Jailbreak: Healing America's Refugee Debate


Editor’s Note: From the beginning, the vision of LIBERATUS has been to challenge our own perspectives, to pursue truth and beauty ourselves from the inside of American politics, and to use this platform as a creative outlet for the people who are desperate to tell a better story on the inside. The point of having a journal is to carry this journey of thought forward through the conversation it entails.Today’s journal reflects that conversation, as each of our journal entries do. As we think about how to bring restoration and abundant life even to a debate on accepting refugees—Syrian or otherwise—we need to see beyond stale divisions and find a deeper knowledge of freedom. As a nation of immigrants, and as a nation whose heartbeat began through a love for liberty over safety, we need a deeper knowledge of liberty.

Today we wrap up our Truth & Beauty series with a journal entry from a current congressional staffer rethinking the way we think about accepting refugees. Our goal here isn’t to take a policy position – doing so would require far more research and a much longer journal than we’ve published today. But what if in our country our hearts begin to overflow with compassion for the world’s tired, poor, and wretched refuse so much that we become more desperate to live in a country that welcomes them, than to live in a country where we are safe from their turmoil?

I think we actually can get there, but we need to see that living free always requires risk. What makes one person’s risk tolerance dangerous, and another’s noble? How can perfect love see the risk and cast out fear regardless? As the writer notes, followers of Jesus have an incredible calling to bring restoration wherever we can—even restoring our debate on refugees from the inside. But even if you’re not a follower, I hope you’ll join the conversation, and consider how we can change the debate to pursue a freedom deeper than anything we have yet imagined. 

-Caleb Paxton, LIBERATUS Founder

 "My plea is that the conversation reflect the complexity of the situation and goes beyond the familiar dichotomies of love versus hate, inclusion versus exclusion, and fear versus compassion." -Kevin DeYoung

Shortly before Thanksgiving, Kevin DeYoung offered one of the most thoughtful perspectives on the Syrian refugee crisis I have yet encountered. In his piece for The Gospel Coalition, DeYoung called on followers of Jesus to move past “the familiar dichotomies of love versus hate, inclusion versus exclusion, and fear versus compassion.” The idealist in me cheered when I read these words, which were a call to make peace with public policy instead of war. How refreshing would it be if those in favor of accepting Syrian refugees and those against it could discuss rather than demean, or listen instead of lying in wait? After all, the Statue of Liberty – a beacon of immigration – and Lady Liberty – a symbol of protection – are not against one another! Surely we can be peacemakers and policymakers simultaneously.

Even so, I’m not naïve. With all due respect to New Year's resolutions, as things stand now this will not happen.

We may publically bemoan Washington’s “brokenness,” but in reality Washington is humming like a Ferrari. Perhaps a prison is a more apt comparison. I observe this every day inside the nation's capital. The very dichotomies DeYoung bemoans sentence everyone inside the machine to the rat race of seeking the crown jewel of daily political success: the precious soundbite. Often, achieving it demands divorcing factoids from frameworks and parading half-truths as fully-clothed positions. Thus we build the walls of our own prison higher and higher.

Under these conditions, recognizing the truth becomes incredibly difficult. I’m embarrassed to admit this, but it took me weeks to actually accept the validity of the statement that “Jesus was a refugee.” And I’m a Christian! Yet my concerns for ISIS exploiting the Syrian refugee crisis blinded me to the simple truth that many observed correctly – because I was afraid.

If I’m honest with myself, I fear “losing the argument” or watching the other side “topple my principles.” And I don’t think I’m the only one. We all know inside that there’s a truer, more beautiful reality for America. Yet the fear of unrequited cooperation paralyzes and imprisons us, reducing public servants to inmates doing time. As Heath Ledger’s Joker tragically muses to Batman in The Dark Knight, “I think you and I are destined to do this forever.”

                        Destined. A curious word.

It smacks of inevitability and perpetuity – but it is an empty threat.

Joker, the self-proclaimed Agent of Chaos, overplays his hand. We are not destined to remain in the reality that is our political culture now. We can write a new story of truth and beauty, where fear and lies do not pervert politics. Dallas Willard once observed, “Your system is perfectly designed to yield the result you are getting” (p. 58), which suggests that we can escape the prison that is Washington if we are willing to think beyond the prisoner’s dilemma and live in true freedom.

This starts with facing our fear of losing an argument. Of being proven wrong.

I think back to my own reaction when FBI Director James Comey warned Congress: “If we don’t know much about [Syrian refugees], there won’t be anything in our data. I can’t sit here and offer anybody an absolute assurance that there’s no risk associated with this.” My imprisoned mentality welcomed this testimony as fodder for the soundbite. A liberated mind, however, would have asked: “Do other nations have data on these refugees? Is there another way to vet them? What exactly is the risk involved, and how credible is it?”

The answers to these questions could potentially reinforce my original concerns, but that misses the point: seeking answers that may threaten my preferred policy position is rooted in humility. How beautiful would it be to see Hill staffers set aside self-interested agendas and seek truth together? We would still view politics through different lenses and work for opposing parties, but neither impedes us from listening to one another.

After all, it is truly unbecoming to pit the Statue of Liberty and Lady Liberty against each other. We value sheltering the oppressed and protecting the American people. Discerning how to prudently operate in light of both and prioritize them in different cases (another journal for another time) is why we came to work in Washington. While I fervently believe there is much honest debate to be had on the matter of Syrian refugees, it can only transpire in the presence of honesty. Once we begin taking steps of humbly questioning our own positions, we open the prison doors. Who’s in?

Weekly Action Item: 

As you encounter expert opinions, studies, or testimonies this week that bolster a position you support, stop and ask yourself a few questions: “Do I trust this person or source? What reasons do they give for agreeing with my position? Are these reasons valid?” This simple exercise will begin to soften our hearts to opposing political viewpoints while seeing potential weaknesses in our own. Even in the event that we agree with our position more than before, the process will have the same effect on our hearts. Let’s be more concerned with examining ourselves than with examining others.

Today's writer is a current Legislative Correspondent in the U.S. Congress.


Photo Credit: Josh Eversole.