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3 Tips For A More Civil Conversation About Syrian Refugees


Muslim extremists working for Islamic State (ISIS) slaughtered 129 people and injured another 350 in the streets of Paris on Friday. The group promised to bring the carnage to Washington, D.C. and New York City, soon. In the last couple of weeks alone, ISIS took responsibility for bringing down a Russian passenger airplane over Sinai, killing 224 people, and suicide bombings in Beirut, killing 40.

ISIS has grown from a fledgling jihadist group, operating under various names, into a self-designated caliphate that claims authority over Muslims worldwide. Its trademarks include destroying world heritage sites, beheading victims, and targeting religious minorities. And the last few weeks show it is willing to murder civilians outside of the territory it holds. ISIS has gained territory in Iraq and Syria, displacing millions of residents. Some of the displacement is due to ISIS marking Christian homes for seizure or destruction and telling inhabitants to convert or else. Some of the displacement is thanks to the war-torn region’s massive unemployment. The net result is millions of people in the region being forced out of their homes. Refugees and migrants are flooding into neighboring countries. The U.S. has said it will accept 10,000 in the current fiscal year.

The challenge of what to do about ISIS — in terms of military, economic, diplomacy, or religious strategies — is overwhelming. President Obama has indicated that he plans to stick with his strategy, saying the events in Paris were a tragic “setback.” When peppered with questions about that strategy from a typically more compliant press, Obama got defensive. A war-weary public, weary of fighting endless wars with no clear attempt to win any of them, is nervous about the prospect of yet another fought with a similarly fruitless strategy. At the same time, the barbarity of ISIS makes many wish to vanquish the group that is seeking the destruction of the West.

Rather than figure out what to do about the massive problem of ISIS, many politicians and journalists are instead retreating to the safe space of domestic politics, focusing on those 10,000 refugees. It’s a far easier discussion, and one that’s easier to cover for a hyper-political media.

And the conversation about Syrian refugees and how to balance humanitarianism and security could not be less productive, what with a histrionic press, simplistic Facebook memes, widespread lack of charity. We could use a few tips on how to improve our conversations.

1) Put The Best Construction On Your Opponents’ Arguments

The Lutheran Catechism explains the meaning of the commandment against bearing false witness against one’s neighbor as, “We should fear and love God that we may not deceitfully belie, betray, slander, or defame our neighbor, but defend him, [think and] speak well of him, and put the best construction on everything.”

I’m familiar with this because I break this commandment every day. I cast aspersions and question the motivations of others, even as I freak out when other people do the same to me.

Whether you’re the president, a GOP candidate for president, a reporter with strong opinions, or just an average Facebook user, we could all work on treating our opponents’ arguments better. So don’t say people who aren’t as concerned about security risks as you are despise America. And don’t say people who don’t trust the government’s vetting processes as much as you do are scared of toddlers.

Consider the possibility that other people simply have different prudence and charity calculi than you. Then, consider their arguments with an open mind rather than simply reacting emotionally.

I know, Obama didn’t exactly lead on the path of charity when he said of Republican critics of his policy, “at first they were too scared of the press being too tough on them in the debates. Now they are scared of three-year-old orphans.” I’m sure it’s tempting to descend to that level of rhetoric. But even if the president, or a GOP candidate, or your cousin on Facebook is being immature; or saying your views are worse than ISIS, or your views serve as a recruitment tool for ISIS, or you don’t care if Americans die at the hands of ISIS, that’s not a good reason to join in.

The fact is that our country is genuinely divided on this. And you might be surprised how the sides break down. On the one hand you have Obama, some Democrats, the refugee resettlement sector, much of the media, and 28 percent of the population. On the other, you have a bipartisan group of elected officials, including 27 governors, and most of the public. According to a new Bloomberg poll, 53 percent say they oppose resettlement of Syrian refugees, another 11 percent say we should only resettle the Christians who are fleeing ISIS’ genocide, and 8 percent say they’re unsure what to do. It is worth noting that 64 percent of the respondents also said, “Islam is an inherently peaceful religion, but there are some who twist its teachings to justify violence.”

