Refugees: Security or Compassion?

Igor Sabino | August 2, 2017

According to UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, in recent years, some 65 million people have been forced to move from their homes. Among them, approximately 21 million are refugees. The reality of these numbers has prompted Christians around the world to reflect on which Biblical response is best suited to the greatest humanitarian crisis since World War II.

Some Christians claim that Jesus was a refugee (Matt. 2) and that the Bible teaches us to love and welcome the stranger (Lev 19: 33-34). Therefore, we should defend policies favorable to the reception of refugees. Others, in turn, point out that the Bible is clear in Romans 13: 1-7 about the role of the state in providing security to its citizens. They therefore advocate the closure of borders as a means to avoiding the risks that may arise as a result of the intake of refugees, such as terrorism or an increase in sexual crimes.

Faced with this, the central question that has divided Christians concerning refugees is the apparent conflict between security and compassion. This concern is not only understandable, but also totally legitimate in the light of Scripture, since the greatest way of expressing love to others, as the Bible teaches us, is to assure their safety. But to get a truly biblical response to this situation it is necessary to go beyond the apparent contradictions and the need to choose “one side” in this debate.

There is a distinction between the functions of the Church and of the State. When they each carry out their proper respective roles, they do not contradict each other. It is for Christians to fulfill the commandment of Leviticus 19 to love and welcome the refugees. Likewise, it is up to the state to comply with Romans 13 and to provide security for its citizens. These are aims that are not mutually exclusive and not only can, but must coexist side by side.

This means that to help refugees, Christians do not necessarily need the state. As Pastor John Piper points out, even if the state adopts restrictive measures for refugees, it is the duty of Christians to go as far as the refugees are. It is estimated that of the more than 65 million refugees in the world today, only 107,000 were resettled in a third country. So even if Western governments adopt security measures that bar the entry of refugees into their countries, there will still be literally millions of refugees scattered across poor countries in Africa and the Middle East. In Egypt, Turkey, Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon alone there are about 4.8 million Syrian refugees in need of aid.

These are people who have been created in the image and likeness of God and need our love and compassion. To reach them, we do not have to compromise the national security of our countries. But by reaching out to refugees directly where they are, we may rather be putting our safety and even our own lives at risk. Naturally, refugee camps near war zones are generally not the most welcoming places in the world. However, as Christians, this is our calling. Jesus taught his disciples not to expect security in the fulfillment of their mission, but nevertheless urges them to go, despite the risks. He said that we would be like “sheep among wolves” (Matt 10.16). Although we are aware of this, however, we cannot expect the state to act in the same way as we do, since that is not its role designated by God.

On the other hand, we must understand that the role of the state in Romans 13 is not only to protect its citizens, but to serve as a means of grace to prevent the progression of evil in the world. It is true that the original text speaks only of an internal political context. However, I believe that in the current political scenario, of “international anarchy”, with no institution capable of punishing evildoers and rewarding the benevolent, it is up to national states to assume, through international law commitments, the aim of protecting not only their civilians, but also other human beings who are outside their national borders. After all, these persons, including refugees, are victims of oppression and persecution.

Recognizing this implies that States would be responsible not only for the safety of their nationals but also for the international protection of refugees and other forced displaced persons. Therefore, any national security measure taken by states on immigration should consider both groups of people. It is worth noting, however, that this is a rather complex task to be accomplished and that it must be accomplished by the authorities that God has constituted over the nations.

Faced with these distinctions, Christians should seek first the means at their disposal to exercise compassion for refugees, even if they disagree with the immigration policies of their governments. In my view, the Christian’s first attitude toward this situation is to pray: Pray that God will protect the refugees and bring them to know His love. It is also necessary to pray that God will empower political leaders and decision makers to act in a way that guarantees the safety of both nationals and refugees. In addition, Christians can engage with humanitarian aid organizations that help refugees around the world through donations. They can also visit the refugees where they are or be prepared to host refugees in their own countries if their country is like the US or Canada that has an annual quota for receiving refugees, as well as communities that are particularly receptive and willing host communities.

At the political level, Christians can also try to think of the best decisions that States can make in the protection of refugees, always being aware of the role of the State in the Bible. Considering security both from the point of view of refugees and nationals, some Christians may suggest that the best way for the State to fulfill its God-ordained mandate is by adopting stricter measures in the process of receiving refugees. Others, in turn, may advocate not receiving refugees but creating safe havens in areas close to conflict. In this respect, Christians are free to disagree on the best ways to deal with refugees, but they must not forget that the security of nationals should be a priority as well as refugee security.

Finally, Christians need to be reminded that in this present world there are no perfect political solutions and only the Gospel can change things. So, instead of looking at the refugees considering only of the state’s role toward them, we need to be reminded of our obligation to them as the Church and reassess what we have done to meet the need of these especially vulnerable populations, regardless of our political stances and ideologies.