By / Mar 17

What is the Syrian refugee crisis?

For the past five years, Syria has been in a civil war that has forced 11 million people — half the country’s pre-crisis population — to flee their homes. About 7.6 million Syrians have been internally displaced within the country and four million have fled Syria for other countries. The result is one of the largest forced migrations since World War Two.

Are all the refugees fleeing Islamic State (ISIS)?

Not necessarily. The crisis is mostly caused by the civil war in Syria. In 2011, during the Middle Eastern protest movement known as the Arab Spring, protesters in Syria demanded the end of Ba’ath Party rule and the resignation of President Bashar al-Assad, whose family has held the presidency in the country since 1971. In April 2011, the Syrian Army was sent to quell the protest and soldiers opened fire on demonstrators. After months of military sieges, the protests evolved into an armed rebellion and has spread across the country.

Although the conflict was originally between factions for and against President Assad, the civil war has broadened into a battle between the country’s Sunni majority against the president’s Shia Alawite sect. The conflict has drawn in neighboring countries and world powers and lead to the rise of jihadist groups, including Islamic State. (See this explainer for more on the Syrian civil war.)

What makes a person a “refugee”?

U.S. and international law define a refugee as a person who has left his country of nationality or residence and who is unable to return due to a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.

In order for a person to be granted asylum or “refugee status,” a person must be able to prove that a well-founded fear of persecution is the reason he left his home country.

The U.S. government defines refugee as any person who is outside any country of such person’s nationality or, in the case of a person having no nationality, is outside any country in which such person last habitually resided, and who is unable or unwilling to return to, and is unable or unwilling to avail himself or herself of the protection of, that country because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.

What is the U.S. doing about the refugee crisis?

Since the start of the conflict, the U.S. has admitted approximately 2,100 refugees from Syria. At a press briefing on September 10, 2015, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters that the Obama administration is making plans to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees in the next budget year, fiscal year 2016. (There is currently a cap which limits the number of refugee visas the U.S. can issue of 70,000 refugee visas a year that U.S. officials can issue for all countries.)

What is the screening process for refugees?

Every refugee goes through an intensive vetting process, notes Time magazine, but the precautions are increased for Syrians. According to Time:

Multiple law enforcement, intelligence and security agencies perform “the most rigorous screening of any traveler to the U.S.,” says a senior administration official. Among the agencies involved are the State Department, the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Center, the Department of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security. A DHS officer conducts in-person interviews with every applicant. Biometric information such as fingerprints are collected and matched against criminal databases. Biographical information such as past visa applications are scrutinized to ensure the applicant’s story coheres.

How many of the refugees admitted to the U.S. are Christian? Are Muslim?

According to an analysis by CNS News, of 2,184 Syrian refugees admitted into the U.S. since the Syrian civil war erupted in 2011, only 53 (2.4 percent) have been Christians while 2098 (or 96 percent) are Muslims. The remaining 33 include one Yazidi, eight Jehovah Witnesses, two Baha’i, six Zoroastrians, six of “other religion,” seven of “no religion,” and three atheists.

Why do some lawmakers want to suspend the Syrian refugee program?

Last November, Congressional Republicans, including House Speaker Paul Ryan, said there were grave reasons to fear that terrorists would be permitted to enter the country posing as refugees, according to the New York Times.

At the time, the House passed a bill that would block Syrian and Iraqi refugees from entering the country unless they pass strict background checks. The measure passed with the support of 47 Democrats and almost all House Republicans. When the bill went to the Senate in January it was blocked by the Democrats. Senators voted 55-43 to advance the bill, falling five votes short of the 60 needed. (President Obama had also vowed to veto the legislation if it passed.)

Who is in charge of the resettling refugees into the U.S.?

The Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) is the federal government agency charged with providing benefits and services to assist the resettlement and local integration of refugee populations. The ORR often works closely with non-governmental organizations, such as World Relief, in the relocation of refugees. Some of the ORR programs include Refugee Cash Assistance and Refugee Medical Assistance (for up to 8 months); Refugee Social Services, such as job and language training (for up to five years); and temporary custody and care to unaccompanied refugee children.

The 27 states whose governors have said they will not accept Syrian refugees are: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Wisconsin.

Can governors refuse to accept refugees in their state?

Not exactly. According to the Refugee Act of 1980, resettlement efforts coordinated by the federal government “should be conducted in close cooperation and advance consultation with State and local governments” and “meet with representatives of State and local governments to plan and coordinate in advance of their arrival the appropriate placement of refugees among the various States and localities.”

