Late Sunday night, Alabama Governor Robert Bentley said that he would not allow any Syrian refugees to be resettled in Alabama declaring, “After full consideration of this weekend’s attacks of terror on innocent citizens in Paris, I will oppose any attempt to relocate Syrian refugees to Alabama through the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program. As your Governor, I will not stand complicit to a policy that places the citizens of Alabama in harm’s way.” Throughout the day on Monday, other governors have followed suit.
As a Southern Baptist pastor from Alabama, I thought that I would respond.
The difficulty of Bentley's position is inherent in his statement. He rightly denounces the evil attacks on innocent civilians perpetrated by ISIS terrorists as we all should. But, his response to their barbarism is to then shut the door on their victims, the Syrian refugees fleeing the violence in their home country. It is a classic case of blame-shifting and the full motivation is fear. Apparently, since Bentley feels powerless to stop ISIS and the people of Alabama are expressing fear and anger, he has decided to refuse help to any potential victims of ISIS that might be looking for refuge in Alabama. For a governor and state that often declares itself to be predominately Christian and a promoter of family values and the sanctity of human life, this is a contradictory position to take, to say the least.
First of all, the refugees that come to the United States through the Refugee Resettlement Program for are fleeing truly horrible conditions around the world. They have already been vetted by multiple U.S. agencies in refugee camps overseas in a variety of ways before they ever enter the United States. No visitor to the United States is more scrutinized than a refugee from a conflict zone. This process can take anywhere from over 6 months to a couple of years. If a terrorist wanted to enter the United States, going through the refugee resettlement process is absolutely the hardest way to do it. If we cannot trust the process by which the United States Government vets refugees fleeing violence and persecution, then we cannot trust any form of our border security or immigration or visa processes. Governor Bentley might as well say that he will not allow any foreign students, workers, or tourists to come in to Alabama from anywhere. Apparently, a good number of the Paris attackers were French and Belgian nationals. Will Governor Bentley next ban Muslim French nationals or Muslims coming from Belgium? Where does it end?
As is often the case, the weakest and most vulnerable are the ones who serve as pawns or who have the door slammed in their faces. Is the United States government capable of determining who should be granted refugee status and who should not? I hope so. If not, then we have much bigger problems.
There is a lot of misinformation floating around out there. Governors and Congressmen and individuals seem to be running as fast as they can to be first in the attempt to be tough on potential abusers of our refugee system. But, in their rush to make a statement, lots of errors are being made. Let's actually consider the facts and make decisions that both take into account national security interests as well as deal rightly with the actual refugees in need.
Beyond the practical issues, we find that there are Biblical reasons that Gov. Bentley and the other governors should reconsider their position. I understand that the State is not the Church and I am not trying to conflate the two. But, I do think that the Church is to be salt and light and that it is to influence the State from a Biblical perspective. I do not have time or space to list all of the Scriptures that tell us that we are to not oppress the sojourner, the poor, the widow, and the orphan (Zechariah 7:10) as we protect the weak and provide for those in need. This is basic Christian behavior. But, fear of potential danger or loss can drown out basic Christianity and subvert it to an impotent religion that only exists to benefit the practicioner and promote and defend their way of life over and above others. That is not what Jesus had in mind.
The Apostle Paul said in 2 Corinthians 5:14-15, “For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.” Once you have truly encountered Christ, you become compelled by His love instead of by fear of the other person or of loss. You beome able to love your enemies and even give to those who want to take from you. You stop living for yourself and begin to live for Him who died for them – the people who formerly rejected Christ. Everything changes as the love of Christ compels you to go to those in need. I believe that the Christian response is to seek to sacrificially love and minister to the Syrian refugees who might come here, not shut the door on them. The Christian response also involves taking a moment to delineate the legitimate refugees fleeing violence, war, and death from the terrorists who prepetuate that horror upon their innocent victims. The State is not Christian. But, when the State is full of Christians who want Biblical values to permeate society, then can we not reflect those values in our policies toward people in need? If not, then on what basis do we have to call for public morality to exist on any issue?
The United States should thoroughly vet and screen every refugee from any country seeking asylum here. According to Romans 13:1-8, the State has a duty to bring order and protect its citizens. Yes, we should do our due dilligence to ensure the safety of people in this country. But, the Church is to be salt and light to the State and, in the form of government that we have (“of the people, by the people, for the people”), we are to influence prophetically from a Biblical perspective regarding how we see people who are made in God's image. To completely shut the door on worthy candidates and people who are in desperate need because we fear that some with nefarious motives might sneak in is to live in a state of fear that is debilitating – and, it is to ignore the fact that there really are people in dire need that we can help. As Christians, we are to be compelled by Christ's love to go to those in need with the gospel and any other aid that we can provide. The Syrian refugees have lost everything. Shutting the door to all of them – even those who are innocent – because of the actions of their persecutors and the fear that those actions have created, is an unChristian act. Yes, the State can act that way, but as Christians in that state, we must ask what kind of place do we live in? Can we tell a better story? Can we speak to our leaders and call upon them to reflect a Biblical perspective in all of this? If we do not speak now for those who cannot speak for themselves, then our voices lose their validity when it comes to other issues.
The greatest danger to the people of Alabama is not a potential terrorist attack. The greatest danger, at this point, is the subverting of our faith in Christ and love for others to a mad rush of fear and blaming of victims who are actually running away from the same evil that we seek to protect ourselves from. We are called to love our neighbor as ourselves, not send him away with a door shut in his face. Right now, the Syrian refugees fleeing violence are our neighbors. The better way of Jesus calls us to open our arms to those who are legitimately in need while also driving a spike through the wheel of injustice and violence that would seek to do more harm to the innocent. Governor Bentley misses that point and lumps the innocent victims running away from violence and death in with their oppressors who are chasing them. Alabama should be better than this. We have thousands and thousands of churches and millions of self-professed Christians. Shutting the door to all Syrian refugees fleeing violence is not a Christian act. I pray that Governor Bentley relents and points to the better way of Jesus as he has tried to do on other issues.
No, the State is not the Church. However, can the Church with a prophetic witness to the reality of who Jesus is call upon the State to engage in a humane response to people in need? Are we capable of that? Do we have that kind of voice left, or will we subvert it to the whispers of fear and anger?