How should the church respond to President Trump’s travel ban?
I began wrestling with this question when I read about two Christian families from Syria one recent Sunday morning.
After working to attain permission to come to America, they were told upon arriving at the airport that they either needed to leave the country or lose their visas.
As CNN reported that morning, “Two brothers, their wives and children left war-torn Syria with 16 suitcases and crossed the border into Lebanon. They were finally on their way to the United States after working for almost 15 years to join their family members stateside.”
The two families were told upon arriving that they could not enter the U.S. because Trump had signed an executive order denying citizens from seven countries, including Syria, entry.
One can imagine what these families – their last name is Asali – were going through.
The years of painstaking work on applications and procedural requirements.
The emotional stress, financial cost and lack of understanding (they spoke limited English and had no access to a lawyer or to their family members in Pennsylvania).
The fear of what returning to Syria – where hundreds of thousands have died during the past few years, and where their ethnic group is one of the most persecuted – might mean.
I wrestled with how the church should respond to Trump’s travel ban that morning.
In the services I led, I reminded worshippers of the trauma families like these are experiencing. I prayed for them and all those suffering from the sweeping order.
I didn’t write anything publicly at first because Christians are already deeply divided about immigration and what our government has to do to protect us from terrorism.
It is a primary responsibility of government to protect us from terrorism by controlling who is permitted to enter the U.S., and no pastor should dictate immigration or national security policy from the pulpit.
That said, the arbitrariness and irrationality of Trump’s travel ban is quite well established.
Not a single properly vetted refugee has carried out a terrorist attack in the United States since 9/11.
“Over the last four decades, 20 out of 3.25 million refugees welcomed to the United States have been convicted of attempting or committing terrorism on U.S. soil, and only three Americans have been killed in attacks committed by refugees – all by Cuban refugees in the 1970s,” The Atlantic observes.
The libertarian Cato Institute points out, “Foreigners from those seven nations have killed zero Americans in terrorist attacks on U.S. soil between 1975 and the end of 2015.”
Most of the terrorist attacks since 2001 have been committed by American citizens or permanent residents.
To quote The Atlantic again, “Between 1975 and 2015, the ‘annual chance of being murdered by somebody other than a foreign-born terrorist was 252.9 times greater than the chance of dying in a terrorist attack committed by a foreign-born terrorist.'”
We shall see where it all ends up, but I am thankful that, because of what the courts and other government officials have done, the Asalis have returned to the U.S. to stay.
In the meantime, what should churches do?
We shouldn’t bring the politics or policy of the travel ban into our services. We need to pay Trump, his officials and our courts the respect and deference we owe them, as the New Testament commands.
But that doesn’t mean our churches should stand by silently as human lives are thrown into chaos by the fallout. It doesn’t mean we should cease praying and advocating for the widow and the orphan, the stranger and the refugee.
The vast majority of those affected by the ban are peaceful people who want to come to the U.S. for freedom, security and prosperity, just like our own ancestors did. And a good number of them are our brothers and sisters in Christ. Some of them are already part of our churches.
When I was a boy growing up in the mountains of northern British Columbia, our small Christian Reformed congregation sponsored a refugee family who had been forced to flee the horror of genocide in Cambodia.
I remember one young boy, Naroon, who became my friend. We were about 5 years old. His family attended my church. The body of Christ became a ministry of salvation for them in a way that I will never forget.
At the very least, every church must make one thing clear: We stand in solidarity with refugees and immigrants.
We respect our government’s right to determine when and how they come into this country, but we pray and advocate for accepting as many refugees as is safe and feasible.
Once they are here, we welcome them with open arms.
We care for their material and spiritual needs. We help them find jobs, homes and playmates for their children. We seek reconciliation and unity with them as brothers and sisters with whom we desire to be one body in Christ.
If we are afraid to do these things because they offend our political sensibilities, then we had better reconsider our politics.
We should ask ourselves: Where does our primary loyalty lie?
Jesus told us that he will take our treatment of refugees personally (Matthew 25).
To stand in solidarity with refugees and immigrants is not to politicize the church. It is to fulfill the exhortation of Christ in Matthew 25:45, “Whatever you do for the least of these, you do it for me.”
Matthew J Tuininga is assistant professor of moral theology at Calvin Theological Seminary and author of “Calvin’s Political Theology and the Public Engagement of the Church: Christ’s Two Kingdoms” (Cambridge University Press). A longer version of this article first appeared on Do Justice, a Christian Reformed Church of North America blog. His writings can also be found on his blog, Christian in America. You can follow him on Twitter @MJTuininga.