Additionally, the law says, “With respect to the location of placement of refugees within a State, the Federal agency administering subsection (b)(1) shall, consistent with such policies and strategies and to the maximum extent possible, take into account recommendations of the State.”

So while the state and local governments can refuse to cooperate with the federal government, they can’t expressly forbid refugees from being allowed into their states.

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

By / Dec 4

For the second time in as many weeks I was within miles of a possible terrorist threat.  On November 21, when I and thousands of my colleagues were gathered in Atlanta, Georgia, for the annual academic conferences in biblical and religious studies, we received word that there was a rumored ISIS threat against the Philips Arena, just blocks away from where the conferences were being held. As it turns out, there was no credible information that corroborated the rumors and thankfully nothing came of it. So I don’t want to overdramatize this. I was never in imminent danger. But once you allow yourself to think through the possibilities of being in a city under attack, the scare is still there. I know I felt it, especially as I hung up the phone that night after speaking with my wife and children, who were thousands of miles away back home. What if the threat is real? What if what happened in Paris just days earlier happens here as well? What if something happens to me? What if this is the last time that I speak to my family in this life?

Unfortunately, the threat that confronted those in the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino, California, this week was no mere rumor. No matter how officials end up classifying the motives of the shooters, the horror that they unleashed was all too real for the victims and their families. I heard about the shootings from my office in Riverside, which is just about 15 miles away from San Bernardino.  When I heard that the killers were still on the loose, I followed my instincts and headed straight home to be with my family. A co-worker’s heart sank when he heard the report because his wife works in San Bernardino, but he was relieved to discover that the shootings weren’t near where she works. The rest of my day was pretty much gone, as I was glued to Twitter and the television waiting for more news on the manhunt.

Again, I don’t want to overdramatize my own experiences here.  The victims and their families deserve our undiluted sympathy. In fact, if you are reading this, I would urge you to stop and pray for them right now. At the time that I am writing this, the death toll is 14, and the police are saying that a total of 21 were wounded in the attack. Pray that God would grant his grace and peace to these grieving families. And pray for those who would perpetrate these kinds of horrendous acts that they would be delivered from the power of Satan and brought into the kingdom of God’s beloved Son. Religious groups in our area have organized prayer vigils to remember those who have died. My own church home group took some time last night to pray for the victims and their families, for justice for the perpetrators, and for the safety of our community. Prayer is not an excuse for inaction but neither is it a pawn in some political debate. As followers of Christ, we know that prayer is the very heartbeat of our lives coram Deo, and that it is our duty to pray, “Thy will be done,” even in the face of death and great evil (Matt. 6:10; 26:42).

But I share my experiences here because I think they are indicative of an increasingly common state of mind in our culture. We are terrorized by violence.  Mass shootings and terrorist acts seem more frequent, more imminent, and more immanent—that is closer to where we live and work and play.  We are beginning to experience in some measure the kinds of violent threats faced by millions worldwide, including millions of our brothers and sisters in Christ. The illusion of safety and security in our own backyards is being exposed. We are all one lone gunman or one sleeper cell or one crazed couple away from a violent death. And even if the vast majority of us escape a violent death, none of us will escape death itself. Its certainty looms not merely as the punchline of some clichéd joke (death and taxes, am I right?), but as an existential threat to each of us and to each of our friends, neighbors, and family members.

So what is the solution? Well, many solutions to gun violence and terrorism will be offered in the coming days. We will debate gun laws, no-fly lists, security measures, surveillance, and so on. Christians need to be vigorously and thoughtfully engaged in all of these debates.  Right prayer is always accompanied by right action in a biblical ethic (see Nehemiah, for example). We ought to debate these matters charitably, knowing that people of goodwill often reach different conclusions about the most effective solutions to the problems we face. But we also should debate these things knowing that the ultimate solution to violence—indeed, the ultimate solution to death itself—lies beyond the power of political machinations. This is not defeatism or quietism; far from it. Instead, it is a kind of eschatological triumphalism. As believers in Christ, we know that death’s days are numbered. Its back was broken one Sunday morning in a garden tomb near Jerusalem. And its final death rattle will be heard when the trumpet sounds and the King returns to raise the dead to imperishable life (1 Cor. 15:50-57). And so in the meantime, we work, knowing that our labor is not in vain (1 Cor. 15:58), but we do so in humble dependence upon the God who saves us from terror and makes us immovable for sake of the work he has given us to do.

