books

Review: Why I Left / Why I Stayed

Why I Left, Why I Stayed: Conversations on Christianity Between an Evangelical Father and His Humanist Son

Well-known evangelical author Tony Campolo, and his ex-evangelical humanist son Bart, trade chapters in a book that’s meant to be representative of the conversations they had after Bart left the faith. It’s not so much an apologetic debate (though there is certainly some of that), but more about relating their personal narratives and exploring what they each see as the philosophical implications of their beliefs. They discuss believing (or doubting) the basic tenets of Christianity, the pursuit of moral goodness in communities with or without God, the significance of death, and more.

Most of the people I know in this situation are evangelical Baby Boomer parents with ex-evangelical children. From the little I knew of both men prior to reading this book, I had assumed the Campolos more or less fit that scenario. But the Campolos are a generation removed from the audience they hope to encourage; Tony is north of eighty, and Bart north of fifty, the latter de-converting after decades of youth-rousing ministry following his father’s footsteps. Another interesting difference is that while most of the ex-evangelical Millennials I know have embraced a social-justice ethic in stark contrasts with their conservative forebears, the Campolos had both embraced that concern for the poor and marginalized from within Christianity, as part of their holistic understanding of the gospel. Of course, every individual and family narrative is unique, and readers will no doubt find fascinating and thought-provoking comparisons and contrasts. Despite the short book’s abundant weaknesses, it may serve a useful starting point for some families in similar situations.

Bart’s chapters are more articulate, as Tony himself admits (unfortunately, and perhaps a reflection of generational distance, I thought many of Tony’s arguments would seem trite and stale to my secular friends). I found myself in agreement with a lot of Bart’s remarks. I enjoyed his thoughts about death as a motivator to make the most of our limited time, the perspective of appreciating the very fact that we are alive at all, and the value of vicariously enjoying the joys and successes of others over resentment and bitterness – though I see all of that as perfectly fitting with a Christian worldview. Even beyond that, though, my overall outlook on the world is more “humanistic” than it used to be, but I find none of that at odds with my Christianity – in fact, I see it as the fundamental driver of that outlook (more on that below), and I would agree with Tony in affirming those things as evidence of the work of God within humanists like Bart, despite their firm denials.

I identified with the youthful radical passion of Christian Bart and his closest friends, and that attraction to Bonhoeffer’s “costly grace,” whatever the rest of the church seemed to be doing. But Bart saw a lot of suffering through his inner-city ministry, and he cited some of these up-close-and-personal encounters with the problem of evil as a major factor in his de-conversion. (While I haven’t been affected in the same way, I can relate in a parallel way; the greater my awareness of the poverty and persecution of deeply faithful Christians outside the United States, the greater my inoculation against the many flavors of prosperity gospel within this country.)

Many Christians can’t fathom alternative bases of morality without the Bible. Bart argues that even Bible-based moral systems are more subjective than Christians think, and he does a fair job defending his basic interest in human flourishing. But I’ve already trod that ground (a la Sam Harris), and I want to move beyond the binary question of whether secular people can be “evil” or “good” (from a humanistic standpoint, that is – from a Calvinistic standpoint we’re all totally depraved), and ask the more interesting question of how good people can be.

Considering the widening circles of concern that Bart alludes to – i.e. self, family, nation, species – I acknowledge that secular morality can rationally extend concern to all of those circles, yet I also assert that the level of concern naturally drops off with each level. The question of how good people can be could also be thought of as a question of how steeply a person’s concern for others drops off once they get past their immediate family. A “weak goodness” doesn’t want to hurt people, and hopes all people will prosper, but isn’t going to sacrifice too many personal conveniences to make that happen. In other words, it’s a goodness with steep slopes. By contrast, a “strong goodness” is what I see in the Christian ideal, which radically flattens those slopes. Jesus redefines the “neighbor” that you love to include foreigners and enemies. Every service for the “least” of humans is equivalent to serving Jesus himself. It all hearkens back to the original declaration that all human beings – male and female – are created in the “image of God.” Unfortunately, the lives of many Christians only reflect a “weak goodness,” but it is only the growing conviction of the true message of Christianity that has led me to pursue a stronger, flatter goodness.

