If You're Religious, Your Faith Obligates You to Help Refugees

November 23rd 2015

Joshua Stanton

Sparked by the ongoing war in Syria and amplified by the outpouring of xenophobia following the attacks in Paris last week, the question of refugee rights has come to the fore. As many politicians run their mouths and propose ludicrous policies to restrict immigration (and even the rights of citizens and residents, singling out American Muslims in a way that to some feels reminiscent of Japanese interment during World War II), religious communities have found unexpected common ground in support of immigrants.

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Interned Japanese Americans outside at Manzanar Internment Camp

Unlikely bedfellows, many Jewish organizations have found themselves aligned in their views with Muslim groups that fear the rising tide of hatred for the ‘other’ and feel the need to support those most desperate. Traditionally right-wing Evangelical Christians have found themselves in conversation with left-wing Mainline Protestants.

They have their work cut out for them. There are presently over 4 million refugees from the conflict in Syria alone, according to the UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency.

A common motivator across American religious communities might be a shared belief in human goodness and decency that stems from many religious and humanistic traditions. Another might be the notion of hospitality. Still more might derive from terrible moments in each of our histories – from the inability of Jewish refugees from Europe during the Holocaust to secure visas to secular Albanian Muslims who had to go to remarkable lengths to escape war in the Balkans in more recent memory.

The liberation of the Nazi camp of Buchenwald on April 16, 1945

Yet, I also wonder about the extent to which religious communities are turning to their sacred texts for inspiration, whether intentionally or even subconsciously in the way the perceive the plight of refugees. In the Torah, it mentions at least 36 times – more than any other precept of which I am aware – that we are not to oppress or mistreat the ‘stranger,’ for we were one “strangers in the Land of Egypt” (Exodus 23:9). In the Quran (about which I must concede my limited knowledge), touches on the plight of Muhammad’s early followers due to persecution by some of Mecca’s powerful interests. The Christian parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10: 30- 37) echoes the need to care for fellow humans who are in need, irrespective of their ethnic group.

By contrast, one would be hard-pressed to find sacred texts that suggest ignoring the ‘stranger’ would be a healthy political, social, or spiritual pursuit. The transcendent value of caring for the vulnerable is striking, as is the potential for religious and ethical communities to work together at a moment that could be fraught with division and fear. For the first time in far too long, they could wield their broad-based clout at the national level to compel politicians to open their hearts and our borders in a sensible way to those who are fleeing conflict in Syria and the surrounding areas.

Even as we struggle to absorb the pain of the terror attacks in Paris, grapple with confusion about how to engage with the terrible and entangled war in Syria, the present provides a remarkable opportunity for collaboration and a common cause. Immigration reform has for too long been stalled, and in this cauldron of nasty politics, many religious communities are showing themselves to be voices of reason, who temper the temporal with a vision of our country that holds sacred the lives of immigrants, ‘strangers,’ and most especially the vulnerable refugees.

Rabbi Joshua Stanton serves as an Assistant Rabbi at Temple B'nai Jeshurun in Short Hills, New Jersey.

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