By / Jul 17

“How could this happen in Chattanooga?”, is the question echoing from many of the residents of our city. Chattanooga is mere weeks off from being voted “Best Outdoor City 2015” by Outside Magazine. The Matador Network, the world’s largest independent travel publisher, ranks it 12 in the top 20 towns to visit in the US. Chattanooga was found to be the most Bible-minded city by Time Magazine in January of last year. Our city is in the national news again today, though for much different reasons, a much more tragic reason.

Our community is mourning the loss of four marines who served our country by preserving the freedoms we have as Americans. They would lose their lives not in combat on foreign soil, but in their homeland serving stateside. My heart goes out to the grief-stricken families whose lives were turned upside down. What was supposed to be a routine day at the office turned into a nightmare. Many are asking questions like: “Why did this happen?”, “Where is God?”,  and “How should we respond?” The natural tendency is to want to retaliate; it is the way we are wired. But is that the proper response for born-again believers?

Remember: tumultuous times are reminders that this earth is not our home—that the land in which we live is a fallen world riddled with sin and evil. The longer we settle into this foreign land, the easier it becomes to forget that our citizenship is from another world. We are citizens of heaven, but green card holders on earth. Joseph Stowall reminds us, “We think that we are in the land of the living going to the land of the dying, when in reality, we are in the land of the dying headed for the land of the living.”[i] This world is not our home.​

While under house arrest in Rome, Paul encouraged the believers at Philippi with these words: “Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us. For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself” (Phil. 3:17-21). As we wait for Christ’s return, we must understand that our beliefs will garner alienation and estrangement.

Since we have been set apart by God in order to live differently, our actions should mimic those of Jesus Christ. He outlined a pattern for living in the Sermon on the Mount that is contrary to the world’s system. With political zealots in His audience at the time of delivery, Jesus offered a counter-cultural proposition for those who persecute us: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 5:43-45).

We absolutely need grace in order to extend Christ-like love to those who attack us. Just keep in mind that when we extend this agape affection to our enemies, we reveal our adoption as sons and daughters of God in heaven, as Jesus previously stated.

Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez committed an unthinkable crime. He was a picture of the man next door, the coworker in the cubicle next to you, or the classmate across the aisle from you. He is the person you never imagined would execute such an offense. Like every person born in this world, he was a sinner in need of a Savior. His restless heart would never find rest unless he had found rest in Christ. Only Jesus could offer him peace that is unexplainable. Only Jesus could offer him comfort for his troubled temperament. Only Jesus could dissipate the anger in his hardened heart.

On this side of eternity we will never be free from the effects of sin. However, God, in his kindness, provided a solution to our separation from Him through a relationship with his Son Jesus.  

How should we respond?

  • Pray for wisdom for Mayor Andy Burke, Governor Bill Haslam, and Senator Bob Corker as they lead.
  • Pray for the citizens of Chattanooga who are still making sense of the events that have unfolded yesterday.
  • Pray for the families of the four marines who lost their lives. Pray for healing, peace, and comfort in Christ.
  • Pray for the family of Muhammad Youssef Abdulazee, who have lost a son and who will be facing terribly difficult times in the days, months, and years ahead.
  • Pray for God to revive our nation.

We are confronted with the depravity in our country daily. We find ourselves in a predicament of epic proportions: We cannot purchase, plan, elect, talk, or act our way out of the mess we’re in. The only answer is to call upon the God of the universe in prayer for national revival. We desperately need a fresh touch from heaven. As Ronnie Floyd, President of the SBC, often says, “God can do more in a moment than we can do in a lifetime.” We need watchmen on the walls who will pray for God to blow upon the hearts of his people. We need believers who will believe God for revival in this country. We need Christians who will pray biblical prayers for restoration.

Disciple-maker and longtime Navigator participant Dwight Hill offered a prayer for the injustice in the world years ago that is helpful today: “Lord, I am enraged over the injustices of this past week. Coupled with the rage is a deep sense of grief.  My natural instinct is to strike back.  Calm my spirit, measure my steps, heal my wounded heart.  Endow your peace and healing on the families of our fallen brothers and sisters.  Grant our Government the wisdom to respond Biblically to this grave injustice and impending danger. In Jesus’ Name, Amen.”[ii]


[i]Joseph M. Stowell, Eternity: Reclaiming a Passion for What Endures (Grand Rapids: Discovery House, 2006), 7. 

