When the dead body of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi washed ashore last September, the years-long Syrian Civil War struck a nerve across the West, giving a face to the nearly 4 million people who have fled the country for their lives.
Since the Syrian civil war began in 2011, more than 200,000 combatants and noncombatants have been killed, including more than 11,000 children. As the conflict rages on, the Islamic State continues to ravage Syria and Iraq, murdering, raping, and enslaving innocents. Its terror now creeps beyond those borders, with operations spreading and recent attacks in Kenya to Beirut. This past weekend, the same brutality was brought to Paris, wreaking violence on more than 120 civilians.
The West has now learned and felt more closely the weight of this same evil and injustice. And yet, even as we get a closer glimpse of such oppression, the temptation to look inward remains.
The United States has pledged to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees, but the first response of many Americans, including many Christians, has been callous ambivalence or disdain, fretting over economic and cultural pressures, fearing a “federally funded jihadi pipeline,” or, in the case of Donald Trump, concocting tales of an Islamist “refugee conspiracy” against the West.
We see the stranger, and even when we are confronted by the weight of their pain and the degree of their desperation, we allow fear to motivate our action.
In a nation as large and prosperous as ours, we ought to find it easier to err on the side of hospitality. As citizens of a country whose successes are so deeply rooted in the entrepreneurial exploits of immigrants and escapees, we ought to understand the profound value and creative capacity of all humankind, regardless of degree or pedigree or culture of origin.
More importantly, as Christians, we ought to see the image of God in all people, and demonstrate a love that casts out fear (1 John 4:18). As sojourners and exiles on this earth (1 Pet. 2:11), we should be the first to welcome the stranger, making space for them in our lives and a place for them at our tables. As the rich and well-to-do peering out at the beggars at our gates (Luke 16:19-31), we should be generous in sparing the proper portions of risk, mercy, and grace.
Such an approach needn’t mean that we ignore or bypass political prudence. We have a responsibility to protect our citizens and to consider the practical constraints of a free and orderly society – to maintain order and not abuse the levers of power. In a case as complicated as this, concerns about national security must not be ignored. Indeed, failing to be attentive to such constraints can lead to an imbalance in the opposite direction: where the innocent are left at the door even as the lawless sneak by.
What it does mean is that our discussions about solutions ought to reflect a basic motivation of love, mercy, and hospitality. As Christians, we are called to care for the vulnerable, and more often than not, that love is going to come at a cost. Ours is an ethic that relishes in the risk of sacrifice and is willing to deny our security and comfortability, all that but one might be saved (Luke 15:1-7). Whatever the prudential merits of barricading against desperate refugees, and however we choose to respond, hospitality should remain the shining light of our society, not fear and insulationism.
Every policy bears costs and benefits. Policies are latent with risk, and as Christians, admitting more Syrian refugees is a risk we should be willing to seriously consider. Because despite those risks, the transformative power of a love that sacrifices for others is bound to bear fruit – spiritually, culturally, civilizationally, and otherwise. Even as we try our best to mitigate negative outcomes, we must remember for what and whom Christ opened his door, and how the resulting liberty ought to be spread here on earth.
“Loving neighbors means we see them as the image-bearers of God,” writes pastor David Crosby in response to the crisis. “Knowing the risks, we treat them with dignity and humanity. We seek to feed them if they are hungry. We get to know them if they are strangers. We refuse to allow our fears to harden our hearts toward them.”
As we fight against individual or systemic oppression or dysfunction, and as we continue to discuss and debate how we might best welcome the immigrant and the refugee, let us remember that along with the fight to change the system at the top, God has given us the wisdom, love, and grace to begin repairing the fragments of society at the ground level.
Knowing and accepting the risks, we seek order in the world by starting with a heart of hospitality, acting in accord with a true vision of our brothers and sisters, and loving the stranger as Christ loved us.