The Church, the Government, and Syrian Refugees

Over the past few days there has been much discussion in the news and on social media as to what to do with the hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees that have fled their war-torn region in hopes of a better life.  The issue is complicated by the reality that the country from which they are fleeing is full of terrorists, and it is quite possible (and even likely) that there are terrorists disguised as refugees who are using this opportunity to infiltrate other nations for the purposes of enacting violence and harm against their citizens. 

Some in the U.S. have insisted that we must not, under any circumstances, allow these refugees into our country for the reason described above.  To that end, several states have insisted that they will not harbor any refugees, while others have declared that they will indeed welcome them.  Others have said that to disallow a space for Syrian refugees betrays a severe lack of compassion for those in need.  Minnesota’s governor, Mark Dayton, much to the chagrin of his opponents, recently declared that our state would gladly welcome refugees seeking shelter and a better life.

As has become so common in our day and age with social and political issues, the question of whether or not to accept refugees from Syria has become a social media firestorm, in which the sides are black and white with no room for gray, and all those who disagree with the “correct” view are labeled bigots or heartless idiots.  Leaving aside the fact that social media has denigrated our overall ability to talk about issues seriously, it behooves us to think biblically and Christianly about this issue, as it has many biblical implications.  And indeed, there have been many from the Christian sphere who have done a good job doing just that (for instance, I would commend to you Kevin DeYoung’s article on this subject), and I appreciate their guidance in my own thinking on this issue.   At the same time, however, there is disagreement even in the Christian community on this issue.  So as we seek to form an opinion, let’s allow grace to drive our discussions with one another. 

To me, the issue of whether or not the United States should accept Syrian refugees  comes down to the answer to three questions: What is the role of the government? What is the role of the church? and Who is my neighbor?  Allow me to take a shot at providing some answers.

What is the role of the government?

God has created the government to fulfill a specific purpose and to accomplish certain tasks.  Biblically (and constitutionally) speaking, government’s primary role is to protect its citizens through the enforcement of laws (Romans 13.3-4).  If the U.S. government is to allow Syrian refugees into our country, its primary concern in doing so must be the preservation and protection of American citizens – not Syrians.  While some may argue that the government should feel compassion for Syrian refugees, this is, frankly, putting the cart before the horse.   The U.S. government should primarily feel compassion for U.S. citizens, and express that compassion by doing everything in their power to keep them safe.  If the government receives Syrian refugees, they should only do so if they are certain that doing so will not bring an undo threat to the safety of American citizens. 

What is the role of the church?

The church’s role in the world is primarily to preach and declare the gospel of Jesus Christ.  One of the ways we express this message is to minister to people in who are in distress, who are displaced, who are in need, and so on.  This is a distinctly Christian mission, and it belongs to the church – not the government.  It is not the government’s job to provide charity to those in need.  The church can and should minister to Syrian refugees in the event that they are allowed into the U.S.  God cares about how his people treat and care for aliens and sojourners.  We are obligated to God and his word to be faithful ministers of the gospel to them. 

Who is my neighbor?

In the online Christian discussions surrounding this issue, the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10.25-37) is frequently cited, and used as evidence for why we should allow Syrian refugees into our country: because the refugees are expressing real needs, and we are able to meet those needs.  While I applaud the desire to let scripture guide us in our thinking, I believe the application of this parable to this situation falls short and over-reaches. 

For example, by insisting that Syrian refugees are our neighbors, and therefore we should minister to them like the good Samaritan, we fail to acknowledge that we literally have neighbors that already live right next door who we are called to love also. If there are Syrian terrorists masquerading as refugees (as it appears there are), and we invite and welcome them into our country, we are putting our geographical neighbors (those who live next door) at risk.  To do so would not be loving to our current neighbors.  It is a false dichotomy to pit the needs of our Syrian refugee neighbors against the needs of our physical and geographical neighbors.  (Furthermore, it could be argued that the parable of the Good Samaritan is primarily speaking to our interactions with our physical neighbors – those located near us, geographically speaking – than those interactions with international neighbors across the world.)  If we are able to determine that no undue danger will come to our current physical neighbors by bringing Syrian refugees into this country, then we absolutely should bring them in. Then those refugees will become our physical and geographical neighbors, and then we can and should minister to them as we would anyone else. 

Worshipping the idols of fear and self-preservation

There are some Christians who have brought up the reality that we should not let fear of bodily injury or a desire for self-preservation dictate our obedience to scripture and dissuade us from ministering to those in need.  I whole-heartedly agree.  However, I would follow my statement of agreement with the assertion that we shouldn’t have to be afraid if the government is doing its job to keep its citizens safe.  If the government is fulfilling its God-given role of protecting us, we are free to minister those who have been displaced and are distressed.  Nothing would please me more than to be able to allow Syrian refugees into our country so they can know its freedoms and benefit from our society, and also to hear the gospel of Jesus Christ.  But we cannot do so at the expense of the physical and bodily safety of our citizens. We cannot lose sight of our obligation to love our current neighbors by advocating for their safety.

How now shall we live?

In response to these principles, let us pray that the government will fulfill its God-ordained role of keeping people safe and doing everything they can to minimize potential violence.  And let us simultaneously pray for more opportunities to be ministers of the gospel – to Syrian refugees and to all other peoples of the world.