I was at work on Friday evening when I felt my phone go off in my pocket. It was a single, simple vibration, and thus I hadn’t the faintest idea what it could be signaling, as I have somehow, and quite unintentionally, given a plethora of apps (many of which I hardly even use anymore) a direct hardline to my phone’s alert system.
In attempt to be a good employee, I waited until I was on a break before I checked to see who, or what, could be trying to get my attention. I took my phone out of my pocket to find not a text, or Snapchat, or missed call, but a single alert from ABC news, which read as follows:
“Pres. Trump signs executive order to ‘keep radical Islamic terrorists’ out of the U.S.”
Now, I’ve been paying enough attention to the political world in the recent months to know that there’s a lot going on behind that headline, and I as clicked the link and began to read the whole article, I began to see exactly how much. Temporary bans on all immigration from specified countries, an indefinite ban on immigration from Syria, suspension of the Refugee Admissions Program, tightened refugee quotas…there was a lot to unpack in that one, tiny little headline. (Disclaimer: I am not a news agency, and in light of the “fake news” debacle, I suggest looking at reputable sources like NPR, ABC, or the New York Times before quoting anything I have to say as “news.” The full transcript of President Trump’s executive order can be found here.).
And of course, perhaps no president in recent memory has been scrutinized as much as Donald Trump, and so the reactions in support of and against this executive order rapidly blew up my various social media accounts as columnists, political analysts, and laypeople offered up their thoughts on the development. Discussions turned to arguments, arguments turned into mudslinging, and pretty soon I began to feel as though I was about to witness the whole internet implode from an overdose of polarized ideology.
One of the greatest sources of ammunition that I saw in this social media-driven War of Words was misunderstanding. And not misunderstanding in the general sense, but a very specific kind of misconstrued argument, relating to the use of scripture as a defense for immigration.
I’m sure you’ve probably been beaten over the head at this point with verses about the “foreigner among you” and “love your neighbor as yourself,” so I won’t waste time trying to yet again beat you over the head. To summarize briefly what I’ve seen floating around the last few days, it seems to me that verses of that sort present a pretty strong case for an ethical issue regarding immigration, namely that it is undeniably biblical to place yourself in harms way in order to care for and love another child of God, especially one who doesn’t yet know Jesus, giving their well-being and your decision to show them the love of Jesus, quite literally, cosmic significance.
There. Case closed. It’s settled. Putting the health of another’s soul over the health of your own physical body in the name of Jesus is firmly grounded in biblical tradition.
That’s all well and good, but that argument is precisely the cause of the misunderstanding that I’ve witnessed. I think we’ve just settled the wrong ethical issue. What seems to be on the minds of many American Christians regarding this new immigration policy is not the question of self-interest (although I happily welcome discussion regarding that issue as well). The real ethical question that I think so many are wrestling with is this: Is it biblical to put others in harm’s way in the name of Jesus? Do we have the authority to make that decision for someone other than ourselves?
That, to me, is a very different ordeal.
I’d like to say, right off the bat, that I am no ethicist (at least, not in the professional sense). I’m no Kant, or Mill, or Lewis, but I’d like to attempt to engage that ethical question all the same, since after all, isn’t it the laypeople who really have a stake in that question’s immediate implications?
When I first began to ponder this question, my mind, in it’s haphazard way, was thrust back to 8th grade, and, oddly enough, to Battle of the Bands. The name of my band, The Nothing (which, I’m sad to announce, broke up shortly after our first and only performance back in 2010), had been inspired by the idea that to follow Christ means giving up everything. It means having nothing of your own. We drew from a passage in Matthew in the pursuit of our band name, and the specific verse we relied upon said as follows: “And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life,” (Matthew 19:29 ESV).
I understand the nightmare that is biblical interpretation, and the struggle of sifting through different translations, or different readings of the same passage born from differing doctrinal positions, and I’m happy to engage that debate as well, but for now I’ll give you my take on this passage (which is remarkably similar to my 8th grade understanding of it). These words, spoken by Jesus to Peter in response to his wondering about the worth of being a Christian, carry a lot of weight. They are few, but they are heavy. Jesus is demanding, not requesting, demanding our whole selves. He decrees that we must absolutely, totally, and completely devoted to Him above all else.
