A Perspective on the Refugee Debate

The recent and very heated debate on the refugee crisis, including among Christians, continues to divide the nation and the universal church. In searching for answers grounded in truth, I first look at the national security role of the government. Next, I analyze what the Bible actually says about the refugee question. Finally, I review what the Executive Order says, as compared to how the press and others have characterized it.

It is the proper role of the government to provide for national security.

There are few things upon which most libertarians, conservatives, and liberals can all agree. All three, however, would likely concur that, at a minimum, the government should provide for public safety and a national defense. In particular, a proper role of the federal government is to protect us from foreign threats. In a sense, the government’s role is to serve as a watchman to protect us. Ezekiel 33:2-6 (NIV) states:

When I bring the sword against a land, and the people of the land choose one of their men and make him their watchman, and he sees the sword coming against the land and blows the trumpet to warn the people, then if anyone hears the trumpet but does not heed the warning and the sword comes and takes their life, their blood will be on their own head. Since they heard the sound of the trumpet but did not heed the warning, their blood will be on their own head. If they had heeded the warning, they would have saved themselves. But if the watchman sees the sword coming and does not blow the trumpet to warn the people and the sword comes and takes someone’s life, that person’s life will be taken because of their sin, but I will hold the watchman accountable for their blood.’

While this passage is from a different time and concerns the people of Israel, the principle behind it remains instructive today. We, as American citizens, elected the people in the Federal Government to serve as our watchmen. They guard us and warn us of impending threats. One of the main threats we face today is the threat of Radical Islamic Terrorism. One only needs to look at the staggering number of incidents going on in the world, particularly in Europe, to know the threat that terrorism poses.

So why, in the refugee debate, do so many people discard caution, diligence, and wisdom, while labeling their fellow citizens “islamophobic,” “anti-Christian,” or “racist,” especially if they do not support allowing in all refugees from everywhere. Certainly, Christians should help the poor and downtrodden, wherever they may be, but that doesn’t mean we should bury our heads in the sand to do it.

It is also interesting to see how much the Bible is inaccurately quoted in the refugee debate. While the Bible does have a lot to say about helping our neighbor, Christians also must not ignore the Bible’s repeated instruction regarding wisdom. For example, Proverbs 4:5-6 (NASB) states:

Acquire wisdom! Acquire understanding! Do not forget nor turn away from the words of my mouth. Do not forsake her, and she will guard you; Love her, and she will watch over you.

Christians should strive to be wise in everything that we do. God gave mankind reason and logic on purpose. The reason the executive order temporarily suspends refugees from seven countries with a history of exporting terrorism, is that we lack a secure vetting process. (Terrorists Once Used Refugee Program to Settle in US, ABC News) In a world where ISIS ominously declares its intent to use our refugee program to infiltrate our nation a secure vetting system isn’t racism or islamophobia, it’s wisdom. The United States faces an enormous threat because most of those seven countries are failed states, i.e. they do not have a fully functioning governmental system. Thus, it is very difficult to learn reliable information about the refugees wishing to come here.

In other words, and in light of Ezekiel and Proverbs, the watchmen we have put in place have told us that they are lacking in wisdom and understanding to be able to figure out if a potential refugee is a friend or foe. Our watchmen have sounded their trumpet. They’ve told us that a threat is coming. We should not ignore them. In fact, it is clear from Ezekiel that we have a responsibility to take heed to such a warning.

What the Bible actually says about refugees and immigration.

A highly regarded scholar of the Old Testament, Dr. James K. Hoffmeier, of Trinity International University, recently wrote an article about the refugee issue that is worth highlighting in this debate.

The most significant Hebrew word for our discussion is ger, translated variously in English versions, which creates some confusion, as “stranger” (KJV, NASB, JB), “sojourner” (RSV, ESV), “alien” (NEB, NIV, NJB, NRSV), and “foreigner” (TNIV, NLT). It occurs more than 80 times as a noun and an equal number as a verb (gwr), which typically means “to sojourn” or “live as an alien.” The problem with more recent English translations (e.g. TNIV and NLT) is that they use “foreigner” for ger, which is imprecise and misleading because there are other Hebrew terms for “foreigner,” namely nekhar and zar. The distinction between these two terms and ger is that while all three are foreigners who might enter another country, the ger had obtained legal status.

In Dr. Hoffmeier’s analysis, he describes how the Israelites had to ask for permission to live in Egypt (Genesis 47:3-6) and that it was actually the king of Egypt who granted the Israelites’ request. At that point, the Israelites became gers, or legal aliens. Dr. Hoffmeier also gives the example of Moses who fled to Jethro after killing the Egyptian. After Moses was accepted by Jethro and he married Jethro’s daughter, Zipporah, Moses was considered a ger, or legal alien. This is very similar to the current United States policy which allows anyone who marries a U.S. citizen to also become a U.S. citizen. This change in status for Moses is also denoted by Moses’ son’s name, Gershom, which contains the word ger.

