“Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.” (Engraved on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty from “The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus, 1849–1887)
It was a day of jolting irony. I stood beside Atallah as the priest pronounced the marriage rites. My wife stood beside his bride. Our friends looked on. Together we drank the cup of blessing…just the four of us. Together we clasped hands and processed around the altar of the church nestled in a crowded quarter of Beirut known as the local home to several refugee communities. I was the shabīn—the best man and my wife, the shabīna—the matron of honor. So it goes without saying that we have become close with this special couple. The honor they showed us was almost embarrassing—one of those honors you feel you can never deserve. It’s just given to you. They wanted us to stand beside them on their wedding day in front of their siblings, cousins, parents and friends.
Atallah is from Dara’, Syria. Gladis, his bride, is from Aleppo.
We stood beside them the day after the ban of immigrants from Syria and six other Muslim countries was announced. The attendees at the wedding were almost entirely from Muslim majority countries – Sudan, Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, etc. Some of them already have family members in the US. Some are more or less stateless, in desperate need of a home. The news of the immigration ban was not far from anyone’s mind. As an American, I wanted to turn around and shout:
“I love you guys! I see your beauty. I don’t exclude you because of the place you were born or the passport you carry. Thank-you for not excluding me. You are a big part of my life – my brothers and sisters!”
There you have it…my admittedly emotional reaction to the ban. Since that day I’ve had lunch with Sudanese students, led a devotion for Syrians and touched base with my Iraqi friend who leads a ministry to hundreds of Iraqi refugee families in Beirut. Facing this ban is a daily reality as it’s on everyone’s mind here.
I want to take a brief look at political implications of this ban and then turn to a Kingdom perspective – a theological query into a Christ-follower’s stance vis-à-vis the ban.
Two caveats: this is not an indictment of Mr. Trump’s presidency. I am intentionally limiting myself to one particular executive order. That’s enough to tackle here. So whether or not you’re a supporter of the new president, I hope you’ll hear me out.
Second, the subject of immigration is extremely complex and too broad to cover in a brief article. Again, I am only dealing with one executive order, not the entire topic.
Political Implications of the Ban
Reasons for my non-support of the ban include the following, some of which have been well-rehearsed in the media:
- The ban targets countries with high numbers of refugees and asylum-seekers who are more intensely vetted than all other visa holders arriving in US ports of entry (see this summary). Students, business people, tourists and other visitors enter the US daily with comparatively minimal screening.
- The expected reaction of the seven “banned” countries is to deport and limit the entry of US citizens (see this summary). This has implications for hundreds of relief, development, business and educational organizations, not to mention the military and diplomatic corps.
- The ban will stoke the flames of anti-American sentiment in the region and throughout the Muslim world. The ban is the answer to ISIS’ prayers, creating a fertile field of recruitment for all Muslim terrorist groups (see this summary).
- From all appearances, many stakeholders of the policy (e.g. the US State Department and military leaders carrying out joint operations against ISIS in Iraq) were not consulted.
- The seven nations have never successfully mounted a terrorist attack inside the US. Other nations have, but are not included in the ban.
- The suffering peoples of the world may no longer see the US as a beacon of hope where people of all faiths and colors are protected by law and recognized as “endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” The ban shows our soaring rhetoric to crash on the rocks of fearful protectionism. While the courts debate the constitutionality of the ban, an equally important consideration is what it says to the world about our ethos and values as a nation.
- The ban severely under-estimates the capacity and reach of terrorist organizations and is ultimately naive. ISIS and its ilk have recruited from many countries in Asia, Africa, Europe and North America. Expect retaliation. Americans at home and abroad are far less safe as a result of this ban.
Reversing the ban does not imply lowering screening standards for immigration which can be upheld or enhanced irrespective of the ban. I remain hopeful that the US will reverse this tragic policy, currently under judicial review, and the door will re-open to refugees from these seven states and many others.
A View from the Kingdom
It is not surprising that some US citizens find this ban to be a legitimate security-enhancing measure. However, for those who claim to follow Jesus and his teachings, supporting this ban is unconscionable. Fortunately many have registered their opposition (see this link). One could simply point to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (“do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”) as sufficient grounds for pursuing the dignity and equality of all people. Yet, there is more to say.