This is probably nothing new to most Christians. Maybe the gravity of that demand isn’t something that everyone has seriously meditated on, but the fundamental idea is something that is widely circulated in nearly all Christian communities. However, as I read this passage, I notice that this demand, though it is made specifically of me, and only requires action of me, is not limited to solely me in its consequences. Jesus doesn’t simply say, “Devote yourself totally to me.” That would put me in a vacuum, ignoring the reality of the world I live in and giving me room to interact with that world as I see fit. Rather, Jesus says to abandon my family, abandon my house, abandon all that I have in this world for His sake. My devotion to God does not live in isolation, and it does have very real consequences for the world around me, and the world close to me, an idea that we see also in the Gospel of Luke.
“If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple,” (Luke 14:26 ESV).
If I love Jesus, I love Him more than my parents. I love Him more than my brother, or my sister. I love Him more than myself. My service to Him, to following in His Will, supersedes my service to myself or to anyone or anything of this world. And this passage in Luke puts service to myself on par with my service to other people. My abandonment of my own life is equated to the abandonment of those I love, because in the same way I must put Jesus in front of myself, I must put him in front of others as well.
These are some pretty intense terms of service, and immediately following this statement, Jesus recommends that, unlike we are prone to do, we read all the way through and consider them carefully before clicking “Agree”, before concluding with “So, therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple,” (Luke 14:33 ESV).
Well then, what does this mean for our ethical question? Are we to lay down the interests of other people in the same way that we would sacrifice ourselves in the service of Jesus? I would argue that yes, that’s exactly what we are commanded to do.
Now, before I go any further, hear me out on that. Any ideology, when taken too far, often leads down a rabbit hole of harmful extremism, and this is no different.
Here’s what I don’t mean. I don’t mean that, should you be on your way to church, you ignore that homeless guy you pass on the street because, “Jesus comes first!” The service of Jesus often, and I’d dare say always, includes the service of others. By sacrificing a trip to church to serve a homeless man, you are serving Jesus. He commands that we love the least of these, and that command is what makes this immigration question so tricky. We all want to serve the least of these, for in doing so we serve Jesus. The question is, who are the least of these?
And this is where those Gospel passages truly begin to carry weight with me, because they tell me how I am to answer that question. They tell me that Jesus determines what constitutes the least of these, not me. If I had my way, I’d tell you that the least of these included my mom, my dad, my brother, sister, cousins, aunts, uncles, friends, etc., because I love them, and I want the best for them. But Matthew and Luke tell me that to serve Jesus means letting Him dictate my service to others, and sometimes that may come at the cost of serving who I want to serve. Because the unfortunate fact of my existence is that I cannot serve everyone all the time. The Lord can, but if I want to see the whole world served, I have to get out of His way, serve where He tells me, and trust that He’ll fill in the gaps my limited human capabilities leave.
So then, do I think the now barred refugees make up of the least of these? It doesn’t matter. What does matter is if Jesus thinks so, and I am of the position that there is a lot of biblical precedent telling me that He does. Over and over in the Bible we hear that the soul is of more worth than the body, that the reason we should be willing to die for our faith is because our bodies are expendable, but the souls of those who might come to salvation because of our bodily death are not. And right now, do you know the few people who are NOT barred from entering the United States from the list of banned countries? The executive order says that only those who are being persecuted for their religion, and only those whose religion is a minority in their home country, are allowed safe passage to the U.S.
Christians. That means Christians. Religiously persecuted minorities in largely Muslim nations are mostly Christians. Which means that under this order, in areas of the world where there is mass suffering and death, we are allowing Christians to leave, to escape, and sending Muslims back.
We’re saving the body at the cost of the soul.
It’s not an easy thing to swallow. Heck, it’s not an easy thing to write, to say that the fact that most of these refugees are Muslim is the exact reason we should bring them in, when much of the rhetoric surrounding this issue states that that’s exactly the reason we shouldn’t. But like I said, we have to trust God to fill in the gaps we leave. Yes, to bring in so many refugees from countries fraught with terrorism is a scary thing, and there are people that I dearly love here in America that I would go through Hell or high water for to ensure that no harm comes to them.