Dr. Hoffmeier concludes by stating:

These passages from the Law make plain that aliens or strangers received all the benefits and protection of a citizen, whereas the foreigner (nekhar) did not. It is wrong, therefore, to confuse these two categories of foreigners and then to use passages regarding the ger as if they were relevant to illegal immigrants of today.

Dr. Hoffmeier’s analysis illustrates that the Bible verses quoted by so many recently to demand acceptance of all refugees and immigrants unlawfully present in the U.S., actually supports a contrary conclusion. If there is anything to learn from the Old Testament regarding immigration, it is that anyone wishing to come here should apply for legal status, just as the Israelites did in Egypt.

What does the Executive Order actually say?

Throughout the debate on this issue, the level of hyperbolic claims about what the order does or does not do has been both startling and concerning. One thing is certain, however, very few people cite or point to the actual language of the executive order (EO) in support of their argument. (Here’s the full EO) The classic example of this is the never-ending claim that this EO is a “Muslim ban.” The only problem is that no language exists anywhere in the EO instituting such a ban. Instead, all the EO does is suspend the immigration and refugee program for 120 days from the seven countries the prior administration labeled as countries who posed a security risk (Section 5(a)). Further, the EO states in Section 3(c):

To temporarily reduce investigative burdens on relevant agencies during the review period described in subsection (a) of this section, to ensure the proper review and maximum utilization of available resources for the screening of foreign nationals, and to ensure that adequate standards are established to prevent infiltration by foreign terrorists or criminals, pursuant to section 212(f) of the INA, 8 U.S.C. 1182(f), I hereby proclaim that the immigrant and nonimmigrant entry into the United States of aliens from countries referred to in section 217(a)(12) of the INA, 8 U.S.C. 1187(a)(12), would be detrimental to the interests of the United States, and I hereby suspend entry into the United States, as immigrants and nonimmigrants, of such persons for 90 days from the date of this order (excluding those foreign nationals traveling on diplomatic visas, North Atlantic Treaty Organization visas, C-2 visas for travel to the United Nations, and G-1, G-2, G-3, and G-4 visas).

The suspension was implemented on the seven countries the previous administration labeled “countries of concern.” It is curious that when the previous Administration selected these seven countries, there was no outcry that the President was trying to single out Muslims. However, when the current Administration takes action against those exact same countries, it is now summarily labeled as a de-facto attack on Muslims. The truth is that these countries are hotbeds for terrorism and merely labeling them as such is not hateful or immoral.

The bottom line is that this EO merely institutes a temporary suspension in order to reevaluate our immigration and refugee policies. Based upon what has already been happening in Europe and that terrorist groups have already stated their intent to infiltrate our refugee/immigration system, it would appear to be a wise and prudent idea to reevaluate our policies. If we are going to charge our government with the responsibility of keeping us safe from foreign threats, that means we also must give them the tools and policies to effectively carry out their job.

Beware of Virtue Signaling.

In today’s age of Facebook and Twitter, virtue signaling has become rampant. While no dictionary definition of virtue signaling exists, it basically means “someone who expresses or promotes a viewpoint to demonstrate to everyone else what an awesome person he/she is.” To some degree, all of us are guilty of this. It could be argued that every person on Facebook, even if they won’t admit it publicly, has made a post to garner positive feedback and to demonstrate how good or virtuous they are.

Unfortunately, it appears that virtue signaling has crept into the immigration/refugee debate. What better way is there to show that you are a caring/loving/good Christian person than to post something about how much you would like to help the poor and helpless? Conversely, how easy is it to criticize someone who believes there should be limitations on illegal immigration or the refugee program? Both making posts about supporting the refugees and posts criticizing those who disagree are ways to virtue signal to the whole world that you are a good person and care about the helpless.

It is suspicious to see people only care about certain issues when their opponents are in power. If the refugee issue truly meant a lot to you, and you believe temporary suspensions are unconstitutional and/or morally wrong, why do you only oppose them now when the current Administration does it, but you didn’t when the previous Administration suspended the refugee program from Iraq for six months in 2011? Or more recently, where was the outcry when one of the last things the previous President did was change the wet foot/dry foot policy with Cuba (the longstanding policy that if someone manages to escape from Cuba and make it to American soil, they will be granted asylum)? There was very little, if any, outcry on Facebook that the previous Administration was ignoring refugees from Cuba.

I am not suggesting here that every person who ever posted in support of allowing illegal immigration, or opposed the refugee suspension, did so because of their own ego. My point is that we all must be careful not to do so. If you truly do care about the refugee problem, do more than simply tweet about it. Instead of a vague post in support of an issue, explain why you are in support and the reasons for your position. Donate your time, money, or resources to organizations that help refugees. Let us not leave it up to the government to care for people; we are personally called to do that as Christians. Engage in the debate on issues and convince others to join your cause. Be consistent. Don’t change your view on an issue merely because those in power have changed. Be true to your principles, not just to your politics.