I began wrestling with this question last week Sunday when I read about two Christian families from Syria who, after fourteen years of working to attain permission to come to America, were told upon arriving at the airport that they either needed to leave the country or lose their visas. As CNN reported that morning:
Two brothers, their wives and children left war-torn Syria with 16 suitcases and crossed the border into Lebanon. They were finally on their way to the United States after working for almost 15 years to join their family members stateside.
But after a flight from Beirut to Doha, Qatar, and then to Philadelphia on Saturday, the two families were told to get on a flight back to Doha. It was because President Donald Trump had just signed an executive order denying citizens from seven countries, including Syria, entry into the United States.
One can imagine what these families—their last name is Asali—were going through. Years of painstaking work on applications and all manner of procedural requirements. The emotional stress. The financial cost. The lack of understanding (they spoke limited English and had no access to a lawyer or to their family members in Pennsylvania). The fear of what returning to Syria—where hundreds of thousands have died during the past few years, and where their ethnic group is one of the most persecuted—might mean. They already had a home purchased for them and fully furnished in America.
I wrestled with how the church should respond to Trump’s travel ban that morning. In the services I led I reminded the worshipers of the trauma families like these are experiencing. And I prayed for them. I prayed for all those who were suffering from the president’s sweeping travel ban.
But I didn’t write anything publicly because I wasn’t sure how to approach the issue in a way that wouldn’t seem politicized. Christians are already deeply divided about immigration and about what our government has to do to protect us from terrorism. And it is, in fact, a primary responsibility of government to protect us from terrorism by controlling who is permitted to enter the United States. So we need to be very careful here. No pastor has the right to dictate immigration policy, let alone national security policy, from the pulpit.
That said (and I would not say this in a church service), the sheer arbitrariness and irrationality of President Trump’s travel ban is quite well established. For one thing, even its staunchest defenders do not defend its execution. But we can go beyond that. Not a single properly vetted refugee has carried out a terrorist attack in the United States since 9/11. As the Atlantic observes:
Over the last four decades, 20 out of 3.25 million refugees welcomed to the United States have been convicted of attempting or committing terrorism on U.S. soil, and only three Americans have been killed in attacks committed by refugees—all by Cuban refugees in the 1970s…
Here’s another fascinating statistic. As the libertarian Cato Institute points out, “Foreigners from those seven nations have killed zero Americans in terrorist attacks on U.S. soil between 1975 and the end of 2015.”
The reality is that most of the terrorist attacks America has endured since 2001 have been committed by American citizens or permanent residents. True, some of these were foreign born. But to quote the Atlantic again, “Between 1975 and 2015, the ‘annual chance of being murdered by somebody other than a foreign-born terrorist was 252.9 times greater than the chance of dying in a terrorist attack committed by a foreign-born terrorist.'”
There is good reason, then, why the courts might not find that President Trump’s travel ban bears rational scrutiny – as it must, in order to be constitutional. We shall see where it all ends up, but I am thankful that, because of what the courts and other government officials have done, the Asalis have returned to the United States to stay.
In the meantime, what should the church do? Let’s be clear. I don’t think we should bring the politics or policy of the travel ban into our services. We need to be very careful here. We need to pay President Trump, his officials, and our courts the respect and deference we owe them, as the New Testament commands.
But that doesn’t mean our churches should stand by silently as human lives are thrown into chaos by the fallout. It doesn’t mean we should cease praying and advocating for the widow and the orphan, the stranger and the refugee. The vast majority of those affected by the ban are peaceful people who want to come to the United States for freedom, security, and prosperity just like our own ancestors did. And a good number of them are our brothers and sisters in Christ. Some of them are already part of our churches. We are responsible for them. We need to remember Paul’s admonition that if one part of the body suffers, we all suffer. Only by bearing one another’s burdens can we fulfill the law of Christ.
When I was a boy growing up in the mountains of northern British Columbia our small Christian Reformed congregation sponsored a refugee family who had been forced to flee the horror of genocide in Cambodia. I remember one young boy, Naroon was his name, who became my friend. We were about five years old. His family attended my church. The body of Christ became a ministry of salvation for them in a way that I will never forget.
At the very least, then, every church must make one thing clear. We stand in solidarity with refugees and immigrants. We respect our government’s right to determine when and how they come into this country, but we pray and advocate for the acceptance of as many refugees as is safe and feasible. Then, once they are here, we welcome them with open arms. We care for their material and spiritual needs. We help them find jobs, homes, and playmates for their children. We seek reconciliation and unity with them as brothers and sisters with whom we desire to be one body in Christ.
If we are afraid to do these things as churches and as Christians because they offend our political sensibilities then we had better take a deep breath and reconsider our politics. We have to ask ourselves, where does our primary loyalty lie? Jesus, for his part, has told us that he will take our treatment of refugees personally (Mathew 25).
To stand in solidarity with refugees and immigrants is not to politicize the church. It is to fulfill the exhortation of Christ in Matthew 25:45, “Whatever you do for the least of these, you do it for me.”