Bart clearly still desires a radical love-your-neighbor-as-yourself “strong goodness,” but (in my view) he no longer has a compelling foundation to logically defend much more than a “weak goodness.” Bart agrees with Tony that humans “are hard-wired for heroism and can feel truly happy and fulfilled only when called upon to sacrificially use their gifts and energies in the service of a noble cause much bigger than themselves,” and Bart seems to think this truth justifies a global concern for the preservation of the human species. Clearly it does for some – look no further than the budding Effective Altruist movement. But while it’s all well and good to describe happy conversations with college students who already want to be “good without god,” I wondered what he would say to those whose concern for others drops off a steep slope once they get past their own selves and families.

The universal image of God is implicit in creationist theology, and it can be harmonized (with some challenges) into evolutionary theology, but the atheist’s evolution, with none of that divine intervention, seems to me to have plenty of justifications for steeper slopes. Is it necessarily best for the human species as a whole for all of its individuals to flourish, when that’s not true for any other evolved species under the sun? Without the image of God uniting us, without Jesus teaching that to serve the least is to serve Himself… shouldn’t different groups eventually diverge into separate species with separate outcomes?

Surely I’m not the only one who would at least entertain such thoughts apart from Christian doctrine. I view the post-Christian culture wars between social-justice humanists and alt-right nationalists through this paradigm, and I’m not convinced the humanists have much that’s compelling to persuade the nationalists to flatten their slopes; after all, they think they’re heroically saving civilization, too! The best at that flattening game right now, by far, is Jordan Peterson – and it’s no surprise to me that he’s doing it by digging into the astonishingly deep wells of the Bible, and cautiously leaving the door open to the truths of its fundamental metaphysical propositions!

Unlike many who have suffered more traumatic and tragic exits, Bart still has a largely positive view of the church, describing it as “one of the greatest community-building forces in history.” He now wants to recreate that community with his secular students, and he thinks it’s easier to build his secular community because he doesn’t have to drag along the supernatural propositions he always struggled to believe. But I’m not sure how interested I would be without the supernatural.

It’s not merely that I’m a selfish being who needs the threat of divine retribution to be good; I suspect I would maintain some form of self-interested “weak goodness,” and probably even pursue some level of life-fulfilling heroism. But at some point the principles of diminishing returns and the unavoidable uncertainty of outcomes would join forces with my selfish justifications. At least for me personally, to radically flatten the slope of my concern for all human beings, I don’t just need divine motivation. I need divine grace for my struggles and failures to live up to those ideals. I need divine power to guide me in specific directions toward fruitful opportunities. And most of all, I need the divine hope of ultimate victory to sustain me in spite of all the evil and suffering that remains.

I was surprised to read Bart claim that he’s still “very much attracted to the idea of a good and loving God who understands all that we don’t” and “utterly triumphs over both sin and death in the end,” and that he would “gladly swallow” a magic pill that would enable him to “truly believe all that again.” I found this statement hard to reconcile with his later arguments for some of the superiorities of his new worldview, and wondered how much of that was motivated reasoning. Perhaps he’s missing that divine hope more than he knows.

But I suppose Bart might say God didn’t give him enough of that divine hope and power, and without it his faith was unsustainable. What’s fascinating to me is that he hasn’t lost his desire for “strong goodness” which was always a part of his Christianity. I think I would be the opposite – without divine hope and power, I think my more recent desire for “strong goodness” would be unsustainable, and I would at least retreat at some level towards the weaker goodness of more nominal Christianity. But it’s also hard for me to guess because I think of my faith itself as having other independent supports. (Speaking of that, while both Campolos touched on the role of personal emotional experiences, with Tony seeing them as evidence of supernatural connection and Bart seeing them has nothing more than brain chemistry, I was surprised to see neither take a position on claims of personal miracles or other signs of external interventions, which have always played a strong role in my own apologetic.)

Of course, for all my armchair psychoanalytic attempts to rationally compare and contrast my worldview with Bart’s, I thought Tony made a good point about the “plausibility structures” of the people and influences with which we surround ourselves and which inform all of our beliefs more than we like to admit. Yet the way Tony described himself as “choosing” to believe felt a little wishy-washy and unsatisfying to me. By the end of the book, I wasn’t sure how much I agreed or disagreed with either man, but they did give me things to think about, and I applaud their efforts at modeling healthy relationships and conversations around disagreements about the most important things in the universe.

