The Forgotten 93 Percent


    Today, Governor John Kasich added Ohio to the list of several other states that are refusing to accept even one refugee from the war torn areas of Syria and other nations.  This announcement is purely political and is entirely lacking in common sense and human compassion. 
    Judging by the Facebook posts I’ve been reading for two days, I’ve just offended many of my friends. 
I don’t care.
    Why? Because if you are a follower of Jesus Christ, you are completely ignoring nearly every instruction that Jesus ever gave.
Let me explain.
    It is obviously apparent that terrorists have infiltrated the flood of refugees landing in Europe and elsewhere.  But while estimates of how many terrorists might be among them range from a few to as many as 15 percent, most estimates go no higher than 7 percent.  Still, considering that there are hundreds of thousands of refugees, 7 percent is a lot.  Allowing 10,000 refugees into the United States could mean admitting 700 terrorists.
That is unacceptable.
So why do I think that Governor Kasich and a whole host of other politicians have it wrong?
    Because closing the doors on legal immigrants, even in the face of this enormous threat, conveniently ignores too much human pain and suffering.  Before I get around to Jesus, let’s first take a look at who these refugees are and why they are fleeing to other countries.
    The civil war in Syria isn’t just about one group of radicals who are fighting against the government.  We think that way because we think of the Confederate States fighting against the Union, but that example is just wrong.  In Syria, there are literally dozens of armed factions that are warring, not only with Syria’s government, but against one another.  And so thinking that this is like the Rebs against the Yankees doesn’t really do it justice.  Instead, imagine that every church that you passed this week represented the headquarters of a different armed group.  Imagine that, in your community, the Baptists are fighting the Lutherans, the Catholics are killing Pentecostals, and the Republicans are at war with Democrats.  Not only is your neighborhood a war zone, every week or two, another group tries to capture it from the group that captured it the last time.  Some towns have been blown up and shot up multiple times, churches have been burned, women raped, and entire towns lined up in the streets and murdered.
This is daily life in much of Syria.
    And so, not surprisingly, a lot of people, both Christian and Muslim, have left their homes, their families, and all that they own, to literally walk across several entire countries in hope of finding something better.
Are there “bad guys” mixed in with the “regular” refugees?  Yes.
But those of us who claim to follow Jesus are called to see the world in a different way.  Not through the lens of Democrat or Republican, but through the lens of the Gospel message of Jesus Christ.
    If we look at what Jesus taught, we won’t find words like revenge, retaliation, or retribution.  We won’t find instructions to hate our neighbor or to fear the foreigners.  Instead, what we find are instructions to be merciful, compassionate, loving, and helpful.  Our mission is to rescue the lost, heal the sick, clothe the naked, and help others find hope and a future so that they too might hear the message of the Prince of Peace.
    We have every right to be concerned about the possibility of allowing hundreds of jihadi terrorists into our country, but that fear cannot allow us to slam the door on the 93 percent who are only looking for a place to live that won’t get blown up next week.
    It is convenient and easy for politicians to preach from a pulpit of fear and xenophobia.  But as Christians, we are not called to follow the teachings of John Kasich or any other politician.  We are called to follow the teachings of Jesus.
Jesus doesn’t expect us to be stupid or act foolishly.
We remember that Jesus teaches love, mercy, and compassion, but he also said, 
I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.”(Matthew 10:16 NIV)
We are called to be merciful, but to be smart about how we do it.
Governor Kasich and other politicians are looking for easy, and popular, solutions but in doing so they sell Ohio, and the people of the United States short. 
We are smarter than they give us credit for.
We are more than capable of sorting through the refugees and discerning which ones can be allowed in safely.
It won’t be easy.
But we can do it.
And it’s the right thing to do.

