The right thing: The moral response to refugees is clear

Volunteers approach a raft overcrowded with migrants and refugees on the Greek island of Lesbos Nov. 17. (CNS photo / Yannis Behrakis, Reuters)

How do I write anything this week that hasn't already been written?

You already know what is on my mind and heart. Paris. Beirut. Baghdad. Syria. Terrorism. Refugees.

Reflections, opinions, tirades, videos, and prayers have been pulsing through the Internet. Although a part of me isn't sure what I really have to add to the conversation, the other part of me knows that, this week, I would not be able to write about anything else.

The pain of the world is in the public eye. It is always there, but, right now, we are keenly aware. Many commentators have posited, and I agree, that it is wrong that it takes a horrific violent event in a place like Paris to remind us that terror is the norm of daily life for many of our brothers and sisters.

I’ve spent some time today trying to better understand the complicated Middle Eastern conflicts. I’m embarrassed that I have had only a general idea of the struggle going on in Syria until recent events compelled me to learn more. I knew that the horrific situation in that country has sent droves of people fleeing as refugees, but the statistics I found are heart-stopping. CNN says that more than 250,000 people have been killed since 2011, and that more than 11 million people in the country of 22 million people have fled their homes. Half of the country’s population. Can any of us really even fathom that? I don’t think so. World Vision says that there are currently 4 million Syrian refugees at large, half of them children, and about 7 million more internally displaced. They say that more than 700,000 Syrians have risked their lives trying to make it to Europe this year. Again, these are shocking numbers that characterize a tragedy impossible to grasp.

I was sitting on the couch in our community room on Monday night, thumbing through the daily news on my phone, when I saw something else quite shocking. Governors across the country had begun to make statements against bringing Syrian refugees to their states. Cincinnati's Mayor John Cranley released a similar statement, just weeks after proclaiming that Cincinnati would work to become the "most immigrant-friendly city in the United States."

I set my phone down at my side, saddened and angry. Even though I know the political statements hold no legal weight, they reveal a disconcerting spirit. How do we go from an outpouring of solidarity with Paris to, in a matter of days, fearfully retracting that compassion from those people most ravaged by acts of terror?

I have heard the arguments, and I get it. Terrorism is, yes, terrifying. The fact that one of the Paris attackers may have arrived to Europe with a wave of Syrian refugees is a disturbing thing that can send the imagination running wild. Suddenly, we see our country overrun with terrorists that we invited in, and we want to protect the ones we love. Although it is completely irrational, and I am passionately for welcoming refugees, there is a tiny place of fear in my heart that still wonders, "Am I naïve? Could it happen?" Fear is human nature.

Rationality should squelch the fear. Our country’s process of vetting refugees has always been stringent, and there has not been a problem in the past. Additionally, it is still unclear if any of the Paris terrorists were, indeed, Syrian refugees; most have been proven to be European citizens.

If rationality doesn't erase the fear, love should. Irrational fear disappears immediately when I drop into my heart space, breathing deep in prayer. I see images of refugees from the news playing over and over in my mind. I see the overcrowded boats coming to shore at Lesbos Island in Greece, children and adults crying, some people kissing the ground, volunteers wrapping the new arrivals in blankets. I see rows and rows and rows and rows of makeshift tents in refugee camps in the desert; I see lines and lines and lines of people waiting for food.

The moral response is clear.

When Pope Francis addressed a joint session of Congress on September 24, one of his most enthusiastically applauded statements was a simple guideline for moral living found in almost every faith tradition, the Golden Rule. We see it in Christian Scripture in Matthew, chapter 7, verse 12: So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you. . . .

In everything. It seems that we are good at teaching this value in small ways. We encourage our young people to treat others as they'd want to be treated. We say to our kids, "Now, how would you feel if so-and-so had done that to you?"

Suddenly, when we zoom out to global instead of personal relationships, we decide that the Golden Rule doesn't apply. This most basic ethical standard disappears as the conversation turns to national security. It is quite troubling.

What would we like done unto ourselves were we in the situation of these millions of refugees? Are we even willing to engage that question? Perhaps we shy away from it because the reality is too startling, and the answer is too clear. Can we imagine living in a country ravaged by violence and unrest, watching people we know and love be senselessly murdered? Can we imagine being so desperate to escape that we're willing to pile into a tiny boat, even with our children, for a six-mile water journey that might take us to safety but that we know has taken others to their death? Can we imagine spending years in a refugee camp, with nowhere to call home and no certain future? Can we imagine getting the news that the major countries of the world might no longer open their doors to people like us?

Like many of the world’s problems, this one feels distant to most United States citizens. We have the luxury of turning off the TV. We live under an illusion that we as a country are untouchable, that we are the "greatest country in the world," that other countries need us but we will never need them. When we consider the expanse of time and history, we are a very young nation to be so smug. I have thought from time to time, what would happen if the world order changed drastically, as it did with the deterioration of the Roman empire many centuries ago. What would happen if the United States fell into an all-encompassing crisis? What if we were forced from our homeland by the thousands? Who would welcome us? Would we be remembered as a country that cared for others, or one that only looked out for its own self-interest? God help us if we ever end up in that position.

I am mostly disappointed in the many Christians speaking out against the resettlement of refugees. It is evidence to me that Christianity in the United States has become lukewarm in too many cases. We profess a faith in the person of Jesus, but do we actually explore what his life was about? How could anyone who has read the Gospel authentically believe that we should resist welcoming war refugees?

The message of Christ is not for the faint of heart. Jesus did not ask us to love our neighbors only when it was convenient. He did not urge us to feed the hungry and welcome the stranger only if we were absolutely, 100 percent-sure that it would be of no risk to us. There is no Scripture passage that records Jesus saying, "Amen, amen, I say to you, protect yourselves above all else! Seek ye first security and comfort. Love only those of your religion as I have loved you. Pray for those who are in need, but, no pressure, don't worry about putting your prayers into action."

No, the radical love that Jesus preached and lived should make us squirm. If we claim to be his disciples, we, too, are called to radical love.

It struck me that the knee-jerk anti-refugee resettlement statements from U.S. politicians came on Monday, Nov. 16, the 26th anniversary of the martyrdom of six Jesuits, their housekeeper, and her daughter in El Salvador. It was a time of horrific violence in the Central American country. The Jesuits stood on the side of the poor and the oppressed, speaking out for justice in spite of real danger. They died for their commitment.

And some of us would be cautious to receive suffering families into our cities? In my mind, it would be a true privilege to welcome them, who are Christ among us, and it is only the least we could do.

I wrote this Tuesday, and there’s no telling what may transpire in the coming days. At the moment, I am grateful that our president is unyielding in his decision that we must open our arms to Syrian refugees. I am grateful for the outcry from many citizens who are responding to politicians and urging them to reevaluate. I hope that I can one day look back on this moment in our country’s history with pride, knowing that we did the right thing.

[Tracy Kemme is a Sister of Charity of Cincinnati. Author of the blog, Diary of a Sister-in-Training, Tracy is excited about the future of religious life! She currently ministers at the Catholic Social Action Office in Cincinnati and as the Latino Ministry Coordinator at a local parish.]