The Obligations of Courageous Love: A Pastor’s Response to the Syrian Refugee Crisis

Introduction: Understanding the Crisis

What would compel you abandon your home and all your possessions? What would make you leave your career, friends, and family to walk 800 miles through dangerous terrain with little money and food? This would be like walking from Orlando, Florida to Washington, D.C, and if you covered twenty-five miles a day it would take you more than a month. Imagine having to sleep under a tree with your children on the side of the road.

Child Sleep on Ground

What would compel you to pay a smuggler $1000 a person to cram your family on a small raft to float across 200 miles of shark infested, choppy water, knowing that approximately 500 people have already drowned making the journey, including several children.

Why would any sane person leave everything behind for this kind of deadly journey, knowing that if they are caught leaving they could be executed as traitors? Well, what if your own government started dropping barrel bombs on your neighborhood, blowing-up houses and burning your neighbors alive. What if your own government poisoned your city with chemical weapons in an act of mass murder? What if members of your family were abducted and tortured for having divergent political or religious views? What if you saw a heavily armed group of men wearing black masks saw off the head of a child with a dull machete, or women being kidnapped to serve as sex slaves for these same men? What if members of your Bible study were burned alive in cages simply because they were Christians? What if brutalizing torture, mass executions, and perpetual civil war became the norm in your neighborhood? My guess is that you would flee for safety too.

These are the kinds of things that are happening to the innocent people we call refugees, many of whom are women, children, disabled, and elderly. These people are not terrorists, they are victims of terrorism.

Massive numbers of traumatized people have poured into Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt and Turkey. The United Nations and World Food program were not prepared for a refugee crisis on this scale, and in certain areas this has led to over-crowded refugee camps where people are suffering from hunger, exposure, and disease. These conditions have led many to seek refuge in Europe, but Europe was not prepared for this kind of crisis either.

Estimates as high as 7.6 million people are refuges in Syria (they are displaced in their own country) and 3,800,000 are children! To put this in perspective, we could take all these kids and fill Tropicana Field to its maximum occupancy almost 100 times! In addition to those displaced within Syria, over three million have fled to neighboring countries and Europe. This is roughly the equivalent of the entire population of Chicago, Illinois. The picture below might give us an inkling of the kind of numbers we are talking about.

3 million people

Western Europe is being overwhelmed by this crisis. Turkey has received more than two million refugees, and Greece was flooded with 5,500 people on a single day. (At this rate, Greece receives more refugees in two days than America has pledged to receive over the course of a year). Many of these people are being resettled in Germany, and even France—a country that just endured a massive terrorist attack—has pledge to receive an additional 30,000 Syrian refugees in the next two to three years. However, even as the European countries pull together, they simply do not have the resources to deal with a humanitarian crisis on this scale.

This is why the United Nations is asking America to help, and our initial pledge is to receive 10,000 Syrian refugees. This less than 1/3 of 1% of the people who need help!

Fear and the Screening Process

In light of the recent terrorist attack in Paris, many Americans have recoiled in fear. They are worried that if we allow these refugees into our country, terrorists might slip through the cracks undetected and plan attacks the homeland from within. But there is strong evidence to suggest that the potential threats driving our darkest fears are being drastically exaggerated by misinformation. The worst offenders are those seeking political gain in an approaching election year.

Many who are trying to slow or halt the entrance of displaced Syrian (and Iraqi) people are claiming that the majority of those applying for refugee status are young men without families, those considered “combat age.” This is patently false. According to the United Nations, most of the applicants are women and children. While approximately 20% are men between the ages of 18 and 59 (many of whom are fathers protecting their families), 51% are under 16 years old or younger, and 38.5 percent are 11 years old or younger. (FactCheck.org). Indeed, of the 2,165 Syrian refugees already admitted to the U.S., only 2% have been military-aged males unattached to families.

Other people are claiming that the U.S. has an inadequate screening process for receiving refugees and are trying to pass a new bill in Congress to make it more stringent. But this is also not true. It might surprise many people to know that the U.S. government handpicks the refugees invited to resettle in America. To date, the U.N. has referred 23,092 Syrian refugees to the U.S. After extensive screening outside of our country, 7,014 were granted into our screening process, and only 2,165 were received (Refugee Processing Center/U.S. Department of State).

This careful selection of refugees is done by applying the most rigorous, multilayered screening process in the world that includes the Department of Homeland Security, FBI, Department of Defense and numerous intelligence agencies. The screening not only includes extensive background checks, but also biometric and forensic testing, medical screenings, and multiple in-person interviews. This process takes 18-24 months to complete and is the most painstaking difficult way to enter the U.S. For more information see the infographic on whitehouse.gov and outline of the process on nytimes.com.

