I think back to a day this past summer. It was during the Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting. Those few days were good days for us, but one moment sticks out to me today. The main auditorium was crowded. I was standing to one side, packed in with thousands of fellow Baptist. The proceedings concerned a certain resolution put forth on the floor about a hot-button issue: refugees. When the question was called, the room had an overwhelming response. In that moment, Southern Baptists said they would welcome refugees. Without equivocation, we were committing to love these neighbors in a social climate that might not agree.
That was a good day for us.
The particular resolution can be found here, and it has several clauses. One, perhaps the central one, reads:
“RESOLVED, That we encourage Southern Baptist churches and families to welcome and adopt refugees into their churches and homes as a means to demonstrate to the nations that our God longs for every tribe, tongue, and nation to be welcomed at His throne (Revelation 5:9; Revelation 7:9–12; Psalms 68:5; James 1:27; Leviticus 25:35; Leviticus 19: 33–34)”
The following clause made clear that Southern Baptists wanted the government to take solid measures for security, but the overall tone is clear. However we decide to vet refugees, in whatever way our country involves itself in the global crisis, we Southern Baptists would see refugees as they are, precious people made in God’s image and “special objects of God’s mercy in a world that has displaced them from their homelands.”
After this weekend, I wonder if we will stand by these words or dismiss them altogether in the way we proceed concerning refugees and immigration in our own country. How will we, Southern Baptists and other evangelicals, respond to the climate surrounding this issue in the United States?
In the Wake of the Travel Ban
Last Friday, President Trump signed an executive order barring the entry of foreign nationals from certain Muslim-majority countries for 90 days and halting the entire refugee program for four months. The results over the weekend were less than pleasant for many caught in the middle of transit. Hundreds of people with appropriate visas were delayed or held in airports across the country. Reports of US citizens and legal permanent residents (green card holders) being held without access to legal assistance were sprinkled throughout the articles in the weekend news cycle. CNN tells the story of two men waiting on their wives at Dulles airport. People were being placed back on planes for deportation until a federal judge halted those actions. Concerning travelers who were already permanent residents, the weekend saw another turn around. On Saturday, the Department of Homeland Security stated that green card holders were not exempt from Trump’s order. This ruling by Homeland Security was changed by John Kelly, the Secretary of Homeland Security, on Sunday allowing permanent residents back.
As the confusion swelled, so did the crowds of protestors. Large numbers gathered at airports across the country protesting the situation. Washington DC was once again the site of marches and protests, a regular occurrence since Trump took his post. Big businesses such as Google and Starbucks have stood up to condemn the actions of the ban, with Starbucks vowing to hire an additional 10,000 refugees. Attorneys General from 16 different states signed a joint statement condemning the executive order.
And now it is Monday. An obvious question hangs in the air over the heads of evangelicals, especially Southern Baptists, in light of this situation. How will we respond? I am not talking about a denominational response, we gave that last June. I am talking about the response of local churches across this country as they speak to neighbors about the issue and take sides. I am talking about the words of pastors in pulpits, big ones with a national platform and small ones with listening congregations. I am talking about the response of individual Christians in grocery stores and at the water cooler. I am talking about where we put our money and how we spend our time coming away from this weekend. How do we respond?
Let’s get some sense about us.
Before you assume I am landing on a specific side of this terribly polarized conversation, hear me out. One of my primary concerns is precisely that Christians will treat this as a two-sided, binary situation with good guys and bad guys. Remarkably, the “good guys” get a pass on motives and the “bad guys” are always trying to ruin the country. Before we jump to the defense of either side, we must remember that our allegiance is to a great King and an eternal kingdom. It is our responsibility to speak with as much clarity as possible. In other words, let’s get some sense about us before we spew rhetoric.
In fairness, this is not technically a Muslim ban, so we probably should not call it one. However, we are kidding ourselves if we do not see the shadow of potential religious persecution in it. The very move should make devout Christians uneasy about religious freedom. These bans are currently temporary, and the administration says they are simply creating space for the federal government to get its act together. Taken at its word, there is perhaps wisdom in a period of pause done well. However, it would be a stretch to say this was implemented well, and “temporary” slips into permanent real easy. News cycles tend to sweep yesterday’s issues under the rug. These travel bans are not stopping permanent residents from entering their now home country, but they were in the beginning. Dozens of people, real people who just happen to be from the wrong place, have been placed in tough positions or held against their will. Many more are scared of the writing on the wall.
In a Washington Post article, Ed Stetzer calls for wisdom in the midst of the uncertainty surrounding this immigration issue. Stetzer’s words are a balm on the irritated Christian soul considering this situation. He exhorts us not to be swayed by “alternative facts” and cautions any actions motivated by fear. Stetzer points out areas of Trump’s order that he sees as wise, and critiques real concerns with its motivation and implementation. It is a good read.
Global Repercussions for the Great Commission
During corporate worship yesterday, I was speaking to a friend who trains and equips Persian church planters. He is a refugee himself. His ministry is incredible, and the Lord has granted him influence with an amazing reach. He works with a growing network of Persians ministering the gospel and planting churches all over the world. In fact, he had trips planned to a number of countries for training and to aid in these global efforts, but all of that is on hold now. He can no longer leave the country.
Threats of reciprocal action against American nationals living in Middle Eastern countries are already coming across the news. Certain political leaders in Iraq are calling for the deportation of all American citizens. For those of us concerned about the Great Commission, these kinds of things should concern us. I want to challenge evangelicals to think of our missionaries overseas, many serving in these same countries. I am afraid few consider the connection between these events and the access our people have to their field.
Real Consequences for Real People
Wherever we land on the particulars of the immigration debate, Christians must care more about people than policy. Ironically, last week was sanctity of life week. The sanctity of human life has been the rallying cry of the pro-life movement. Marches were held in Washington in defense of the unborn, and churches across the country spoke to the issue of abortion on January 15. Many evangelical churches and individuals wear the pro-life badge and say no to killing babies in the womb. The reasoning is clear. Human life is valuable. All people are created in the image of God himself.
Yet, in moments like this weekend, I wonder about those pro-life credentials. Are we really pro-life if we are not pro-refugee? Stetzer says no, and I agree with him.
For some, I fear the term pro-life has become more about policy than people. I fear it is an identity sticker that places people in a certain camp on social issues. It is, in many ways, a political football tossed around in order to beat the opposition. The refugee issue may run down that same road. What if being pro-refugee meant you were no longer wearing your political party’s badge on that issue? Does that resolution we made in June still apply?
Christ calls us to more. The Bible is pro-life from the womb to the tomb. If our politicians align with us on those points, then we thank them and cheer them on. If they do not, regardless of party, then we must critique their view. That is the great benefit and responsibility of our form of government, and it is the undeniable ethic of the Christian. John the Baptist lost his head for critiquing power. Fact is, it is not enough to pass a resolution saying we love refugees. Christ calls us to actually love refugees.
There are millions of people living in this country, legal residents who now fear deportation. The reality is sinking in for many that they many not be able to visit family for a long time. Some are refugees. Some are international students on a visa, others are living here on a work visa. Are their fears founded? I don’t know, but is that the right question if we are called to love them? Consider the families that will be separated right now because of travel restrictions. Churches across this country have a rare moment in time, right now, to demonstrate love to people who are scared. Southern Baptists, we resolved to love refugees. Will we do it?