Sheep, Goats and Syrian Refugees – Matt 25:31-46 (longform)

Syrian Christian Refugees

I likely won’t write too much more about this, but in view of some well meaning concerns brought to me by some dear friends, I thought a little fuller treatment was warranted.  I don’t apologize for getting political as faith should indeed impact our political reasoning, but that doesn’t mean all that all Christians will end up at the same conclusion.  However, some conclusions have better Scriptural merit than others – but that is not the sole concern for those in public service.  With that, here we go again!

While I don’t always agree with it, I’ve always enjoyed the National Review.  Usually well thought articles and interesting takes on things.  I think the David French article (‘The Left’s Dishonest Biblical Argument for Taking in Syrian Refugees’ – you can find the link on my personal FB page) has some merit.  His premise that there should be a tiered reading of the Old Testament (individual vs. government) is fair.  Government by virtue of its God ordained role has the responsibility to act in ways that individuals on their own may not for the benefit of the community.  Also his point that most of our efforts need to be focused on helping ‘them over there’ is also fair and, frankly, the only plausible option for most of the refugees.  Likewise, Mr. French correctly points out that American generosity in these matters (extending aid, often through NGO’s and private contributions) is laudable and unmatched in the world.  Finally, I wholeheartedly agree that security is among any government’s leading concerns.  However, in the final analysis, I think Mr. French’s argument is misguided.

First, the whole Obama disingenuousness.  I, indeed think, that the administration NEEDED to do more to establish protected zones in the region – both for those displaced by the current fighting AND for the Christian communities that have been all but exterminated.  In his defense, the political realities in Syria are quite different from what we had with Iraq and the new Kurdish regions extending to Turkey.  The biggest issue is that Syria has a longstanding relationship with Russia – any indiscriminate action there on our part would dangerously imperil our already strained relationship with Moscow.  One may be able to make the argument that what is happening in Syria now (at least to some degree) is part of an ongoing proxy war between the U.S. and Russia.

Second, while the vast majority of U.S. assistance for the refugees MUST take place IN THE REGION (anything else is just unrealistic), it is ludicrous and unfair (and frankly sinister) to suggest that giving entrance (or whatever the proper technical term) to some 10,000 displaced Syrians is nothing more than cynical political posturing by the President.  Of course, 10,000 is a rather nominal amount when compared to the scope of the situation – except for those who actually win the lottery.  Their lives, and that of their posterity, will forever be changed for the better.  While 10,000 is a somewhat symbolic gesture, in this war (and make no mistake, this is part of a multi-generational war with jihadist and other radicalized elements) symbols are crucially important.  The radicalized jihadists are banking on the fact that the West will simply ignore this situation because the victims are Muslim.  They are banking on the fact that the refugees will become more hopeless and pushed to despair, thus creating a whole new crop of thousands of young men (and women) who can be easily manipulated and radicalized.  They will not differentiate between nice western people and cold western governments – they will be viewed as one and the same.  Every refugee that is given a hope and a future in the west is western civilization’s best deterrent against future attack and our best hope to neutralize radical movements in the Muslim world – but it will take time, likely several generations.

As for Mr. French’s assertion that ‘we know’ that the extremists are trying to sneak people over here – I’m sure that’s true.  HOWEVER, as per the excellent analysis done by the CATO institute (a libertarian think tank – no friend to big government, you can follow the link a few spots up/down on my personal FB feed), the current vetting process of Syrian refugees has been extremely thorough and successful (unlike the plan offered by the House Republicans which would tie everything up in bureaucracy and essentially eliminate all migration from the region without adding any practical level of security – THAT is, in fact, the very definition of disingenuous policy making:  sounds good, adds nothing of substance, achieves a goal that is too distasteful politically to do in an upfront manner).  Refugees from this region currently remain in the camps during the vetting process.  The process is multilayered and takes between 2-3 years to complete (on average).  Only a small percentage of applicants actually are given passage, usually children, their families and the elderly.  Presently 1 in roughly 230,000 of those given admittance have later been found to have had ANY tie to radical elements.  Compare that to the roughly 1 in 22,000 current Americans who will commit murder (let alone some other violent act).  I know there’s a difference, I’m just trying to give perspective.  NOTHING is a 100% guarantee – but that doesn’t give us an excuse to never admit another distressed person of Middle-East origin.  The greatest risk of radical jihadist elements in our country (and the cells are ALREADY here) comes from short-cut student visas and (mostly) from radicalized U.S. nationals (this has also been the pattern in Europe, although proximity to the region skews the stats somewhat there to include other factors).  All this to say, neither the Obama administration, nor any thinking ‘bleeding heart’ (or this conservative, but independently thinking Christian) would ever suggest that we forego due diligence and simply throw the doors open and just let everyone march in.  The Republican rhetoric on this is intentionally disingenuous and misleading because of their political hatred of the President.  Again, it was wrong when Democrats and liberals did/do this with Republicans/conservatives, and it is wrong for us to do it.  Nothing changes until someone chooses to change.