Immigration: A Christian Dilemma


    Should we build a wall at the border, or should we let everyone through?  As I scroll through my social media feeds, I see posts by friends that seem to support both extremes.  Some say that, as a matter of security, out nation must seal the border.  Others say that as a matter of Christian compassion, we must care for the foreigners among us and allow them in. 
So what should a faithful Christian believe?
Is there a “right” answer?
Honestly, I don’t know. 
    What I do know, is that both extremes miss the mark.  I recognize that both “sides” are represented by people of faith who believe in the message of the gospel.  But at the same time, each group ignores vital and valid points that are made by the other.
    In the interests of full disclosure, I am the product of an immigrant family.  My grandparents came here from Germany, as did my Mother-in-law.  Our family is certainly sympathetic to the cause of immigrants.  But even so, I understand that the discussion pulls us in different directions.
Here are some points of discussion worth considering:
1)      As followers of God, we are called to be the voice for the voiceless (Proverbs 31:8) as well as to care for the foreigners among us (Exodus 22, Jeremiah 22, Ezekiel 22, Zechariah 7)
2)      There are limited resources with which to care for them and a limited number of volunteers who can provide care.
3)     Border crossings that avoid official checkpoints, cross deserts and other  inhospitable territory.  As a result, men, women and children die crossing the border.
4)      Unscrupulous people, who are hired to guide others across the border, often abandon their charges or sell them into various forms of human trafficking.
5)      Whenever the chance of success is higher, or the rewards for success become greater, more people attempt to cross the border.
6)      Is it fair, or just, to those who are following the law and applying for proper documentation, to allow undocumented immigrants to flow across the border?
7)      Is it fair, or just, for native born citizens to compete for employment against undocumented migrants?
8)      There are valid local and national security concerns related to some of the people who are crossing the border.  Is it justice to put others at risk by allowing known criminals into the country without a background check?
   Clearly, we are called to be compassionate and to care for the foreigners among us, but the most compassionate, caring, and just thing to do may not be found at either extreme.  Building walls and returning undocumented migrants results in injustice, but opening the floodgates and allowing everyone in creates a different kind of injustice.  Making it easier to cross the border will increase the number of people who die crossing it.  And the failure to regulate who is crossing, will drive migrants into the hands of human traffickers. 
    When the waiting list for legal documentation can drag on for years, how are those applicants harmed by migrants who are given such documentation after crossing the border in the dark of night?
    We have seen similar waves of immigration.  There were waves of Irish, Germans, Czechs, Chinese, Vietnamese, and others.  Perhaps with this wave of immigrants from Central America, we might reconsider an old idea.  What if we built a new “Ellis Island” on our border with Mexico?  It would be a place where migrants would be welcomed, cared for, and kept safe, but also a place where they could be documented, we could conduct background checks, and verify that they met other requirements. 
    At Ellis Island, migrants were tested for disease, and were required to provide documentation that they had employment and a place to live in their new country.  While most migrants passed through Ellis Island in a day or two, my grandfather was detained for a week because the man who was supposed to verify his employment was delayed.  He was finally approved for entry after that man sent a telegram which verified his status.
Once again, I don’t know what the answer is.  Most likely, there is no single answer.

But each extreme carries us toward injustice. 
Justice and compassion demand that we try to find a way between these conflicting demands. 

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Ten (or more) Lessons from Ferguson


    Recently I read an article by Jeremy Smith, in United Methodist Insight, in which he wondered why more  clergy did not speak out on the events of Ferguson, Missouri.  In the article, Smith insists that when we don’t speak out about injustice, we make it seem that we aren’t responsible for things that happen far away from us.  In his words, “When I don’t speak up, I help turn the response into a pocket and not a whole garment of the human experience crying out for justice. “  He’s right of course, but I have a hard time speaking out about events like those in Ferguson because I am so personally ignorant, confused and conflicted by them.
    I’m a white guy and I grew up with the privileges that come with that.  Our family was far from wealthy, but I haven’t suffered from the subtle or overt discrimination that my non-white friends did.  I have not been pulled over by the police for “Driving While Black.”  I have no idea what that must be like. 
    I know that because I am white I do not fully appreciate all of the issues in play in the mess that is Ferguson, MO nor do I feel the impact of those events personally, as people of color undoubtedly do.  I know that anything I say about these events will lack understanding.   But Jeremy Smith is right, keeping silent allows injustice to continue and so I feel like I have to say something. 
    As followers of Jesus Christ we are called to stand against injustice, and there has been plenty on every side.  Not long ago, a colleague of mine posted a link to an article (to which I will not provide a link) that was so filled with hatred of hate and racism that it became hateful and racist itself.  In opposing racism, it named anyone who disagreed, for any reason, or for any principle, as a racist.  That sort of language is unhelpful and it doesn’t help any of us to think clearly.

    So here are ten lessons that we can learn from the mess that is sorting itself out (and will be for years) in Ferguson, MO:

1)      There is never an excuse to hate someone whose skin is a different color, simply because their skin is different color.  It isn’t okay to hate someone because they are black but neither is it okay to hate someone because they are not.
2)      In a town that has a population with a majority of African Americans, it is inconceivable that the police department can’t find African American recruits or that the imbalance should be so substantial.  As I understand it, the federal government is investigating this disparity, and they should.
3)      When there is injustice it should be okay to protest that injustice. Peacefully.