It is much easier to enter our country through the visa program or on a European passport. Most experts say that this is the real threat. The screening process to get a visa is less rigorous than that required to be granted refugee status. In fact, the U.S. has a visa waiver program with 38 countries. People from these countries can enter the U.S. on a passport as long as they leave the country within 90 days. This means that if ISIS wanted to dispatch a terrorist to America, they would not instruct a mole to apply for refugee status, but rather to apply for a student visa to study at the University of Florida or to enter the country on a European passport under the guise of a tourist. Keep in mind that all of the terrorists in the attack on Paris were French and Belgium nationals.

It is also important to note that our current vetting process has an excellent track record. Since 9/11 approximately 785,000 refugees have settle in the U.S. and many were from the Middle East:

  • 127,657 Iraq
  • 10,983 Afghanistan
  • 2,165    Syria

Only twelve (.001%) have been arrested or sent back because of terrorism related charges (and none were Syrian). Our existing screening process is extremely effective, and it enables us to focus our efforts on the most vulnerable refugees: women, children, survivors of torture, and those with severe medical conditions.

Given these facts, I am deeply disappointed some of our politicians—both Democrat and Republican—who are exploiting our worst fears by spreading misinformation or telling outright lies for political gain. 56% of the U.S. population thinks we should refuse the refugees because of fear generated by lack of information. I am also deeply sadden by how many Christians believe the first thing they hear on the television and quickly sacrifice their faith on the altar of politics.

But even if you are not convinced by the facts outlined above, even if you are genuinely fearful that receiving additional refugees would increase our risk of admitting a handful of terrorists, this is still not a good enough reason to turn these desperate people away . . . at least if you are Christian.

Courageous Love and Risky Faith

God commands us not to make moral decisions based on fear, but on the law of love. Recall the greatest commandment according to Jesus:

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:37-40)

Those who follow Jesus make moral decisions based on love of God and neighbor, and according to 1 John 4:18-20 this kind of love casts out fear:

“There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear . . . We love because He first loved us. Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen.”

This is why one of the most repeated phrases in scripture is “Do not fear,” and to make moral decisions based on fear is to be disobedient to God. Fear should never take precedence over faithful obedience.

Consider the difference between cowardice and courage. Cowards experience fear and then compromise their values secure their own interests. To the contrary, courageous people experience fear and do the right thing anyway, even if that requires self-sacrifice and risk! The call of discipleship is to follow Jesus wherever he leads, even when he leads us into dangerous territory to help desperate people.

Even a cursory reading of the Bible shows that God often gives people dangerous and scary missions. The mission God gave Paul led to multiple incarcerations, immense suffering, and repeated exposures to death (2 Corinthians 11:24-27). Others paid the ultimate price. The mission God gave Jesus got him crucified, and the continuation of this mission got ten of the twelve apostles executed, along with many in the early church. As historians remind us, the soil of Christianity was watered by the blood of the martyrs. Indeed, Christians of every generation have suffered horribly for their faith, including many people in the Middle East today. So why do we deserve an exemption from the dangers and risks of discipleship? Remember the words of Jesus in in John 15:20: “A servant is not greater than his master. If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also.” Following Jesus has always been the way of the cross. Crosses are scary. They are neither comfortable nor secure.

The main point is that Christians should not make moral decisions based on fear. Rather, we make decisions based on what God says to us through a faithful interpretation of scripture that is grounded in the law of love, and we are obedient to what we hear even when it puts us at risk—even when we are scared.

In there anything in your faith that is worth sacrificing your security? Jesus seems to think there is: What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?” (Matthew 16:26). Passages like this make us uncomfortable because they remind us of a final judgement in which we will be held accountable by Jesus Christ—not our governors, not our congressmen, not fear-mongering political pundits, but Jesus Christ.

Care for Widows, Orphans, and Strangers

So what does the Lord require of us in response to the refugee crisis? I believe that God is calling us to help. From Genesis to Revelation, there are numerous commands given by God to love and care for strangers, foreigners, immigrants, and refugees. Consider the following examples:

  • Deuteronomy 10:17-19: “For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (The Hebrew word translated “stranger” is nokri and refers to the alien or foreigner.)
  • Deuteronomy 27:19: “Cursed is he who distorts the justice due an alien, orphan, and widow. And all the people shall say Amen.
  • Leviticus 19:34:The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the LORD your God.
  • Malachi 3:5: “Then I will draw near to you for judgment; and I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers and against the adulterers and against those who swear falsely, and against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts.”