Some would suggest that all assistance should be done on an individual basis, but on a practical level, that makes no sense.  Individuals can’t relocate refugees.  Some of it HAS to be done on a federal level.  Governors have very little say with regard to the relocation of displaced Syrians to the U.S., it is a federal concern, except to fear-monger.  The current Republican governors’ actions ignores the statistics on the matter, ignores the safe guards already in place, and leverages a humanitarian crisis for political one-upmanship.  It’s just wrong.  Also, personal giving for these kinds of things traditionally flow through faith communities (though not exclusively).  The problem, of course, is that American involvement in faith communities has plummeted from something north of 80% to something approaching 25%.  Private action alone won’t even begin to address the need.

Finally, David French’s assertion that the Biblical charge to house and feed the alien is simply a matter of personal responsibility and not a matter of state is simply wrong.  No, it doesn’t mean that ALL foreigners should be given free reign, but IT IS a matter of state concern (with or without the Mosaic complications that would be ‘distasteful to the latte-left’ – I’ve never been equated to that, but I do like latte).  I can’t even begin to get into all the reasons why, but let me try a few.  FIRST:  when the Bible references itself (OT in the NT, AND early OT in later OT), it uses a short-hand – only a phrase or term is used to reference an entire body of context (i.e. when ‘the poor’ are referenced, its drawing on the whole body of work dealing with the poor, the widow, the orphan AND the alien – there are wider cultural contexts that are also referenced by this convention, I won’t get into that now, but with limited writing supplies and storage, one can quickly see the advantage of a shorthand that doesn’t need to be literally exhaustive to indeed directly intend for the whole gamete to be in play).  In light of this, the prophets not only declare judgement on Israel/Judah, but also the surrounding pagan nations for their treatment of the poor.  This reference intends to connect to the fuller range of concerns – which includes the alien.  And with respect to the pagan nations, the judgement IS NOT a matter of personal neglect, it is a condemnation of public policy.  This isn’t just an interpretive convention of the liberal theologian to rig the Bible to say something that it doesn’t ‘say directly’ by our standards – it is the recognized convention of NEARLY EVERY leading Bible scholar – conservative and liberal.  Second, the only person that is commanded to personally own and daily read a copy of the Hebrew Scriptures is the king.  The point being, whether the writings are directed toward individuals or the community, as he governs the king in expected to be guided in all his actions by God’s word – meaning even public policy will be informed by the whole of biblical concern.  It is then up to the king to wisely apply the full counsel of God’s Word to the present situation.  Oh, just a side point, very little if ANY of the Bible is specifically directed to just personal concern – the ancient near eastern mind wouldn’t have conceived of that, the fact that we do that is simply a product of our western culture – it’s an anachronism.  The Bible typically addresses individual concerns through their connection to the community.  Finally, and I don’t want to push this point too far, just take it as something to ponder, consider Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25.  First, I know that parables are not morality tales or allegories, but I would suggest that they are far more multifaceted in meaning than conventionally held (though there are certainly limits).  Jesus states that he speaks in parables in order to reveal the heart of the hearer – which suggests that they probably can be taken in more than just one way (again, with contextual limitations).  In THIS parable, it is the nations that are gathered to be judged and the people are separated (is this by individual or by nation – the text is ambiguous – but my reading implies that by nation is the intent – I understand the potential concerns, but perhaps parables of the judgement are simply meant to give us a picture of God’s concern/agenda and not a blow by blow accounting of how things will occur).  On what basis, then are the nations judged?  By how they dealt with the disenfranchised.  On this level, Jesus gives a critique of empire and power (Rome, Zionism) and how things must be different with the kingdom of God.  Of course we might even go a step further with this – who was given/not given aid in this parable?  The least of these my brothers.  Now this could easily mean any person, but from the context of Matthew’s Gospel, brother could also be a disciple of Jesus.  The implication being, the kingdoms of this world will be judged on the basis of how they deal with those who identify with the emerging kingdom of God.  Interesting in light of Western inaction with regard to the extermination of Christian communities in regions controlled by radical jihadists.  In conclusion, it is more than just a little plausible that Jesus is critiquing national level policy in light of the Kingdom of God – that is, how nations deal with the poor, the widow, the orphan, the prisoner, and the alien.

Pastor Jim Kushner

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