Refugees and migrants: does the gospel offer guidance for policy?

The Bible is full of stories of migrants, temporary expatriates, exiles and refugees.  And ethnic cleansing and forced massed deportations too.  Matthew records Jesus spent time as a refugee with his parents in Egypt, before returning home to Nazareth.  Abraham and Sarah were migrants. The people of Israel were migrants –  economic migrants – to Egypt, and migrants from it, leaving by the mighty hand of God at work to change Pharoah’s mind.  Naomi was a migrant, and so in her turn was Ruth.  Daniel met success in Babylon, as one of those forcibly deported from Judah at the exile.  Many of those in exile hankered for home –  and many returned, but a surprising number didn’t leave Iraq until some time later, the 1950s in fact.  Paul was a temporary migrant, and tentmaker, as he ministered around modern day Greece and Turkey.  The Bible takes many of these things for granted – hunger, opportunity, war, persecution, a call, all provide reasons why people move, voluntarily or rather less so.

But does the Bible, or 2000 years of Christian tradition, have much to say that can shed light on the appropriate public policy to today’s issue –  refugees from civil war in Syria, and people searching for opportunity in western and northern Europe?

I’m not sure they really do, or at least not beyond the very basic foundational calls –  to provide, for example, food and water for those in need.

The Bible speaks of God characterised by compassion and love.  As creator, we might reasonably suppose he weeps, so to speak, when witnessing the torment and disruption of civil war. But it is also a picture of a God who cares for his own people.  I believe it is reasonable to  suppose that in some sense His heart goes out particularly to Christians caught up in these conflicts –  and Christians are an ancient and significant minority in Syria.

But what does it mean for us as voters etc in Western democracies, countries formed and still shaped by the heritage of the gospel in Western Europe for the last 1000 years and more.

Some of the rhetoric around refugees makes things all too easy.  We took a limited number of people from Hungary after 1956, but they came from a religious tradition closely related to our own.  Some German Jews were taken, and probably many more should have been, but again these were people from within a common western European tradition, even if of a different faith.  That is not the case with refugees from Syria, the overwhelming bulk of whom are Muslim.

It isn’t popular, at least in the liberal west, to say it, but Christianity and Islam have competing claims, and have done for 1400 years or more.   That isn’t necessarily  about political extremism or terrorism, but about wildly different world views and exclusive claims to truth.  And that is as much a threat to the now secular majority in countries like New Zealand, who might subscribe to a “each to his own” approach to belief, as to Christians.    Islam doesn’t share that “each to his own” belief..    And if not many of the refugees/migrants are political radicals, a small number is all it takes to make a considerable difference.  And the second generation is often more radicalised than the first –  as authorities have found in Australia and the United Kingdom for example.  That threat in turn becomes another threat  –  the sacrifice of our  historical liberties to safeguard society against these incoming radicals.  We already see it –  less so in New Zealand, which has avoided large scale Islamic migration so far –  but the UK and Australia mark out a path we find ourselves walking some way down already.  Just recently, the British government has been talking of compulsory registers of religious leaders –  inconceivable in modern times, without the growth of radical Islam.

In general, it is likely to be best for those who are refugees to wait, outside their home country but in a neighbouring country, for the conflict to end.  Civil wars don’t last forever,  and although the end in Syria is difficult to envisage, and might yet involve partition and resettlement, 20 years hence there will still be large populations in the land we currently call Syria.

That leaves me very sympathetic to foreign countries providing a lot of help to Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan, who are currently hosting huge numbers of Syrian refugees.  One might reasonably expect that Islamic countries might take the lead – several are very wealthy, more so than New Zealand –  but it is a large problem and probably warrants some official New Zealand involvement (over and above what individuals might donate directly).  It is likely to be hugely more cost-effective to provide support in the Middle East than to resettle people here.

I become much less sympathetic with those who have found their way beyond Turkey, into Europe.  For one, Turkey is an Islamic OECD country.  It isn’t the best-governed or most prosperous country on earth, but it is relatively safe.  Moving from one OECD country to another (Greece in the first instance), and one EU country  (say Greece or Croatia or Hungary, to rather richer EU/OECD countries –  Germany and Sweden for example – doesn’t excite any sympathy.  Oh, sure, the pictures of tired children do touch me, but they have me thinking that the parents should have been more  responsible and taken care of their children where they were safe –  eg the first country they got to away from the conflict.  Not only are they endangering themselves and their families, but they are queue jumpers.  No country has open borders for unlimited immigration, and there are legal channels through which people can apply to immigrate.  The Australian experience with “turning back the boats” has been demonstrably successful, and has saved lives.  It might be a harder approach to apply in continental Europe, but there doesn’t seem to be much effort put into trying.

