What Wouldn't Jesus Do? Syria, American Politics and Hypocrisy


“But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind…” (Luke 14:13)

On September 10, 2015, President Barack Obama pledged to accept at least 10 thousand of the 12.2 million refugees who’ve fled war-torn Syria since 2011. Slightly over two months later, on November 13, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) staged a coordinated terrorist attack on Paris, France, killing at least 129 people. Next to the body of a dead suicide bomber: the passport of a Syrian refugee.

It’s still undetermined whether or not the passport belonged to the bomber, was stolen by the bomber, or belonged to a victim, but the damage to Syrian refugees has been done. In the days since the attack, over half of the United States’ governors and all of the Republican presidential candidates have spoken out against the placement of Syrian refugees within the country. Their statements of protests have taken various forms, ranging from fear-mongering disguised as reason:

“[New Hampshire Governor Maggie Hassan] believes that the federal government should halt acceptance of refugees from Syria until intelligence and defense officials can assure that the process for vetting all refugees, including those from Syria, is as strong as possible to ensure the safety of the American people.”

-to blatant racism and xenophobia:

“Given the tragic attacks in Paris and the threats we have already seen, Texas cannot participate in any program that will result in Syrian refugees—any one of whom could be connected to terrorism—being resettled in Texas,” wrote Texas Gov. Greg Abbott in an open letter to President Barack Obama.

Never mind that any one of anyone can be connected to terrorism (let’s not forget that Dylann Roof, Timothy McVeigh, Ted Kaczynski, Adam Lanza, and Elliot Rodger were all born in the good ol’ U.S. of A)—the latest round of xenophobic chest-puffing is about appealing to conservative voters by feigning patriotism while keeping poor, war-ravaged Muslims out of the United States and—in at least one case—using the police and other government agencies to harass the refugees that are already here.

“The Louisiana State Police, upon receiving information of a Syrian refugee already relocated within the state of Louisiana, are authorized and directed to utilize all lawful means to monitor and avert threats within the state,” Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal wrote in an order. (He also wrote an open letter to President Barack Obama demanding the names and locations of Syrian refugees within the state. The letter went unanswered.)

These governors’ cries for stronger national security are total posturing. First of all, it is not within a state’s rights to deny refugees. Secondly (and more pressingly), the U.S. already has a strict policy and admission process when it comes to selecting refugees. To come to this country, a person must first apply for asylum through the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). Once granted asylum, the UNHCR refers them to various countries for resettlement.

When a refugee applies to live in the U.S., they enter into a rigorous screening process. Via CNN Politics:

After the UNHCR refers a refugee applicant to the United States, the application is processed by a federally funded Resettlement Support Center, which gathers information about the candidate to prepare for an intensive screening process, which includes an interview, a medical evaluation and an interagency security screening process aimed at ensuring the refugee does not pose a threat to the United States.
The average processing time for refugee applications is 12 to 18 months, but Syrian applications can take significantly longer because of security concerns and difficulties in verifying their information.
Once they’ve completed that part of the process, the refugee is paired with a resettlement agency in the United States to assist in his or her transition to the country. That organization provides support services, such as language and vocational training, as well as monetary assistance for housing and other necessities.

(Emphasis mine.)

But it’s not reason that drives U.S. politicians who’ve spoken out against the resettlement of refugees. It’s fear, racism, and the lowest form of vote-grubbing. Status quo, in other words. A disturbing new iteration of the ethos on display in 1938, when this country was overwhelmingly against accepting political refugees from Germany and Austria (you know, the ones who were fleeing from the Nazis).

What’s infuriating about our current politicians is how blatant they are in their hypocrisy and pandering to religious conservatives while espousing principles that their respective religion’s figurehead would probably find untenable. Of the 27 governors who are attempting to bar Syrian refugees, 100% of them publicly identify as Christians and the vast majority of them have tweeted or released flimsy statements about “praying for Paris” in the wake of the ISIL attack.

In his refusal of Syrian refugees, Gov. Robert Bentley of Alabama wrote:

“I will not place Alabamians at even the slightest, possible risk of an attack on our people. Please continue to join me in praying for those who have suffered loss and for those who will never allow freedom to fade at the hands of terrorists.”

For a man so adamant on praying and Jesus (“I will not deny my faith,” he said during a 2011 press conference), Bentley (alongside his fellow governors) is peculiarly ready to ignore Christ’s teachings on compassion and helping others. As it says in Matthew 25:34, “The King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”

Sharing and taking care of those in need is kind of his whole deal. (I’m an atheist and even I know that.) Praying for Paris, but refusing Syrian refugees doesn’t really cover it.

But it’s easy to curry public favor by publicly praying for a place as beloved and deeply ingrained in the cultural mind as Paris. Much less popular is praying for Syrian refugees, but here at least, Gov. Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas, a Southern Baptist who’s also attempting to bar people fleeing war, has stepped up to the plate with these small words of encouragement:

“The hardships facing these refugees and their families are beyond most of our understanding, and my thoughts and prayers are with them, but I will not support a policy that is not the best solution and that poses risk to Arkansans.”

I imagine it’s attitudes like Hutchinson’s that led to Mary (a refugee in her own right) birthing Jesus on a bed of straw rather than under a real roof, but alright—I’m sure the displaced Syrians appreciate Hutchinson’s invisible prayers.

The obvious argument is that religion shouldn’t factor into government decisions and statements—on Syrian refugees or any other issue—full stop. Decisions should be based on facts (how refugees are processed), national security (the effectiveness of that process), and diplomacy. But to many on the right (at press time, all but one of the governors refusing Syrian refugees are Republican), separation of church and state is an invisible—or easily ignored—part of the Constitution.

Senator Ted Cruz (TX) and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush (both Republican presidential candidates) have proposed discriminatory measures that would allow Christian refugees to enter the United States, while still barring Muslim refugees.

“I do think there is a special important need to make sure that Christians from Syria are being protected because they are being slaughtered in the country,” Bush said on CBS This Morning.

As Sen. Cruz told Fox News:

“President Obama and Hillary Clinton’s idea that we should bring tens of thousands of Syrian Muslim refugees to America—it is nothing less than lunacy…On the other hand Christians who are being targeted for genocide, for persecution, Christians who are being beheaded or crucified, we should be providing safe haven to them. But President Obama refuses to do that.”

President Obama is not refusing to provide safe havens for Christians. He’s refusing to deny safe havens for Muslims. There’s a pretty huge difference—one that means the world both to those who wish to open our country to vetted refugees regardless of race or creed and the xenophobes that wish to deny Muslim refugees under the guise of national security.

Ironically, it’s the latter group that’s most adamantly Christian and eager to debate faith, despite the fact that their stance against the refugees spits directly in the face of their very own messiah, Jesus Christ.

As I wrote earlier this week, nearly half of the 12.2 million people fleeing Syria are children. These babies aren’t terrorists. Their only crime is being born in Syria, being born Muslim, and they’re paying for that happenstance with their lives.

“…I don’t think orphans under five…should be admitted into the United States at this point,” New Jersey Governor Chris Christie (a pro life Roman Catholic) told radio host Hugh Hewitt.

Twenty-seven state governors and all the Republican presidential candidates share this line of thinking. These are the thoughts of some of our nations most prominent thought leaders. This is our burden.

Jesus wept.

[Correction: This post originally quoted a passage from Deuteronomy and attributed it to Christ. The quote has been updated. Thank you to commenter RobGronkowski’sPartyBusDriver for the correction and improved quotation.]

Contact the author at [email protected].

All images via Getty.

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