I’ve been following a lot of the stories about the refugee crisis in Europe. Obviously it’s a very different situation from the American debates over illegal immigration, but some important parallels have shaped my views on both issues.
I do not believe that most opposition to illegal immigration in the United States is born out of bigotry or hatred. It comes from fear. It comes from security fears (we don’t know who is coming across the border), and it comes from cultural fears (we don’t know how the influx of illegal immigrants–people who are poorer, less educated, and speak a different language–will change our culture and nation).
These fears are often exaggerated. Take the fact that Korans and prayer rugs are allegedly being found along the border.1 This is one of those things that may sound vaguely ominous, but only until you actually start to think about it. First of all: why would terrorists sneaking into the country carry prayer rugs and Korans in the first place? That doesn’t seem very sneaky. Second, why would they then discard these items right along the border? Not only is that not sneaky, but it’s also just nonsensical. The whole thing is rather silly, upon farther reflection.2
But underneath the paranoia there is the reality that we have a porous border with a violent and sometimes unstable neighbor on the other side of it. That is a risk. So is the risk of large groups of immigrants deciding not to integrate. Although, on that latter piece, you have to think that being constantly threatened with mass deportation might play a pretty big role in the failure of integration, right?
Still, eight or ten years ago you would have found me talking about securing the border first and then mumbling about the importance of law and order. It took some fairly strong statements from the leaders of my Church to get me to change my stance on the issue.3 Once I did, however, I came to see my prior position as being one of fear by default. When in doubt: go with fear.
“America, she begins, “is a Christian country.”
Now, I have to take a brief digression to point out that this statement is indeed shocking from any publication with “New York” in the title, but Robinson quickly allays liberal concerns:
This is true in a number of senses. Most people, if asked, will identify themselves as Christian, which may mean only that they aren’t something else. Non-Christians will say America is Christian, meaning that they feel somewhat apart from the majority culture. There are a large number of demographic Christians in North America because of our history of immigration from countries that are or were also Christian. We are identified in the world at large with this religion because some of us espouse it not only publicly but also vociferously. As a consequence, we carry a considerable responsibility for its good name in the world, though we seem not much inclined to consider the implications of this fact. If we did, some of us might think a little longer about associating the precious Lord with ignorance, intolerance, and belligerent nationalism.
Now, as much as I’m tempted to be cynical about only being allowed to suggest that America is a Christian nation in the context of condemning America, the fact is that Robinson is right. We do default to fear, and we have at least since 9/11. 5 Here she states why this is such a problem in the context of Christianity:
My thesis is always the same, and it is very simply stated, though it has two parts: first, contemporary America is full of fear. And second, fear is not a Christian habit of mind.
Robinson manages to avoid quoting the obvious verse, but I cannot. “God did not give us a spirit of cowardice,” writes Paul, “but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.”6
Here’s the thing: it’s always easy to act like the good guy when you’re the one who has everything to lose. The dynamic is simple: whoever is on top is predisposed to oppose change and support the status quo because they already have it good.7 This is a universal tendency of human nature, and it explains everything from every day fights between older (bigger) and younger (smaller) siblings to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In that case, just to show how this works, Israel tends to behave much more responsibly, has rule of law, has protections in place for Arab citizens, and even has a strong domestic peace movement while Hamas indiscriminately launches rockets from school yards. It is easy to attribute the difference between the two to culture or religion, but the reality is that power is the simple, universal explanation for much of it. When you are on top, you care about stability and reputation and order. That means it is easy to talk, debate, deliberate, and do all of the other things that we associated with civilization. When you are on bottom, you care less about stability and reputation and more about fulfilling base needs. From that perspective change, chaos, and disorder look much more attractive.
If you want change, then you’re always going to be working against the interests of the powerful and comfortable. Always. This means that if you are one of the powerful and comfortable, you cannot work for positive change in the world without going against your own interests to at least some degree. If you are among the powerful and the comfortable, you cannot work for a better world without working for a world that is–for you, at least in the short-run–more risky.
This has powerful implications for Americans and especially for American Christians because–as much as our internal debates about social justice focus on incremental differences in privilege between different Americans–the reality is that all Americans are privileged relative to the rest of the world. We are, by any feasible international standard, the powerful and the comfortable. And that means that we if we are not willing to accept risks and face our fears, that we will never be able to be a force for good on the global scale. If fear is our guiding star, then we risk obstructing progress towards a brighter future.
This might be part of the reason Christ–who was so concerned with the treatment of society’s poor and vulnerable–was so opposed to fear. He knew that fear is the ingredient that turns otherwise decent people into passive oppressors. It’s not enough to be benign. You have to be actively engaged in facing your fears and in making sacrifices or you will remain part of the problem.
So that is the attitude that I think we need to apply not only in our policies dealing with illegal immigration here in the United States, but also with respect to the historical refugee crisis spreading from the Middle East into Europe right now.