But God would do the same.
In fact, He already did exactly that, and so I have to trust that He is looking out for them, no matter how scary things may seem. I believe that the darkness and the horror that we are condemning so many unsaved people to with this executive order shows a lack of trust. We are called to spread the Gospel to all corners of the globe, and sometimes the globe comes to us. Are we to turn them away for fear of harm to ourselves or others? Or are we to trust that God has brought them to us for a reason, and seek His Will over our own longings?
So ends my spiel in favor of immigration. However, I’m an equal opportunity offender, and I’d hate to leave without addressing the opposing view, so I’d like to turn for a moment to those that felt their stomach drop, or had their heart skip a beat, or even cried out in anger when they heard about this executive order.
Did it make a difference?
Did the halting of immigration from certain countries have any impact on you, other than to give you a reason to deepen, or maybe even challenge, your own ideology? In other words, are you interacting with these sorts of people in a way that is hindered or affected by President Trump’s executive order? I’ll admit, I most certainly am not. When I take a step back and look at God’s-eye look at my life, I realize that, theology aside, I have no right to protest the new presidential decree, because up until now I’ve done absolutely nothing to help, or even hinder, the cause of refugees. I’ve been apathetic towards the issue. Obviously, I have been plenty of thoughts regarding what it means to serve Jesus in this sort of situation, but I haven’t actually been of service to anyone when it comes the ethical question I’ve raised such a fuss about. Jesus knew this, of course, and, as He is prone to do in our relationship, he recently made a “holy fool” out of me to shake me of this complacency.
A few days ago, my car broke down (for those of you that know my car, affectionately called Scout, this comes as no surprise). While I was stuck in the middle of the road waiting for a tow truck, a man pulled of to the side of the street, got out of his car, and approached me to see if I needed any help. I told him that there really wasn’t much to be done, that I had called for a tow, and that it was just a waiting game at this point, but thanked him for the offer. He handed me a business card and said, “Well, my office is right down the street. If you need anything, just give me a call, I’d be happy to help in any way I can.” I asked him what it was that his office did, and I’ll admit to a childlike giddiness as I prepare to type his response.
“We work with refugees,” he told me with a smile. “We help them learn English, get established in the area, get connected to the community, and basically just try and help them make a life here.”
Two days later I’m sitting at work when I feel my phone go off with what I would later learn is the ABC news alert.
So here I am, with an address, a phone number, an email address, and a face-to-face conversation with a man who has dedicated his professional career to resettling refugees. It was as if God was preemptively asking me, “So, are you going to take up your cross and follow me? Are you going to live out the service you so passionately talk about?” For all my talk, it’s definitely time to walk the walk, both on my part and on the part of Christians as a whole. If we want to have a right to disagree with the executive order, we have to put ourselves in a position of service. We have to be intentional about going to meet the needy. Sure, sometimes God puts things right in front of us, and (to borrow a phrase from a pastor friend of mine) we encounter the least of these in the natural intersections of our lives. But other times He calls us to step out of naturalism. To be unnatural. To pursue the supernatural. And that doesn’t have to be with refugees here in the United States.
As I mentioned, one of the things that horrifies me about this immigration crackdown is that we are sending so many unsaved back to unbearably broken places. So then, if we can’t meet them here, why not pursue them there? Why does my pursuit of the unsaved have to be limited to those I encounter here in my own homeland? Jesus went about as far as anyone can go in His pursuit of me, forsaking the eternal for the mortal, the perfect for the broken, so I why can’t we cross a few political borders in our pursuit of His children?
I say this as a challenge to myself just as much as to anyone, as my default setting is selfishness and comfort, and I think this whole ordeal is one way that God is seeking to break that habit in me. I have to recognize that I am the church. It’s not up to my next door neighbor, or my pastor, or my political leaders to initiate service of the least of these, service of Jesus. I carry that responsibility and that calling as much as anyone else, and I can’t depend on a presidential directive (or lack thereof) to do that work for me.
Whether or not we agree with this executive order, whether or not we voted for President Trump, or whether or not we support his ideology is irrelevant. Is he someone willing to step outside his comfort zone and do something radical in the name of service? I don’t know, but that’s not a question I’m able or willing to answer, because the real question is…