Syrians. Instead we should see ourselves. People without a home. Waiting for refuge.