I recently had the honor to interview Ron Sider to discuss the debate about welcoming Syrian refugees. Dr. Sider is an evangelical Christian and one of our world’s most prominent and thoughtful theologians discussing social concerns. He has written and edited over 30 books, including Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, which Christianity Today listed as one of the 100 most influential religious books of the past century.
In the interview, Dr. Sider shares some helpful reflections on Christian and American history, the role of government, what Christians can do now, and the larger question of open borders.
Teddy Ray: Well this is Teddy Ray. I’m talking today with Dr. Ron Sider. Dr. Sider is one of the most prominent and thoughtful theologians in our world today, especially in the area of social concerns.
He’s the founder of Evangelicals for Social Action. He’s written a number of books that you might have heard of, including Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger. He wrote a book called Completely Pro-Life about the sanctity of life, and Good News Good Works about the combination of those two, and most recently two books called The Early Church on Killing, which is a survey of everything that we see in those early church documents about killing, and a book called Nonviolent Action.
So given everything that you’ve been looking at through your whole career, Dr. Sider, I would imagine you have something to say about the Syrian refugee discussions going on right now.
Ron Sider: Yes, I’m saddened by what a number of people are saying. I think that the Bible says pretty clearly that God and God’s people are to have a special concern for widows and orphans and the sojourner, which is to say the refugee, the person who is not a citizen of the country, but who lives in one’s area. And again and again and again, the prophets say that God has a special concern for those people, and that God’s people are supposed to have a special concern for those people. So just in terms of basic biblical teaching, there is an enormous emphasis in the Scripture on God’s demand that his people have a very special concern for the sojourner, for the stranger, for the refugee.
And then of course, you know American history is a whole history of people who are fleeing from one kind of problem or terror and another. Almost all of us in this country are immigrants, the exception being the Native Americans, who still survive after centuries of really tragic, tragic abuse on the part of us European immigrants. And of course, in some ways African-Americans, they certainly didn’t come here willingly. They were brought as slaves, but almost all of us are foreigners, and so I think our own history—“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free”—all of that, speaks in terms of this country being a very special place, unusual in its openness to embracing people from other places. And it’s sad when that long, distinguished, and really very biblical history in some important ways, is being ignored and trampled upon by people today.
TR: You just did something really interesting there. You talked about the history of the biblical people and everything we see in the Bible, and you connected it to American history. And I’ve actually heard a number of people doing the opposite, saying, “Look that’s the history of this theocracy, God’s people, and we can’t claim that today, and we can’t impose our religion on other people here. So even if we think we should welcome refugees, politically, the top duty of our government is to protect people. And we’re not sure that we’re protecting them either from physical harm. Or even, we have higher unemployment right now, why would we bring more people in to take more jobs when Americans need jobs?” And they’ve actually argued that there’s a diversion and we shouldn’t impose our religion on other people. Anything that you would say to American Christians that are making that point right now?
RS: Well the question of how especially the Old Testament material, but the biblical material, applies to this nation at this point in time is an important question. And it’s certainly true that, thank God, we’re not a theocracy or a dictatorship. We’re a democracy and there is that significant difference.
Israel was, in an important way, a theocracy. But all through the Old Testament you see the text saying that the people of Israel are supposed to be a light to the nations. In other words, God’s speaking in effect to everyone saying, “This is how I want people to treat each other, with love and justice and fairness and concern for the sojourner,” if you will. And furthermore, the Old Testament again and again applies the kinds of norms that the prophets applied to Israel, applies them to other nations. In Amos chapters 1 and 2, you see Amos talking about evil things that other surrounding nations have done, and he says God’s going to punish them for those things. And then he switches to Israel and says how God’s going to punish Israel for their injustice and neglect of the poor, and so on. And you also get the prophets applying the biblical text to Nebuchadnezzar on the kind of concern for the poor, and saying that God’s gonna punish them because he doesn’t have that kind of concern.