4)       Protests about injustice should not devolve into riots in which property is destroyed and innocents are put in the hospital, and worse.
5)      It’s not okay to use injustice as an excuse to cause injustice.
6)      It’s not okay to hurt someone who is on your side, just because they are the wrong color.
7)      It’s not okay (nor is it helpful) to destroy the businesses that have supported an abused community to make the point that the community has been abused.
8)      To say that it’s NOT okay doesn’t go far enough, it is flat out wrong, offensive, and even criminal, for the police department to try to disperse a riot by showing up dressed and equipped for a war.  Uniforms and weapons of war have no place on our streets.  I have no idea why anyone thought that showing up with M-16’s and armored personnel carriers was going to bring peace.
9)      While it is important, even necessary, for the media to have access to the story and for the story to get a wide distribution, there is a point at which the media becomesthe story.  From several stories that I read, from several very different media outlets, a point was reached when most citizens had gone home and rioters appeared, many from out of town, simply because the media was there.  I don’t know how we could, and we probably can’t and shouldn’t place restrictions on media access, but when the media’s presence makes the violence worse, something needs to be done.  Perhaps the media outlets themselves can agree on some sort of code of conduct, or organize a media pool as is often done in wartime, to share stories and prevent an area from being mobbed by reporters.
10)   As to who is guilty in the original event that triggered this mess, I have to admit that the conflicting reports in the media make me unsure.  A young man is dead and shouldn’t be.  I don’t know who is at fault, but I am sure that a careful investigation is needed.  I am also sure that the Ferguson Police are not the ones who should do the investigating.  In Ohio, it is standard procedure for accusations against social workers to be investigated by a neighboring (outside) social service agency.  Perhaps police departments ought to do the same with any officer involved shooting.
    Ultimately, there is plenty of fault to go around.  Ferguson may not be a “Perfect Storm” where everything went wrong, but a whole lot still went wrong.  The police got it wrong, the protestors got it wrong, the media got it wrong, and probably a few others as well.  But in every case, we, the people of God, the church, need to find a way to fight against injustice. 
All injustice. 
    We need to speak up against institutional racism.  We need to speak out against a police force that is preparing and equipping to fight a war against its own citizens.  We need to speak out against rioters who overshadow legitimate protestors and also against a media machine that makes problems worse instead of better.
    As followers of Jesus Christ, we are called to be salt and light to the world.  We are called to stand against injustice.  We are supposed to be doing all we can to make things better.
    The events of Ferguson, MO make it clear that no matter where we live, regardless of our race, we have a LOT of work to do.

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Trayvon, George, and the Church

    I wrote Sunday’s message, “The Test”, long before the verdict in the Zimmerman trial was announced and yet, the parallels between these events and scripture reading were worth noting.

    In the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) a religious lawyer seeks to use Jesus to assure himself that he is good enough to go gain eternal life.  The lawyer and Jesus agree that the two fundamental criteria are 1) to love God and 2) to love your neighbor, but that isn’t good enough and so he asks Jesus “Who is my neighbor?”  In the time of Jesus, rabbis had differing opinion over who qualified to be a “neighbor” and these opinions ranged from friends and family, up to including anyone who was Jewish.  This man was hoping, even expecting, that Jesus’ opinion would be similar so that he could declare himself “good enough.” But Jesus goes an entirely different direction.  Jesus tells this story of a man who was brutally robbed, beaten and left for dead in the wilderness only to be rescued by a Samaritan.  
For many of us, this may also require some explanation.
    Long before the birth of Jesus, the Jews and the Samaritans hated one another with a deep and abiding hate.  Regardless of whose version of history you believe, hostilities between the Samaritans and the Jews dated back to the Old Testament, perhaps a thousand years or more.  Over the centuries, each side had attacked the other and had desecrated or burned the others’ temple.   A great many had been killed on both sides.  The only reason that the two groups were not fighting one another in the time of Jesus was that the Roman army was there to make sure that they didn’t. 
    In this environment of hatred, Jesus tells a story in which the Samaritan enemy was the hero and tells the man that even his enemy is his neighbor.  Jesus’ command is to “Go and do likewise.”  As followers of Jesus the  command to “Go and do likewise”  instructs us to show mercy to people we’ve never met, to share what we have with people who can’t do anything in return, to help people who aren’t like us, people who don’t like us, and even to people whom we consider to be our enemies.  It was a tough pill for that lawyer to swallow and it isn’t any easier for us today.  The parable of the Good Samaritan has always been, and will always be, difficult to put into practice.
    If we measure the events surrounding the death of Trayvon Martin by this standard we find that everyone failed.  Both George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin failed when they chose to be suspicious and hostile and to engage in a brutal brawl on the ground rather than try to explain, discuss or walk away.  Both men assumed the other was his enemy.  The news media when they looked first for sensational headlines before reporting the facts.  Others failed because they were looking for an enemy and assumed that this violence was somehow different, that this murder was somehow more notable than the other thousands of young people who have been victims of violence since Trayvon Martin died. 
    Finally, the church failed.  We have known the story of the Good Samaritan since we were children.  We know that Jesus taught us to love our enemies and to do good to those who persecute us.  And yet, even now, in the midst of this tragedy, the followers of Jesus Christ, both black and white, look to place blame and to see an enemy in others, rather than demonstrate mercy, compassion, and forgiveness.  For the church, this case cannot be about who is right or who is wrong.  A wedge has been driven between two groups who already saw the other as the enemy.  Instead of arguing over who was in the right, we must find ways to avoid this sort of violence that kills young men and women every day in Sanford, Florida, New York, Washington D.C., and all across our nation.  We must find ways to teach the things that Jesus commanded us to teach.  We must show mercy to people we’ve never met, share what we have with people who can’t do anything in return, help people who aren’t like us, people who don’t like us, and even people that we consider to be our enemies.  We are called to be agents of healing instead of division.  We must love our enemies, do good to those who persecute us, and yes, we must love our neighbors.
Each one of us can make the world a better place if only we would, “Go and do likewise.”

