What The Indian Removal Act of 1830 Can Teach Us About The Syrian Refugees

Millions of refugees from Syria are flooding Europe and tens of thousands are potentially headed to the United States. Concerns over terrorists posing as refugees to gain access to western countries has reached a fevered pitch, especially in light of the horrific attacks in Paris, France last week. Even the FBI director has said that we aren’t able to vet these people to know who is safe and who isn’t. And so the question has become whether or not to allow any Syrian refugees into our country for fear that we may be letting terrorists in.

Social media is currently awash with Christians making posts and linking to articles that show us how the Bible tells us to take care of the poor and oppressed. While I don’t disagree with these sentiments, whether or not Syrian refugees are allowed into this country has nothing to do with Christianity. Our government has consistently demonstrated that it doesn’t care about the Christian world view when it comes to policy decisions.

A good example of this is the Indian Removal Act of 1830. Christian missionaries living among the Cherokee people protested President Andrew Jackson’s plan to remove the Indians to land west of the Mississippi river.  The most famous opponent was Jeremiah Evarts who worked tirelessly to fight Indian removal but ultimately died of tuberculosis in 1831. And with him died the hope of stopping President Jackson.

Looking back at that time in American history, President Jackson’s efforts to remove the Indians is universally condemned. Jackson’s own correspondence shows that he struggled with the moral implications of his actions. But for Jackson, the decision came down to one of national security and not morality.

At the age of 14, Andrew Jackson became an orphan. His father had died just before he was born and his brothers died in the Revolutionary War while Jackson’s mother succumbed to illness while treating wounded soldiers. Jackson had seen many Native American tribes side with the British in the Revolutionary War.

In the War of 1812, once again many Native tribes sided with the British and Creek Indians massacred a settlement of whites near Jackson’s home in Tennessee. He had become a Major General in the Tennessee militia and was tasked with leading a force to subdue the Creek Indians. After that success he became a Major General of U.S Volunteers and traveled south to defend New Orleans and that is where his national notoriety took hold after his major victory at the Battle of New Orleans.

So how is this relevant to the question of Indian removal and Syrian Refugees? President Jackson was a product of his time. He saw in Native tribes side with Great Britain in the Revolutionary War and again in 1812 he witnessed the same thing but in his home state of Tennessee. To the south in Florida he saw the Seminole Indians side with the French/Spanish against the United States. In Jackson’s mind, the Native Americans represented a national security risk by allowing them to stay so close to white settlements. He had seen how, given the opportunity, Native Americans would more often than not take up arms against the United States. And so, 20 years later President Jackson used his power to remove them.

Southern plantation owners may have pushed for Indian removal because they wanted their land and Christian missionaries fought against it on moral grounds. But President Jackson made his decision based on what he perceived to be a national security risk that was based on the world view that his life experience had created.

Similarly, Americans here in the 21st century have had our worldview shaped by the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001. The deep scars left on our nation from that day have and will continue to shape this era of American history. Those attacks carried out by Muslim terrorists were not the first nor last time that Muslims have attacked this country, it was just the most successful and spectacular in scope. In fact, the first attacks by Muslims against Americans dates all the way back to the late 18th century when Muslim pirates would attack American merchant ships and enslave the crew.

The point is that our history of coming under attack from Muslim terrorists has shaped our collective world view to be wary of people coming from Muslim regions of the world. Just like President Andrew Jackson and many of his contemporaries did not trust the Native Americans because of the actions of a few tribes, we live in a world where we’ve been given many examples of some Muslims who will kill without remorse anyone who is not Muslim. Is it an admirable worldview? History will probably say it isn’t but we are a product of our times.

Ultimately, the number of Syrian refugees that enter this country will be decided by a secular government headed by people who care very little for Biblical principles. It will be a decision that is based on national security risk and political expediency and not at all about Christian moral sensibilities. And what is the Christian’s responsibility in this? To love our neighbor, to care for the poor and the oppressed. Whether they be brought to our neighborhood or are half a world away and the form of Christian love that most of us could hope to render is through supporting relief organizations.

History has proven that Christians can’t expect our government to uphold our values and our response to a human crisis can’t be to cry out to the government to help but to cry out to God and weep for the pain and loss that grips this world we currently call home.