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reviews

Review: Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson

Every chapter in this book wrecked me – and inspired me.

If historical films Selma and Loving forced me to grapple with the level of racism and injustice that was still present in the United States when my father was a child, Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy forced me to grapple with the level of racism and injustice that was still present when I was a child. The book is a memoir of sorts, describing Stevenson’s work leading the Equal Justice Initiative, representing death row inmates and other disfavored people, especially the wrongfully convicted and disproportionately sentenced, particularly in Alabama and nearby Deep South states.

The book’s primary narrative follows a successful black man wrongfully accused and convicted of murdering a white woman in the late 1980’s, spending several debilitating years on death row. The twists and turns of the story are worthy of a movie, from the shocking actions of local officials to EJI’s dogged efforts to uncover the truth and extract justice for Walter McMillian. (I’ve always been skeptical of the populist liberal narrative that elite whites exploit divisions between poor whites and poor blacks for their own benefit, but the role of the delinquent Ralph Meyers makes for a fascinating parable of that very theme.)

While Walter’s experience is manifestly an outlier for 1980’s Alabama, it is painfully obvious that it would not have been possible without the bigotry of local officials or even of the general white population in the county. Nor is the suffering limited to Walter as an individual. If Jill Leovy’s book Ghettoside starkly displayed the compounding destructive effects of gang violence in the inner city on whole black communities, Just Mercy starkly displayed the compounding destructive effects of injustice at the hands of the government through the criminal justice system. A community full of people who were at the barbecue that solidified Walter’s alibi was crushed with a heavy hopelessness that such a blatant miscarriage of justice was allowed to happen, compounding upon their shared historical pain even in spite of the progress of the civil rights movement.

And yet I still believe in that continuing stream of progress, much of which Stevenson has had a direct hand in bringing about. I was inspired by his work as well as encouraged by my (perhaps but hopefully not naive) confidence that most of the local officials’ disgraces toward Walter would not be tolerated today. From Supreme Court decisions to the continually evolving attitudes of the American public, our nation is both progressing and full of opportunities for us to play a part in the progress that still desperately needs to be manifested. Stevenson’s impacts on individual lives, and the radiating influence of those impacts, gave me much to ponder about the tension between pursuing small things and big things in the name of truth and justice.

Stevenson’s tellings of recent history have plenty of relevance for today. The national media’s outside attention to Walter’s case reinforced local opinions against him, reflecting defensive attitudes that could still be felt during last year’s special senate election in Alabama. Yet this bitter divisiveness was contrasted with a beautiful account of a proud Confederate correctional officer who was completely transformed from his hateful attitude toward Stevenson and one of his clients after hearing the client’s backstory, unleashing a powerful empathy from their shared hurtful experiences in the foster system. Time and again, telling people they’re evil racists is far less effective than telling the stories that unlock the irresistible compassion of our shared humanity. (As Stevenson’s grandmother always said, “You can’t understand most of the important things from a distance… You have to get close.”)

Much of the book is more about class than race. The stories offer a fascinating window into the depths of the American criminal justice system, and all the complications that go behind and beyond a simple “innocent” or “guilty” verdict, and the huge disparities in outcomes that often hinge on whether or not you have a good lawyer. Upon finishing Stevenson’s book, it is hard not to agree with his conclusion that “we have to reform a system of criminal justice that continues to treat people better if they are rich and guilty than if they are poor and innocent.”

While I acknowledge difficult questions around the nature of justice for victims of violence, the book deepened my personal opposition to the death penalty. “Abstractions about capital punishment were one thing, but the details of systematically killing someone who is not a threat are completely different.” There are probably few examples of the sad incongruence of the evangelical “Bible Belt” and the land of “Jim Crow” that are more searing than the image of a young black teenager climbing into the electric chair and made to sit atop a Bible for his execution since he was too short for the restraints. “Let he who is without sin,” indeed. Yet I also smiled to read of the old Methodist couple who took in a released youngster, determined to redeem him from all the horrors he had lived. That is the sort of neighborly, Christ-like love that is truly our only hope.

