November 20, 2015

Biblical ethics, government, and refugees

by Jesse Johnson

Syrian refugee camp

Relevant Magazine recently ran a post called “What the Bible says about how to treat refugees.” To help you understand where they are coming from, remember that Relevant seems to exist primarily to tie Christian ethics to whatever cause célèbre has captured the kids these days. The list was frustrating to read not because of what it said, but what it omitted (to spare you the click, the gist is that Christians should open their borders to refugees).

But the actual refugee problem runs deeper than that, and it is yet further evidence of the juvenilization of evangelical thought that actual theologians think the issue of Syrian refugees should be settled by pointing to Levitical law about letting foreigners reap in your grain field.

At risk of sounding pedantic, this is a complex issue with competing interests and ethics. Namely:  

Christian ethics in government?

First, should governments exercise Christian ethics? If in the context of a debate about a bill in Congress regulating refugees from Syria, a person is going to argue that Levitical Law should guide us, does that mean that Congress should be influenced by the Bible’s ethics?

I say yes, Congress should be guided by biblical ethics. But I couldn’t help but notice that people making the “Leviticus says you should receive refugees” argument were—only a few weeks ago—saying that government workers were not supposed to follow their religion whilst on the clock. Remember Kim Davis?


But I’ll take a victory where I can, and so for the sake of this argument let’s agree that the government should operate based on biblical principles.

Levitical Law for the USA?

Levitical Law concerning refugees was grounded in the basic fact that God cared for Israel while she was enslaved in Egypt and while she was wandering in the wilderness, so they should care for others who were enslaved and are now refugees. In this video, Master’s Seminary’s Michael Grisanti argues that Deuteronomy 10:18-20 is a key passage explaining this dynamic:

“[Yahweh] executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and shows His love for the alien by giving him food and clothing.  So show your love for the alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. You shall fear Yahweh your God; you shall serve Him and cling to Him, and you shall swear by His name.”

It is clear that Mosaic Law commanded the Israelites to care for sojourners and exiles. But this is contingent on a few presuppositions, not the least of which is that Israel itself had purged the idols from within her own boarders. Deuteronomy 10 is surrounded by passages about idolatry (9 is the rebuke for the golden calf, and 11 is the appeal for the Israelites to break from idol worship).

In other words, Israel was supposed to be a beacon of truth in the middle of a world of lies. And when people wanted truth, they would flee to Israel. When people were hopeless (as in the case of Ruth) or hopeful (as in the case of the Queen of Sheeba), then Israel would be the place they could come and find Yahweh.

To the extent to which I agree with the Relevant take on refugees, it is right here: God cared for Israel when they were persecuted, so those that worship the God of Israel should care for others who are persecuted.

Does this apply to the USA? Well, inasmuch as you grant that we too were founded with God’s favor as a nation of religious freedom, then the principle does apply. God has showed kindness to our country, and our country has often been a place of refuge for those fleeing religious persecution. In fact, this is a hallmark of our history: we revere religious freedom, and welcome others who do as well.

Government’s responsibility to protect:

This is the issue too often overlooked by arm-chair politicians wielding only Deuteronomy 10. Those in government have an additional responsibility beyond simply welcoming refugees like Israel was supposed to. They are called by God to protect their citizens from harm (Gen 9:6; Acts 14:6; Rom 13:4-5; 1 Peter 2:13-14). So if you buy that government legislatures should follow biblical ethics, then you have to ask: What ethics apply to this situation?

What is this situation? A nation torn by war and genocide largely fueled by their tyrannical leadership and hatred of Christ has essentially collapsed. They are being bombed by the Russians, gassed by their own government, and the Christians there are being persecuted by the fleeing Muslims. Many of them are attempting to illegally flee across land into Europe, or attempting dangerous crossings of the Mediterranean.

But the same terrorists that are devastating Syria (and Iraq) are following the refugees to Europe. It is a horrible situation: as more people die tragic deaths crossing into Europe, the more political pressure is put on Europe to open their borders and allow hundreds of thousands of these refugees. The more open Europe becomes, the easier it is for terrorists to get in as well.

The result is a complex moral situation. A Christian leader in Europe (or in the United States) has to legitimately ask himself what the equilibrium is. How do you balance the desire to rescue refugees with the desire to keep terrorists out of your own country?

This is not simply a political issue either. In the United States there are several Democrats that are in favor of pausing the Syrian refugee program, and there are several Republicans in favor of expanding it. Just as it is complex theologically, it is also complex politically.

Remember that the Boston Marathon bombing was perpetrated by brothers in the Untied States as refugees (*). The Paris attacks were similarly planned by people who came into Europe posing as refugees.

