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Refugee debate intensifies with Paris attacks

By Trevin Wax/Religion News Service
On December 1, 2015

Evangelicals are split on what to do with refugees after
the recent attacks in Paris.

Evangelicals may be united that the Bible is the ultimate source of authority, but they are divided on how the Bible would lead us to respond to the growing crisis of refugees fleeing from Syria.

  • What is the best way to show Christian love and compassion?
  • How is the church’s role different from the state’s?
  • How do we show wisdom and prudence in securing the safety of our neighbors and nation?

These are just a few of the questions that evangelicals are grappling with. One evangelical pastor today told me, “My church members are all over the place on this!”

The situation in Syria is dire. More than 300,000 people have died. Half the country is now homeless. Millions are fleeing. The plight of the refugees came to national attention in September with a picture of a 3-year-old boy whose body washed up on shore in Turkey. Many evangelical Christians sprang into action, making plans for welcoming and serving the refugees.

I’ve seen evangelical compassion firsthand. I once served a church in a small town where hundreds of Somali refugees, the vast majority of them Muslim, were resettled.

Our church opened its doors and hosted fellowships; we devoted space to English as a Second Language and other citizenship classes. The makeshift mosque in our town may have been closed off to us Christians, but we made sure the doors of our church were open to the Muslim refugees. At their best, evangelicals are on the front lines of “welcoming the stranger.”

It’s no surprise then that evangelical leaders have been calling for Christians to receive and serve refugees. A Christianity Today editorial this fall called Christians to embrace the “unparalleled opportunity to love neighbors here and abroad, and to showcase the beauty of the gospel that proclaims good news to the poor, liberty for those stuck in refugee camps, and a new life for those fleeing from oppression.”

Evangelicals recognize that many of these men, women and children are “brothers and sisters in Christ” who are leaving behind the cradle of Christian civilization.

But since the terrorist attacks in Paris last week, the debate over whether and how to receive refugees has intensified.

On the one hand, there are evangelicals calling for “prudent compassion,” the idea that we need not choose between accepting all refugees or no refugees, but through rigorous screening (understandably heightened in a time of war against terror), we can and should receive refugees.

Similarly, Ed Stetzer, vice president of LifeWay Research, urged believers to distinguish between our response to “the immigrants streaming across Europe to escape the radical Islamists” and our response to potential terrorists.

Richard Stearns, president of World Vision, called the church to love and serve the refugees even if it “goes against our instincts.”

“We want to protect ourselves from those who might hurt us,” he wrote. But he added: “Jesus asks us to love our neighbors – regardless if there may be enemies among them.”

Commentator Cal Thomas, in a column for the evangelical publication World Magazine, argues for closing the borders, because “there is no way to be certain who is a jihadist and who isn’t. What we do know for certain is that ISIS has bragged openly about including jihadists among those who have fled to Europe, and only a fool would believe that same strategy is not being applied to America.”

Congregations are divided. World reported that U.S. Rep. Trey Gowdy of South Carolina asked Secretary of State John Kerry to halt plans to settle refugees in his district. Meanwhile, the evangelical church Gowdy attends was one of several that expressed interest in helping with the refugee program.

My pastor friend was right. Evangelicals are “all over the place” on the issue. That’s why, for the foreseeable future, they will continue to debate the best way forward while showing both prudence and compassion.

Trevin Wax is managing editor of The Gospel Project and author of multiple books, including “Clear Winter Nights: A Journey Into Truth, Doubt and What Comes After.”

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