The true measure of our commitment to justice, the character of our society, our commitment to the rule of law, fairness, and equality cannot be measured by how we treat the rich, the powerful, the privileged, and the respected among us. The true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned. – Bryan Stevenson

books

Favorite Books I Read in 2017

1. Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible by E. Randolph Richards and‎ Brandon J. O’Brien (2012). Don’t judge this book by its weird cover; it’s so good I read it twice. Shows how the way we read the Bible – and the way we criticize it – is more influenced by our cultural backgrounds than we realize, with plenty of mind-blowing examples covering language differences, honor/shame culture, paradigms about time, and many, many more, along with encouragement for overcoming such biases.

 

2. The Three Body Problem by Cixin Lu (2014 – English translation). Lu’s widely acclaimed Chinese science fiction trilogy (first book pictured) is a wild fast-paced thriller, cleverly weaving everything from the history of mathematics to the physics of interstellar travel to the sociology of alien interactions in a massive yet engaging story. The atheistic worldview tends more fatalistic than utopian, with the fates of entire civilizations whip-lashing darkly between unexpected rescue and utter annihilation, the ultimate outcomes ever unpredictable. I enjoyed this series on scientific, spiritual, and leisurely levels all at the same time.

3. Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus: A Devout Muslim Encounters Christianity by Nabeel Qureshi (2014). A young man’s fascinating personal story of conversion from Islam to Christianity, through the dovetailing of intellectual apologetics and supernatural dreams, all in the context of a relationship with a great friend. In addition to being inspired and challenged, Christians who don’t currently know any Muslims can greatly benefit from the informed window into a compassionate American Muslim family’s life.

 

4. Evolution 2.0: Breaking the Deadlock Between Darwin and Design by Perry Marshall (2015). Sort of an intelligent design guy – sort of an evolution guy – definitely a Christian – Marshall doesn’t fit into normal people’s boxes. He believes random mutations can’t lead to new life forms, and that cells are so complex that they point to a creator…. who gave those cells amazing tools to intelligently re-program their own DNA in response to new challenges and make evolution possible! Marshall popularizes the “natural genetic engineering” work of biologists like James Shapiro, making complicated concepts easy to understand. While critics on both sides question the implications, any science enthusiast – whatever your views – should enjoy reading about some of the really cool things we’ve been learning about cells in recent years.

5. Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense by N. T. Wright (2006). A sort of Mere Christianity for a new generation, British scholar N. T. Wright lays out the fundamentals of the faith in a fresh and friendly fashion, describing how things have gone wrong in the world and how Jesus Christ is the solution, decorated with Lewis-like insights, analogies, and other delightful and encouraging remarks along the way. If you’ve become discouraged or disillusioned in recent years, you may find this book rejuvenating.

 

6. Blue on Blue: An Insider’s Story of Good Cops Catching Bad Cops by Charles Campisi (2017). As chief of the NYPD’s Internal Affairs Bureau (IAB), “the police who police the police,” Campisi describes more corruption in the police – but also police working harder to stamp out that corruption – than many on either side of the policing debates may expect. Recommended for those who want to be more informed on these important matters (accompanied by Corey Pegues’ Once A Cop for an even more complete picture on the value of leadership, and the challenges of racial issues, related to making positive changes in New York City.)

7. Inside the Revolution by Joel Rosenberg (2009). A fair and informative book on the complex nature of modern Islam from a conservative perspective. I learned a lot about the recent history of Iran’s radical leaders, the impressive (and underappreciated) actions of moderate leaders to stamp out radicalism and reform Islam, and the accelerating growth of Christianity in the Arab world. This book is not short, but it’s written at a very accessible level that will keep you coming back until you finish.

 

8. Where is Everybody? Fifty Solutions to the Fermi Paradox by Stephen Webb (2002). This is a really fun book that describes the history of the Fermi Paradox (the naturalist’s expectation that the universe should be full of life if there’s nothing special about its origin on Earth), and runs through a bunch of proposed explanations for its apparent absence, explaining why so many of the “obvious” ones aren’t that satisfying to many of the world’s top scientific minds. A mix of fun speculation and serious physics perhaps in the vein of Randall Munroe…

 

9. Rare Earth: Why Complex Life is Uncommon in the Universe by Peter D. Ward and Donald Brownlee (2003). Packed with scientific information from cosmology, biology, geology, and more, this book highlights the the numerous properties that make life on Earth seem so special, even from a purely naturalistic perspective. The numerous long-term external dangers, and the internal connections between life and the oceans and atmosphere, combined with the numerous major extinction events in the conventional history, showed me that both attaining and maintaining life on a planet for billions of years is a much more amazing and wonderful “act of creation” than I had ever imagined.

