November 18, 2015

Why evangelicals are torn about admitting refugees to the US (ANALYSIS)

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Syrian refugee children climb on a fence to watch a football training workshop at Azraq refugee camp near Al Azraq city, Jordan, on Nov. 16, 2015. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed
*Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-EVANGELICALS-REFUGEES, originally transmitted on Nov. 18, 2015.

Syrian refugee children climb on a fence to watch a football training workshop at Azraq refugee camp near Al Azraq city, Jordan, on Nov. 16, 2015. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-EVANGELICALS-REFUGEES, originally transmitted on Nov. 18, 2015.

(RNS) Evangelicals may be united that the Bible is the ultimate source of authority, but they are divided on how the Bible would lead us to respond to the growing crisis of refugees fleeing from Syria.

  • What is the best way to show Christian love and compassion?
  • How is the church’s role different from the state’s?
  • How do we show wisdom and prudence in securing the safety of our neighbors and nation?

These are just a few of the questions that evangelicals are grappling with. One evangelical pastor today told me, “My church members are all over the place on this!”

The situation in Syria is dire. More than 300,000 people have died. Half the country is now homeless. Millions are fleeing. The plight of the refugees came to national attention in September with a picture of a 3-year-year-old boy whose body washed up on shore in Turkey. Many evangelical Christians sprang into action, making plans for welcoming and serving the refugees.


READ: 3 facts about the Syrian refugee crisis many Christians overlook


I’ve seen evangelical compassion firsthand. I once served a church in a small town where hundreds of Somali refugees, the vast majority of them Muslim, were resettled.

Our church opened its doors and hosted fellowships; we devoted space to ESL and other citizenship classes. The makeshift mosque in our town may have been closed off to us Christians, but we made sure the doors of our church were open to the Muslim refugees. At their best, evangelicals are on the front lines of “welcoming the stranger.”

It’s no surprise then that evangelical leaders have been calling for Christians to receive and serve refugees. A Christianity Today editorial this fall called Christians to embrace the “unparalleled opportunity to love neighbors here and abroad, and to showcase the beauty of the gospel that proclaims good news to the poor, liberty for those stuck in refugee camps, and a new life for those fleeing from oppression.”

Evangelicals recognize that many of these men, women and children are “brothers and sisters in Christ” who are leaving behind the cradle of Christian civilization.

But since the terrorist attacks in Paris last week, the debate over whether and how to receive refugees has intensified.


READISIS, ISIL, Daesh — explaining the many names for terrorists


Ed Stetzer photo courtesy of LifeWay Christian Resources.

Ed Stetzer, vice president of LifeWay Research. Photo courtesy of LifeWay Christian Resources

On the one hand, there are evangelicals calling for “prudent compassion,” the idea that we need not choose between accepting all refugees or no refugees, but through rigorous screening (understandably heightened in a time of war against terror), we can and should receive refugees.

Similarly, Ed Stetzer, vice president of LifeWay Research, urged believers to distinguish between our response to “the immigrants streaming across Europe to escape the radical Islamists” and our response to potential terrorists.

Richard Stearns, president of World Vision, called the church to love and serve the refugees even if it “goes against our instincts.”

“We want to protect ourselves from those who might hurt us,” he wrote. But he added: “Jesus asks us to love our neighbors — regardless if there may be enemies among them.”

Matthew Soerens, director of mobilization for World Relief, explained the rigorous process for receiving refugees and why the potential for admitting a terrorist is minimal.

“I think it’s a tragic decision for states to attempt to thwart efforts to resettle a small number of carefully vetted refugees from Syria,” he said.

World Vision's U.S. President Rich Stearns, center, visits with Syrian refugees in Irbid, Jordan. Photo by Jon Warren, courtesy of World Vision

World Vision’s U.S. president, Rich Stearns, center, visits with Syrian refugees in Irbid, Jordan. Photo by Jon Warren, courtesy of World Vision


READ: Americans fret about Islam, immigrants, the future — and each other


But there are concerns that this process is not rigorous enough. And there are doubts about the ability of our government to properly screen out potential terrorists.

“Ineptitude” is a word I’ve heard a lot lately, applied to our government’s ability to ensure our safety.

Commentator Cal Thomas, in a column for the evangelical publication World Magazine, argues for closing the borders, because “there is no way to be certain who is a jihadist and who isn’t. What we do know for certain is that ISIS has bragged openly about including jihadists among those who have fled to Europe, and only a fool would believe that same strategy is not being applied to America.”

In the same vein, Franklin Graham in a Facebook post said “we must reform our immigration policies” to ensure that Muslim immigrants do not “come across our borders unchecked while we are fighting this war on terror.”

