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Would Jesus take in refugees? Perhaps it is more helpful to flip that question: would you take Jesus in as a refugee? The relevance of that question lies in the fact that Jesus was a refugee, as he and his family were forced to flee to Egypt to escape violence. Jesus tells us that whatever we do for the least of these—the poor, the vulnerable, the abandoned, the persecuted—we do to Christ himself. When we remember the absence of generosity and hospitality that led Jesus to be born in the most humble of circumstances and we recall that Jesus was a refugee, the Christian’s responsibilities should be crystal clear: welcome the stranger, give shelter to those fleeing violence.
And surely the refugees we welcome should not just be members of our faith. Christianity is a universal religion. It is integral to Christian belief that every person has worth and dignity and that each person, regardless of their religious background, has the same fundamental human rights, including the right to be free from unjust violence and fear. Christians are not called to accept refugees because they are Christians, but because we are.
Yet presidential candidates Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz have called for a sectarian policy that would allow for Christian refugees, while denying Muslims the ability to seek asylum here in the United States. This clashes not only with Christian principles, but also our highest ideals as Americans. The United States has long served as a beacon of freedom for those fleeing tyranny, oppression, violence, and death. Our nation was built on the foundation of those who boldly left home to seek American freedom.
But the rich tradition of welcoming “the huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore” is paralleled by a sad history of American xenophobia and fear. Ishaan Tharoor has highlighted our nation’s pathetic response to Jewish and other refugees fleeing the Nazis.
And fear has taken hold once again in this country, as scores of governors have indicated their opposition to receiving a single Syrian refugee. Then, as now, there was a reluctance to even take in children—a fear of toddlers. Presidential candidate Chris Christie explicitly ruled out taking in orphaned children.
ISIS presents a real and grave threat to international and American security, in addition to the genocidal violence and totalitarianism they inflict on the people of Syria and Iraq. And they will try to infiltrate Western countries, including the United States, and engage in terrorism. But the right response is not to abandon Christian and American ideals. The right response is not to surrender to Islamophobia and treat all Muslims as likely terrorists, including toddlers.
This fearmongering may please xenophobic voters. Politicians might find greater support by stirring up fear. But real leaders do not play politics with national security or games with the lives of the most vulnerable. The United States has an extremely rigorous process for admitting refugees. The track record on those who have been admitted is stellar. Turning our backs on legitimate refugees is not a sensible way to protect Americans from terrorism.
In fact, this reactionary approach would almost certainly benefit ISIS. When the West welcomes refugees, it undercuts key narratives put forward by ISIS. When normal Muslims who are fleeing violence are grouped together with sociopathic killers who are driven by a hateful ideology, it affirms ISIS’s false claim that there is a clash of civilizations between the Islamic world and the West. Hillary Clinton was right to praise George W. Bush for making one thing perfectly clear: neither the United States nor the West is at war with Islam. Welcoming Muslim refugees sends the clear message that this is not a clash of civilizations, but a fight for the security and flourishing of all people.
Over 250,000 Syrians have been killed since Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad began murdering peaceful protesters. The Assad regime is responsible for a majority of the deaths—gassing its own people, bombing bread lines and funerals, and terrorizing people in their own homes with deadly barrel bombs. The international community had a responsibility to protect these people. It is true that Russia protected its murderous ally at the United Nations. But the United States, as the world’s preeminent power, could have done more to carve out safe zones, halt the destruction inflicted by the Syrian air force, or engaged in other measures to alleviate some of the suffering.
Instead, the United States took a non-interventionist approach while the deaths piled up and a refugee crisis developed. Assad meanwhile fostered the growth of ISIS as part of a strategy to try to make the international community feel compelled to choose between his continued rule and the reign of totalitarian extremists. Subsequent American actions, limited in their aims, have done little to upend this, leaving millions of Syrians exposed to the mass murder of Assad or ISIS and millions more unable to return to their homes.
Christians meanwhile have a record on Syria that is far from pristine. Many, including Christian bishops and other leaders, have supported Assad’s regime as it commits crimes against humanity. They have affirmed Assad’s false narratives and embraced an entirely sectarian mindset. Even Pope Francis has not called for Assad to step aside, something that is necessary to achieve a sustainable peace, and affirmed the fundamental rights of the Syrian people.
In short, as Christians and Americans, we could have done more. We should have done more to prevent this hell on earth from developing. But we did not. And this only intensifies our responsibility to welcome those fleeing from Assad’s barrel bombs and ISIS’s beheadings. We cannot rewrite history, but we can live out our ideals going forward.