10. Dear White Christian by Aaron Layton (2017). This short book by a Christian African-American leader in St. Louis is an honest, humble effort at reconciling our region’s racial divides. It does not present itself as the end-all be-all of these conversations, but perhaps the beginning for any white Christians interested in trying to see things from another person’s perspective.

 

 

Honorable Mentions:

Cold Case Christianity by J. Warner Wallace (2013)

Is God A Mathematician? by Mario Livio (2009)

Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America by James Forman Jr. (2017)

informal essays

I Have Been Dismayed And Troubled

“Recently I have been dismayed and troubled about the way he and his wife Kayla have been personally attacked by the Washington establishment”
Dr. James Dobson, radio ad for Roy Moore, Republican candidate for Alabama senate

Oh, Dr. Dobson. Oh, church. Oh, Jesus.

Where do I begin?

I have been dismayed and troubled to see an honorable Christian man, who devoted decades of his life to raising Christian children and defending them from predators, now show more concern for a politician facing credible allegations of predatory sexual behavior than for the mental, physical, and spiritual well-being of the young women he is accused of assaulting.

I have been dismayed and troubled to see conservative Christians dismiss these accusations as “attacks” by the “Washington establishment” or “liberal media,” when many of the stories come from local, conservative, Republican, Trump-voting Alabamans, with Mr. Moore’s interest in young girls corroborated by his co-workers, retired police officers, former mall workers, and more.

I have been dismayed and troubled to see conservative Christians condemn other politicians and pundits for rushing to judgment, when many waited to hear Moore’s defense, and only after his suspicious and unconvincing non-denials decided to withdraw their support.

I have been dismayed and troubled to see Mr. Moore’s evasive answers to Sean Hannity’s questions, who when asked if he dated 16-year-olds as a grown man, did not flat-out deny it but only said wasn’t his “customary behavior,” and “If I did, I’m not going to dispute anything, but I don’t remember anything like that,” and “I don’t remember dating any girl without the permission of her mother,” a telling statement for someone coming from a very traditional conservative Christian culture, where permission was generally granted through the headship of the father, suggesting that he very well may have preyed on vulnerable young women from broken single-parent homes, especially given one of the accuser’s claims that he met her while she was at the courthouse for a child custody hearing in 1991, which, by the way, was confirmed in the historical records by the media before they published the story.

I have been dismayed and troubled to see conservative Christians, not only downplaying and rejecting the evidence against Mr. Moore and spreading spurious fake news and unsubstantiated conspiracies in his defense, but even saying that if the accusations were true that they would still support Mr. Moore, twisting Scriptures far out of context to do so, because of the horrors of allowing anyone in the Democratic party to win an elected office.

I have been dismayed and troubled to see so many white evangelicals, who last year jumped from being the least likely to the most likely religious group to say that someone with bad personal character can be a good politician, still showing no limits to the Biblical values they will submit to the gods of political idolatry, even when the stakes are far lower than the presidency, even when the opposing candidate has been far less demonized.

I have been dismayed and troubled to see that while Hollywood, for years denigrated as the unwholesome progenitor of moral decay, raises its ethical standards and purges sexual predators from its halls, Christian Republicans continue to lower their own. “It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans…” (1 Corinthians 5:1)

And yet.

I have been comforted and encouraged to be reminded from our company with the Corinthians that this is nothing new, but that we have been dealing with these kinds of issues since the beginning of our faith.

I have been comforted and encouraged to see evangelicals, like the Southern Baptist’s Russell Moore, taking principled and uncompromised stands against such immorality, abuse, and hypocrisy.

I have been comforted and encouraged that God is preserving a remnant that has not bowed down to Baal, that has not rejected the teachings of their fathers but will diligently seek to csrry them farther than they did, despite their flaws, even as their fathers, despite their flaws, carried them farther than their flawed fathers before them.

