Erich Bridges: Refugees—retreat or welcome?

Erich BridgesThe United Nations held a conference in September focusing on the more than 65 million migrants worldwide—by far the biggest displacement of people since World War II.

They are driven from their homes by war, instability or grinding oppression and poverty. Some 21.3 million of those people are officially designated as refugees. Half of that number have fled three countries: Syria, Somalia and Afghanistan.

Most refugee families, even if they have enough food to eat, languish in camps or squatter settlements with little hope of finding new homes. Few refugee children have schools to attend.

Yet in the face of such staggering need, some American evangelicals have joined in the call by various politicians to close our golden door to refugees, particularly those who might pose any conceivable terror threat or security risk.

One notable bright spot, however, is Johnson Ferry Baptist Church in Marietta, Ga., which was included in a "60 Minutes" report Sunday (Oct. 16) for its work in resettling two Syrian refugee families in the Atlanta area.

"Isn't it better to reach out and love these folks than to give them the cold shoulder?" asked Pastor Bryant Wright, a former Southern Baptist Convention president. "Which approach do you think might cause a Muslim refugee to be more sympathetic to Islamic terrorism?"

It would be sad if Christians en masse turned their back on some of the world's neediest people. Churches have been the primary sponsors and welcomers of refugees to the United States since the aftermath of the Vietnam War. We still are—for now.

"Of all the legal pathways to enter the United States, the Refugee Admissions Program features the most rigorous screening," notes Matthew Hawkins, coalitions director for the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. "It is correct to say the program can't guarantee perfection (no program can), yet even those who wish to shut down the program don't deny its security relative to non-immigrant visa entries. … Shutting down legal pathways of entry out of fear isn't exactly the response of a confident, free nation."

Nor is it the response of confident, openhearted Christians.

"Virtually every day, in quiet corners of airports across the country, refugees are being welcomed and cared for by teams from churches and community groups," writes Scott Arbeiter, president of World Relief. "This is our new Ellis Island. It is the expression of our faith and our humanity, and it is a worthy response to the legacy we have inherited."

The movement to bar refugees is an understandable reaction to homegrown terror attacks by radical Muslims. Some citizens also fear refugees and immigrants in general will take scarce American jobs and change American culture forever. But the impulse among Christians to join in closing the gate, despite our historical generosity, might point to something deeper.

There is a time to embrace, and a time to shun embracing, says the Preacher in Ecclesiastes 3:5. Throughout church history, Christians have taken his advice, one way or the other, in their embrace of the world. Sometimes they sense when the moment has come to withdraw in order to seek new strength in God.

But how do we know when it is time to "shun embracing" the things of this world?

Benedict of Nursia, born about 480 A.D. in Italy, was repelled by the decadence of "Christian" Rome. He went to the mountains, founded a monastery and eventually wrote the Rule of Benedict, the founding document of the Benedictine order and much of Western Christian monasticism. Benedict's aim wasn't necessarily to renounce the world, but to form communities of believers who would dedicate their lives entirely to working, praying and seeking God.

In an increasingly hostile environment, some say it's time for Christians, including evangelicals, to follow Benedict's example. Conservative Christian intellectual Rod Dreher calls it the "Benedict Option."

"Even as we stay engaged in the public square ... we have got to retreat somewhat, reclaim our own story as Christians, thicken our practices and build institutions that can be resilient in this post-Christian and, in fact, anti-Christian culture that is emerging," Dreher stressed during an ERLC-sponsored conference last year.

Some dismiss the "Benedict Option" as a surrender to culture, not a temporary retreat from it—an abdication of the church's mission to live and proclaim the Gospel to the world. That's not quite fair, however. The Christian tradition of retreat and renewal is a very old one. Many historians argue that the great monasteries preserved the Christian faith—and Western civilization—during the Dark Ages. Christian communities of many varieties continue to renew and enrich the church.

Strategic retreat is sometimes the only option for believers under pressure. But are American followers of Christ under such cultural siege that we need to withdraw from a world that desperately needs us? The earliest Christians faced constant threats, persecution and ridicule. Yet that ragtag band managed to turn the world upside down with their message of God's love and grace.

We, in contrast, have enormous resources, religious freedom and countless opportunities to spread the Good News at home and among the nations. If we reject the most desperate out of fear and suspicion, and withdraw into spiritual cocoons, are we shunning the embrace of the world for the right reason?

I wonder what Benedict would say. He welcomed needy visitors to his monastery.

Erich Bridges, a writer based in Richmond, Va., has covered international missions and trends for more than 30 years.

Leave a comment