So I think it’s certainly true that we don’t simply take the specific details of this or that Old Testament text—applying the death penalty, for example, to children who are not respectful to parents––but basic principles of justice and peace that the Old Testament tells us should be applied to all nations. Now that doesn’t mean we go into the political realm today and we say, “God says in such and such biblical text that you’ve got to do this, and if the American nation doesn’t do that then hellfire will come down.” But I think we as Christians are informed by what the Bible tells us about justice and treatment of refugees, and then we go into the political realm and we use language that Christians and non-Christians can understand, and we make a case for acting in that kind of way.
Because finally what God was telling Israel in terms of the basic shape of justice is what God wanted Abraham and his people to share with the whole world. Because God said, “I’m calling you to be a light to the nations.”
TR: So when you talk about that justice orientation, the importance of hospitality, how do we balance that, or do we, with a duty of government to protect people? With the people who say, “But what if this isn’t safe?” Should we expose people to risk that they shouldn’t be exposed to because of this?
RS: Well certainly it’s a proper task of government to protect the people of that nation. And as a matter of fact, we have a very elaborate process in place that is designed to do exactly that. It takes a couple years at least for refugees to get processed and to have the authorities do all the very, very elaborate kinds of things they do to make sure that we’re not letting in dangerous people. So it’s not a matter of trying to make sure that terrorists don’t come in. It’s a matter of doing that and being generous with our long history to be concerned with refugees.
So I mean, we’ve only I think approved a couple thousand refugees in the last several years. Germany is going to take in 800,000 this year. I mean, surely the United States, with a much much larger population—four times or so that of Germany—surely we could decide to take in some tens of thousands. President Obama said 10,000 more. I mean, that’s really not enough. We ought to take in twenty and forty thousand over the next several years, at least that many.
We’ve also got a tragic history of not doing what we should. You know, in the days of Hitler, there were many Jews that were fleeing Hitler and wanted to come to this country. And there were even ships that approached our shores with Jewish refugees, and we turned them away. And they had to go back to Germany and many of them died in the in the death camps. We dare not repeat that kind of history. At that point, you know, there were people who said that those Jews were dangerous somehow to our culture. So people who stir up a kind of nativist fear in this kind of situation, it’s simply, fundamentally un-Christian and un-American.
TR: That’s a strong statement, especially since we have 26 states I believe it is now, where the governors have announced, “We are refusing refugees.” What does the average Christian in one of those states, or really anywhere in the US, do practically here? Can we be anything more than a voice? What do we do?
RS: First of all, they don’t have any authority to do that, so it’s empty rhetoric. It’s obviously just political standing and posturing and it’s an example of a kind of sad, finally I think disgraceful use of a particular fear that’s around to take a stance that just isn’t in keeping with American history or with our values. But I think Christians and Jews and other people of good will in those states ought to be writing their governors and the legislatures, if the legislatures are involved, and say, “This is not what we believe in. This is not the kind of country we have been and want to be. And we oppose your stance, and we vote, and we want you to change what you’re saying.”
TR: Thank you. That’s a great word. I’m just down the road from Asbury Seminary here, and was really proud to see them recently say, “You know what, we’ve got to do something ourselves,” and so they said, “We’re going to make room for a refugee family here,” and have offered through the government to personally house a refugee family. It’s exciting to see some people say we can do something here.
RS: That kind of personal modeling is powerful and wonderful and if evangelical Christians, congregations, and so on, organizations would do that on a wide scale it would really be noticed, it would be a part of the public discussion, and it would make a difference.
TR: Let me ask you one broader question because we talk about refugees here, we talk about hospitality and justice. With the bigger issue of how do we open our borders, or how much do we remain a country that isolates and protects. Do we get to totally open borders, or what would you advocate when we look at the bigger issue there?
RS: That’s obviously a very difficult question. I don’t think a biblical framework means that we must have totally open borders, but I also think it’s the case that there’s no biblical justification for saying that the people in one particular geographic area—which happens as we know, to be very beneficial and bountiful in the US—that we’ve got all the right to all that wealth and abundance just to keep for ourselves, and not to share with people in other places. That contradicts any kind of biblical teaching from Jesus that we’re supposed to love our neighbor, and the neighbor is anybody in need, not just one’s own ethnic or religious group.