[ii]Bernie Koerselman, Response to Terrorism—A Christian Perspective. [Internet] Accessed 16 July 2015. 

By / Jul 17

I confess. I was speeding just a little bit. When it comes to speeding, the saying I’ve heard is, “Eight you’re great, but nine you’re mine.” I saw the lights and heard the sirens, so I pulled over right after I exited onto Lee Highway.

The policeman wasn’t going after me, though. He circumnavigated my minivan and pulled into the parking lot of the slightly-run-down strip mall. Usually, that lot is where people go to illegally park their cars to avoid airport parking fees, but something different happened on this day.

A terrorist attacked two military recruitment offices. Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez opened fire and murdered four Marines. This act of domestic terrorism has rocked our city. It has rocked our country.

One of the recruiters at the next recruitment office on Abdulazeez’ hit list is a member of the church where I am the pastor. He and his wife called me shortly after the shootings and asked, “What should we do?” I felt led of the Holy Spirit to host a prayer vigil for our city. So, our church family and many others from our community gathered as we lit candles and prayed at length. I addressed five things to remember and for which to pray after seeing terrorism in our town. I hope they’ll help you learn how to address terrorism with a Christian ethic.

1. Avoid nationalism and racism, and ask God to give you concern for your city and country (Jonah 4:10–11)

“Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez” sounds a bit different than “John Doe.” It is obviously a Muslim name. You can tell he is of Middle Eastern descent just by looking at his picture. Most of us recognize that racism is a problem in our country. But a sin that is less discussed is nationalism—the belief that you and your country are better than someone when you compare your country to theirs.  But the danger with comparing yourself with someone else is that it leads to you feel either inferior or superior to someone instead of finding your sufficiency in Christ.

The prophet Jonah saw a revival come to Ninevah, and instead of celebrating of what God did through his ministry, he threw a pity party because people who didn’t look or sound like him received salvation. His bigotry superseded his theology. God concludes the book of Jonah by explaining His merciful heart for the Assyrian people. Let’s learn from Jonah’s mistake, and instead of falling into the temptations of nationalism and racism, ask God to give us concern for the people of our city and our country who come from every tribe, tongue and nation.

2. Ask God to give peace and prosperity to your city and country (Jeremiah 29:7)

Tourism has an $893.3 million economic impact on Chattanooga (Travel Industry Association of America). Needless to say, the idea of loading up the kids and driving to visit the Chattanooga Choo Choo may be a bit hard to swallow considering a terrorist just opened fire here.

Following terroristic activity, it is important to pray for peace and prosperity. I’m theologically conservative, and sometimes my fellow conservative friends get the heebeegeebees at the mention of the word “prosperity.” They automatically associate it with the name-it-and-claim-it vein of theology. That’s not what I’m talking about here. I’m talking about asking God to provide economic health to an otherwise vulnerable situation that could threaten the welfare of our neighbors.

3. Pray for your city to become a place of refuge and rest instead of a place of terror (Psalm 5:11)

I want my city to be a place of refuge and no longer a place of terror. Yesterday, Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam addressed the sadness of the scenic city when he said, “Chattanooga is a great city with a broken heart.” Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke said, “This is a tragic day for our city.” Yes, we have been terrorized. I will not leave my house today with the same carefree attitude as I did the day before. However, it doesn’t have to stay that way. I will pray for this place to become a city of refuge where people can come to find a message of Hope and the rest they long for.

4. Pray for God to use this tragedy to stir up conversations about Jesus (1 Thessalonians 1:9)

The Apostle Paul spoke of the Thessalonians’ proclamation of Jesus to the Macedonians and Achaians, but then it went everywhere, and they received a “warm reception” when talking about Jesus. My prayer is that God would help us in the midst of this tragedy to have a warm reception as we seek to talk about Jesus. After all, this is the kind of time when people start thinking about their own life and death. May God give evangelistic opportunities in the midst of hurting hearts and trembling souls.

5. Pray for revival (Jonah 3:6-10)

Lastly, this tragedy should be a reminder of the need for the Holy Spirit to cause revival to sweep across America and the world. Yes, we need to think through the policy implications that might have prevented an attack like this. Yes, we need to beware of those with associations and fascinations with extreme violence. However, more than anything, we need Jesus. Come, Lord Jesus. Come.