Many evangelicals agree with those sentiments and support the efforts of several Republican presidential candidates and two dozen governors to place a moratorium on any new refugees. These calls for closing the border represent the only way to ensure that we do not inadvertently let in terrorists who are posing as refugees.

U.S. Rep. Trey Gowdy of South Carolina, pictured here, asked Secretary of State John Kerry to halt plans to settle refugees in his district. Photo courtesy of the Office of Trey Gowdy

U.S. Rep. Trey Gowdy of South Carolina, pictured here, asked Secretary of State John Kerry to halt plans to settle refugees in his district. Photo courtesy of the Office of Trey Gowdy

Congregations are divided. World reported that U.S. Rep. Trey Gowdy of South Carolina asked Secretary of State John Kerry to halt plans to settle refugees in his district. Meanwhile, the evangelical church Gowdy attends was one of several that expressed interest in helping with the refugee program.


READ: War with Islam? Evangelicals ponder Christian response to Paris attacks


Some evangelicals are opposed to all refugees; others say they do not know the best way forward. In a widely shared blog post, Kevin DeYoung, pastor of University Reformed Church in Lansing, Mich., a church with an international ministry to immigrants, decried both the “harsh anti-immigrant rhetoric” and “broad appeals to compassion” that fail to take into consideration the complexities of our situation.

“Christian charity means loving the safety of the neighbor next door at least as much as loving the safe passage of the neighbor far away,” he said.

At BreakPoint, a site begun by the late Chuck Colson to provide a Christian perspective on news, Gina Dalfonzo writes: “I don’t know what the answer is. I honestly don’t.”

I asked Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, whether he believes Christians should support or resist efforts to bring Syrian refugees to American soil.

“The screening of refugees is a crucial aspect of national security, and we should insist on it,” he said. “At the same time, evangelicals should be the ones calling the rest of the world to remember human dignity and the image of God, especially for those fleeing murderous Islamic radical jihadis.

Trevin Wax is managing editor of the Gospel Project and author of multiple books, including “Clear Winter Nights: A Journey Into Truth, Doubt and What Comes After.” Photo courtesy of LifeWay Media

Trevin Wax is managing editor of The Gospel Project and author of multiple books, including “Clear Winter Nights: A Journey Into Truth, Doubt and What Comes After.” Photo courtesy of LifeWay Media

“We should remember the history of the 20th century, of Jewish refugees from the Holocaust and refuseniks from the Soviet Union who were largely ignored by the world community. We can have prudential discussions and disagreements about how to maintain security. What we cannot do is to demagogue the issue, as many politicians are doing right now. An entire generation of those fleeing genocide will be asking, is there is an alternative to the toxic religion they’ve seen. Will they hear evangelicals saying ‘Jesus loves you’ or ‘Who then is my neighbor?’ There are massive implications for both answers.”

My pastor friend was right. Evangelicals are “all over the place” on the issue. That’s why, for the foreseeable future, they will continue to debate the best way forward while showing both prudence and compassion.

(Trevin Wax is managing editor of The Gospel Project and author of multiple books, including “Clear Winter Nights: A Journey Into Truth, Doubt and What Comes After.”)

YS/MG END WAX

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  • Larry

    A couple of things

    1. Evangelical Christians should avoid making Holocaust references. Back in the day they were enthusiastically anti-Semitic and supported turning Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazis away.

    2. When it comes to the vetting process for refugees, not one of these conservative critics has shown they even know what they are talking about, let alone show knowledge sufficient to find fault with it. The argument is based on ignorance and blanket assumption.

    3. Evangelicals are caught between two competing and rather repugnant values. Do they give in to their religious excuses for being indifferent or hostile to those outside their own group or do they try to open up new avenues for converts?

  • Evangelicals are struggling because Christian morality is just as relative and ad hoc as Atheist morality. They just won’t admit it.

    This situation proves Christian Morality offers nothing special.
    Each person still must decide moral questions WITHOUT REGARD to biblical passages. Atheist Morality is exactly the same. There are no moral absolutes no matter how loudly Christians insist there are.

    I say bring the refugees to America. All who want to come. We have nothing to fear from these Muslims and we are likely to be a better country for it.

    I’m far more afraid of gun-toting Americans who consistently slaughter 25,000 innocent citizens (those are just the accidents) every year and who refuse to examine reasonable limits on guns.

  • Ted

    It’s well known that evangelicals have a hard time using their God-given intelligence (who needs science when you can proof-text the Bible). But, refugees are already the most heavily scrutinized immigrant category.

    You’d do more good scrutinizing all the angry white men with guns sitting in your pews, paying you to speak the hatreds they want to hear.