These Old Testament passages (and many more not mentioned) are grounded in Israel’s experience as a displaced and refugee people. The primary example, of course, is the Exodus. God hears the desperate cries of the Hebrew people, sends Moses to rescue them from slavery and oppression, and leads them through the wilderness for forty years as a refugee people. Israel was displaced again when they were taken into exile by the Babylonians, and again after Rome conquered the Holy Land. For most of its history, Israel has been a pilgrim, exiled, oppressed, or refugee people, and this is why they repeatedly insist in their scriptures that God commands us to offer compassionate care and hospitality to widows, orphans, foreigners, and refugees.

In addition to the overwhelming evidence in the Old Testament, we see the same spirit of compassionate hospitality commanded in the New Testament. In Romans 12:13, Paul instructs the church to contribute to the needs of the saints, and to “extend hospitality to strangers.” James 1:27 states that true religion is “to look after orphans and widows in their distress . . .” Hebrews 13:1-2 says, “Keep on loving one another as brothers and sisters. Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.”

Jesus of Nazareth began his life as a Middle Eastern refugee. In Matthew 2:13-15 we read about Mary and Joseph fleeing with the new born child as refugees trying to escape the infanticide of King Herod. They continued to live as refugees in Egypt until Herod died. Once Jesus started his earthy ministry, he wandered around as an itinerant preacher dependent on the hospitality of strangers. Jesus says in Luke 9:58, “The foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.” His entire ministry was about loving, including, elevating, and showing compassion to the most vulnerable and outcast in society: women, children, lepers, cripples, the blind and deaf, prostitutes, tax collectors, and even Samaritans.

Indeed, one of the clearest teachings on this subject comes from Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:25-37. You remember the story: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead.” Both a priest and a Levite (religious people) saw the man in desperate need but “passed by on the other side.” They didn’t do anything to actively harm this man, they just refused to help. But a despised Samaritan stopped and helped the person that the others left to die. Jesus asks, “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” Answer: “The one who had mercy on him.” Jesus said, “Go and do likewise.” The moral of the story is simple: love God with all your heart and love your neighbor as yourself, understanding that your neighbor is any human being in serious need. (For more on this parable see my message, “The Splendid Samaritan: Overcoming Tribalism”)

An equally powerful teaching comes from Matthew 25:31-46. Speaking of the final judgement, Jesus tells a parable about God separating people into two groups, the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. To the goats he says, “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in . . .” The teaching is clear: if we fail to care for those in desperate need we fail Jesus.

Conclusion

We have to find a way to help these people, and not only because we will be held accountable to Jesus for the way we treat “the least of these,” but also because we have a wonderful opportunity to be who we say we are—to show the love of Christ to the friends of Jesus who are in desperate need. While we do not want to glorify senseless suffering, the Christian martyrs teach us that sometimes Christ calls his disciples to suffer, and that suffering in name of Jesus is not something to be shunned as obscene but embraced as honorable. We should never forget that the world is watching, and today we have an opportunity to bear witness to the truth of the gospel by compassionate words and actions.

I can guarantee that the evil powers and principalities in this world want you to bow down to fear, worship security, and do nothing. ISIS wants America to cower before them in fear, to compromise the values we so loudly preach to others, and do nothing. But Jesus is calling you to act with courageous love and risky faith.

This is what it means to be a Christian: to live a courageous faith in radical obedience to God in accordance with the self-sacrificial love of Jesus, which includes the enemy and exhibits a special concern for the most vulnerable around the world. Being a Christian means seeing God in the face of the needy and responding with compassion.   

GET INVOLVED! 

There are several things you can do to help:

  • Get Educated: Don’t believe the first thing you hear on the television. Take a break from the partisan news cycle and try to get the facts from reputable, non-partisan sources.
  • Pray every day for these people and ask God, “What do you want me to do?”
  • Donate money to reputable relief agencies:
            The United Nations Refugee Agency
            Church World Service
           UNICEF
  • Volunteer: In central Florida, call The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo (813-679-4982) or Coptic Orthodox Charities (727-785-3551) and ask how you can help.
  • Speak Out on social media by educating others about the facts and calling for compassion.
  • Sign Petitions
  • Call your governor and your representatives in congress (1-866-961-4293) and tell them: “I’m a constituent from (City/State) and I support the resettlement of Syrian refugees. I urge the Governor / Senator / Representative to represent me and other constituents who seek to welcome Syrian refugees.”

I leave you with these last words from the one we call Lord and Savior: “Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16). Whatever you do, for Christ’s sake, do something!

