Probability in Moral Calculations of Refugees and Conversion

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I gave this post a perhaps-inadvisably dry title because the abstract moral debate is more important to me (with a long-term view) than the specifics of a temporary policy controversy, however important it may be.  In continuation of my earlier point that very few people are absolutists on the matter of Syrian refugees, I’d further argue that almost nobody is taking a position either intentionally to harm the refugees or out of pure irrational fear or loathing.

It may be an effective way to shut down a discussion and not have to consider other people’s opinions, but it’s not fair to assume that people who disagree with a specific proposal for handling a humanitarian and national security crisis are doing so without consideration or good motives.  More accurate (and certainly more charitable) would be the understanding that those who oppose a large increase in the number of refugees accepted from a dangerous part of the world — almost all of whom are coreligionists with the terrorist groups bringing death around the globe — oppose that increase in order to protect other people.

We can argue about process and theology and experience, but much of the disagreement on the Syrian refugees isn’t even a matter of principle; it’s a matter of our understanding of likelihood.

Take an example with completely made-up numbers.  Say we knew that 1 out of every 100 refugees would be a jihadist, and imagine we knew for a certainty that 1 out of every 100 of them would successfully kill an American citizen within our borders.  Under those odds, a refugee program accepting 10,000 people would be guaranteed to kill one American citizen.

Let me restate: I’m offering this not to suggest that we should halt any Syrian refugee acceptance until we can guarantee the safety of the program with 100% certainty.  Rather, I’m trying to edge into the moral framework in which we should be having this discussion.

In large part because of the cynical political manipulation inherent in our social-media society, many of those who are most visible in public debates seem to make moral proclamations on just the visible surface of an issue.  Yeah, sure, looking at a group of people whose lives have been thrown into turmoil by radicals’ holy war, the moral action is to help those who want out to get out.  If we could guarantee they wouldn’t hurt anybody else, it would even be the moral thing to do to save those who might want to do us harm.

But the definition of our humanity — the thing that makes us of especial value to God, the thing that makes us truly moral agents, rather than instinct-driven animals — is that we can look beyond the visible surface.  Even deer know to run when they see a threat, and even deer will raise their tails as a warning to others as they do so.  If Facebook videos are to be believed, even turtles will help other turtles back onto their feet if they’ve been flipped.  Human beings can see the real need of Syrian refugees and gauge that against the needs of those whom they’ll affect in ways large and small.  (This is why, for example, part of our moral calculation is the ability of a local community and economy to absorb refugees.)

I wouldn’t presume to guess the probability, but somewhere in the chain of plausible futures following this moment is a course of events wherein a small group of Syrian refugees manages to pull off a large-scale terrorist attack in the United States, which by its nature has a big effect on the American psyche and creates an irresistible demand for war and results in the complete destruction of the Middle East.  Moral decisions should, to the best of our ability, measure magnitude and likelihood from the surface down as deep as we’re able to conceive.

And it isn’t just the possible outcomes of a particular decision that we have to consider, but also the alternatives.  If admitting 10,000 Syrian refugees would be guaranteed to result in the death of some number of Americans, the choice isn’t between disregarding the refugees or killing the Americans.  Bringing the refugees a third of the way around the world isn’t the only way to help them.  If it costs an average of $65,000 over five years to support a refugee in the United States (not including the cost of processing them and transporting them here), that’s $650 million for 10,000 of them.  That amount of money would open quite a number of options within the Middle East, itself.

Even that isn’t the end of a truly moral consideration.  Different refugees face different risks.  As Mark Steyn puts strikingly well, Christians in the Muslim regions face particular risk:

In Syria and Iraq, in less than two years, the oldest Christian communities on earth have been entirely eradicated – every Christian male is dead or fled, and their prepubescent daughters are now rape slaves for the sexual inadequates of ISIS. So, whether they’re “more worthy of protection”, those Christians could certainly have used a little of it.

He goes on to refer to just one of the incidents in which Muslim refugees ensured that Christian refugees didn’t survive the trip.  We don’t like to differentiate between people by religion, but even as an objective measure, treating religion merely as a character trait, we again must balance probability in our moral judgments.  If the United States is going to transport 10,000 of the millions of people who want to escape that distant part of the world, one could at least make the case that we should first help those who are least likely to find safety by some other means.

To the contrary, look where we are in our society:  Leaders of Christian churches and organizations are joining with advocates for a large-scale refugee process that does not “discriminate” on the basis of religion, even though their own fellow Christians face greater risk if not helped, while all of the Middle Eastern terrorists who constitute a domestic threat are Muslims.

Let me moderate again: That doesn’t mean that only Christian refugees should be accepted.  I’m merely pointing out how murky are the moral waters.  How did it become morally imperative for American Christians to back a hostile (arguably anti-Christian) American government as it transports Muslims across the world, at some future risk and certain cost to Americans, while leaving Christians behind to be massacred and thrown off of refugee boats of last resort?

Even apart from the matter of worldly violence, how does that position serve our obligation to bring people to salvation in Jesus Christ?  Is it really an effective message for conversion into our community that becoming Christian will win you the favor of Jesus in the next life, but that it won’t gain you any special assistance from His body of believers in this life and, in fact, we’ll actively ignore the greater risk that your conversion to our faith creates?

ADDENDUM (1:42 p.m. 11/22/15):

I don’t want to be flip about this, but we’re entering a time of such clarity, it seems to me, that it has to be pointed out.  In the recent attack on the Radisson Hotel in Mali, the terrorists appear to have showed mercy to those who managed to recite passages from the Koran.  In the West, Christians and secularists are insisting that they will not discriminate in a way that might give non-Muslims (mostly Christians) an advantage in avoiding such situations.  At the same time, they’re dismissing concerns that they’re making it more likely that Christians might face such situations within the United States, as they did in Oregon.  One needn’t support ending the refugee program to see that something needs reevaluation, in that approach.



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