  • Neon Genesis

    It seems a bit hypocritical to me that evangelicals have no problems taking hard concrete positions on women’s rights and gay marriage yet when it comes to treating refugees as equal human beings, suddenly evangelicals become tongue tied and unable to reconcile their racist hatred for Arabs with their supposed commitment to the Prince of Peace.

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  • There is a missing dimension to this well-intentioned article by Trevin Wax. That missing dimension revolves around what does justice requires of us in how we treat the refugees.

    For too long a time, we Conservative Christians have discussed how we are to help the vulnerable solely in terms of charity and compassion, never in terms of justice, and with good reason. How much charity and compassion we are to show depends more on us and how much we want to share than on anything else. But once we discuss our treatment of the vulnerable in terms of what is just, we lose that control to having to talk about what we owe. And what the Scriptures tell us is that we owe those who are vulnerable a livelihood with dignity.

    Finally, not only should we think about what justice demands of us in how we should treat the refugees, but we should think about what we can do to reduce and even eliminate the number of new refugees. This is where we also need to interact with our government.

  • Ginny Knepper

    Your comments are close to the conclusion to which my husband and I arrived last night. I don’t think the inherent cultural issues have been scrutinized in the question of whether to accept great numbers of refugees. To think that a people can lay aside generations of the particular mindset of their culture is a mistake. That does not disqualify some of the other arguments I’ve read, especially that the nations that have largely been unreachable by evangelical missionaries may be coming right to our door.

  • CJ

    Like most liberals, you only seem to want to hurl insults rather than have an intelligent discussion.

    How exactly is it “racist hatred” to want to make sure that refugees have been screened to prevent terror attacks like those in France? Is it too hard for you to think about complex issues? Maybe go somewhere else while the grownups talk.

  • //How much charity and compassion we are to show depends more on us and how much we want to share than on anything else. But once we discuss our treatment of the vulnerable in terms of what is just, we lose that control to having to talk about what we owe. And what the Scriptures tell us is that we owe those who are vulnerable a livelihood with dignity.//

    I’m willing for you to show me Scriptures that state otherwise, but I’m not seeing this. Let’s say there are 1 million people who are rich to doing reasonably OK and 10 million who are poor. How can the 1 million just simply give a livelihood to 10 million? It doesn’t make sense practically as a standing command.

  • Peter G

    National security is a governmental responsibility.
    Compassion is a Christian responsibility.
    As long as American “Christianity” is primarily a cultural behavioralism, and not a matter of absolute submission to and trust in the Sovereign of the Universe, then Christians will continue to “decide good and evil” for themselves, just like Adam and Eve.
    Times like this show clearly the spiritual realities of a people. Unfortunately, the Syrian situation is showing very clearly that, in the words of the old Spiritual, “all the folks talkin’ ’bout Heaven ain’t goin’ there.”
    No wonder the American Church has failed so abysmally to transform our society. We can only reproduce what we are.

  • Larry

    Where is the intelligent discussion from the anti-refugee side here? There is a ton of misinformation, panic and in most cases outright bigotry.

    “How exactly is it “racist hatred” to want to make sure that refugees have been screened to prevent terror attacks like those in France? ”

    When you deliberately ignore the fact that there already measures in place to do so and your sole reason is “because their Muslim”.

    France is TAKING IN MORE REFUGEES IN RESPONSE TO THE ATTACKS. They know the hysteria against the refugees is not only fuelling I-S propaganda but undermining our own efforts. By showing the West to be panicky types who demonize all Muslims.

  • Daniel

    Curt,

    I agree with most of what you are saying. Indeed, the Bible doesn’t merely tell us to serve others as we feel led to; rather, it commands us to do so because nothing that is ours belongs to us, but to God and His purpose.

    However, the first question you ask which is “what does justice requires of us in how we treat the refugees” is questionable to me. If you mean, what does justice require of Christians in how we treat the refugees, then you and I share the same ideas. If you mean, what does justice require America as a whole in how we treat refugees, then I am afraid we are at an impasse. If that is not what you’re implying, then please correct me. If so, let’s discuss your comment.

  • Daniel

    What do you know about the vetting process? I have done some research for you. These are quotes from a CNN article about how the vetting process works.

    “The average processing time for refugee applications is 18 to 24 months, but Syrian applications can take significantly longer because of security concerns and difficulties in verifying their information.”

    “one of the terrorists in the Paris attacks entered Europe through a refugee processing center.”

    “Given the abysmal security situation in Syria and the fact that the United States does not maintain a permanent diplomatic presence in the country, it’s sometimes difficult for U.S. authorities to gather the information they need to thoroughly vet a Syrian applicant.”