Now, as you remember that, pretend you are a political leader in the US—someone who actually has the authority to increase the flow of Syrian refugees into the country, or who has the authority to stop the flow altogether. As you wrestle through the issue, you are aware that your job according to the Bible is to protect your people. Your job as a believer in Christ is to demonstrate biblical ethics, which also includes showing kindness to refugees. Both are God-given principles that you must balance.

As you imagine the dilemma that person is faced with, do you now understand how superficial it makes Christianity look if Christian leaders are saying the issue is as simple as Levitical law about refugees?

The truth is that in a fallen world this is difficult. Obviously compassion is worth some risk, and obviously compassion is not worth every risk.  You are to love your neighbor, and for those in government their neighbors are the citizens they protect as well as the refugees that flee, and these are often in tension.

The Christian response should be to pray for wisdom in our leaders, to pray for safety for our nation, and to seize any opportunity we have to show love and mercy to those who have lost their home nation.

* [The Washington Post has since corrected their story on the Boston Bombing; however, I did watch the hearing before the Senate on this issue, and the head of the Office of Refugees said that in order to be granted asylum, a person has to meet the qualifications of a refugee. She said she was not aware of any differences, and she is literally the most qualified person in the country to speak to this issue.]

Jesse Johnson

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Jesse is the Teaching Pastor at Immanuel Bible Church in Springfield, VA. He also leads The Master's Seminary Washington DC location.
  • Andrew Pantazi

    I greatly appreciate this blog’s dedication to inerrancy and starting with the bible to examine current events.

    I just want to make two points about what you said, not as it relates to biblical interpretation and application but about what has happened and how it has been reported:

    1) The Tsarnaev brothers, according to news reports, were not “refugees” in the literal sense of going through the refugee program. They may have been refugees in the sense that they escaped Chechnya, but they came here on tourist visas and then applied for political asylum. Applying for political asylum after arriving on a Visa is a far-less stringent and extensive process.
    Even this Washington Post story carries a prominent correction related to the misunderstanding:

    2) So far, we know of no Syrians who were involved in the Paris attacks. French authorities and other political leaders believe the ISIS attackers stole a Syrian passport and one of the attackers carried it, possibly to incite a backlash against the refugees fleeing ISIS. We know five of the attackers were French and one was Belgian. We are waiting to hear about the remaining three attackers. We will need to wait and see where those three attackers came from before we denounce Europe’s refugee program as having let them in.
    The reason this is especially important is that the threat to European countries (and to us) seems less likely to come through the borders and more likely to come through the Internet. Rukmini Callimachi covers Islamic extremism for The New York Times and she has written some extensive stories looking at exactly how different people have joined ISIS, many of them American, English and other nationalities. In large part, the ISIS recruiters will search for people who appear lonely and distraught on social media, then start messaging them with comfort, then start proselytizing with Quran references, then start Skyping and teaching lessons, then persuade the person to travel abroad to meet with ISIS.
    Here’s an overview of the attacks and what we know and what we don’t know:
    Here’s a profile of a 23-year-old Sunday school teacher in America who tried to join ISIS:

    I agree we must pray for our leaders as they wrestle with the wise response to attacks like this, and we pray for the investigators as they try to determine how this happened and how to stop it in the future.

    • The WaPo correction points out that in order to be granted assylum you have to meet the definition of a refugee. So any one here on assylum is by definition here as a refugee.
      Look, I watched the hearing in the Senate on this issue. The head of the office of refugees herself said that “she didn’t know” if they were here as refugees or as asylum seekers, because the two are essentially the same. This didn’t matter at the time (before the Syrian crisis). Now, for political reasons, I suppose the distinction matters for a few weeks. Anyway, the blue links above take you to my sources.

      • Andrew Pantazi

        The only challenge I’d wage, however, is that the Daily Caller link relies on the Washington Post link I posted. The Daily Caller links back to the WaPo story with the correction. While the Tsarnaevs had to meet the definition of a “refugee” in that they had to prove they escaped a country they couldn’t safely return to, they didn’t have to go through the same screening and vetting as refugees in the refugee program. It’s semantics, I know, but I do think these are important semantics.

        • Fair enough. Thanks Andrew. I appreciate your comments here.

    • wiseopinion

      I am not a hater because I want to keep our country and our families safe…I am not against aiding refugees, but am against NO “vetting” process to insure that a bunch of terrorists (whatever name you want to give the evildoers) don’t come in with them. We cry and demand “security, safety” but then open our doors wide for those who come to harm. How do we know if the process of immigrants coming over is completely circumvented? Or do we not consider those coming over as immigrants anymore? By calling them refugees it somehow makes disregarding every security measure to keep us safe OK? Just look at the chaos already being done in other countries that have allowed the huddled masses to come in? No one seems to be reporting those happenings. I admit these are heartbreaking and perplexing times, especially for the sincere and true followers of Christ…I never want to be a Jonah…but does that mean we close our eyes to the danger that IS crossing the boarders? America has forsaken God in just about every sphere in life…why are we so surprised when it seems He has started to withhold restraining grace..

