On a Christian Solution to the Syrian Refugee Crisis

Who is my neighbor?

I originally wrote this in November, 2015 amidst a national debate about what to do with the stream of human suffering pouring out of Syria. The destruction in Syria continues today, but the controversy has deepened with President Trump’s recent ban on citizens of Syria and other Middle Eastern countries entering the United States. The world is changing, and many professing Christians support those who are changing it. So it’s never been more important for those who claim Christ to thoughtfully consider what He says about who is our neighbor.

“But the religious expert, seeking to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

This question, uttered 2000 years ago by a man wishing to know the limits of personal compassion, echoes throughout history as mankind tries to define who is worth loving and resounds loudly today in the public debate of the refugee crisis. To this question, Christ has a ready reply in the parable of the Good Samaritan.

As the story goes, a man was assaulted on a lonely road from Jerusalem to Jericho. Two Jewish religious leaders give a wide berth of the man as they pass him by. A Samaritan then sees the man bruised and bloodied and stops his journey. Surely the questions of his own safety occur to the Samaritan, as there is no guarantee the person or people that assaulted the man are not still lurking in the shadows. To help a stranger is to leave himself all the more vulnerable to attack. And yet he picks the man up, takes him to an inn, and pays for the man’s needs himself. In the parable, Christ illustrates the neighbor as the man who crosses cultural boundaries, who sees his fellow man in need and, despite personal risk and financial loss, comes to his aid. To his questioner Christ poses the question, “who was a neighbor to the man who was assaulted?” to which the religious expert rightfully answers, “the man who showed mercy to him.”

The answer to this question of who is our neighbor is important for us today. Prior to asking it, the religious expert had correctly answered Jesus that the second most important commanded is to “Love your neighbor as yourself”. So for those of us who follow Christ, contained in this interchange is both the command to love, the definition of who to love, and a demonstration of what it is to love.

UNHCR 2015. International refugees and internally displaced people by year.

To what degree can we apply these principals to the Syrian refugee crisis? The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates there are over 60 million refugees in the world today, either seeking refuge internationally or as internally displaced people. Not since WWII, and arguably in the history of the world, has the number been higher. Half of these people are children. Taken together, these people would be the 24th largest country on the planet. Their original countries are broken, so they are wanderers on the road, existing in a space between national borders and legal status. Their needs are the fundamental needs for all humans: shelter, nourishment, medical care and a place to call home. They are an entire nation of the man found assaulted on the road.

Yet there is potential peril to ourselves if we help. If we take in Syrian refugees, the argument goes, then who knows if we are letting in ISIS. Are we leaving ourselves vulnerable to attack? Will we be the next Paris? Is there the potential for something worse than Paris? There are many questions and few answer to such objections. Yes the potential for harm exists, no we cannot guarantee against unintended consequences if we allow these people in. History and human psychology would suggest xenophobia far outpaces actual risks of xenophilia, but nonetheless risk remains. Like the Samaritan, as we stop and gaze at the assaulted millions, the risk of personal involvement weighs heavily on us.

Furthermore there are financial considerations. What does an influx of thousands or millions of displaced people do to an economy? What about jobs? I find it hard to believe that our economy is at the point of a zero sum game, where one more person in means one other person out, and yet it seems incredible that there is room for everyone. As more people come in, the economic stretch will be gradual, and those first affected will be the poor on the fringe. If 10,000 refugees mean 1,000 American families are displaced from jobs, what is our moral responsibility to those families? What about the already burgeoning costs of medical care, education, and social welfare? I can conceive there is a balance where at some critical number of new people, the scales will tip toward economic disaster, where more people will end up hurting than if we had never allowed anyone entrance in the first place. Like the Samaritan, we will certainly feel our wallets lighten and our resources stretched by the moral obligation to provide for those we have taken responsibility for.

What conclusions can we draw from the above discussion? Is this a Good Samaritan moment where we help every person we encounter on the road? Or do the complexities justify denying refuge to those seeking it? The answer, as almost all answers in the real world, lies in a balance somewhere between the extremes. For Christians, the command to love is overwhelming. “Loving our neighbor as ourselves” is the second greatest commandment, subordinate to and proceeding from the greatest command to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength.” In this story we find Christ’s answer to who is our neighbor: the man on the road in need of help. Personal and financial perils are inherent in this command and acceptable risks to take, as Christ himself demonstrated on the cross. We are no greater than our master. Yet we are also not called to be destructive with our love. After this experience, I doubt the Samaritan then gave up everything and committed his life to roaming the roads, looking for hurting people to help. There was also a limit to Christ’s healing ministry, he did not heal every person in every place he went. He also spent time alone, praying and resting, valuable time than could have been spent helping the poor. As Christians, we are called to selfless love, but not to self-destructive love.

How do we strike such a balance with Syrian refugees? This story does not give us an exact answer, but it certainly gives us the criteria to approach an answer. The correct answer is a selfless but not self-destructive one. The answer that shows we love our neighbor as ourselves, and that accepts a certain amount of risk. An answer that shows we are not first preoccupied with our own wellbeing, but rather the wellbeing of our fellow man. However, It is also is an answer that accepts the complexities of the potential for harm in well-intentioned actions.

With this discussion in mind, I will attempt a concrete solution to the problem. I think the Christian response is to let Syrians in. We need to be thoughtful about the amount we take and perhaps take some steps to verify the identity of the individuals, but we should open our doors to a decent number of them. We should encourage both our European partners and American continental neighbors to do the same, so no one is burdened with too many. Then we should stay vigilant, having a good way of accounting for these individuals through appropriate identification mechanisms, perhaps tracking bank accounts and financial transactions, living situations, etc. We should be strict in the law, with felony offenses resulting in removal from the country. We should also commit to social services commiserate with their humanity, such as basic housing, food assistance, education and job training and medical care all delivered with the goal of self-sufficiency within a few years time.

We also need to address the supply of refugees from Syria, which means increase the military response to ISIS in an intelligent manner as well as a work with our multinational coalition to end the war in Syria. Of course, this recommendation makes the situation sound simple when it is actually ludicrously complex and such an answer may be years away, may end in the dissolution of the state, or worse, who knows. But it needs to be higher on our priority list as a nation or else the humanitarian catastrophe will continue to degenerate and the Middle East itself will be at risk of explosion.

Moreover, we need to pray. Pray for the refugees, for a just solution to this madness. Pray for the disaster that is Syria, for peace and an end to the war. But also we need to pray for ISIS, for both the individuals’ salvation and the organization’s destruction. An enemy is still an image-bearer of God, made in his likeness even if the eternal light in him seems long snuffed out.

Lastly, this needs to elevate other matters of compassion in our minds. Syria is all the rage right now, but what about the Latin American refugee children or refugees from other nations? What about the homeless American veterans? What about our actual neighbors next door with cancer, with broken homes, with selfish pride, with mental illness? Ultimately, this is a question of a Christian’s response to the evil and suffering of this world. Christ’s answer to the problem of evil is a call to selfless, risky, sacrificial, but-not-self-destructive Love.

“And we, seeking to justify ourselves, say to Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’”

To us, Christ responds, “Everyone.”

Originally published at pedsadmit.blogspot.com on November 17, 2015.

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