I have been comforted and encouraged to see that God is still at work all over the world, calling hundreds of thousands in the Middle East to himself through supernatural dreams and visions, increasing the spread of his glory through clay vessels from underground China to charismatics in Brazil, and awakening comfortable Westerners to deeper understandings of the treasures of his kingdom.

I have been comforted and encouraged to know that we do not wrestle against flesh, or blood, or Democrats, or Republicans, but against the spiritual powers and principalities of hell, which shall not prevail against God’s building of his church, or the increase of the knowledge of his glory until it fills the earth as the waters cover the seas. Praise the Lord. Amen.

books

Review: Inside the Revolution by Joel Rosenberg

This is a very fair and informative book on the complex nature of modern Islam and its implications for the world’s future. The book is divided into three sections covering “Radical” terrorists, moderate “Reformers,” and “Revivalists” converting to Christianity. Joel Rosenberg has a conservative right-wing perspective that strengthens the book in some places while weakening it in others, but the book’s greatest value is the vast content derived from direct, personal correspondence with people all over the world – Muslims, Christians, US government figures, Middle Eastern leaders, and more.

The “Radicals” section focuses on the history of Iran since the 1979 revolution and the ensuing effects on terrorist activity. There is a lot of really useful information here for anyone who wants to have a better understanding and context for current events involving Iran. That said, while I agree with Rosenberg that many dangerously underestimate the risks of Islamic terrorism, I think his bias may have overestimated the risk, which I think is borne out by the hindsight of the near decade since the book’s publication (Iran was apparently not 1-2 years away from a nuclear bomb, and the radical Ahmadinejad is no longer in power. In general I think Rosenberg’s missed expectations or interpretations may have been affected by placing too much emphasis on people’s spoken words, including some admittedly concerning poll results, rather than people’s revealed preferences through their actions, perhaps combined with potential nuances lost between languages and cultures.) Nevertheless, it’s a solid section and I learned a lot.

The “Reformers” section addresses not merely “moderate” Muslims as a general group – which Rosenberg says don’t get nearly enough attention or respect – but specifically focuses on Muslim government leaders across the Middle East and Africa, and their inspiring pro-active efforts to stamp out radical ideology and promote democratic freedoms in their countries. The king of Morocco is one such hero, but the star figure is Iraq’s first president Talabani, an experienced Kurdish Muslim seeking to unite his country’s divided groups against terrorism while building a relationship with Israel. This was the best information I’ve ever read on moderate Islam from any perspective, and it not only taught me a lot but made me very excited about the future political prospects for numerous Islamic countries. The author’s political bias shows through here with his unequivocal defense of the Iraq war, and US military interventions more generally, but he made a very compelling case for the positive outcomes of such American partnerships with Middle Eastern moderates. I don’t know if this information is so unfamiliar because the right doesn’t like to praise moderate Muslims and the left doesn’t like to praise Bush’s military adventures, but this section significantly impacted my views on the subject.

The final “Revivalists” section covers the accelerating growth of Christianity in Muslim countries. It talks about the supernatural dreams and visions that are well-known to anyone remotely familiar with this subject, and the different strategies and emphases of converted Muslim evangelists across the Middle East. The book’s earlier background about the effects of the Iranian Revolution helped me understand how the widespread disillusion among the largely nominal Muslim Iranian citizenry has created a wide-open door for the power of the Gospel, and, in contrast to some of the more fiery figures on the right, Rosenberg uses this section to highlight the crucial Christian themes of “loving your neighbor” and “loving your enemies.” The section’s primary weakness comes from trying to find too specific of connections to Biblical eschatology in current events, as the hindsight of a decade bears out. Overall, however, the section confirmed my existing optimism for the spiritual future of the Middle East.

With hundreds of pages packed full of information, this book is not a short read – but it’s written at a very accessible level that will keep you coming back until you finish. If you’re interested in a solid book from a Christian conservative perspective that will greatly improve your understanding of Islam in today’s world, I highly recommend it.

books

Review: Jesus Interrupted by Bart Ehrman

I tried to give Bart Ehrman’s criticisms of the Gospel texts as unbiased a hearing as possible by listening to the audiobook of Jesus, Interrupted. Not that I am fully unbiased, but I at least feel like I’m at a place where I might be less biased about Biblical criticisms, and generally more open to progressive interpretations, than I have ever been. I made it more than halfway through but was unable to finish, after too many frustrating arguments that seemed no more enlightened than the very fundamentalism the author was critiquing.