      • Cara

        I am trying so so hard to be measured and to listen on this issue to others. In that listening, I have heard so much dangerous rhetoric coming from many of our political leaders and journalists that is irresponsible. I am NOT blaming you, wiseopinion, for repeating things that are being claimed all over the internet, but I just have not heard a single, single person saying that we should “open our doors wide” without a vetting process. I have heard people say that the vetting process is not as good as they wish it were. But I have not heard ANYONE talk about wide open borders, unlimited numbers, floods of refugees… except the politicians claiming others (President Obama etc) are advocating for them. We’re talking about 10,000 into a country of 321 million. This is not a flood. (Lebanon, by the way, is currently dealing with 1 million into a country of 4 million. That’s a flood!) We can disagree about what to think about the efficacy of the vetting process and about the 10,000 but I think we need to stop talking in terms of floods and non vetting, because I am not aware that any major voice in America is recommending that! It seems to be widely disregarded that we’re in an extremely different position than Europe. We’ll be handpicking our favorite choices, not facing a deluge of asylum seekers. Is the risk zero? Of course not! Can we talk about it? Sure thing! Is the risk zero for anything in life? I don’t think so!

        • 4Commencefiring4

          If you think just 10,000 will be permitted in, I have a deal on some seaside property in Montana you need to jump right on.

          Hillary already said she was down for 65,000. If you’re over the age of nine, you already know that government figures are always incorrect by orders of magnitude. Cost overruns are routine, as are estimates of time required for any project and the health plans we were all promised we could keep. They’re lying to you, in other words. Take it to the bank.

          Combine that with what Obama actually meant by “fundamental transformation of America” (do I have to even spell it out?), and you have a national disaster waiting in the wings. The four horsemen of the apocalypse are pikers compared to what this could turn into.

          Vetting? Really? You believe the same government that just spent half a BILLION dollars to train 5 counter-insurgents–if they’re still even around–is somehow going to do a good job smoking out the terrorists from among the refugees? If you do, please see me about the property.

          • Cara

            Wow, that property sounds great! In fact, as it so happens, I have some friends from the Middle East whose home (and entire hometown) was recently decimated (true story). They could use a new place… I’ll just send you a down payment along, shall I?

            But seriously, I’m not naive enough to expect to change your opinion on what to do on this topic, or anyone else’s. I’d LOVE it,however, if we could all encourage one another toward a change in the tone of the dialogue. I’d especially love to see less hyperbole and more care taken in the language used by everyone from leading politicans, journalists, pastors, and the masses. (I’m guilty too, thanks for correcting me on the numbers Hillary has on the table!)

            As I said, I certainly think there’s plenty of room for disagreement on the efficacy of vetting. All I asked was that we discuss that, rather than claim that there are people who “WANT no vetting at all” and are “opening the borders wide.”

            (As to the efficacy… sure, I don’t think it’s zero risk. However I do think some people are forgetting to weigh the risks of the 2 year, multiple interview though non-foolproof process with the risks of the US turning a cold shoulder now and thousands upon thousands of youth coming of age in overcrowded Middle Eastern refugee camps…,prime fodder for radicalization! If you want to completely close our borders against every form of tourism, etc, for the foreseeable future, and think that’s possible… then yeah, leave them all out to rot now and maybe no ill effects will come to us. If you’ve weighed all of that already and still hold to your opinion, great! More power to you, and the good news for you is it looks like you’re in the majority in America, Hillary notwithstanding.)

            I’m deeply concerned with the fact that my sweet Muslim friend who has lived in rural America for less than a year and has questions for me about my faith every time I see her is now afraid to wear her headscarf in public. That’s the image our public dialogue is projecting, and much of it is coming from Christians as Christians. I’m sad about that.

            Major apologies to the author of the article for being so off topic, I’m not a regular on this website and I’ve probably just wandered into territory I didn’t belong in. I’ll try to cease and desist!

            Cheers and God bless.

  • Heather

    Interesting food for thought for sure. I just thought I’d clear up one false fact that was made. The killers in Boston entered as children on tourist visas…they weren’t selected and vetted as refugees. I believe later on their father sought asylum, though. Those brothers were radicalized sometime after they arrived in America, which is quite sad and something all together new to ponder.

