The Bible Is Crystal Clear About Refugees

Republicans, who often claim God told them to run, have gone to great lengths to turn their backs on refugees. Maybe they should crack open the Bible.

Ognen Teofilovski/Reuters

In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in Paris we have seen fortitude, courage, tragedy, grief, resilience, and a stunning display of anti-Christian social teaching.

No, I don’t mean ISIS. I mean the two dozen state governors (including one Democrat) who have said that they will not accept refuges from Syria; the Speaker of the House Paul Ryan’s suggestion that we “take a pause” in refugee aid programs in order to ensure that terrorists are not infiltrating the ranks; and Ted Cruz’s suggestion that we should accept only Christian refugees.

Cruz isn’t alone in thinking that we should prioritize Christian refugees. Jeb Bush agreed that “our focus ought to be on the Christians who have no place in Syria anymore.” And Ben Carson, presumably drawing on his years as a brain surgeon, argued that bringing refugees “from that area of the world…is a huge mistake.”

It is certainly true that Christians face additional and real persecution in Syria (as they do in other parts of the world). These are risks that should not be minimized or referred to only in conversations about a broader refugee epidemic. But serious comparable risks are also faced by Yazidis and by anyone ISIS deems to be improperly Muslim. It is, as others have argued, a serious insult to Syrian Muslims to suggest that they are somehow safe where they are.

Implicit in these statements and in Cruz’s suggestion that we send Muslim refugees to majority-Muslim nations is the idea that America is a Christian country. Even looking past the factual inaccuracy, and the fact that Cruz conflates religion and patriotic allegiance, Cruz has a real problem. If America were a Christian country then his statements would be even more egregious.

From almost beginning to end, the Christian Bible instructs its audience to accept “foreigners” and “strangers” and to offer them hospitality. The entire message of the parable of the Good Samaritan is to offer assistance to those who are political and social outsiders. And in 1 Peter the entire Christian community are called “sojourners” and encouraged to see themselves as refugees in the world.

Perhaps the most obvious and seasonally appropriate example is that of the Holy Family—Mary, Joseph, and (in utero) Jesus—who were turned away when they reached Bethlehem. Biblical scholars might object that the rejection story is historically implausible, but the popular meme that emerged last week has a point. Christians should be especially cognizant of the needs of vulnerable groups, because our tradition maintains that the Messiah was once denied shelter.

From Moses exposed in a reed basket to the sons of Israel seeking help from Pharaoh in times of famine to Mary and Joseph in nativity play sheds, Christian heroes are those cast out and in need of help. In the gospels, Jesus is clear that the Kingdom of Heaven is for those who help the needy by sheltering, feeding, and clothing them. Those who don’t are the goats. You don’t want to know what happens to the goats.

Senator Cruz, I have to ask, what Bible are you reading?

If I sound shrill, it is because this is profoundly obvious. It’s not as if, in pointing out the fundamentally un-Christian nature of this political posturing, anyone is asking for a high level of Biblical literacy: “Love thy neighbor as thyself” is a foundational Christian teaching and used in many denominations as a shorthand for the ethical teaching of the Bible as a whole.

What does loving your neighbor mean? Well, it sure as hell doesn’t mean leaving them to face torture, persecution, rape, and death.

Are there risks involved in accepting large numbers of refugees? I’m not a specialist in this region so let’s for the sake of argument concede that there might be (although as the Economist has shown, none of the 750,000 refugees admitted since 9/11 have planned or committed terrorist acts against the U.S.). I am a specialist in Christianity though, so allow me to say that, biblically speaking, it simply does not matter if there are risks. There are more than 30 Biblical passages encouraging people not to be afraid and to trust in God. Allowing oneself to be terrorized is not the Christian option. Fear does not permit Christians to abandon the modern imperative to help those in need.