“Love Them As Yourself”: God’s Words or IKEA Instructions?

Refugee rights protest. Image: Takver, via Creative Commons

Since the Paris attacks, the right’s response to refugees crisis has been martial: we’re at war; keep them out. The counter-response is that we’re morally bound to admit and help them. But what precisely is the moral and religious claim? And what are the possible outcomes if we do or don’t follow it?

Most of the Republican candidates would refuse to admit refugees as would 30 governors. Ben Carson compared them to “rabid dogs.” Jeb Bush would admit only Christians. Chris Christie would bar even orphaned toddlers.

Supporting the House bill that limits Syrian refugees (passed the week before Thanksgiving), Marco Rubio said: “We can’t allow anyone in this country that we can’t vet.” (Refugees currently undergo a vetting process including interagency screenings, biometric checks, forensic documents testing, medical screenings, and in-person interviews in a process that takes 18-24 months. If one wanted to harm the U.S., it would be far easier to come as a tourist.)

Donald Trump wants an ID tracking system for all Muslims, including citizens, already in the US and just affirmed again that he saw “thousands” of New Jersey Muslims celebrating after 9/11—a claim that the state’s officials and Governor Chris Christie do not substantiate.

Echoing his political allies, Samaritan Purse president Franklin Graham says that “Islam is at war with us”—an idea echoed by Trevin Wax of The Gospel Project, “We are in a war.”

Other faith leaders hold we must admit and aid the refugees. World Relief says barring them is not what it’s hearing from its (Christian) constituencies. The organization has a website where people can inform governors of their support for refugee resettlement.

The Jewish Anti-Defamation League favors refugee settlement, as does the US Conference of Catholic Bishops and The National Association of Evangelicals, whose statement reads, “let’s not punish the victims of ISIS for the sins of ISIS.”

Religious advocates for resettlement base their positions on biblical mandates to aid the needy, stranger, and enemy. Exodus 22:2 is one: “Do not mistreat or oppress a foreigner, for you were foreigners in Egypt”—a passage with resonance for a nation of “foreigners” such as the U.S. Another is Leviticus 19:33-34, “The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself” (see also, Deuteronomy 10:18-19, Psalms 146: 7-9). So extensive are obligations to the stranger that they are cited as a model for treatment of the Israelite poor (Leviticus 25:35-39). Ezekiel 47:22-23 grants strangers even land rights. The story of the Good Samaritan, a spurned outsider, is just one of the many Second Testament lessons on how to look upon the stranger (Luke 10: 27-35).

These mandates should be followed, many believe, because they are God’s words. But this doesn’t quite settle the refugee question even for many believers as we see from the range of responses.

Part of the idea is obscured in the compactness of the phrase “God’s words.” This cannot mean blind obedience to Scripture as that would render us programmable dolls with no moral accountability. Morality requires the ability to discern and decide. We have free will because we can comprehend why biblical principles lead to the flourishing of persons, society, and world. “God’s wisdom and truth are, in principle,” Yoram Hazony writes, “recognizable as such by human beings, according to the standards of the present world.”

This is neither the simple call to follow the words of Scripture, as ironically many progressives are now doing—though this is not their usual form of argument. Nor is it the decision to ignore Scripture as those on the right ironically are doing, against their usual form of argument.

Rather, the Bible is a problem set from which we may struggle to derive a code of conduct—more a divine Faust or Richard III than IKEA instructions, in a terribly imprecise analogy. Far from a totalizing program, Scripture is an analytic and ethics-building tool.

The theology here is that God, as the basis or ground for all existence, “inheres” so to speak in all things in order for them to exist at all. “In all things,” Thomas Aquinas wrote, “God himself is properly the cause of universal being… in all things God works intimately.” By studying “all things”–the world, ourselves, and the effects of biblical principles on both–we can come to grasp something of what these principles mean. We err, but we correct mistakes by continued study and experience, much as we correct scientific mistakes.

This is not the naturalization of the divine but the sacralization of world. The Abrahamic faiths have it that the transcendent undergirds nature, culture, and notably sacred texts, which is why we can come to understand something of him by engagement with them. Otherwise, God would be wholly inscrutable and humanity, robotic.

Said another way, we are of God’s image. As we’re set up this way, we—in his image–have the capacity to apprehend something about why his principles work. More than that, we have the capacity to further them in this world—a capacity known as the dmuth Elohim in Hebrew, similitudo in Latin.

In Aquinas’s work, this is developed in the idea of “secondary causes.” Because we have the capacity to grasp and further God’s principles, we act secondarily to him in doing so. God is the ground for sun, moisture, oxygen, and the principles of seed germination, and we secondarily plant and make crops grow. The Jewish tradition expresses this as “co-creatorship.” The medieval Islamic philosophers Al-Ash’ari and Al-Ghazali called it “performing” what God creates.

“Human beings,” First Testament scholar Terence Fretheim writes, “are not only created in the image of God (this is who they are); they are also created to be the image of God (this is their role in the world).”

The Swiss theologian Karl Barth and others especially in the Reformed traditions have been wary of a too-close identification of humanity with God, given our fallenness and continued abusive conduct. But, Barth concluded, because God determined from the beginning to teach and redeem us through Jesus and Scripture, we have the capacity to learn from them about God’s vision and principles. They are a divine gift to us, to learn and to be redeemed towards him.

From the Christian tradition, Fretheim writes, “The law is given because God is concerned about the best possible life for all of God’s creatures… the law stands in the service of a stable, flourishing, and life-enhancing community.” From the Jewish perspective, Hazony echoes: the biblical author “wished to persuade his readers that there exists a law whose force is of a universal nature, because it derives from the way the world itself was made.” While the ritual aspects of the Mosaic code aimed at guiding the Israelites, the theological, ontological, and ethical principles, continued into the Second Testament, aim at guiding all.

The human task is to grapple with those principles—to discern how they promote our flourishing—and to further them secondarily, as co-creators. Why is such attention given to the stranger and what good could come from offering this hospitality?

Marco Rubio said. “If ISIS is able to conduct a successful [Paris-like] operation in the U.S…. that would be an enormous bonanza for them in terms of funding but also of recruits from all over the world.” If we take seriously the idea that biblical principles aim at “the best possible life for all,” what would be the “bonanza” for “the best life” from following those principles and rescuing the refugees?

I’m not making policy here but rather trying to follow the biblical logic. If we assume the mandate to welcome the needy and stranger is based on “the way the world itself was made,” the task before us is to learn from this problem set.