Why Caring for Syrian Refugees Isn't Optional for Christians
By Derek Penwell
Since we've just passed the one year anniversary of the Haj-Alis arrival in the United States, I’ve been thinking quite a bit lately about Syrian refugees, and the response to them by many in the U.S. The push to refuse entry to Syrian refugees on the part of so many politicians who are otherwise so publicly Christian strikes me as profoundly problematic.
Let’s say you’re walking down the street and you see a man unconscious in the middle of a busy intersection. He looks lost and helpless, unable to move out of the path of oncoming traffic. What do you do?
Well, you have a few options:
- You could initiate an especially aggressive background check to make sure he’s a man worth saving, and then, as a condition of his safe rescue, require him to sign a statement swearing his intentions toward you are innocent.
- You could await confirmation of his country of origin, in order to ensure that you don’t save the wrong kind of person.
- You could seek to ascertain his religious affiliation, promising to help him if his religious commitments align with ones you find acceptable.
- You could decry the general state of lawlessness that produces situations in which people are abandoned in less than safe conditions, vowing to write a strongly worded letter to somebody in authority, or to vote for someone who speaks about these kinds of situations with the requisite forcefulness.
- You could feel sorry for him, but remember all the other responsibilities you have that would prevent you from taking action to save him.
- You could argue that there are many more people in dangerous situations that you’ve already walked past, and that if you help this one guy, it would be tantamount to turning your back on the imperiled people who (let’s be honest) you’ve already turned your back on.
- You could argue that helping this man in trouble would set a bad precedent, only incentivizing the kind of lax oversight that allowed him to be abandoned in the middle of a busy intersection in the first place.
- You could go on cable T.V. to convince the world that with all the other things we have on our plate, saving stranded people is a distraction we can’t afford.
Or, you could get him out of harm’s way, and then worry about getting the other stuff sorted out—trusting that the system in place for screening imperiled people, which has an almost flawless track record for getting it right, will do its job.
Of course, if you happen to follow Jesus, you’ve already bumped into a similar scenario in Luke 10—the Good Samaritan. Part of the biting commentary implicit in the parable of the Good Samaritan is that the religious leaders in the story—which is to say, the people who, as a function of their faith, have the biggest responsibility to set aside their own fears to help the abandoned stranger—are the ones quickest to ignore the man lying exposed in the street.
So, here’s my question as I reflect on the current Syrian refugee crisis: How it is that some Christians can so unselfconsciously bear to reenact the parable of the Good Samaritan, having apparently learned all the wrong lessons from it?
Jesus tells the story of a Samaritan coming to the aid of a stranger in answer to the question: Who is my neighbor? The final answer to that questions turns out not to be the religious leaders who ignore the abandoned man’s plight, but the despised Samaritan. I imagine Jesus didn’t get a lot of amens after telling that story. Too radical. Insufficiently censorious of a person everyone knew didn’t have any rightful claim to God’s favor.
The reason Jesus’ story was so scandalous when it was told was because it contrasted the self-serving neglect of the religious leaders with the compassion of a Samaritan—a group of religious rivals to whom Jesus’ listeners would have reflexively felt superior.
A few things emerge from this parable that seem especially appropriate to remember as we decide how to treat Syrian refugees running for their lives:
- No matter your religious credentials, the test of your faith is not your doctrinal purity, but how you treat others—especially those who are most vulnerable.
- Regardless of the nature of your fear, the primary responsibility of those who follow Jesus (especially leaders) is to care for the powerless.
- Christians don’t get to assume as a result of their faith commitments that they possess some kind of superiority to foreigners of “dubious” religious pedigree.
- In short, when in doubt, embrace your fears and help anyway.