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No Excuses, No Exceptions: the Moral Imperative to Offer Refuge

It is a basic tenet of philosophy, known as Kant’s categorical imperative, that you can decide the morality or immorality of a particular course of action by applying the following test: Could the path you propose for yourself be accepted as a universal law for all?

That is, if everyone else did what you propose to do, what would the world look like?  Is the world that would come into being as a result one that we can accept? Or would such a world be an untenable disaster?

If we can accept our particular course of action being made into a universal law, then said course of action may be considered morally legitimate.  But if such a world does not meet this test, then one’s proposed course of action must be considered as wrong. Categorically, absolutely, morally wrong. No matter what it’s short term or material benefits may appear to be for us personally.  No excuses.

Applying this basic principle to emerging American governmental responses to the Syrian refugee crisis, a penetrating truth quickly comes into view.  One that we should take to heart.

The US congress has voted with a near super-majority–49 Democrats joining the Republican chorus–to halt American acceptance of refugees from Syria. To be clear, while not technically a “ban,” the bill passed in the House of Representatives places such cumbersome and stringent requirements on the application for resettlement as to amount one, extending to the vanishing point a process that already is reported to be much more protracted than security, or basic decency, demands.

At the local level, more than half of the US governors, including Gov. Charlie Baker here in my ‘liberal’ home-state of Massachusetts, have vowed in one form or another to discontinue existing plans to assist and resettle refugees from Syria.  (A note of hope: Just last night here in Boston over a thousand Massachusetts residents rallied at the Statehouse to protest Baker’s announcement and to declare our state a welcome destination for refugees in need.)

Technicalities to one side, this anti-refugee movement amounts to a flat refusal to admit people from Syria to this country, despite their desperate need.

Let us apply the test of Kant’s categorical imperative.  Let us ask:  What would result if all others responded to the present situation in a similar way?  If all other states across the world similarly closed their borders, or put in place such stringent and protracted processes of ‘vetting,’ deferring, and delaying as to make the practical achievement of refugee resettlement impossible?  What would it mean to make it impossible for the tens even hundreds of thousands of Syrian people fleeing a bloody civil war to achieve refuge within, say, the next five years or longer?  To bar these people not just from entering the United States, but from entering or from settling *anywhere.*

Such a stance would amount to saying, basically:  Let these people fend for themselves.   Let them suffer. Let them sink into the mud of ramshackle refugee camps.  Let them be crushed and flayed against iron fences and razor wire.  Let them be swallowed by the seas.   Let them starve where they squat.  These families, these children–let them perish. Let them cease to exist, non-persons, subject to slow suffocation by the state, not to mention, to the pogroms of xenophobic backlash mobs. Let them die.

Are we willing to accept this, America?  To accept a world where those in need, those driven by violence, destruction, and poverty to seek refuge hundreds or thousands miles from home are simply left to rot and to die? Where such people are excluded from the rest of humanity by states swinging steel doors shut?

Forget, for the moment, that the very existence of this flood-tide of refugees is in part a result of US policies that have racked the Middle East for decades, and especially since the US invasion of Iraq in 2003.  Forget that American bombs, tanks, and aid to psychopathic ‘insurgents’  has helped to create and to exacerabte the crisis in Syria and beyond.  Forget all of that, for the moment–though we must never forget it.

Are we willing, America, to accept a world where those in desperate need are left to die, simply because they are from a country where a violent political movement (one of so many thriving now across this world on fire) has influence?  Because they are from the Middle East?  Because they are Arab and/or Muslim?  Are we willing to accept and to help perpetuate what–generalized–amounts to genocide?

Amidst the anti-refugee backlash, some Americans have suggested we might at least make an exception to this cruel new rule that they insist we impose: “proven Christians” should be given privileges, should be allowed to enter, even from Syria. Courting international opinion with a more liberal line, Barack Obama has called this suggestion “offensive,” and “un-American.” And he has a point.

But let’s take these “Christians” seriously, for a moment.  Let us, in closing, consider one more basic moral principle, this one attributed not to Kant–who no doubt, as a philosopher, may be suspected of un-american intellectualism–but to Jesus, whom I have heard is worshipped as a holy figure in the religion of Christians.

In the book of Matthew (25:45) Jesus accuses a group of people of having failed to take care of him when he was in need.  Flabbergasted, the people  then ask:  “Lord, when did we see You hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not take care of You?’ 45” .  Jesus replies, “Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.”  (Matthew 25: 45).

To the extent that you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.

Here we see that the supposed lord god of Christians had his own universal moral imperative:  Treat the vulnerable among you as you would treat the son of god.  How you have treated (and failed to treat) the hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, imprisoned, this is how you treated Him.

Jesus provides no exception.  He does not add, “unless you suspect them of terrorism” or “unless your xenophobia makes them look scary to you.”  He says rather:  How you treat the Syrian refugees (or other immigrants and refugees in need), that is how you have treated Me. You will be judged by how you treat the least amongst you.

If Kant asks us to reflect on our treatment of a particular situation or person in terms of the potential generalizing of our actions, Jesus demands that we see the particular people who stand before us as themselves representatives of the sacred.  If Kant would have us contemplate the hell on earth that would result from our own actions becoming the general law, Jesus here suggests that we treat each human being who comes before us in the light of our own judgment.  That we treat the least among us not just as we would have them treat us, but as we would treat god, the being that will judge us eternally.

Some who claim to be christian have suggested that we make refugees prove they are christian in order to gain access to resettlement in the USA.

I propose we turn this demand around:  Let these gate-keepers prove themselves to be christian.

Or else let them be judged as hypocrites and imposters.  Let their megaphone-tongues be stripped from them, and their profane gates torn back down to earth, which knows no borders.

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Joseph G. Ramsey is an activist and writer living in Boston. He is a contributing editor at Red Wedge, a co-editor at Cultural Logic: an electronic journal of Marxist theory and practice, and a contributing board member at Socialism and Democracy.

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