Other Cheek

In news surprising no one, a bunch of U.S. governors have announced that they will not take Syrian refugees into their states. Let us, for the moment, set aside the fact that the refugees didn’t cause the attacks, and that this reaction plays right into the hands of the people behind the attacks, as it will only further isolate the refugees, make it harder for them to escape, and help to foster animosity in them toward the countries that could help them, but choose not to, and instead to let them freeze to death  or go hungry. Let us assume that the Syrian refugees, poor people from a war torn country, who are so fearful for their lives, so desperate, that they gave up everything, abandoned their homes, and fled their country with their families because they had no other choice, are somehow the reason for the attacks in Paris.

One of my wiser friends recently described the only universally held value as being “don’t hurt me; don’t hurt anyone I care about.” He wasn’t talking about what should be our values, like the golden rule, or Kant’s categorical imperative. He was talking descriptively, as a practical matter, from what we observe of the world, what seems to actually be nearly universally held. And he pointed out that the trick of moral formation was to make the group of “anyone I care about” as large as possible.

At the risk of getting religious, which is not my strong area, I think this probably has something to do with the Christian practice of turning the other cheek. It’s why Jesus commanded his followers to love their enemies. This is probably the hardest commandment I can think of, to take someone who has done harm to me, and to turn it around and love him, not just wish that he finds peace, or pray for him, but love him, which requires more than kind thoughts and prayer. Love takes action and work, and it is an onerous and difficult task to take actual steps, to work, to make sacrifices, in order to give help to someone who has sought to do harm to me and mine.

But that’s what the commandment says.

And I think it’s a commandment born of the wisdom that we can’t defeat our enemies by hating them away (despite our best efforts). I have yet to see someone dealt retribution who responded by changing his ways. Recent history (and not-so-recent history) has proved over and over again that killing terrorists doesn’t stop them from coming. The only time violence begets peace is when there is, at last, no one left to fight.

When we talk of radicalism, and of radicalizing people, we are describing people who have been pushed out, people who feel only animosity to us. It doesn’t make sense to talk about people who are radical. They are radical in relation to something, to Christianity, to women being educated, or to western capitalism, perhaps. People become radicalized against institutions that they see as unjust, as having hurt them or hurt the people they care about, or as being an institution representing those who did.

What happens with these refugees when we point to the attacks in Paris and tell them they can expect no help from us because the risk is too great? Will they be understanding of us as we tell them to go home to the bombs and the violence they fought so hard to escape? 4 million Syrians are refugees. The United States has made the vanishingly small commitment of taking in 10,000 refugees (that’s 0.25% of the overall refugees, a number closer to 0% than it is to 1%) in 2016. Our governors feel the need to turn that tiny percentage away because they are concerned for what? That what happened in Paris will happen here? We have clearly demonstrated that we don’t need to import any mass shooters or terrorists.

I am not advocating that we go to ISIS and open our arms (or our borders) to them. What I am advocating is trying to understand that the ISIS fighter was not born a terrorist. He has a history, and he likely came to his beliefs and values from a place where he has felt victimized, wronged, and saw that he and the people he cared about were hurt by someone who looks a lot like I do, or maybe like you do. And hating him and doing violence to him is not going to solve the situation. We can only do that by eliminating the reasons to hate us. It is a rare thing for someone to become violent without first having violence done to him.

And when I look at the people trying to escape Syria, looking for any place where they can live in peace with their families, I see a lot of people who have the potential to either be welcomed or turned away, and in the turning away, we take away the opportunity to connect with them, to make them a part of who we are, and we give the injury to them to make them feel wronged enough that maybe they will feel that they owe us some retribution in the future.

My point is this. For the vast majority of our political leaders who claim to be Christian, in a Christian nation, it doesn’t matter whether the Syrians are our neighbors or our enemies, the commandment is the same either way. It is only by offering them a place in our homes that we can help to make things better.

I encourage you to donate to Mercy Corps and to call your governor to ask him to please take a public stand for welcoming in more refugees.

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