If you enjoyed this article, you might also enjoy:

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All Reading Is Interpretation: The Application of Perspective in Biblical Meaning

This is the fifth essay in a collection entitled, A Course in Understanding the Bible. The full collection is organized as follows:

  1. The Bible is Not Infallible: Destabilizing Plenary Inspiration
  2. Going Fishing with Grandpa and Learning to Tell the Truth
  3. God Did Not Write the Bible: The Formation of Scripture
  4. Why the Bible is Important to Christians: Rethinking Scripture and Inspiration
  5. All Reading Is Interpretation: The Application of Perspective in Biblical Meaning

The most difficult subjects can be explained to the most slow-witted man if he has not formed an idea of them already; but the simplest thing cannot be made clear to the most intelligent man if he is firmly persuaded that he knows already, without a shadow of a doubt, what is laid before him” (Leo Tolstoy).

Have you ever read a book a second time only to discover something new that escaped you the first time? New meanings emerge, but the book is the same and you are looking through the same eyes. What’s different? Over time, you had a vast array of new experiences that altered your horizon of understanding, generating new interpretative possibilities and evoking fresh insights. What changed is your perspective.

This strange experience of reading with “new eyes” gestures toward an important principle in philosophical hermeneutics: all reading is interpretation. The meaning of a piece of writing is “not an automatic and unproblematic exercise of deciphering a set of consistently identical signs on paper in front of us” (Werner Jeanrond, Theological Hermeneutics, 1). The meaning of a text is not objective and self-evident, as if any well-intended reader could easily discover “the right meaning.”

When talking about the Bible, some people argue the contrary. They claim to have easily discovered the correct meaning of a passage with a simple, literal reading. No interpretation is necessary, only common sense. “Look!” they say, “The meaning is plain as day, right there in black and white.” But this naïve, uneducated, and highly personalized approach is shallow, misguided, and dangerous.

To the contrary, hermeneutics helps us understand that the meaning of a text (including the Bible) is not an objective fact waiting to be discovered like a quarter under a couch cushion. Rather, meaning is something that is created when our minds interact with a text. Simply put, meaning is an event. Since the meaning of a text emerges through the application of a particular perspective, it is important to remember that our perspective is always limited.

So what shapes our perspective? An extensive list is beyond the scope of this article, so a few general examples will have to suffice. First, we might consider how a wide range of formative experiences in early childhood influence how we see the world, especially in our family of origin. It would also include our education, both secular and religious, and how this influences our views on things like politics, morality, and religion. Our perspective is also shaped by the way we see ourselves and others in relation to gender, race, ethnicity, socio-economic status, age, and sexual orientation, as well as the way the dominant culture interprets and assigns value to such identifiers. When it comes to interpreting sacred texts, our past and present experiences in a community of faith will generate various “pre-understandings” that must also be taken into account. For example, before we ever start reading the Bible on our own, most of us begin with a particular image of God and a wide range of assumptions about what the text could possibly mean and how it should be interpreted. These pre-understandings usually come through the inculcation of religious traditions in a specific community of faith, but they can also be acquired through the absorption of cultural stereotypes. Regardless, these pre-understandings serve to highlight and privilege certain interpretive possibilities, while obscuring and repressing others.

The main point is that a wide range of continuous experiences generate innumerable interpretive filters and pre-understandings that come together to create a person’s limited perspective. This perspective provides a world-view that functions like a pair of glasses through which we see everything, including our sacred texts and traditions. When different perspectives interact with a text, different meanings emerge. So, a twenty-three year old Columbian woman living in extreme poverty will interpret the Bible differently than a wealthy, white, fifty-five year old American man. They will focus on different passages and, in some cases, discern divergent meanings.

Since meaning is an event that happens when different people’s perspectives interact with a given text, multiple meanings are possible. Texts are polyvalent. While we are not entirely enslaved to our own perspectives (see below), no one can achieve a perspective-less God’s eye view. This does not mean that interpretation is a free-for-all in which we can make a text say anything we want. When it come to the Christian Bible, there are interpretive boundaries established by the community of faith, by the academic disciplines of Biblical studies and theology, and by common sense. But firmly grasping the role of perspective in the event of meaning and the polyvalent nature of all texts will help keep us humble in our interpretation.

One of the biggest dangers for religious people is forgetting that they are reading with a pair of interpretive glasses, that they are reading through a worldview constituted by a complex set of interpretive filters and pre-understandings. If we are not even aware that we are interpreting through a particular perspective then we unwittingly become a slave to the limitations and dangers of that perspective and foreclose on the possibility of deeper and more transformational meaning. Henceforth, anything we can do to become more aware of our interpretive filters and pre-understandings will encourage humility, expand our horizon of understanding, and hopefully evoke fresh insights that will make us more faithful interpreters of the Bible. The best way to do this is to read the Bible in conversation with others, especially those who are different!