Although the situations are certainly not identical, we’ve got essentially the same two fears at work. First, there is the fear that terrorists will slip in among the refugees.”The jihadists [ISIS] hope to flood the north African state with militiamen from Syria and Iraq,” says an article from the Telegraph, “who will then sail across the Mediterranean posing as migrants… The fighters would then run amok in southern European cities and also try to attack maritime shipping.”
Second there’s the fear that–even without any intentional aggression–the culture and infrastructure of Western democracies will be overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of incoming immigrants. Thus Buchanan adds numbers upon numbers in contemplating the potential horde that could sweep into Europe:
For the scores of thousands of Syrians in the Balkans, Hungary, Austria and Germany are only the first wave. Behind them in Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan are 4 million refugees from the Syrian civil war. Seeing the success of the first wave, they are now on the move.
Behind them are 2 million Alawites and 2 million Christians who will be fleeing Syria when the Bashar Assad regime falls… Now the Iraqis, who live in a country the prospects for whose reunification and peace are receding, have begun to move… When the Americans leave Afghanistan and the Taliban take their revenge, more Afghans will be fleeing west… Africa has a billion people, a number that will double by 2050, and double again to 4 billion by 2100. Are those billions of Africans going to endure lives of poverty under ruthless, incompetent, corrupt and tyrannical regimes, if Europe’s door remains wide open?8
A lot of those whose hearts have been broken by the horrible images of the crisis have an instant reaction to shout down these fears. And yes: a lot of them are overblown, again. Of course ISIS is going to say that they have plans to send in elite terrorist squads with the refugees because they are interested in stoking the fires of suspicion, violence, and hatred. But why should we believe ther threats? The reality is that this is not a new problem and modern countries have methods for screening large refugee populations.
There is also validity to the second fear. Breitbart describes the influx of 25,000 migrants on the Greek island of Lesbos (population 85,000) as a “war zone” due to intense clashes between Syrian and Afghan migrants. Other coverage is less colorful, but still mentions the tension between middle-class Syrians (apt to take selfies with their smartphones when they arrive) and the much more destitute Afghan refugees. The International Business Times reports that “Greek authorities have sent troops and riot police” to Lesbos after “locals are alleged to have thrown a petrol bomb at refugees and fights have broken out between migrants from Syria and Afghanistan.” As with the instability with American migrants, however, a lot of this may be due to the conditions surrounding their arrival. The countries involved (like Greece in this case, or Hungary as another example) do not have the resources to handle this number of refugees and, in any case, are just an inconvenient way station as the refugees flock farther north and west to reach Germany, Scandinavia, or the UK. With planning and resources, a lot of the tension that leads to violence could be abated.
In other words: there’s no reason to panic but there is also no reason to believe that there is no risk at all. There is a risk. Of course there is. We–the United States and also Western and Northern Europe–are rich. We’re on top of the pile these days. For us, any major change is more likely to be threatening than not. But if we want to do good in the world, then taking risks is part of the job description.
I believe we should–as Westerners in general and as Americans in particular–be much more willing to open our hearts and borders and homes to refugees and also to migrants because it is the kind of risk that Christ would want us to take. We should not be reckless and we should not be irresponsible, but we should also not be afraid to take chances to do what ought to be done.
And here are just a few closing thoughts.
First, some have pointed out that rich Arab countries (like Saudi Arabia) are not doing very much at all to assist. Others argue that these nations are often very tiny (think Kuwait or Bahrain) and that even the big ones like Saudi Arabia do not have a habitable space. Both views are correct. There is probably no way that they can take in huge numbers of refugees, but they absolutely should take in some and–in addition–they should absolutely donate significant resources to the European nations who can absorb larger numbers of people.
Second, even if we accept large numbers of refugees, there are still going to be horrible long-term losses from this mass movement of people. Think of the communities–some of which have existed for thousands of years–which may never recover. How will small groups who have preserved their language and culture and religion and identity survive when they are transplanted to new nations and, quite possibly, split up across continents? We should not only react to the short-run crisis, but also do our best to plan for the long-run repercussions.
Third, as long as we’ve decided to help (and we should help!), we ought to do so with as much love and generosity as we can. The Book of Mormon teaches:
For behold, if a man being evil giveth a gift, he doeth itgrudgingly; wherefore it is counted unto him the same as if he had retained the gift; wherefore he is counted evil before God.9
If we’re willing to follow this proscription, then there is room for hope and optimism as a light at the end of this tunnel. There is room to believe that–if we are willing to be vulnerable–we may begin to heal the rift that has widened between Christian and Muslim, between East and West, and undercut the darkness and the hatred and the violence that has caused this crisis. God works in mysterious ways, but you only get to see the hidden beauty if you’re willing to be a part of it, I think. So let’s go ahead and take this chance, and do all we can to welcome those who so desperately need our help.