On September 2, 2015, the world was confronted by a photograph.
Taken by the Turkish journalist Nilüfer Demir, the photo depicted a toddler lying dead on a beach. He had drowned in the Mediterranean Sea. The boy’s name, we would learn, was Alan Kurdi. He and his family, who are of Kurdish descent, had fled Syria as refugees and were trying to reach Europe, in hopes of eventually being resettled in Canada.
The photograph immediately propelled the refugee crisis to the front page of newspapers and the top of newscasts. World leaders – including French president François Hollande and British Prime Minister David Cameron – expressed their sympathy for the boy’s family and voiced the need for a robust, compassionate response to the plight of refugees. A year later, speaking at the UN, President Obama referred to the photograph that had haunted us all – the image of “little Alan Kurdi from Syria, lifeless, face down on a Turkish beach, in his red shirt and blue pants.” The global refugee crisis, he went on to say, represented “a test of our common humanity.”
Around that same time, last September, the New York Times published an article with an eye-catching headline: “Evangelicals Ignore G.O.P. by Embracing Syrian Refugees.” While acknowledging the fact that certain high-profile evangelical leaders had sided with those in the Republican party who were calling for more restrictive policies, the article noted that in the past year over 1,000 churches had partnered with one refugee-resettlement agency alone – just one of several such organizations that work with churches in the United States. Refugee resettlement, in other words, isn’t a fringe movement among a small subset of evangelicals.
On November 8, 2016, Donald Trump was elected president. In exit polling, it was revealed that 81% of those self-identifying as white evangelicals had voted for the man who, among other things, had called for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what the hell is going on.”
What is going on, indeed?
I remember a time, not that long ago, when evangelical support for refugee resettlement was uncontroversial. A decade ago, as a caseworker with Church World Service in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, it was my job to help refugees with the resettlement process. Churches – including conservative evangelical ones – played an indispensable role by providing volunteers who would furnish apartments, provide transportation, assist with translation, and perhaps most of all, simply offer their friendship.
Lancaster remains a refugee-resettlement powerhouse, with the BBC recently dubbing it “America’s refugee capital.” Yet across the country, including among those who self-identify as evangelicals, fear has crept in. And welcoming the stranger – something the Bible repeatedly and unequivocally urges us to do – has become a controversial thing to advocate, much less actually do.
That’s precisely why Seeking Refuge: On the Shores of the Global Refugee Crisis (Moody) is so timely and important. Co-authored by Stephan Bauman, Matthew Soerens, and Dr. Issam Smeir of World Relief – which, incidentally, operates as the humanitarian arm of the National Association of Evangelicals – this is just the book for those grappling with the many tough questions surrounding the refugee crisis: How do we respond to scripture’s clear imperatives to show compassion to sojourners and seek justice for victims of oppression, while also supporting prudent policies that will keep our country safe? Why, from an economic perspective, should we accept refugees when there are already too many Americans who can’t find jobs or who depend on limited social services? How can we be sure refugees are vetted sufficiently before being admitted to the United States? Even if they’re not terrorists, won’t refugees inevitably alter the social fabric of this country we love?
I won’t delineate the answers to all those questions here, but rest assured they’re addressed winsomely, carefully, and thoroughly in the pages of the book. For present purposes, let me leave you with three observations about why Seeking Refuge is worth your time.
First, it’s respectful. Too much of our political discourse these days, to the extent that it happens, is coarse and emotionally charged. We assume the worst in those who see things differently than we do, and we’re quick to impugn motives. The authors of Seeking Refuge have no interest in playing that game, and neither should we. By acknowledging the complexity of these issues and refusing to demonize those who would disagree, they establish trust and pave the way for clear, careful thinking.
Which brings me to the second point: this book is factual. Christians, of all people, should be concerned with the truth. As the Catholic novelist Flannery O’Connor famously put it, “The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it emotionally.” Parroting falsehoods is wrong, so it is our responsibility to seek out the truth by turning to credible sources. The authors of this book do just that. And in case you’re worried the authors have been duped by “fake news,” you’ll be happy to see references to studies by the likes of the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute – hardly bastions of liberal propaganda.
Third, and finally, the authors frame the book’s argument around the consistent teaching of scripture. Chapter after chapter, they keep bringing us back to the Bible. The authors, motivated by their faith in Jesus Christ, have set out to demonstrate that regardless of the shifting winds of partisan arguments for or against welcoming the stranger, the teaching of the Bible is clear.
If you already consider welcoming refugees to be a Christian responsibility – or even better, a privilege and an opportunity to extend the love of Christ – you might allow this book to challenge the way you go about trying to change other people’s minds. And if you’re not yet convinced that we can and should embrace refugees as neighbors worthy of our love, it should be clear by now why I’d encourage you to give this book a try.
Three-year-old Alan Kurdi was made in the image of God. That’s one reason why this child – whom none of us had met, from a town none of us had heard of, from a country few of us can point to on a map – so captured our attention two years ago. It’s why that photo should haunt us still.
Yes, we want our country and our neighborhoods to be safe from terror. And yes, we should extend hospitality to those who are fleeing the world’s worst perpetrators of evil. Fortunately, we don’t need to choose between the two – and neither should our refugee neighbors.