When the Stranger in Your Gates Wants You Dead
With the world growing increasingly turbulent, opinions are plentiful on what to do with Syrian refugees—but what’s the right thing to do, and how can we do it?
“If I gave you ten grapes and told you two were poisoned, would you eat any?”
If your newsfeed is anything like mine, you’ve probably noticed that Facebook is swimming in a sea of opinions in the aftermath of the recent bombings in Paris. A good many of those opinions seem to be focused on President Barack Obama’s plan to resettle at least 10,000 Syrian refugees in the United States in 2016. And it’s not just Facebook—30 U.S. governors have expressed strong opposition to President Obama’s plan.
It’s not hard to understand why. Syria is primarily a Muslim country, and the self-proclaimed Islamic State (ISIL or ISIS), which currently controls large portions of Syria, has eagerly claimed responsibility for everything from the massacre in Paris to the attempted terrorist attack in Garland, Texas, earlier this year.
Now, it’s important to clarify: The Islamic State does not represent the views of all Muslims everywhere. Not all Muslims interpret the Quran as a divine sanction to slaughter nonbelievers—but some do. And the fact that those “some” exist at all is, in the eyes of many U.S. citizens, a cause for concern. Their reasoning is, if some Muslims believe it is their duty to kill infidels, and if the U.S. accepts 10,000 refugees from Syria, isn’t it likely that a handful of jihadists will slip in with them?
The last 20 years stand as a sobering testament to the destruction that even a few dedicated jihadists can accomplish, and the current state of the Middle East is a continual reminder of what an army of them can do. The fear of unwittingly opening ourselves to such an enemy is far from unreasonable.
That’s the context for the quote at the top of this article. It’s been floating around my newsfeed in an attempt to advocate against accepting any refugees at all. If even a small handful are looking for an opportunity to bring America to its knees, why take the chance? Why risk eating any grapes at all when you know some are likely to kill you?
Except that’s a gross oversimplification. We’re not talking about grapes; we’re talking about people whose lives hang in the balance. We cannot ignore the other side of this dilemma: Do we stand by and ignore the plight of thousands of innocents because we fear a few?
I feel like I’m back in my Developmental Psychology class, discussing those ethical dilemmas dreamed up by people with too much free time on their hands.
A runaway trolley is speeding toward five unsuspecting bystanders. You can save them all if you pull a lever and divert the trolley onto a track with only one bystander. No matter what, someone dies. Do you save the five and become responsible for the death of the one? Or do you let the five die, unwilling to sentence the one to death? But if you have the power to act, aren’t you sentencing the five to death by doing nothing?
These are the questions ethicists seem to love—impossible scenarios where every conceivable action ends in a morally gray area. This sounds a lot like the refugee dilemma, if you ask me. Do we let them in and potentially risk the lives of our own citizens, or do we close our borders and wish them luck, knowing many of their lives will be lost? Either way, someone is faced with danger. Either way, the trolley is barreling toward someone at full speed. So what’s the correct response?
That’s the problem. There isn’t a perfect solution—at least not the way we’re looking at things right now. Like the runaway trolley, we’ve crafted an impossible problem where everyone stands to lose, no matter what. If we turn away the refugees, we’re heartless monsters. If we let them in, we’re potentially swallowing those “poisonous grapes” in the process.
If we really want the right answer, we have to start by finding the right question.
The first step of the real solution lies in humbling ourselves as a nation and seeking the face of our Creator—acknowledging that our ways aren’t working.What to do about strangers
The Word of God is “living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword” (Hebrews 4:12), and it has a few things to say on the subject of strangers, foreigners and immigrants.
Speaking to a nation only recently freed from slavery, God told Israel, “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the heart of a stranger, because you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 23:9, emphasis added). He also said, “The stranger who dwells among you shall be to you as one born among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God” (Leviticus 19:33-34).
So, it’s simple. We take in the refugees, right?
These refugees—these “strangers”—are fleeing a brutal war. They’ve lost family, friends and homes. Returning to Syria means more suffering (and possible death) at the hands of either ISIS or Bashar al-Assad’s regime. To turn a blind eye would be heartless. Yes, we take them in. Of course we do … but with conditions. The strangers in Israel didn’t receive a free pass to live however they pleased. They were to be treated as native-born Israelites, but they were also to behave as native-born Israelites. That’s the missing piece of the puzzle in our trolley problem. The strangers who came to live in Israel were expected to adopt the culture and values of Israel, not the other way around.
America takes a different approach. We pride ourselves on our tolerance, our acceptance and our status as the great melting pot of the world. We’ve made it clear (in the last few years especially) that there is no end to the variety of ideologies and lifestyles we will embrace, welcome and accommodate. There is no culture for the strangers within our gates to adopt, because we’re busy adopting everyone else’s—and the greatest American value these days seems to be our insistence that no one should be allowed to tell us how to live our lives.
God never intended ancient Israel to be a melting pot. On the contrary, He commanded all Israel to gather together once every seven years to hear a refresher course on God’s laws—“men and women and little ones, and the stranger who is within your gates, that they may hear and that they may learn to fear the LORD your God and carefully observe all the words of this law” (Deuteronomy 31:12). The stranger was to be there as well, hearing and learning and carefully observing. Living in Israel meant obeying the God of Israel. Refusing meant exile or death.
That flies in the face of nearly every American value, not to mention the Bill of Rights. We’re seeing the end result of a nation built on the premise that the best judge of good and evil is man himself. Integrating the values and morals of the Bible as mandatory aspects of American culture is not only unlikely—given our constitutional framework, it is impossible.
The real solution
To be fair, there are more than two choices in this scenario. There are other ways to protect the Syrian refugees, such as finding them temporary sanctuary in neighboring countries or housing them in a no-fly zone while the Islamic State is defeated. But none of these solutions is perfect—even defeating the Islamic State can’t guarantee long-term peace in Syria. And that’s the problem—we can dream up a multitude of solutions, but not one is without flaws and drawbacks.
There were many dark periods in Israel’s history when “everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 17:6; 21:25; see also Deuteronomy 12:8). These periods inevitably ended in disaster, but God always offered a solution: “If My people who are called by My name will humble themselves, and pray and seek My face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land” (2 Chronicles 7:14).
If they didn’t—if they continued following their own flawed notions of right and wrong—God would leave them to their own devices. And that is what happened: “Because they forsook the LORD God of their fathers, who brought them out of the land of Egypt, and embraced other gods, and worshiped them and served them; therefore He has brought all this calamity on them” (verse 22).
The trolley of our own devices is coming. Calamity is coming. But the solution doesn’t lie in whether or not we throw the switch and choose one unhappy path over another. It doesn’t lie in affixing a temporary bandage to the problem. No, the first step of the real solution lies in humbling ourselves as a nation and seeking the face of our Creator—acknowledging that our ways aren’t working.
Will that happen? Not likely. For decades now, we’ve been busy legislating God out of our courts, our schools and our lives. We’ve rejected Him like the ancient Israelites before us. And now, if we’re determined to follow our current path—if we believe we can solve the trolley problem with our own wits and resources—then there remains one last step to take, one last action available to us:
Brace for impact.
To read what the future holds for America, read “What Is Going to Happen to America?”
For further insight into the current migrant crisis, read:
Photo by Ben White/CAFOD/CC BY NC-ND 2.0