Called to a Different Path


“Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson 

    I am a Cleveland Indians fan.  I follow the Indians, not because they their winning record (obviously), but by accident of geography. I grew up in Northeast Ohio, went to high school in Akron, and my first job after college sent me to Cleveland for ten years.  As a Cleveland fan, Boston is considered to be an evil empire second only to the New York Yankees.  This week’s attack on the Boston Marathon (a very different thing than baseball) stirs in me the sort of protective feelings that siblings have for one another.  Feelings such as, “Nobody messes with my brother but me.” We don’t yet know who committed this horror, but the reaction of most Americans is, like mine, anger.  This is, I think, a natural and instinctive reaction, but a dangerous one as well.  As Christians, we need to carefully gauge our reactions so that our emotions do not draw us away from the path we have been called to follow.
    Anger is not evil.  Nor is it wrong or sinful to feel angry, but how we allow anger to motivate us, in what direction we allow anger to push us, may well be.  Anger over the attack on Pearl Harbor drew the United States into a war with Japan.  Anger over the attacks of September 11th provided support for wars against Iraq and Afghanistan.  These may, or may not, be proper if we judge them as a means of seeking justice or resisting aggression, but we cross a line when we allow hatred and revenge to become our motivation.
    As a follower of Jesus Christ, I do not believe, as some of my friends do, that we have been called to a path of non-violence or pacifism.  I do believe, however, that we have been called to a different path, a direction different than our instincts alone would lead us.
    In Leviticus, a book often noted for its violence, we find a warning that revenge will lead us astray.
“Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.”  Leviticus 19:18
 
    But what if the perpetrator of this horror is not “among our people” but someone else?  Well, Jesus had something to say about that…
27 “But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. 29 If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. 30 Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. 31 Do to others as you would have them do to you.
    This is hard.  Jesus wants us to do good to people who insist upon doing us harm.  Why?  Every fiber of my being wants to hit back when I am hit, to hurt the guy that hurts my family and to put the smack-down whoever did this thing to the people of Boston.  But that isn’t what Jesus had in mind.  Our calling is to a different path.  If you read the rest of the passage I just interrupted we get a few more details…
 “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. 33 And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. 34 And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. 35 But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. 36 Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. – Luke 6:27-28
    This is hard.  Why should we do good to those who seek to harm us?  Why should we be merciful?  Because we are called to follow a different path, a radical path, a path that calls us to love not only those who love us back, but everyone, whether they love us or not.  We are called to love the way that Jesus loved.
    Paul echoes these same feelings in his letter to the church in Rome and summarizes it by saying, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12:21)
    I don’t think that any of this means that we cannot protect ourselves or seek justice, only that we must guard ourselves from seeking revenge and retribution instead of justice, and being driven by hatred and vengeance instead of mercy and compassion.  
This isn’t the place our instincts would lead us.
We are called to follow a different path.