Muslim Refugees and Joe Biden’s Crucifix

By: Matthew Kaemingk

December 7, 2020

Rethinking Religion and U.S. Refugee Resettlement

“Syria’s refugees don’t belong in America.” The differences between Syria and America are just too deep. Be those differences religious or racial, linguistic or cultural, sexual or political, American resistance to refugees from Syria and other Muslim nations has a lot to do with the politics of deep difference. They’re not simply “refugees”—they’re “Muslim” refugees, “Arab” refugees, “fundamentalist” refugees, and “radical” refugees.

The debate, therefore, is not simply “should America welcome refugees?” It is, instead, “should America welcome deep difference—difference that might challenge, contest, and discomfort our way of life?”

For years now, America’s political debate over refugees has been in a state of total rhetorical gridlock. On the right, resistance to Muslim refugees is largely framed by the language of financial constraints, cultural cohesion, and security fears. On the left, openness to Muslim refugees is often framed with the language of inclusion and tolerance, political compassion, and cultural diversity.

If the country were a house, the right would be talking about the need for high walls to keep America safe and secure from the dangerous difference lurking just outside. The left, meanwhile, would be talking about the need for open doors to welcome the beautiful difference waiting just outside. One side frames refugee difference as a threat, the other frames it as an opportunity.

As the right and the left shout past one another about the relative importance of high walls and open doors, beleaguered Muslim refugees sit outside the American house, waiting and suffering. 

​High Walls, Open Doors

On January 20, Joe Biden will become the second Roman Catholic president in the nation’s history. On that day he will need to take up a leadership position in this national fight over refugees. 

If Biden hopes to accomplish anything, he will need to find a way to move America beyond the rhetorical deadlock of high walls and open doors.

If Biden hopes to accomplish anything, he will need to find a way to move America beyond the rhetorical deadlock of high walls and open doors.

Might he have something new to add to this tired debate? Some resource for discussing how we should deal with deep and sometimes difficult difference?

As a political theologian in the Protestant tradition, I would like to suggest that Joe Biden’s Roman Catholic faith could truly be an asset on the issue of refugees. 

Ever so briefly, I want to suggest that an age-old Catholic symbol might offer an alternative approach. I’m speaking here about the crucifix.

​The Catholic Crucifix

I grew up in a small town outside of Seattle, Washington. My neighborhood contained two private schools—one Catholic, one Protestant. In fact, the two institutions shared the exact same street. Every morning, Catholic and Protestant kids would wake up and walk right past one another on the way to their respective schools. 

As a young Protestant boy, I knew next to nothing about the centuries of philosophical and theological debates that divided our two little schools. I largely assumed that our differences concerned matters of fashion. Their teachers (nuns and priests) wore habits and cassocks, while our teachers wore, what I considered to be, “regular teacher clothes.” While the Catholic kids would often wear a crucifix necklace, the Protestant kids would wear a cross that was empty.

From an early age, I can remember that the sight of the Catholic crucifix haunted and disturbed me. There hanging around their necks was—to me—a vivid and gruesome depiction of a terrible death. The death of someone I cared deeply about. How could these Catholic kids stand to look at the torture of their savior all day long, I wondered? How could they hang such a gut-wrenching scene around their necks, day after day? 

Jesus isn’t on the cross any more, I thought. He is alive. He is victorious. Everything is okay now. Why should those Catholics dwell on that suffering, that horror? Good Friday is over, it is Easter now! 

To my Protestant eyes the Catholic crucifix was dark and depressing, while the Protestant cross was clean, happy, and positive. I much preferred the latter. 

​Cheap Hospitality

The global refugee crisis will be hard to ignore as Joe Biden takes the oath of office. Our second Catholic president will be expected to adopt the traditional Democratic talking points of open doors and inclusion, compassion and diversity.

While I share the left’s desire for a more hospitable, diverse, and tolerant America when it comes to refugee policy, I hope the president remembers the crucifix. Let me explain why.

When it comes to the left’s rhetoric surrounding refugees in particular and immigration in general there are a number of fatal weaknesses. I will reserve myself to focusing on one for today.

Simply put, the left has a tendency to romanticize not only immigration but immigrants themselves. Immigrants and refugees, we are told, will bring nothing to America but a wealth of diverse cultures and ideas, economic energy and innovation. Each one will add to the rich mosaic of the great multicultural experiment that is America. 

Simply put, the left has a tendency to romanticize not only immigration but immigrants themselves.

While the left loves the idea of a multicultural, open, and immigrant nation, the left can sometimes downplay and even dismiss concerns about the on-the-ground challenges and costs that come along with being a nation of immigrants. When it comes to the politics of immigration and refugee policy, the right feeds on the left’s optimism of inclusivity.

​Costly Hospitality

As I grew older, my youthful distaste for the crucifix began to wane. I started to appreciate and even embrace the wisdom of my Roman Catholic neighbors who chose to wear the crucifix. 

To be clear, the crucifix is still a disturbing sight for me. I reckon that it’s supposed to be. 

However, I now see the symbol's value for the Catholics who choose to wear it. This disturbing little necklace reminds its wearer that the love, justice, and hospitality of God—depicted on the cross in flesh and blood—actually cost God something. 

I now see that the little Catholic girls and boys who passed me on the street carried on their chests a daily reminder that words like inclusion and tolerance, compassion and justice are not cheap political slogans—they are costly endeavors. 

For any individual—or nation—called to walk a path of true compassion and hospitality towards deep difference and even enmity, real costs will be involved, real sacrifice, real vulnerability. 

As Joe Biden’s crucifix declares, in the real world, inclusion costs something.

​Remembering the Crucifix

The Syrian refugee crisis was a test for America, a historic opportunity to model American hospitality to the world. We missed that opportunity. We failed that test. 

Democrats are absolutely right. America, at its very best, is a hospitable nation—it is and ought to be a safe home with a door that swings open wide. However, the left’s optimistic rhetoric around the inclusion of deep difference needs to change. The idealistic multiculturalism carries with it the same dangers as my empty Protestant cross. It fails to count the cost.

Five years too late, Joe Biden must now lead America to finally welcome Muslim refugees and asylum seekers. If he remembers his crucifix, our second Catholic president can remind all Americans that hospitality towards deep difference will include difficulties, costs, and challenges. 

If he remembers his crucifix, our second Catholic president can remind all Americans that hospitality towards deep difference will include difficulties, costs, and challenges.

Being truly inclusive towards Muslim refugees in day-to-day life is going to require that on-the-ground American citizens extend a vulnerable hand, sacrifice, and make space for people who are different from them. 

Being a good Catholic, Joe Biden knows that the reason you go to a cathedral is neither for its high walls nor for its open doors. What you go for is the table and the costly hospitality that the table represents. On January 20, Joe Biden’s crucifix will remind him of this. I hope he doesn’t leave it at home.

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