The cognitive dissonance of American Christians’ opposition to refugees

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As American Christians, it seems we have a problem with cognitive dissonance.

This question of the internal conflict between irreconcilable principles pops up around any number of issues, between the true and difficult teachings of the Gospel, and our comfortable, socially acceptable and yet Gospel-antithetical views on unbridled greed, exclusion, war-for-profit, poverty, treatment of the “least of these,” social justice and inequality.

But, it came to mind strikingly this week with the re-release of a 2018 Pew Research Center study that reveals this uncomfortable but unavoidable finding: The more outspoken we are in proclaiming Christ, the less likely we are to follow Christ’s teaching on “doing for the least of these.” Specifically, the Pew study shows the more evangelical we are (and we should be evangelical) and the whiter our congregations tend to be, the less likely we are to support caring for refugees.

Based on their findings, it seems the more often we gather around Scripture that clearly demands we care for the foreigner, the traveler, the poor, the oppressed and the hungry, and the more literally we read that text, the less likely we are to follow its moral and spiritual imperative that we care for those most in need, at a time when refugees are in need at levels not seen since World War II.

I do not intend this as an arrow directed at any denomination or group of denominations, as has been done elsewhere with this study. But, it is inescapable that we have a problem, among American Christians, with resolving the unambiguous teaching of the Gospel with our practical support for admitting those Christ most clearly calls us to love, admit and support.

As Pew points out, race, age, gender and education levels also play into discrepancies in how we view support for refugees (and migrants):

To better understand where we, as a nation, fit into the refugee crisis, a little historical context is needed. Some of this I borrowed from myself, and a piece I wrote on this same blog in January 2017 after the president banned refugees from Syria.

President Obama increased our admission of Syrian refugees to more than 10,000 in 2016: a significant increase over the previous years, but still an insignificant remedy to an international emergency we were complicit in perpetuating. For those who feel 10,000 refugees is a large number to take in one year, I offer the following (already reported in the New York Times and elsewhere) for perspective: in 1979 we accepted 111,000 Vietnamese refugees, then 207,000 more the following year; during the Mariel boatlift from Cuba we accepted more than 120,000 refugees, including more than 80,000 in one month alone. So, arguments that infrastructure, social services, etc. simply cannot handle more than we’ve been accepting clearly are not instructed by our history.

Unfortunately, our trend in accepting refugees since 2017 has pointed downward. The National Immigration Forum plainly spells out the scope of the crisis, and our weak-kneed response:

While there were approximately 19.9 million refugees worldwide as of fiscal year (FY) 2017, the U.S. currently resettles just a small fraction of them. Less than 1 percent of the total number of displaced people on the world has been resettled to one of 37 current resettlement countries each year. In FY 2016, the U.S. admitted nearly 85,000 refugees, a number that declined to fewer than 54,000 refugees in FY 2017, the lowest number in a decade after President Trump reduced the cap on refugee admissions via executive order. In FY 2018, the president further reduced the refugee admission cap to 45,000, the lowest since the enactment of the Refugee Act of 1980. For 2019, the administration cut the number of admissions even more to 30,000. However, the cap represents the maximum number of refugees that may be resettled in a year and the Trump administration is unlikely to resettle anywhere close to 30,000 people in FY 2019.

Today, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) estimates those numbers are significantly worse, at an unprecedented level of more than 70 million people forcibly displaced from the homes by war, famine or oppression, with almost 26 million being refugees.

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Source: UNHCR

Meanwhile, as the international refugee crisis soars to unprecedented levels, we continue to reduce the number of refugees we take in. This inverse response to one of the worst humanitarian crises in recorded history is counterintuitive to our democratic ideals and our history as an immigrant nation.

But, for our concerns here, I want to focus on how this continued reduction of refugee admissions, and our apparent reluctance as Christians to support them, squares with our Christian faith.

This matter certainly is not a question only for Christians. But, it is a matter being decided by a president who was elected predominantly by conservative Christians – some of whom proclaim him ordained by God. And we popularly style ourselves a Christian nation, or at least a nation guided by Christ’s teaching. And, I am a Christian and I hope to follow Christ. So, it is appropriate to consider how our policies and attitudes square with Christ’s Gospel.

Let’s say we set aside all of the practical concerns surrounding refugees and immigration. Can’t we just exclude refugees if they come from someplace scary? Well, not if you’re a Christian. Okay, not if you actually intend to follow Christ’s teaching. To attempt to justify this order in terms of Christianity begets only one word: hypocrisy.

Pope Francis pulled no punches on this count during a public address in October 2016, at the height of the Syrian refugee crisis (still ongoing, but now eclipsed by Yemen).

“You cannot be a Christian without living like a Christian,” Francis said.

“It’s hypocrisy to call yourself a Christian and chase away a refugee or someone seeking help, someone who is hungry or thirsty, toss out someone who is in need of my help,” he said. “If I say I am Christian, but do these things, I’m a hypocrite.”