One important conversation is between the reader and the author(s) of the text. Anyone who has engaged in the academic discipline of Biblical studies knows that the contemporary reader does not have direct access to the original intent and audience of the author. These must be tentatively reconstructed using tools provided by multiple disciplines like archaeology, history, ancient languages, literary and form criticism, and cultural studies. This attempt to determine what an author was trying to communicate to the original audience is the work of exegesis, and (since this is reconstructive work) it too requires interpretation.

While historical-criticism does not operate on the basis of certainty, much can be learned about the ancient world, the perspective of the author, the context of the original audience, and the message being communicated. As those who live on the other side of the Enlightenment, the perspective of the author and intended audience will be very different from ours. Acknowledging these important differences allows us to distance ourselves from our own interpretive filters so we can listen to the text on its own terms. While we never do this perfectly (because we cannot completely escape our own perspective), to a certain extent we can resist the urge to blindly project our own modern presuppositions on ancient texts, effectively collapsing the radically different worldviews of the author and contemporary reader. In hermeneutics, this is known as distanciation. We can provisionally bracket our own presuppositions and allow the text to speak to us as a genuine other in ways that will illuminate, challenge, and even change our interpretive filters, as well as broaden our horizon of understanding.

In addition, Christians believe that God somehow works through this interpretive conversation with the Bible to speak to us in transformative ways. God can and does speak to us through the kind of scholarly exegesis described above, but God also speaks to us in more devotional readings of scripture, like the ancient practice of lectio divina. Indeed, both of these approaches are important as we seek to understand the Bible and encounter God through it. (See my article, “Shaped By Scripture: Two Different Ways of Reading the Bible.”) As God speaks to us in and through the interaction of our perspective with the Bible, it becomes the Word of God in the power of the Holy Spirit. This encounter with the Word can illuminate, challenge, shape, and even alter our interpretive filters in ways that broaden our horizon of understanding and allow us deeper access to divine truth. This is at least part of the process by which we mature in the faith and grow in wisdom. The more spiritually mature the reader, the more faithful the interpretation. This is why the Bible should also be read in conversation with spiritual directors and teachers who have become wise through contemplation.

It is also important to read the Bible in conversation with the larger Christian tradition, both synchronically and diachronically. Gaining more knowledge about how Christians have interpreted the Bible in different ways over the course of 2,000 years will help surface and evolve our interpretive filters, as will contemporary conversations with other Christians around the globe who occupy very different perspectives. We not only ask how Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, and Wesley interpreted the Bible, but also how Christians in Africa, South America, and Asia interpret the text today. We study the history of Christianity but also Latin American Liberation Theology, Black Theology, Feminist and Womanist Theology, and Minjung Theology, all of which confirm the added benefit of conversations with philosophy and critical-theory. One could also argue the benefit of reading in conversation with people of other religious traditions. A great example of this is the interreligious dialogue between Thomas Merton and Thich Nhat Hanh.

Again, it should be clear that we don’t have to be slaves to a narrow and shallow interpretive framework. While our reading is always perspectival, our perspective can evolve and deepen over time by disciplined engagement in the various kinds of conversations mentioned above. One way of understanding this truth is by reference to the hermeneutical spiral.

Hermeneutical Spiral

As you can see in the diagram above, we start with pre-understandings that give us an interpretive framework for understanding the text. As we practice distanciation by bracketing our presuppositions, we allow the text to speak to us as a genuine other in the interpretive process. New insights emerge that are appropriated and assimilated in ways that transform our pre-understandings.

In conclusion, the purpose of this article is to destabilize the idea that textual meaning is a neutral, univocal, and static object that is passively waiting to be discovered by a well-intended reader. I am also trying to destabilize the idea of reading as a literal one-to-one correspondence between the human mind and printed words on a page. Taken together, I am criticizing what Merold Westphal calls “cognitive transubstantiation” and emphasizing the importance of interpretive humility. Furthermore, by sharing some key insights in philosophical hermeneutics, we have seen how important it is to be aware of our own perspective and to read sacred texts in conversation with others so that our interpretive filters can evolve and our horizon of understanding can be expanded.

The faithful interpretation of scripture is a life-long process, and our hope is that as we continue to grow in this regard that the Bible will continue to be a narrative space where we can encounter the risen Christ and be conformed to his image.

(Image Source: http://www.metanexus.net/essay/entangled-narratives)