I don’t know how to fix the United States’ broken immigration system, and I don’t know how many Syrian or Turkish refugees should be admitted into this country. This is not to suggest that Christians shouldn’t care deeply about both of these issues. It is to admit, however, that the issues are of such a complexity that they cannot be solved by good intentions and broad appeals to Christian compassion.
Since the horrible events in France have focused the world’s attention on immediate immigration policy, let’s set aside the question of what to do with those who have entered this country illegally and think about how to handle the growing number of refugees and asylum seekers who are waiting permission to enter prosperous, Western nations like the United States.
When faced with the sight of millions of men, women, and children from war-torn lands seeking a better life—or just plain life—most Christians will voice their approval for open door policies of inclusion, hospitality, and welcome. For example, in a recent Christianity Today editorial (November 2015), Mark Galli chides the United States for becoming “increasingly stingy about welcoming the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” He considers our immigration policy “scandalous” when compared with Germany’s generous decision to welcome 800,000 refugees this year. While Mark—whom I’ve met and whose writing I often appreciate—does not wish to deny “the real political, social, and economic challenges of welcoming more sojourners,” the burden of his piece is that we not “let the gods of fear and security dictate how we respond.”
My good friend Trevin Wax sounded a similar note in his Washington Post opinion piece over the weekend. With his typical readability and heartfelt sincerity, Trevin argues that one sure way to let the terrorists win is to allow ourselves to be gripped by fear. “Terrorism thrives on fear,” he writes, “and fear—if left unchecked—can spread into the deepest, darkest corners of our hearts and lead to decisions and choices that, in normal times, would be unthinkable.” Trevin’s post is a stirring call to let compassion triumph over fear. Although Trevin acknowledges that “prudence” requires that we “enforce the strictest standards of security,” his underlying concern is that fear will lead to hatred, hatred will eclipse compassion, and without compassion we will not have the courage to welcome the thousands of families and children who have been victimized by war and violence through no fault of their own. As many Christians have done, and not a few Muslims and secular writers too, Trevin cites the famous line from Thomas Aquinas in support of open-door immigration policies: ““Fear is such a powerful emotion for humans that when we allow it to take us over, it drives compassion right out of our hearts.” The Christian response is compassion not fear, which means that Rick Snyder (my governor) is likely wrong, if not immoral, to suspend efforts to bring Syrian refugees to Michigan.
After reading Mark and Trevin, I find myself wanting to cheer on much of what they encourage. Our church has always had a vibrant international ministry and we’ve rallied around families trying to work through the labyrinth of U.S. immigration policies so they can stay in the country legally. I too am turned off by the harsh anti-immigrant rhetoric that sounds more like Pharaoh in Exodus 1 than the “love the sojourner” commands in Deuteronomy 10. It is a commendable response to see hurting people and think, “Let’s do all we can to help.”
And yet, this good Christian impulse runs the risk of taking an extremely complex geo-political, international crisis and reducing it to pious platitudes about showing compassion to the least of these and not giving in to fear. As I said at the beginning, I don’t have a plan to fix our broken immigration system and I don’t know the “correct” number of Syrian refugees to welcome into the country, but I do think there is more than one way for a Christian to approach these issues. As much as I respect my evangelical brothers like Mark and Trevin, I stumble over a few of their claims and conclusions.
First, I don’t find the Aquinas quotation particularly helpful. For starters, I’m not sure he actually said it. I’m no expert on Aquinas, but after digging around my books and scouring the internet for the better part of a morning I couldn’t find anyone anywhere providing attribution for this quotation. If someone knows where the line about fear and compassion comes from, let me know because I’d love to see the context. What I do know is that the Summa Theologica contains several chapters on the nature, object, causes, and effects of fear, and they present a much more nuanced picture (1a2ae, 41-44). According to Aquinas, fear is neither a virtue nor a vice, but a passion arising (1) out of love (i.e., we love someone or something that could be lost or destroyed) and (2) out of defect (i.e., our inability to overcome someone or something more powerful than ourselves). While fear—whose effects, Aquinas says, are contraction, deliberation, and trembling—can hinder our capacity for rational deliberation, it is often a motivation for seeking wise counsel and pursuing positive action. According to Aquinas, the opposite of fear is not compassion, but boldness or daring (audacia), which inspires us to meet danger head-on with the certain hope that we shall prevail (1a2ae,45). So what is the Aquinas-approved immigration plan? I don’t know, but at the very least we should allow that the perfect love that casts our fear (1 John 4:18) is not the fear of terrorists entering the country and spraying a theater with bullets.
Second, the nod to security is appropriate but undeveloped. When Christians write about welcoming more refugees, there is usually some aside about the importance of taking every necessary security measure. True enough, but isn’t part of the problem that the bad guys and good guys aren’t always easy to distinguish? There is no way to do background checks on every Syrian refugee. I don’t doubt that the vast majority of displaced persons are simply looking for peace and a new chance at life. But does anyone doubt there may also be a small number of extremists waiting in the same line? Is it unChristian to not want radical jihadists shooting people in our communities? That’s hardly a far-fetched scenario. So how do we balance competing goods—the good of welcoming in suffering people and the good of keeping out those who want to inflict suffering on others? And how do we pursue these ends when it may be impossible to know if we are helping the right people? The answer is not as easy as fear versus compassion. Christian charity means loving the safety of the neighbor next door at least as much as loving the safe passage of the neighbor far away. It’s not unreasonable or unfeeling to think that in some cases supplying refugee camps with humanitarian aid or protecting safe havens elsewhere could be a responsible approach that avoids the risks of immediate resettlement in the United States.
Finally, the Christian impulse to make our immigration policy as wide as possible often fails to consider the importance of sovereign nation-states. In a timely essay entitled “Two Theories of Immigration” (First Things, December 2015), Mark Amstutz, a political science professor at Wheaton College, argues that a communitarian approach must take priority over a cosmopolitan approach. According to Amstutz, the communitarian embraces the moral duty to care for refugees, but also accepts “a concurrent obligation to maintain our own societies as stable and well-governed.” The cosmopolitan approaches international affairs from a different perspective, viewing the world as a “coherent global society united by the simple fact of our common humanity, and often regard[ing] the nation-state as an impediment to international justice.” While the universal ambitions of the cosmopolitan approach resonate with Christians, Amstutz maintains that good immigration policy needs to be balanced with communitarian insights about the positive goods that come from a strong sense of national unity, the realism which underscores the need for competing (and cooperating) powers, and the important role nation-states play in advancing human rights. In other words, while the cosmopolitan approach is admirable in its emphasis on inclusion and welcoming the stranger, it often fails to consider the social, economic, and security challenges which tear at the cultural cohesion necessary for human flourishing.
The issue of immigration—both for those inside the country already and for those wanting to get in—is bound to be a pressing political, international, and humanitarian concern for many years. We need Christian writers, thinkers, pastors, scholars, and activists to be a part of the conversation. My plea is that the conversation reflect the complexity of the situation and goes beyond the familiar dichotomies of love versus hate, inclusion versus exclusion, and fear versus compassion. There are too many important things, and too many human lives, at stake to move quite so quickly from solid Christian principles to simple policy prescriptions.