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Syrian refugee crisis: open or close borders?

Syrian refugee child sleeps in his father's arms while waiting at a resting point to board a bus, after arriving on a dinghy from the Turkish coast to the northeastern Greek island of Lesbos. Bold ideas for helping Syrian refugees and their overburdened Middle Eastern host countries are gaining traction among international donors who were shocked into action by this year's migration of hundreds of thousands of desperate Syrians to Europe. (Credit: AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen)On the surface, comedian Bill Engvall and 14th century Franciscan friar William of Ockham share little in common. One has particular appeal to Southern audiences, poking fun at their eccentricities. Another was an antagonistic opponent of Thomas of Aquinas, disagreeing with Aquinas's synthesis of faith and reason. But though they have their differences, these two individuals do share at least one commonality: their proclivity for the simplistic. William is known for Ockham's Razor, which finds that entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily, or in layman's terms: simpler is better. Engvall is known for his refrain "Here's your sign," in which, when someone asks an asinine question, the other person answers sarcastically, followed by "Here's your sign."

Proponents of simplicity, these two men cognitively wrestle with questions in such a way that moves towards the straightforward, simple answer. But are simple answers always at the end of complex problems?

In today's heated exchange relative to the immigration crisis, where the First Amendment's freedom of speech often trumps the biblical truism of being quick to listen, we are inundated with loud political posturing and quick responses that don't often reflect thoughtful consideration.

As of today, twenty-seven governors say they oppose letting Syrian refugees into their states. Presidential candidate and senator from Texas Ted Cruz plans to introduce legislation that would bar Syrian refuges from entrance, though providing an exemption for Christians seeking safe haven. This comes after authorities found that at least one of the suspects believed to be involved in the Paris attacks entered Europe among the wave of Syrian refugees.

1,500 Syrian refugees have been accepted into the United States since 2011, but the Obama administration announced in September, and reiterated yesterday, that 10,000 Syrians will be allowed entry next year. Since 2011, more than 250,000 Syrians have died due to the violence, and at least 11 million of the 22 million people in the country have fled their homes.

While states can refuse to cooperate, they cannot legally stop the constitutionally empowered federal government from allowing refugees into the country. Ted Cruz is more than capable and within his bounds of introducing and filibustering legislation, but is it the right thing to do as a self-identified, evangelical Christian?

Two differing factions have emerged over this debate, both sides substantiating their argument with the Bible. Mark Amstutz, a political science professor at Wheaton College, finds that there is a cosmopolitan approach and a communitarian approach. The cosmopolitan approach understands the world as a "coherent global society united by the simple fact of our common humanity, and often regard[ing] the nation-state as an impediment to international justice." The communitarian approach calls for individuals to embrace their moral duty, but there is "a concurrent obligation to maintain our own societies as stable and well-governed."  

The cosmopolitan approach pulls heavily from the Old Testament and the teachings of Jesus in order to edify their argument. They assert that as Christians with regards to the immigrant, they are to not oppress the foreigner (Exodus 23:9), fight for justice for the foreigner (Malachi 3:5), provide food for the foreigner (Leviticus 19:9-10), and invite them in as you would Jesus (Matthew 25:25-36). They recall Deuteronomy 10:18-19, which reminds the Israelites of who God is and who they are to be:

"He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt."

They also employ the narrative of Job, calling to mind Job's hospitality towards the stranger (Job 31:32), understanding that Job's love is the same love that fulfills all the commandments (Galatians 5:14). However, just like a sheet of paper, there is another side.

Proponents of the communitarian argument often differentiate between the individual Christian's personal responsibility and the governmental response. Yes, the individual Christian is called to show hospitality (1 Peter 4:9), love and pray for their enemies (Matthew 5:44), and be a voice for the voiceless (Proverbs 31:8-9). However, this is the response of the individual, not the basis for public policy.

Regardless of the Citizens United Supreme Court case, the individual is different from the government. The government is tasked with restraining and punishing evil (Romans 13:4), enacting justice (Romans 13:5), and fostering an atmosphere of peace (1 Timothy 2:2).  Relative to the explicit biblical admonitions concerning the foreigner, America is not the Israel from the Old Testament thus it is imprudent to impose those admonitions. We are not the biblical city shining on a hill, though we are exceptional and have an exceptional responsibility with regards to the world.  

While some use Acts 17:26 as biblical backing for borders, this is a modern day stretch that fails to fall within scholarly consensus. This passage concerns individuals, not national borders. If anything, this passage indirectly asserts that we tear down the fences around our heart in order that we might extend compassion to those who are far away. While governmental officials can be Christians, it should be understood that the government is not Christian, a repentant sinner who has placed their faith in a sinless, resurrected Savior.

So which side is right: the communitarian approach or the cosmopolitan approach?


Is it possible that one side is not right and the other wrong, but both sides inform an on-going and ever evolving conversation? The tragedy in Paris is very fresh and still greatly present on the minds of many. Emotions are fueling a great amount of the current conversation, with one side afraid of what they could lose and the other side afraid of not doing enough for those who have lost.

Maybe we should refrain from the detrimental dichotomies that pit one side against the other, causing one to be wrong and the other right. Rather than trying to prove each other wrong, we can learn and listen to each other. Yes, there will come a time when decisions must be made, but this is not the moment. There are bad people that are counted among the refugees, but there are also good and hurting people. As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn noted: "The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being."

This is a complex geopolitical situation that inevitably involves both good and bad people and the need for discerning leaders to make wise decisions. Scripture alone should not guide this conversation, but it should be present in the conversation and manifested in our lives. The Holy Scriptures are a narrative of a King coming back for his people, not a policy book ascertaining who should be in and out. Yes, there is a great need for compassion during this time. And yes, there should be a great amount of caution in crafting policy decisions. But regardless of what the government decides, this does not change the individual action you are to take relative to the stranger and foreigner. If Jesus is your king, there's your sign.

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