People on all sides of a policy issue are capable of changing their minds on a given matter, but condescension or anger probably won’t achieve such an outcome. Instead, try engaging the best of your opponent’s argument and see where that gets you.

2) Don’t Oversimplify Christian Ethics

The media aren’t known for their friendliness to Christian beliefs, so it was surprising to see some reporters attempt biblical exegesis of their preferred domestic policies. As Hans Fiene has explained in “The Christmas Story Is About Christ, Not Obama’s Syrian Refugee Policy,” the Christmas story is about Jesus Christ, not Obama’s Syrian refugee policy. Reasons he cites include that Mary and Joseph were not foreigners in Bethlehem, Mary and Joseph were not refugees, Mary and Joseph were most likely not denied room at a hotel, and, most importantly, the Christmas story is not a morality tale about hospitality.

It would be somewhat easier if scripture did tell everyone exactly what to do about this complicated global problem, but it does not. Christian philosophers have discussed issues of charity for millennia, and one topic of concern was precisely about showing charity to others. In Summa Theologica, the great doctor of the church Thomas Aquinas discusses whether there is an order to charity. Must we love everyone in outward effects equally? Or do we demonstrate love more to our near neighbors than our distant neighbors? His answers: No to the first question, yes to the second. (See Articles 1, 6, 7, etc.) The Summa is one of the most influential works of Western literature and very influential in the history of Christian thought.

Is it loving to accept refugees from a war-torn country? Of course. Is it loving to not care about security risks that could lead to the death of your countrymen? No. Is it prudent to consider the benefits to humanity relative to the risks to yourself of others? Of course.

Think about it in your own life. Perhaps you have been blessed with enough resources to share some of your bounty with those in need. Do you give money to the beggar you encounter on the street? Do you support charities that help the homeless? Do you give money to your congregation and have the elders and pastors distribute it to those in need? Do you help friends who are in a crunch? Do you open up your house to those who are in need of shelter? Maybe you do one or several of these things. But in what you do, it’s incumbent on you to first take care of your vocational responsibilities to your nearest neighbors — your family. You may be less willing to let a stranger sleep on your sofa if you have young children, for instance. You may be less willing to share your largesse with a charity if your daughter just lost her job and is worried about making ends meet.

Providing security or working to protect the security of your neighbors is a form of charity. Accepting refugees from faraway lands is also an act of charity. Sometimes, because of man’s fallen condition or even just the allocation of limited resources, these things are in conflict. When they are, we are to behave prudently in balancing those risks. That can take time, energy, and thought.

We could take this further. What is “the” charitable thing to do in a humanitarian crisis such as the one we’re witnessing? Are we sure it’s resettling refugees far from their native land? Reihan Salam writes in Slate this week:

In “Help Refugees Help Themselves,” an essay in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs, Alexander Betts and Paul Collier offer a plan that would resettle Syrian refugees closer to home. While hundreds of thousands of Syrians have sought refuge in Europe, millions have instead made their way to Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey. Some have found themselves in refugee camps; others have settled in cities, where they work illegally and lead a marginal existence. Betts and Collier offer a more sustainable solution: Instead of herding refugees into camps where they are forced to subsist on aid, they call for the creation of special economic zones. Essentially, a consortium of countries, including all of the major Western economies, would create financial incentives and trade concessions to spur industrial development in these zones, which would employ refugees and, in some number, citizens of the host country. Betts and Collier note that the Jordanian government has already established a number of industrial zones, one of which, King Hussein Bin Talal Development Area in the eastern Mafraq Governorate, is just 10 miles away from the sprawling Zaatari refugee camp. With its current infrastructure, KHBTDA can accommodate as many as 100,000 workers, but it currently employs only 10,000. If KHBTDA were reinvented as a special economic zone for Syrian refugees, Betts and Collier report that it could employ every worker in the Zaatari camp and only reach half of its full capacity. With the help of the international community, KHBTDA could become a hub for labor-intensive manufacturing and other kinds of productive economic activity. Ultimately, skills learned and firms established in these new special economic zones could be brought back to Syria once peace is re-established there.

The beauty of Betts and Collier’s approach is that it provides Syrians with a measure of economic self-sufficiency and cultural autonomy in exile, and it sidesteps the challenges of integration by giving them their own space in which to flourish.

