Acton Institute Powerblog

Welcoming the stranger: The dignity and promise of Afghan refugees

(Image credit: Associated Press)

To view our Afghan neighbors as a “cost” or “drain” on American society is to reject their dignity as human persons made in the image of God. […]

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The Taliban has rapidly retaken Afghanistan, just weeks before the final withdrawal of U.S. troops. With the country bracing for another wave of oppression, thousands of Afghans have fled to the airport in Kabul, hoping to escape the return of sectarian violence and tyrannical rule.

Social media was soon filled with shocking videos of the crisis, marked by chaotic scenes of desperate Afghans clinging to American transport planes as they readied for take-off.

“Afghans swarmed over the international airport’s tarmac,” reports the Associated Press. “Some climbed into aircraft parked on the taxiway, while others dangled precariously off a jet bridge. U.S. troops took positions to guard the active runway, but the crowd stormed past them and their armored vehicles. Gunshots rang out.”

In response, political leaders have scrambled to address the obvious next question: If they manage to escape, where will these refugees go?

Outside of some disagreement about how to properly vet incoming Afghans, American lawmakers seem to be in widespread, bipartisan agreement: the U.S. has a moral obligation to accept as many as possible, particularly those who risked their lives to help us.

As Gov. Spencer Cox, R-Utah, recently tweeted, his state “stands ready to welcome refugees from Afghanistan, especially those who valiantly helped our troops over the past 20 years.” The feeling has been shared by many others, Republican and Democrat alike.

But not everyone has been so welcoming.

“The chaos we’re seeing is not an excuse to flood our country with refugees from Afghanistan,” said Rep. Matt Rosendale, R-Mont. A small handful of Republican lawmakers have expressed similar resistance, but for the most part, such sentiment is being spread by leading pundits and influencers from the populist right.

“Is it really our responsibility to welcome thousands of potentially unvetted refugees from Afghanistan?” asked Fox News’ Laura Ingraham on the night of the Kabul airport crisis. “All day we heard phrases like ‘we promised them.’ Well, who did? Did you?”

That same night, Tucker Carlson warned of an “invasion” of Afghan immigrants, who would negatively disrupt American communities and distract us from solving our own problems.

“If history is any guide, and it’s always a guide, we will see many refugees from Afghanistan resettle in our country in the coming months, probably in your neighborhood,” Carlson said. “And over the next decade, that number may swell to the millions. So first we invade, and then we are invaded. It is always the same.”

Meanwhile, Newsmax’s Steve Cortes posted a photo of Afghans crammed inside a U.S. transport plane, using the image to characterize fleeing Afghans as just another of the many “unimaginable costs” of war. “No more,” he said.

Such critics are correct in pointing out the foolhardy nature of America’s war. Whatever one thinks of the necessity of its original mission — to remove the threat to America in the wake of September 11 — it has transformed into an arduous, decades-long struggle compounded by lies, unnecessary violence, fatal conceits, and utopian thinking.

The costs of the war have, indeed, been “unimaginable.” But if, upon looking at an image of fleeing Afghans, our first reaction is to complain about them as being part of those “costs,” we’d do well to get our hearts and minds in order.

One needn’t agree with the cause of the Afghanistan War or approve of the Biden administration’s disastrous handling of our exit to recognize that, amid all the reckless waste of war, the people on this plane represent hope for humanity, and they are worthy of our love and investment. If they happen to land on American soil, they will not be a “cost” to our society or a “threat” to our neighborhoods. They will be a blessing.

As followers of Jesus, we are called to see the image of God in all people, and demonstrate a love that casts out fear (1 John 4:18). As sojourners and exiles on this earth (1 Pet. 2:11), we are called to welcome the stranger, making space for them in our lives and a place for them at our tables. As the rich and well-to-do peering out at the beggars at our gates (Luke 16:19-31), we should be generous in sparing the proper portions of risk, mercy, and grace. In a nation as large and prosperous as ours, we ought to find it easier to err on the side of hospitality.

Further, to view our Afghan neighbor as a “cost” or “drain” on society is to ignore that, across countries and cultures, more humans have led to more abundance, not less. As participants in a culture whose successes are so deeply rooted in the entrepreneurial exploits of immigrants and escapees, we ought to understand the profound value and creative capacity of all humankind, regardless of degree or pedigree or culture of origin.

That’s not to say that these transitions don’t pose challenges or involve sacrifices. Even if we set aside the traumas of war, any transition from a tribal mountain culture to a Western democracy is bound to have bumps. Even still, America’s shining light of liberty has proven to be a hospitable home for countless “huddled masses” before, no matter how “tempest-tost” their histories have been. At The Dispatch, Scott Lincicome offers plenty of data to back this up, noting how refugees (in general) have a strong track record of becoming contributors in American society, and how Afghan refugees (in particular) have thus far been no exception, posing only a miniscule risk of criminality (less than an American citizen).

That’s not to say there isn’t room for disagreement. When it comes to national security, we have a responsibility to protect American citizens and to consider the practical constraints of a free and orderly society – to maintain order and not abuse the levers of power. Indeed, failing to be attentive to such constraints can lead to an imbalance in the opposite direction: Where the innocent are left at the door even as the lawless sneak by. Indeed, it is not only embattled Afghans, but also American citizens, for whom we must ensure a safe exit.

But for those who have such concerns, they should be colored by love, mercy, and hospitality, not political insecurity and fear-mongering about the various cultural effects.

As Russell Moore wrote it in his latest newsletter:

“Most people will not have the power to affect, one way or the other, what happens to imperiled Afghan people. Everyone, though, is vulnerable to seeing heart attitudes toward those peopleor some other groupchanneled into the idolatry of ethnonationalism or hostility toward those who are “foreign” or vulnerable or in need. Asking about the limits of what can be done to help a group of people is one matter. But when you hear yourself asking “Who is my neighbor?” you are in spiritually dangerous territory.

“And when the limbic system is manipulatedfor clicks or viewers or political mobilization or any other reasonone can easily find oneself absorbed into the kind of group identity most sought after right now: the bonds formed around mutual fear or loathing of somebody else.” 

As Christians, we are called to care for the vulnerable, and often, that love is going to come at a cost. Ours is an ethic that relishes in the risk of sacrifice and is willing to deny our security and comfortability, all that but one might find restoration (Luke 15:1-7).

Whatever the prudential merits of barricading against war-torn refugees, and however we choose to respond, hope in human freedom ought to remain at the forefront of our posture, not fear and protectionism. Knowing and accepting the risks, we seek order in the world by starting with a heart of hospitality, acting in accord with a true vision of the God-given dignity and promise of our brothers and sisters, and loving the stranger as Christ loved us.

Whatever one thinks of the struggle in Afghanistan, the people crowding those planes are still people — lovers, creators, and givers made in the image of God. If America is lucky enough to receive them, their arrival is bound to be a blessing.

Joseph Sunde

is an associate editor and writer for the Acton Institute. His work has appeared in venues such as the Foundation for Economic Education, First Things, The Christian Post, The Stream, Intellectual Takeout, Patheos, LifeSiteNews, The City, Charisma News, The Green Room, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work. Joseph resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota with his wife and four children.