Harsh? Perhaps. But, then Jesus was pretty harsh at times when it came to hypocrisy and failing to love those in greatest need. Maybe you’re not Catholic. Or, maybe you are Catholic and you’re fed up with the Pope for being “too radical.” Let’s turn to the long-haired, sandal-wearing, dark-skinned, radical Palestinian Jew who started this whole movement in the first place. What would Christ have to say about all this?

You don’t have to search far in the Gospels to find an answer. We’ll start with Matthew 25: 33-46, which in the New Revised Standard Version bears the heading “The Judgment of the Nations.” The passage tells of the Son of Man, at Judgment, separating the nations into sheep on his right, goats on his left.

“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’”

The righteous then ask when they did these things. Jesus replies: “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’”

The “goats,” the hard-hearted hypocrites, face damnation because they did not live with compassion towards those in need – specifically strangers waiting to be invited in, for the sake of our discourse here.

Some say this passage in Matthew applies only to offering succor to Christ’s family, i.e. to baptized Christians. This view that Christians are meant only to help Christians may be palatable to some afflicted with fear of “them,” but it is entirely unfounded in and contrary to Christ’s message.

Consider Matthew 22: 37-40, in which a Pharisee asks Christ which of the commandments is the greatest:

Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

There is no asterisk after neighbor. There is no conditional clause as to who is our neighbor: it is open to all whom God may put in our lives, or in this case in the life of our nation. Whoever they are, and however we feel about them, we’re called to love them.

Consider the Parable of the Good Samaritan. A dubious follower asks Christ how to tell “who is my neighbor?” Christ responds with the parable in Luke 10:25-37. The Samaritan wasn’t good simply because he rescued and cared for the Jewish traveler. He was good because he did this in spite of the fact that Samaritans and Jews – as groups – hated each other. The Samaritan had every reason to believe the Jewish traveler, other Jews and Samaritans, would criticize or even harm him for aiding “one of them.” But he did it anyway. Also, Christ is holding up the Samaritan – the dreaded “them” – as the hero in a tale told to Jews. Christ’s answer to the twin questions, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” and “Who is my neighbor” is simple and unequivocal: our neighbor is anyone God places along our path, and eternal life lies on the other side of helping them.

It is not enough to love those who love us. It is not enough to love those we know. It is not enough to love those with whom we’re comfortable. Christ makes this clear in the Sermon on the Mount:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

To begin the path toward being “perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” we must first overcome our own fears, and the hardness of heart they breed.

In his May 27 message for the World Day for Migrants and Refugees, Pope Francis said the refugee crisis is not just about migrants and refugees, but “it is also about our fears.”

“The signs of meanness we see around us heighten our fear of ‘the other,’ the unknown, the marginalized, the foreigner,” he said.

“The problem is not that we have doubts and fears,” he continued. “The problem is when they condition our way of thinking and acting to the point of making us intolerant, closed and perhaps even – without realizing it – racist.

“In this way, fear deprives us of the desire and the ability to encounter the other, the person different from myself; it deprives me of an opportunity to encounter the Lord.”

When we shut ourselves off from those most in need, we shut ourselves off from Christ. Only by the radical, self-sacrificial love of those in need can we hope to walk in the path of the cross.

This radical notion of love infused everything Christ taught: love others, especially those who hate you, if you want to follow me. This is the love Christ taught when he summed up his entire teaching (because the Apostles, like us, tended to wander and forget): “’Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”

That’s it. That’s the entire message, summed up by Christ Himself. Love God. Love your neighbor as yourself. Your neighbor is anyone in need, even if you consider them your enemy. And loving your neighbor – especially refugees – is loving God. This is the simple, and yet utterly radical message Christ imparted to the Apostles when he told them “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation.” The Gospel is love, and all creation needs it.

How, then, can we as a “Christian nation” reconcile our profession of Christian faith with our hard-hearted denial of refugees? We can’t. We can’t be both. They are our neighbor, like it or not. Either we are a nation inspired and led by Christ, or we are a nation that bars the most imperiled of His children. We cannot be both.

5 thoughts on “The cognitive dissonance of American Christians’ opposition to refugees

  1. “The problem is not that we have doubts and fears….” I have been pondering my own response (or lack thereof) to the issues related to immigrants (and especially women and children at our southern border). This line reminds me we need more prophets who will call fear by its name. It also invites me to greater empathy and action. Thank you for this piece.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for reading it, and for your desire to respond. I am still working up the other piece you suggested on practical steps we all can take to stand for justice and “the least of these.” Have a blessed day!


  2. Thank you for this great post! I found it very informative and challenging. I just published an article on my blog about why I think we need to be doing more to protect refugees and how we need to go about achieving this. If you have time, It would be great if you could read my article as I would be very interested to hear your thoughts on it! Thanks 🙂


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