    “In terms of criminal history, we do the best we can with the resources that we have”

    As you can see, the system is not perfect. Even if only .5% of these refugees have ill intentions, that is still 50 people out of 10,000. The answer is not as…

  • Larry

    You are saying the conservatives HAVE BEEN LYING ABOUT THE TOTAL LACK OF A VETTING PROCESS. We have law enforcement resources with some experience in counter-terrorism. Suspicion, especially ones fueled by the people who are responsible for terrorist acts are not legitimate grounds for the reaction we are getting here.

    Police believe attackers used forged passports to stigmatize refugees
    http://montreal.ctvnews.ca/police-believe-attackers-used-forged-passports-to-stigmatize-refugees-1.2662167

    “Islamic State has frequently said one of its goals is to stop refugees from fleeing Syria by any means possible, and tells refugees they are committing “a major dangerous sin” by attempting to flee the war and entering countries where they will be assimilated or integrated into “Christianity, atheism or liberalism.”

    The group has used photos and video of children who have drowned in its propaganda, telling refugees they are throwing away their “lives and souls” by going to…

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  • Mary Martin

    It is important to remember that the church, and the individuals in it, was given the Great Commission. That is *not a government function. If God, in His sovereignty, allows the refugees to come to my community (or me to go to theirs), then it is *my job to show Christ’s love to them and to try to reach them with the gospel.

    So long as we don’t conflate the church with the state (as long as we keep the roles of each of them clear), I am okay with cautiously proceeding with resettling carefully vetted refugees.

  • ignatius

    3. Regarding: “converting” — The gospel of Jesus Christ is and always has been repugnant to those who are perishing. But to those who believe, it is the power of God to salvation.

    2. You offered no enlightenment on the issue. Please elucidate.

    1. “Blanket” statement that is not true of all Christians at that time. Plenty were involved with trying to rescue or harbor Jews.

    *If you’re going to make accusations, you shouldn’t engage in the same type of rhetoric you’re maligning.

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  • Geoff,
    One only needs to go to either the Church Fathers or the Old Scriptures — though Jesus’ parable of the sheep and goats can also help. In the OT, Jews were ordered by God’s Word to provide provisions for the poor. it came in the form of how they were and were not to harvest their crops. An example can be found in Deuteronomy 24:19-22. We should look at Deuteronomy 14:28-29. Zechariah 7, Isaiah 58-59, and Ezekiel 16:49-50 also come into play here.

  • Daniel,
    Justice shows what is right for all, not just for the Christian. That we have the OT prophets talk about justice to other nations is an indicator of this. But so is the fact that by practicing justice, Israel was to set itself apart from those who were unrighteous. But note what is said about justice there.

    We should also note that social injustice predominantly deals with the sins of murder and theft. It seems to me that it would be hard to argue that a society could relax prohibitiions against those two sins and still survive.

    I understand your position. All Christians have double standards, not meant in the bad way, for Christians and nonChristians in society. I don’t think that social justice is one area where the Scriptures allow us to hold to a double standard.

  • Geoff,
    This is my second time trying to respond. The end of Deuteronomy 24, Ezekiel 16, Isaiah 58-59, and Zechariah 7 all talk about justice and helping the vulnerable. But lest we think that justice is an issue for God’s people only, we need to consider Amos 1-2 as well as other parts of the Scriptures where the prophets are talking to the other nations. Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats also illustrate the need for all to show justice.

  • Larry

    1. Feel free to name some Evangelical/Fundamentalist Christians who are acknowledged “Righteous Gentiles”? In the US and in Europe they were predominately anti-Semitic (as was most mainstream Christian churches).

    2. http://www.nbcnewyork.com/news/national-international/Vetting-Process-for-Syrian-Refugees-Explained-351766881.html

    http://www.pbs.org/newshour/rundown/how-does-the-refugee-vetting-process-work/

    3. Your tone deafness to how obnoxious people act when trying to proselytize is duly noted. Its ironic that you talk about Evangelical Christians not being so antisemitic, yet you have no problem calling them or any other faith but your own “perishing” for not accepting the Gospel.

  • ignatius

    3. Of course, you’re right about obnoxious conversion techniques; I’ve experienced them myself. But that wasn’t really the point of the conversation. And again, blanket statements, in your own assessment, are not a good thing. *See my asterisk above.

    I understand your response. It’s based on pluralistic unbelief. But the faith is different than you paint it: The Gospel states that all are perishing. But through faith in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, God grants salvation to ANY. That would include Jews and those of any other ethnicity. I make no excuses for the belief in perishing humanity. Sin and death surround us. It is only grace that has given people a way to escape both.

