If there is something sad that characterises how we approach difficult or controversial issues in the age of internet memes. It is that the extremes move to center stage and gain all the attention. The pithy, mic-drop sound bite becomes the be all and end all in the debate. Emotion packed retorts push out any chance for real dialogue and the process of using our brains to do the hard work of thinking becomes replaced by visceral, knee jerk reactions.
Nowhere is this more evident today than the argument over the fate of Syrian refugees in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris that resulted in the deaths of more than 120 people. On one end of the spectrum is a view that sees every Muslim as a Kalashnikov toting, bomb vest wearing, destroyer of the western world. On the other end of the spectrum is a view that sees every refugee as an innocent child, or elderly woman, on the verge of starvation being left to die by heartless, angry racists. Those positions either focus on the need to protect ourselves from terrorists by keeping all refugees somewhere other than where we are or the need to supposedly be like Jesus and welcome all of them without hesitation. Those on the protection end of the spectrum are castigated by the other side as being hypocritical, unchristian, violators of Jesus command to love others. Those on the welcome them all in end of the spectrum are castigated as being foolish, weak, idiotic, and naive.
At the risk of being run over from both directions and castigated by each end of the spectrum, let me suggest that both are wrong and both misunderstand the teachings of Jesus.
First, both are wrong in thinking that memes, sound bites, 140 character tweets, and Facebook postings are the way to have a dialogue about this issue. Those things may make us feel like we stuck it to the “other” side and allow us to puff out our chest and claim the moral or intellectual high ground. But that is a fantasy and self deceiving. It does nothing for the refugees.
Second, both are wrong in thinking that this is an all or nothing issue. It has become normative in the debates of today’s issues, whether they be political, moral, social, or religious, to make a simplistic either/or argument for a complex problem and leave no room for a both/and solution. I have a theory that the reason this is a growing trend has to do with us becoming intellectually lazy. It’s just easier to make something an either/or issue and entrench ourselves in our ideologically or emotionally driven position than it is to actually engage our brains, look at the bigger picture and acknowledge that the other side may have a point or two worth considering.
Third, as this discussion enters the religious world and invokes Jesus I find that there is a major failure to wrestle with the totality of what Jesus taught. Calling people to embrace all refugees with open arms because Jesus was a refugee may tug at emotional heart strings or promote guilt but it is hardly presents a viable biblical answer for dealing with something as chaotic and even terrifying as several hundred thousand refugees on the borders of your country. Telling people they are unchristian for being afraid in that situation does nothing to help them get over their fear. On the other hand, the calls for no refugees what-so-ever fails to take into account that Jesus was serious when He said to love our neighbors and our enemies. He made those statements knowing full well that such love was dangerous and risky and yet fully expecting us to obey Him.
So what is the answer? I think it is to be found in the words of Jesus in Matthew 10:16 when He sends the disciples out into a dangerous world to do ministry. He said,“Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” Jesus acknowledged that the world is dangerous. That did not mean we withdraw and hide for our own safety. Rather, He intento On the other hand He did not advocate naively rushing off willy-nilly without considering the danger and taking some precautions. Jesus did not propose and either/or solution. He proposed a both/and solution. What He proposed was that we be both gentle and wise.
So how does that apply to the current crisis? Be gentle by taking every step we can to care for refugees, provide shelter, food, clothing, medical care and as followers of Christ, bring the message of the Gospel, make disciples and plant churches among refugee communities. It also means be wise, do what is necessary to make sure, as much as we can, that wolves in the midst of those sheep are prevented from using this crisis to make their way into our midst and spread greater evil.
It is equally easy to say either, “welcome them all” on the one hand or on the other hand “welcome none of them”. Both positions are in my mind, lazy, simplistic, and only make things worse. The hard answer is to think through what it would take to be wise and gentle at the same time and then do that. Governments need to do the work of protecting their people. Paul makes that clear in Romans 13. Followers of Christ need to do a better job of loving people. Do I even need to quote chapter and verse for that? Both need to find a way to work together better which, in a time of hyper-separation of church and state, may be the hardest part of all. As governments do the work of finding the wolves in the midst of the sheep, so the sheep can be taken in and cared for, there needs to be a place for the church to come and help provide some of the love and care that refugees need. But that means Christians must be willing to take the risk of serving those refugees and possibly being confronted by a wolf in the process. Now that is something I am confident Jesus would do.