Perhaps the charitable thing to do is take out ISIS. Perhaps the charitable thing to do is not to put Syrian refugees into a troubled American resettlement industry and instead have 3,000 congregations sponsor a family and be responsible for helping them learn English, get an education, job training, employment, health care, counseling, and integrated into a community that can help them thrive.

The point is that the level of conversation and amount of moral preening we’re doing on each side isn’t really forcing us into these more difficult conversations about the right thing to do. It’s very easy to argue for or against a given policy. It’s much more difficult to actually help our neighbors, near or far.

3) Even If Christian Ethics Were Crystal Clear Here, What Does That Have To Do With Government Action?

A Christian friend on Facebook wrote, “Welcoming more Syrian refugees appeals to me, and it seems to boil down to this: We should sacrifice our safety out of our duty to love others as ourselves. I just wonder if that’s valid reasoning for a government, which is, after all, obligated to look after the interests of its own people.” A heated discussion ensued.

The question of what Christians should do about refugees, particularly those who are their religious brethren, is actually a different question than what the U.S. government should do about Syrian refugees. The scriptures are clear that Christians are to help others and that we are to help fellow Christians first. This is written throughout the scriptures but perhaps most clearly in Galatians 6:10, which says, “So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.”

While Christians have a duty to help fellow Christians first, the U.S. government doesn’t have that same duty. Having said that, of the 2,184 Syrian refugees admitted into the U.S. since the 2011, only 53 have been Christian, even though Christians have been victims of special persecution at the hands of ISIS. Despite what Obama has said on the matter, U.S. policy does privilege refugees fleeing such persecution, so these numbers should be higher.

Again, though, while Christians are called to open their homes and communities to strangers, the U.S. government doesn’t necessarily have that role. There are many things that Christians do through their churches that are different than what the government does. The church preaches the gospel and administers the sacraments. That’s not a role for the state. The state punishes those who violate moral laws, such as prohibitions against murder or rape. That is not the role of the church.

Some Christians refer to this distinction as “the two kingdoms.” The Christian is a citizen of both the spiritual kingdom and the earthly kingdom, but even the non-Christian is a citizen of the latter. As Gene Veith has written, “God operates in both kingdoms through means. In the spiritual kingdom, He works through His Word, His sacraments, His church. In the earthly kingdom, He works through the processes of natural laws, physical causes, and history. Just as God established the church as the institution through which He works in His spiritual kingdom, He established the family and the state as institutions through which He works in His earthly kingdom. This is to say, God works through vocation. That is, through human beings whom He calls to different offices, tasks, and kinds of service.”

The Church has an obligation to care for everyone, no matter his earthly citizenship, even as it prioritizes the needs of believers over non-believers. The state, however, is given the task of protecting its citizens. Over at Religion News Service, a blogger coupled various governors’ statements against current refugee policy with other quotes they gave about being Christian. The piece, headlined “Jesus Would Welcome Syrian Refugees,” conflated the gubernatorial vocation, which serves Christian and non-Christian alike on the basis of reason and prudence, with the vocation of believer, which has love for all but does not conscript non-believers into acts of Christian charity.

Christians are to help others in need, but that doesn’t mean all Christian policies should be U.S. policies. And I’m kind of surprised at how many people are suggesting otherwise — or at least suggesting that U.S. policy should be Christian moral law. It’s certainly a different tune than what you hear when it comes to certain other hot button political topics (including those with far more biblical clarity).

At the very least, don’t assume that your understanding of Christian ethics translates directly to U.S. policy.

Forgive One Another

In any case, rather than fight about refugees that few of us will ever meet or care for apart from contributing to transfer payment programs, let’s actually take this time to care for one another. Right now, in every community, there are people who are suffering. Maybe they’re suffering from addiction or bad decisions. Maybe they’re just simply struggling to make ends meet because they’ve been abandoned by others. Maybe they just want to hear a kind word. Maybe you’re the person in need. Let’s take the time to show love to one another. Even those who have been mean to us on Facebook.

And whether you’ve been accused of trying to destroy America or not caring about orphans, forgive one another. As St. Paul wrote, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” I’m not recommending it be U.S. policy, but give it a try!