So at the very least it seems to me a biblical understanding of nations is that yes, the people in that nation have worked together and they’ve created wealth, and it’s right to think that to some extent, some significant extent, they have a right to enjoy that. But it’s also true that, the US is an example, that we’ve created a lot of wealth because we had enormous abundant resources—land and favorable climate and all kinds of natural resources—and furthermore, we benefited from trade relations with other parts of the world. Sometimes those trade relations weren’t even particularly fair and they’ve benefited us in a way that they didn’t help poor people. So some of our wealth has come to us because of unfair trade relations, although that’s another complex topic.
So in basic summary, what I’m trying to say is I think it’s a crucial biblical theme to say that for Christians, everybody in need is one’s neighbor. And that means that we ought to be always pushing our nation to be generous, to use our abundant resources, to empower poor people around the world, to feed refugees and make things better for them.
I mean, just one more very concrete example: the United Nations refugee program is telling us that they have I think it’s less than fifty percent of the money they need right now to feed the refugees that they’re trying to care for. I mean, it would be no problem at all for the US to say, “We’ll give another five billion this year so that we can feed and care in a decent way for the refugees in Jordan and Lebanon and in Turkey, some of whom are flooding into Europe in a way that creates problems. At the very least we ought to immediately provide generous funding for both governmental programs like the UN refugee program and private agencies. Christians should give vastly new sums to programs of evangelical and other Christian agencies that are working with the refugees in those parts of the world.
So one thing to do immediately is a lot more funding for the refugees who are fleeing Syria and Iraq but living in surrounding countries in desperate kinds of circumstances.
TR: That’s an interesting point because some of the people I’ve heard speaking to this have said, “Can’t we help without having to extend hospitality?” And I hear you saying, not one or the other, but we need to do both of these.
RS: And one other comment: it’s just fundamentally un-American and un-Christian to say we should take in Christian refugees but not other refugees. It’s contrary to the first amendment, to the whole approach of this country to be a welcoming place for people of all faiths. That’s not to say that there are not specific circumstances at particular moments in time where a particular group of people are being so mistreated that it’s appropriate for us to have a special concern and activity for them.
We’ve done that sometimes in our history. The group of Sahidis, they were being mistreated in a very special kind of way, and it’s not wrong to say we’ll have a special concern, special category for them. That’s not because they’re that religious group. It’s because they’re in a special circumstance of enormous mistreatment and danger. But to say that, “Okay, it’s safe, and we’ll welcome Christians, but not Muslims,” is just tragically wrongheaded.
And it’s really sad when we have prominent evangelical leaders who make sweeping statements about Islam as an evil religion. I think there are significant parts of Islam that are finally wrong. But it’s certainly not true that there are no good parts of Islam, and it’s certainly not true that all Muslims are terrorists, the way some people imply, although hardly anybody is that crude to say it directly.
And it’s desperately urgent that Christians, especially evangelical Christians at this point in time, reach out and get to know Muslims better. Now it’s true that ISIS and related kinds of groups are a dangerous threat to the world. That kind of terrorism grounded in a very wrongheaded, finally un-Muslim view of Islam is a real threat in the world. But almost all of our political leaders acknowledge that long-term you’re not going to defeat that primarily with arms. You’ve got to defeat it in the level of ideas, the level of economic development, the level of hope for the young people in those countries that can’t find a job and in desperation turn to violent terrorist groups. And that means that we need to get to know Muslims in this country one-on-one.
That means we need to have our Christian agencies doing better economic development in poor Muslim countries. It means that in all kinds of ways, Christians need to have a much better understanding and relationship with Muslims than we do at this point in time.
TR: I’m going to underscore that again, you said it’s desperately important that evangelicals today get to know Muslim believers. I think that’s a great point to end on. I know we’re out of time here. I just want to thank you again for your time today, Dr. Sider.
I commend again to anyone watching or listening to this some of Dr. Sider’s books. You can find a number of them on Amazon. Most recently again, some issues related to justice: The Early Church on Killing and Nonviolent Action. I hope you might have a chance to pick up one of those up.
I’ll post more of these interviews in the future. To make sure you don’t miss one, click here to subscribe to my blog updates list.