    2. I’m pro taking in refugees. I am also pro ensuring they are just that. A little extra vetting in light of recent events makes sense for US citizens but also for Syrian refugees. If a terrorist does make it through and something happens here, all refugees will be looked at suspiciously…

  • ignatius

    1.
    http://www.theblaze.com/stories/2013/06/26/righteous-christians-who-saved-jews-during-holocaust-honored-for-their-sacrifice/

    Regardless of where they lived. These are still believers who operated according to Christian faith during the holocaust.

  • Noah

    Good points, Larry.. Growing up as an Evangelical Preachers Kid (PK), my observation is that a lot of Christians are very “Tone Deaf” and even ignorant to their own beliefs. When we have an Evangelic Presidential Candidate comparing the War-Torn Syrian Refugees to “Rabid Dogs”, it’s hard to even take what other Christians say on this topic seriously. Of course we cannot make “blanket” statements about all Christians, but it’s very hard not do that when the average pew warmer is taught that all Muslims are basically anti-god and are a threat to their faith…

  • Noah

    A point that no one wishes to make: The 2003 United States invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, and our continued ‘War on Terror’ $ endless airstrikes throughout the entire middle-east, has helped create the present situation we see today. I find it ironic and sad that anyone who pushed for our military presence in the Middle East, cannot see a direct correlation between our bombs, and the homeless refugee problem. Since military dominance around the world is mostly a Conservative/GOP agenda, and since most evangelicals make up the ranks of Republican voters, you would think they would have a greater sense of duty in helping anyone whose home was destroyed from these policies.

    While our “Christian Duty” is to love and accept anyone in need with open arms regardless of how their needs came about, you would think that all the flag-waiving “we gotta get em over there before they get us over here” folks would see the obvious consequences for America’s aggressive actions. Right…

  • George Nixon Shuler

    That’s because most of their base hate women and LGBTs. Poor, oppressed masses, however, present a public relations problem.

  • George Nixon Shuler

    What do you mean? Are you suggesting because they have a different religion from yours they do not belong here?

  • Larry

    “Righteous Gentiles”, people who identified themselves as christian are numerous. Ones who identified as Evangelical Christians/Fundamentalist Christian were practically non-existent.

    But its fairly common for Fundamentalist Christians to take credit for the works of members of the faith with more mainstream beliefs. They accept them when its something good and pretend they are “not really Christian” when its a negative association

    Fundamentalist Christians were for the most part virulently antisemitic until about the last generation. Many still are but try to “hang a lampshade” over such beliefs. Your own remark about, “The gospel of Jesus Christ is and always has been repugnant to those who are perishing” can rightly be considered bigoted against all faiths but your own. Including Judaism.

    The blanket statement was yours.

    As for “a little extra vetting”, feel free to discuss what else needs to be done that was left out of both articles cited.

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  • Peter,
    National security is not the gov’t’s only responsibility. And Christians have no monopoly on compaasion. But once we deal with issues of justice, then we are dealing with both the government’s and the Christian’s responsibility.

  • ignatius

    First, it’s possible that I’m tone deaf as you call it. But that’s a media buzz word that has no real meaning in a meaningful conversation. It really depends on what “group” you roll in and what they emphasize. E.g.You didn’t mention American Evangelicals in recent years have been the opposite of anti-Semitic. Or the fact that you emphasize issues (and there are issues) and ignore positives to reinforce your own stereotypes based on your biases. You’re essentially doing just what Noah accuses Evangelicals of concerning Muslims.

    But are you tone deaf to what is going on worldwide among believers who are serving the poor through literacy, community development, monetary help, and countless other charities? You see we can use buzz words however it fits our interests, beliefs, biases or emphases.

    But again you paint the faith side wrongly and from your pluralist bias. Faith perspective is that God offers a free gift of salvation through Christ for all who believe — Jew or…

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  • I fully subscribe to the effort by the Evangelical Christians to serve in such situations. However, I have always my own reservations about Christianity’s motives in general. What did Paul mean in 1 Corinthians 9:19-21?

    I suppose being everything to everyone includes not identifying yourself as a Christian, when serving the Muslim community, for instance. Let us bear in mind that the ministry of reconciliation was actually given to Christians, not to any other religion (2 Cor. 2 18). Christians cannot be effective when going to help the Muslims, still identifying themselves as Christians.

    My own submissions is the best idea would be for Christians to help those Muslim refugees, identifying with them as Muslims than going there to portray their Christian background. This would go a long way, even reconciling with the Muslim brothers, meeting them in their distress.

    Andrew

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