Arguably, the most stunning expression of Jesus’ commission to his disciples is found in John 20:21:
“As the Father has sent me, so send I you.”
The amazing phenomenon we call the incarnation – deity entering humanity – is unparalleled in the history of religions. The God who is abounding in love elected to show this love to the only begotten Son in eternity past. The Spirit proceeded from the Father to express the being of God as an eternal tri-unity. Sufficient unto himself, this God might well have existed for all eternity in the bliss of perfection. However, his love and magnanimity overflowed yet again in the creation of the material world and the reflection of his very image – humanity – created beings with the capacity to relate to and enjoy the eternal and unchangeable God, yet endowed with freedom to embrace the eternal source of life or to turn away in ungrateful self-centeredness.
God’s relentless pursuit of humanity led to the eternal Son taking on flesh and walking among us. Human alienation was never more evident than in the crucifixion. Jesus, the incarnate God, placed himself at the mercy of his recalcitrant image-bearers because “God so loved the world.” It was the greatest act of terror the world has ever known and will never be surpassed.
He left his disciples with those words: “As the Father has sent me, so send I you.”
He came so that enemies could be made friends, so that excluded ones would be included, so that outsiders would be adopted into the family. It took the apostles a little while to grasp the gravity of it, but once they did, they declared the wall of partition separating Jews and Gentiles to be annihilated. The Body of Christ, the Church, became the ultimate international, inter-ethnic, multi-lingual, pluralist expression of the “in-flesh” love of God for humanity.
The body of Christ, like its head, welcomes into itself, as a kingdom of mediators, the suffering and oppressed of the world. It absorbs humanity’s alienation into the broken body of Christ, now united with him as its head, and thereby vanquishes the alienation through the power of resurrection. We become the great hope of reconciliation, not only between God and humanity but between humanity and humanity. We all sit as equals, adopted, greatly loved, redeemed people. Our dignity is restored. Our identity is re-defined.
In the blinding light of this reality, is it any wonder that Jesus demands our ultimate loyalty…that he refuses to tolerate other claimants to our allegiance, even if that claimant is the stately Roman Empire or any other human authority? US Christians can pledge allegiance to their political powers only to the extent that all human authority is derivative and subject to the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Therefore, “America first” can never serve as the watchword of Jesus’ disciples. They seek to participate in his mission – to lay down their lives for those he loves, to seek and save the lost.
The failures and sufferings of these seven Muslim states that are banned from entering the US owe ultimately to their alienation from the source of life. Furthermore, the Muslim world is demonstrating an openness, indeed a thirst for the reality of Christ’s reconciliation that has not been observed through 1400 years of history since the inception of Islam. The church can ill afford to turn from this opportune moment seeking refuge in a delusional self-protectionism rooted in a frenzy of fear.
Thus the so-called outsiders are really only “insiders” who have not yet understood and apprehended themselves as such.
(Karl Barth,“The Humanity of God”)
Followers of Jesus have an obligation. We view the outsider with the same honor and respect as the insider. After all, he or she may be an insider who has yet to realize it. As the apostle says, we also were once alienated and strangers to the covenant of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.
The Body of Christ is God’s embrace of fallen humanity. Let’s not miss the chance to express the love of God, even and especially to the victims of the world’s failed states. So much is at stake…much more than our comfort or security.
Some of my friends in Knoxville, Tennessee aren’t missing the chance. They showed up in force to support a Syrian refugee opening his restaurant – Yassin’s Falafel House. (Check it out here.)
These normal Americans demonstrate that it can be different. The Golden Rule, brotherly love and mutual respect can overtake spiteful, stereotypical and excluding rhetoric and acts. We can share the good things our country offers free from fear.
So, if you’re reading this as a US citizen, pick up the phone or a pen and contact your elected official. Let them know that you disagree with your country’s closing its doors to the most needy. Then go have a Falafel sandwich and get to know Yassin and a few thousand others like him.