Immigration, particularly from Muslim countries, has dominated headlines and presidential debates recently, and not without cause. Civil wars in the Middle East, mass migration, declining birth rates among ethnic Europeans, and radical Islamic terrorism have contributed to deep tensions globally and within our country between those who believe our obligation is to protect our country, culture, and families from the cancerous force of radical Islam, and those who believe our obligation is to aid those fleeing persecution from radical Islamic groups, like ISIS. The US church has a unique opportunity to offer a different way forward, to advocate for compassionate and wise aid for refugees in a way that blesses both them and their new community.
The debate over resettling 10,000 Syrian refugees in the United States was made more complex and distressing by the mass sexual assault of German women by what appears to have been North African and Middle Eastern asylum seekers in Cologne, Germany on New Years Eve. Details about exactly what happened and who was responsible are still sketchy, likely to remain so because of the intense debate over refugees in Germany right now. Over the past few years, far-right nationalism has gained momentum across Europe, and in Germany there have been mass protests against Chancellor Angela Merkel’s policy of accepting asylum seekers. On the other side, there has been an effort to minimize crimes committed by refugees so as to protect the asylum program.
This tension between the political left who support the refugees and the far right who see them as a threat is simply not conducive to accurate and unbiased reporting. On the contrary, both sides have reasons to silence parts of this event and broadcast others. Much to their shame, it appears that the local government in Cologne tried to ignore or downplay the sexual assaults. Meanwhile some American pundits have jumped on the event as evidence for why we can’t possibly allow more Muslims into the United States.
Take, for example, The National Review, which ran a story claiming that Muslims are “unassimilable” into western society and that the immigration is really just part of a larger plan of conquest with “rape jihad” as a major strategy to overtake the West. Countless other, smaller online publications have likewise promoted this angle, arguing that fundamentally, Muslims cannot coexist with civilized western culture. According to them, Muslims will outbreed us, use political correctness to silence critics, use terrorist attacks to kill infidels, institute Sharia law in our court system, rape our women until they submit to Sharia law, mooch off of our entitlement programs, lie about Islam or anything else in order to seduce us into accepting them, insist that they are entitled to special treatment because of their religion, infiltrate and undermine every level of our government and military, and in general cause the destruction of the western civilization as we know it.
If you think I’m exaggerating, let me encourage you to read more widely. Find someone who supports Donald Trump. Read those articles your uncle keeps forwarding to you. These views are not held by fringe extremists in the US; rather, these are relatively common beliefs shared by many Americans, even evangelical Americans, about our neighbors.
Although these views are as vile as they are ignorant, one extreme does not justify the other, and denouncing Islamophobia of our neighbors does not excuse us from thinking wisely about what good immigration policies should look like—policies that bless both the refugees and the communities they move to. And this is really our task. Despite efforts to reduce what happened in Cologne to one explanation (e.g. “Muslims are savages who can never assimilate in the West”) and apply it to our debate over allowing refugees in America, the reality is that the number, screening, and resettlement of refugees in Europe is quite different from what Obama proposed for the US.
For one, Europe is experiencing “mass immigration,” rather than allowing, as the US is, the highly selective immigration of the neediest refugees. Germany has allowed in around one million asylum seekers, and many had little vetting before they entered. In addition, many of these refugees are placed in temporary housing together, which motivates them to rely on each other rather than become part of the larger community. Add to this situation a growing popular German resentment and even hatred towards refugees, and it is not hard to understand why Europe is so volatile right now. Both native Germans and refugees have an interest in remaining with their own people, fostering fear, distrust, violence, and resentment.
With mass immigration, it is difficult to provide sufficient infrastructure to allow refugees to flourish. Instead, you get ghettos, high poverty, disenfranchisement, and a lack of civil services to cope with a suddenly increased population (this undoubtedly played a role in the Cologne attacks, where there was not nearly enough police to handle the unruly crowd). Migrants are less likely to learn the native language or integrate into their new society because they don’t really need to venture out of their neighborhoods. If part of the purpose of resettlement is to actually resettle, to integrate traumatized and hurt people into a community and enable them to flourish, we need effective resettlement strategies, not mass immigration. Notably, the 10,000 Syrian refugees that President Obama has sought to bring to the US do not constitute “mass immigration.” More importantly, the church has a tremendous opportunity to see that those who do resettle here have the opportunity to flourish as citizen by aiding in their transition.
There are only a few organizations in the United States that have the permission and funding to resettle refugees to the US. One of these organizations, World Relief, is an explicitly Christian group that partners with local churches to aid in the resettlement process. Church volunteers do everything from welcoming the immigrants when they land to hosting them in their homes for a few days while their new apartment is set up. They then visit these new neighbors weekly to teach them English and about American culture. The volunteers also provide transportation, help them fill out paperwork and job applications, and invite them into their homes for meals. In other words, Christians are given the opportunity to welcome their neighbors, help them become productive members of society, and break down barriers of fear and hostility.
Instead of cowering in fear over the imagined threat of an Islamic immigration invasion, the church can play the critical role in loving Muslim immigrants and helping them integrate into a very strange culture. This is a role that the federal government fundamentally cannot play. Federal funding for a refugee family ends after eight months, but for churches who have intentionally built close relationships with refugees, there can still be a support system to help care for them and walk with them through their transition.
If we don’t want immigrants to flee to ghettos, if we don’t want immigrant communities to have high crime and low employment, if we don’t want foreign values that deny basic human rights to harm our communities, if we don’t want to create a deep divide between immigrants and host communities that could last for generations, then the best response is to embrace the stranger in our midst, to love them and help them. It has been the experience of World Relief that most refugees want to be self-sufficient, but that they need help acclimating to a new culture and language. The church has the ability to help. Instead of spreading messages of fear and damning all Muslim refugees for the evil of a handful of extremists, maybe we should flood World Relief with offers to help the needy to resettle. What if the church in America was known as the reason immigrants resettled easily and became vibrant parts of our communities? That is the power that the church has. The question is whether we will choose the easy path of paranoia or if we’ll accept the harder path of loving our neighbor.
Caring for the alien, the orphaned, the widowed, and the needy does not require that we completely disregard safety or the health of our communities. Nor does it require us to give up our values, culture, and traditions (although we should continue evaluating and improving them). Our options are not either unrestricted resettlement on one hand or bans on the other. Both extremes carry tremendous rhetorical weight in an election year, but neither reflects the kind of resettlement we actually do in the US. Carefully planned, community-based resettlement programs can help those in need, strengthen communities, offer new opportunities to share the gospel, and mitigate the major concerns about Muslim immigration.
O. Alan Noble, Ph.D., is editor in chief of Christ and Pop Cultureand an assistant professor of English at Oklahoma Baptist University. He received his Ph.D. from Baylor in 2013. He and his family attend City Presbyterian in OKC. You may not follow him on Twitter.