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Round-Table On Refugees: How People Of Faith Are Navigating The Crisis

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

On this issue, we also found ourselves wondering how religious leaders are sorting out the moral and ethical questions related to admitting more Syrian refugees to the West. So we called Russell Moore. He's head of the Ethics and Religious Liberties Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. That's a group that is tasked with addressing policy questions for the country's largest Protestant denomination. Also, Rabbi David Wolpe - he is the senior Rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, which adheres to the conservative tradition of Judaism. And I asked them both if there was a verse from a religious text that's guiding their thinking on this issue. We start with Rabbi Wolpe.

RABBI DAVID WOLPE: I would pick the verse from Deuteronomy that says guard your soul carefully. A soul in Hebrew is nefesh, which can also mean life. On the one hand, you really have to - if you're in a war - and we are functionally in a war - you have to really guard yourself carefully. You can't be heedless of the fact that you have a dangerous and a resourceful enemy. On the other hand, you have to guard the integrity of your soul and what you believe and have a certain amount of faith not only the country but in God that this is part of the mission. Part of the reason that America is born in the world is to demonstrate an openness and a goodness and a compassion that is all too absent. It's part of the reason that I feel every day so blessed that I and so many Jews have found this wonderful haven, and I hope that we can spread that message and that people who come here will find it as inspiring as I think all of us do.

MARTIN: Russell Moore, what about you?

RUSSELL MOORE: Well, I'm drawn to the story that my Lord Jesus told about the man who was beaten on the side of the road, and religious leaders passed by and went to the other side. As Martin Luther King Jr. pointed out, that was probably due to fear. When they saw someone beaten, they were afraid that they would also be attacked. But there was a Samaritan who stopped and cared for him and risked himself to care for him. And I think that's a good word for all of us right now.

MARTIN: So what does that mean?

MOORE: Well, what I don't think should happen is that we should exclude refugees. What I do think we should do is to adequately vet them. And so I think there's legitimate concern when people are saying we want to make sure that we have a secure situation so that we have genuine refugees, that we don't have people smuggled along who are attempting to harm us. That's a legitimate concern. And so I don't paint everyone who's worried here with a kind of xenophobic or racist brush, even though we do have - we do have a great deal of that going on in our rhetoric as well.

MARTIN: Rabbi, what about you? Are you hearing from members of your congregation about this issue, and are you talking to them about it? And what are you saying?

WOLPE: I am, actually. I would echo what the pastor said, although I might use somewhat different language in the sense that the first concession, obligation is to acknowledge that the threat is real and the vigilance has to be very high. But I would say that compassion has to be informed by fear, but it can't be controlled by panic. And that, unfortunately, is a little bit of what's happening now. And as a Jew, this cuts both ways because on the one hand, I'm aware of the fact that Syrian refugees come from a place where the level of anti-Semitism is almost unimaginably high, and so even refugees who don't have designs on doing bad things in the United States still carry with them a viral strain of anti-Semitism that, as a Jew, concerns me very much. On the other hand, I'm also aware of what happened when Jews were - if they were from Germany, they were thought of as spies or were thought of as communists, and boats were turned away and people perished. And so I have this sort of dual agenda of being very careful who we let into this country but also understanding that this is a country of immigrants, always has been. And it's unseemly and unethical for all these immigrants to say now that we're here and we're doing well, we're going to pull up the ladder from behind us and not let other people who are suffering in terror, fleeing, oppressed come in and join us.

MARTIN: Russell Moore, that raises a question for me about what is the kind of moral and ethical hierarchy at work here? I mean, often - we are often called upon to balance competing ethical claims, right?

MOORE: Right, right.

MARTIN: So which one should prevail here, in your opinion?

MOORE: Well, I think we keep them in tension. Some of the rhetoric that's being used right now about giving ID badges to Muslim-American citizens or shutting down mosques, I mean, this sort of language is not an American value. And...

MARTIN: Well, let me stop you there though...

MOORE: ...It's really very scary.

MARTIN: ...Because some of the people who are using that rhetoric are people who see themselves as allied with your organization's values. I mean, it just is not a secret that many people who kind of identify with the evangelical tradition in the United States tend to be very attracted to the Republican Party right now for all kinds of reasons.

MOORE: Right.

MARTIN: So what do you do?

MOORE: Well, before we're Americans, we're Christians. And so we have to be informed by a certain moral sense, which means that we need to speak up for moral principle and for gospel principle regardless of who that offends. And so we have to be the people who stand up and say look, vigilance is good and prudence is good. But a kind of irrational fear that leads itself to demagogic rhetoric is something that we have to say no - no, we're not going to go there.

WOLPE: This is Rabbi Wolpe. Part of what this whole question is about is the extent to which we want to distinguish ourselves ideologically from those who hate us. And we are not naive, but at the same time, we really do believe in freedom. It is not just a rhetoric here. And the values that you deeply believe in, you take some risks for. That's part of what it means to believe in a value. And of course, it's easy to stand for your values at a time that everybody agrees with them and poses no risk, but this isn't that time.

MARTIN: Rabbi, what do you see as your role right now?

WOLPE: I see the role of a rabbi or a pastor in general sort of like the role of a quarterback who throws the ball a little bit ahead of the receiver - that is you want to make people run just a bit to catch up to the message that you offer.

MARTIN: That's Rabbi David Wolpe. He leads the Sinai Temple in Los Angeles. Also with us, Russell Moore, he leads the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission for the Southern Baptist Convention. And I do want to mention for those who are interested that we spoke with Rabbi Wolpe in advance of the Sabbath. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

WOLPE: Thank you.

MOORE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.