    • I chose my words carefully. There were in the US having been granted asylum, a prerequisite of which is “meeting the criteria of a refugee.” So yes, they were here as refugees. The way for refugees to get here (assuming they are not from Syria or Iraq) is to come on a tourist visa, then apply for asylum. The blue above is hotlinks to the sources for those two statements.

  • With two comments on the nature of the Boston brothers visas, let me say this: I actually watched the Senate hearing where this was discussed. The had of the Office of Refugees basically said that the difference between asylum and refugee status is practically insignificant, because to get asylum you have to meet the definition of a refugee. It is sort of the prerequisite. But anyway, feel free to disagree with that assessment, but she is literally the most informed person in our country on that issue. But with that said, let’s not have any more comments on that element of this post.

  • Jason

    Exodus 12:49 is relevant to understanding how Israel was protected from the potentially negative impact of Deuteronomy 10:18-20. The principle at play here is that the same laws that protect refuges also bind them to specific behavior.

    Governing systems really need to be more comprehensive than taking a bit here or there as suits us. How many people who are advocating that we should open our borders based on verses are advocating that we also bind those refuges to obey the rest of the commands of the Bible? That, to me, would certainly be a breach of separation of church and state (yay, finally a *legitimate* application!)

    Instead, our nation has laws in place regarding immigration. When the government fails to enforce those laws or moves ahead with exemptions without asking the will of the people (presidential veto anyone) it fails to preserve the system we *are* operating under. The authority they have been given by God is abused when they do that. This is the only real issue as I see it.

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  • tovlogos

    Muammar Gaddafi said:
    “There are signs that Allah will grant victory to Islam in Europe without swords, without guns, without conquest. We don’t need terrorists, we don’t need homicide bombers. The 50 million (now there are about 52 million) Muslims (in Europe) will turn it into a Muslim continent within a few decades”. (by the birth rate which is vastly greater than European countries, and the US. On top of this fact there is the addition of immigration.)
    I believe this mind set is why most “moderate Muslims” are against ISIS, because of all the unwanted negative attention they are bringing to the Muslim march to prophetic fulfillment.
    Theologically, Muslims are here to compete with, and conquer the entire Western world. And they are not being at all pretentious. They laugh at the political arenas, and when they have gained enough ground, Well…
    Having said that — not to worry — God is in control, and only His plan with be fulfilled. Yet, we know that in the fallen world — steeped like tea in spiritual darkness — things can only become worse.

    • Still Waters

      I’ve heard that quote attributed to the Ayatollah of Iran. When a ubiquitous quote is attributed to multiple sources, I begin to question its authenticity.

      God actually did invite Assyria to invade Israel as punishment. When the prophet Habbakuk complained of the injustice of using such a cruel nation to discipline Israel, God replied that He knew what He was doing and Assyria would receive justice in turn. Habakkuk responded with a wonderful statement that should challenge Christians today:
      “Although the fig tree will not blossom, neither will fruit be on the vines; the growth of the olive will fail, and the fields will yield no grain; the flock will be cut off from the fold, and there will be no herd in the stall: Yet I will rejoice, in the Lord, I will joy in the God of my salvation.” (Habbakuk 3:17-18)

      God also made a promise regarding Assyria, which should not be forgotten: “In that day will Israel be the third with Egypt and with Assyria, even a blessing in the middle of the earth: whom Lord of hosts will bless saying, Blessed be Egypt my people, and Assyria the work of my hands, and Israel mine inheritance.” (Isaiah 19:24-25)

      • tovlogos

        Thanks you my friend –
        Two points I am making: That ‘quote’, regardless of who said it, is a fact based on everything that is taking place today.
        The other point is God would not invite any culture to infiltrate the children of Israel whose purpose was to take over Israel theologically, and kill all those who refused to comply. So much of what you said didn’t address these two points; yet., I appreciate what you contributed.

  • Chris Nelson

    Also, moslems cannot be in any way vetted since they practice taqiyya. We need to keep them out as well because mohammad was an inveterate liar, a child rapist, an ethnic cleanser and a wife beater among many things and he promotes these things through the koran and hadiths. It would be madness to allow them in. All these evils are practiced in moslem communities to this day and in this nation.

  • Still Waters

    Interesting you should mention Ruth. According to the Mosaic Law, she was an illegal immigrant. “An Ammonite or a Moabite will not enter into the congregation of Israel, even unto the tenth generation.” (Deuteronomy 23:3-4) Yet, this illegal immigrant of a declared enemy nation of Israel married Boaz, of the house of the prince of Judah, and thus became the great-grandmother of King David, and is one of five women listed in the Matthew genealogy of Jesus Christ. The power of God to redeem and turn the course of history upside down never ceases to amaze.

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