I’m not necessarily opposed to New Zealand taking some refugees for resettlement.  In any situation there are likely to be some for whom it will never be safe to return.  The fear now is that the Middle East is becoming  that way for Christians.  It would be almost inexpressibly sad if a Christian presence were wiped out of Syria after 2000 years, but people aren’t typically called to put themselves back in a place where they might face a real risk of being murdered.  If we are going to take refugees from Syria I believe we should give priority – and perhaps only take –  those from Christian communities, a stance echoed in a number of eastern European countries.    They are likely to face a longer-term threat in the Middle East, would be likely to integrate more easily, and pose fewer national security and civil liberties threats.

But why would such an approach appeal in secular New Zealand?  Whatever hold the gospel once had here has weakened now.  And I’ve heard earnest Christians arguing that we should show compassion to all, not distinguishing between Muslims and Christians.  Re the latter, I’d happy see us donate to help UN refugee camps, and to encourage Islamic countries to take Muslim refugees.  For the former, still around half of the country self-identifies as Christians, and if most of the rest are atheist, they are Christian-shaped atheists (ie a very different sort of person than a Hindu or Muslim-shaped atheist).  For Christians, yes there is something biblical, and of the gospel, about offering hospitality to aliens and strangers in our land, but (a) this is a discussion about active government policy to bring such people to our land (or not), and (b) there is an even stronger duty to support our own families and those who are our brothers and sisters in Christ.

There are people around who try to argue that there are economic benefits (to citizens of recipient countries) from taking refugees.  If there was an arguable case for Huguenots or Jewish scientists or academics, in general refugees don’t benefit the hosts in rich countries.  In fact, we don’t take people because to do so benefits us, but from a sense of compassion and an evaluation that leads us to the view that taking people in (rather than supporting them in place) is the best or only practical way to help.  Most refugees will take many years to settle in a completely different culture, many will be dependent on welfare systems for decades, and to the extent they can work, the additional labour supply will often be at the expense (in the form of lower wages) of our own relatively poor or unskilled people.  There will no doubt be a handful of stellar success stories, as there are in any group (of new young adults from home, or of new migrants) but on average there is no reason to think that economic benefits to us somehow offset the other risks and costs.

Diversity is one of the ideals of the age in some circles, and so some champions of taking a significant refugees see society gaining from the increased diversity (and not just the odd Syrian restaurant).  At best, it is a shaky argument, since community cohesion also has demonstrable benefits, and that cohesion is considerably easier to maintain with relatively homogenous populations.  Shared values and tacit understandings of how things are done, and what is right and what is not are part of what make for an effectively functioning society.  The more different the newcomers are the more the challenges to cohesion –  middle class accountants or engineers from a Christianising westernising Asian country (South Korea or Singapore) being less of a challenge than Muslims, often with few First World skills or attitudes, from an authoritarian Arab country.   And as David Goodhart has argued in the UK context, the more cohesion breaks down the more the threat to the consensus around community support to the most vulnerable (eg the welfare state) . There is simply nothing in the gospel that delegitimises that sort of perspective.

Of course, these aren’t issues that arise with a handful of new arrivals.  But the numbers coming out of Syria are huge, and the scale of Muslim immigration to Europe, and problems it has caused, are already large and apparent.  The logic of where some of emotional Christian calls might take one would involve taking very substantial numbers, especially as the demonstration effect would simply encourage more refugees/economic migrants

Is this a selfish approach?  No, I don’t think it is.  I think it is a practical approach that recognises the importance of community and the risks and threats communities face. Of course, invoking “practical” risks being deemed insufficient spiritual or radical in one’s discipleship.  But I don’t think that is so.  I’ve read alternative Christian perspectives –  eg in the US context, Daniel Carroll’s Christians at the Border  –  and not been persuaded. And  I’ve read people talking about how “lucky” we are to live in New Zealand. But it isn’t just luck; rather we part of a political and religious culture that has created the most prosperous, free and stable societies the world has ever known.  The differences between Syria and New Zealand are not, primarily a matter of luck.

Would I feel differently if these were crises in our own part of the world?  Yes, I probably would and for good reason.  First, they are in fact our neighbours (PNG, Solomons, Fiji etc) and second our neighbouring countries are predominantly Christian.  But even then, when civil conflict wracked PNG and the Solomons, our focus (rightly I think) was on helping to make peace, and restore order, in a way that made home a safe place for people in those countries.

Islam is a threat to the West, and a threat to the church wherever it is found.  Political authorities in the West were right, and well-advised, to resist in the past, and at the Battle of Tours, at Lepanto, and at the gates of Vienna, to begin to turn the tide.    We owe it to the next generations of our own people to resist the creeping inroads of Islam.  If New Zealanders convert to that faith, there is of course little we can do, but neither compassion nor common sense requires, or suggests it would be prudent, for Western countries with any sense of their own identity to take in large numbers of Syrian refugees or migrants.  Sadly, “with any sense of their own identity” might be the critical phrase there.

(This will be the last post for a few weeks, as we are taking an extended family holiday.)

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