I’m struggling right now in knowing how to feel, how to think, how to respond to last Friday’s terrorist attacks on Paris and the anger and fear they unleashed on the world. How do I—how do our churches—make our way through these violent, dangerous times in a way that keeps us faithful to our Lord?
It’s not as though we haven’t been through this before—9/11, the 2004 Madrid train attacks that claimed 191 lives, suicide bombers in London leaving 52 dead in 2005, and the Paris shootings just last January that killed 17 were not so different in terms of scope and execution from what happened last week. In the fourteen years of what once was called “The War on Terror” all of us have become, if not accustomed then perhaps anesthetized to violent Islamists leaving a bloody trail of innocent victims.
But this time it felt different. Yes, there was still the shock and sense of helplessness at how ISIS seems able to act with impunity in whatever nation it may choose. But something else stirred at this latest attack, something that said, “We’ve had enough.” France moved immediately into a de facto state of war with national security forces performing 800 raids in the last week on suspected terrorist within their borders while their Air Force pummeled ISIS targets in Syria. President Francois Holland promised his citizens that he would protect them at all costs.
Peggy Noonan in yesterday’s Washington Post described how the terrorist attacks brought about France’s new found resolve:
I feel certain that in the days after the attack people were thinking: This isn’t going to stop. These primitive, ferocious young men will not stop until we stop them. The question is how. That’s the only discussion.
This isn’t going to stop. These primitive, ferocious young men will not stop until we stop them. The first responsibility of any nation is to protect its citizens and its borders, and France’s relentless pursuit of those who invade their land and murder their citizens is as understandable as it is necessary. Other nations have taken notice—even those whose governments in the past have been sanguine about the possibility of allowing dangerous people to immigrate.
But this isn’t just about terrorist attacks, not this time anyway. The international refugee problem is the larger context, and every nation today is wrestling with how to respond to the millions of refugees—especially Muslims from Syria—fleeing the Middle East’s wars. The Paris terrorist attacks exposed the cracks in the emigration system that allows terrorists to hide among the refugees and so gain access into host countries. At least one of the attackers last Friday made his way into France in that fashion.
In our own country, the confounding connection between refugees and terrorists is fast reaching a boiling point, with the U.S. House of Representatives passing a bill this week requiring a pause in allowing Syrian refugees into the country while basic security issues are resolved and more thorough investigations done to ensure no terrorist slips into our nation among the many legitimate refugees. President Obama insists such a pause is unnecessary and doesn’t represent our nation’s tradition of welcoming refugees of all backgrounds. The American people, I think, support the stricter approach of the House, and for good reason. Even though we’ve been spared since 9/11 the kinds of attacks growing common in Europe, few people think we’ll continue to be exempt. There’s too much hate, too much murderous intent in ISIS, al-Qaeda or any of the other organizations metastasizing across the world from the same cancer.
I can’t speak to the complicated reasons why young Muslim men and women are so easily turned into Jihadists. I have little understanding of the security issues involved in protecting any nation and its citizens from evil people seeking to do them wrong. Analyzing the political and military options available to address terrorism is beyond my education. What I can speak about is two personal experiences with the refugee crisis that, for me, frames the whole issue.
Last April I spent a while in Turkey with several Syrian Christian refugees. One of them in particular touched my heart. He had been a practicing Christian for several years and an English teacher before fleeing his homeland. He and his wife and little daughter ended up in Istanbul along with several hundreds of thousands of other Syrians as ISIS overran their nation. There were more Muslim refugees than Christian ones, but all of them were in the same situation of homelessness and fear. My friend spent his days wandering the streets, looking for young Syrian men who were open to the Christian gospel and telling them about Jesus. I don’t know what happened to him and his little family.
Our church sponsored an Iranian refugee family several months ago, Christians also fleeing the region. They had been imprisoned for their faith in their homeland and after applying for refugee status with the United Nations spent years going through the vetting process of both the UN and our own Homeland Security. Last April they moved into our community and quickly into our heart. The congregation soon came to understand how the pain of this family’s experience, instead of bringing them to the point of helplessness and hopelessness most people would expect resulted in an infectious joy that has touched our entire congregation. The Iranian family would tell you the way they overcame their circumstances was Jesus. I would add that their refugee experience was the canvas on which their inspirational story was painted. Their crisis became our blessing.
Not all refugees are like those two—I get that. We’d be foolish to believe they were. The state of the Muslim world today is so compromised that those emigrating from it require special scrutiny. But I bring up the two personal encounters as a way of getting at a larger principle. How do we as followers of Jesus—who welcomed the lost, the homeless, the weak, the dispossessed—reconcile the real responsibilities of our government to protect us while at the same time loving and caring for these millions of refugees, the overwhelming majority of which are doing what any of us would do under the same tragic circumstances?
I don’t have an easy answer. But as we make our way through all this, here are a few truths we have to balance, in our minds as well as in whatever specific ways we choose to be involved in ministry in the whole situation. The first is our love of Jesus with our love for our nation. We’re followers of Jesus first and foremost but also blessed by the nation he’s allowed us to live in. Jesus said, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.”
Here’s another balance we must maintain: the security needs of the nation against the human needs of the refugees. Both are compelling but over the past couple of years the refugee needs have predominated. The Paris attacks shifted the focus back to national sovereignty.
Another area where we walk a fine line is the persecution of Christians in the Middle East by the hands of Muslims. ISIS isn’t the only group actively trying to eliminate the Christian faith from the region. How does the continuing violence against our brothers and sisters in Christ affect our feelings and actions toward Muslim refugees? My Iranian friends have helped me understand this better. They bear no malice toward the government or the people who persecuted them in their homeland. Instead, they embrace all people—Muslims, pagans, agnostics and atheists—as loved of God and open to the gospel.
Which leads me to the final balance we in the church—in a way different from people outside the faith—have to keep in mind. Isn’t it possible that the refugee crisis opens the door to evangelizing Muslims in a way that nothing else has done? Already through the Middle East, the brutality of ISIS has resulted in mass conversions to Christ, as Muslims in the area witness first-hand the nihilism that lies at the heart of ISIS’s agenda. How much more, as the Middle East explodes, is this a golden opportunity for the church to move forward with the gospel of Jesus? I’m not trying to minimize the reality of pain, destruction and loss caused by Muslim terrorists. I am pointing out, though, that times of war like we’re in right now in the past have often resulted in spiritual transformations of people and nations.
These are the hardest days most of us have lived through, and the most confusing. Still, for the church, nothing we see happening around us changes our message or diminishes our hope. All we have to do is stay faithful.