A few notes:

  • Ehrman is emphatic that there are real discrepancies between the Gospels which ignorant Christians overlook by never taking the time to read passages side-by-side and notice their obvious inconsistencies. He promotes some interesting examples, but the fundamental flaw in his argument that there are irreconcilable discrepancies is that they require not just modern Christians but the original readers and compilers of the Bible to have been unaware of them. He even argues for discrepancies within the book of Luke that would have required Luke himself to be unaware of them. It has always seemed more reasonable to me that potential discrepancies are a clue, not that the texts are errant, but that we are not approaching the texts the same way the original readers did. (The book Misreading Scripture Through Western Eyes has certainly reinforced this idea for me.)
  • One type of alleged discrepancy regards the order of events in different tellings of the same story. Ehrman’s simplistic dismissals actually reminded me of young earth creationist (YEC) arguments alleging that there are geological layers in the wrong order, which prove the whole column is totally false. At a simple glance, the order does seem wrong in some cases, but there are more informed, nuanced explanations that account for more complexities that make sense, suggesting that certain parts can be out of order without falsifying the integrity of the total system. (In fact, there are even YEC interpretations that accept the order of the geological layers. In general, many of Ehrman’s complaints about the Bible reminded me of some forms of YEC complaints about modern science.)
  • Sometimes, Ehrman would set up straw men arguments. He would claim a discrepancy in the text, describe a bad explanation and dismiss it, while ignoring better explanations (example: Peter and the “six” crows to explain two different denial stories)
  • Some of Ehrman’s discrepancies were not event-based but claims of general thematic or theological differences. Leaving aside the question of whether thematic differences can simply be expressing different aspects of a complex truth, some of the claims simply felt like cherry-picking. Ehrman claims a discrepancy between Jesus’ anguish in Mark and his confidence in Luke – but Luke records his Gethsemane prayer, which certainly seems plenty anguished to me.
  • Ehrman’s criticisms of Paul’s letter felt no stronger. If 2 Thesslanonians is truly discrepant from 1 Thessalonians, why didn’t the early church notice it? There is an interesting point that Ephesians and Colossians seem to use different sentence structures; 10% of their sentences are “long” while Galatians and Philippians only have one each. Misreading Scripture suggests the common cultural practice of collaboration could easily account for these kinds of differences while still maintaining the truth of Paul’s direct, personal involvement.

Overall, while I believe there are many Biblical passages that may not be intended in as quite the literal, sequential, precise narrative sense that is the expectation of modern readers, I remain unconvinced that there is evidence to suggest that the texts could not have been divinely inspired or may have been subject to forgery, etc.

books

Review: Locking Up Our Own by James Forman Jr.

Provides nuance to the story of mass incarceration in a way that challenges simplistic liberal and conservative narratives around racism, from the experienced perspective of a black public defense lawyer. It describes how and why punitive laws were built piece by piece throughout the country in response to drug and crime crises, specifically the role played by black leaders in majority-black cities.

The book details the growing alarm in black communities over rising crime and drug crises in the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s that led to an increasing willingness to endorse harsher criminal justice measures in the face of limited options. The August 1979 cover of Ebony said “Black on Black Crime: The Causes, The Consequences, The Cures.” In another instance, “Rev. Jesse Jackson… pointed out that more blacks had been killed by other blacks in one year than had been lynched throughout history.” Eric Holder was an instrumental pioneer of pretext-stop policing, which ended up disproportionately punishing blacks for minor infractions, on the hopes that it would contain gun crime.

A chapter on the history of black policing taught me that black people were not even allowed to be police officers in many cities until halfway through the 20th century, and even then faced explicit discrimination and restrictions, such as not being allowed to arrest white people, and even after explicit racist practices were removed, unofficial discrimination continued for decades.

The book ends with the somewhat bittersweet hope that the excesses of mass incarceration can be undone, over time, just as it was built, piece by painstaking piece.

books

Review: Blue on Blue by Charles Campisi

Blue on Blue: An Insider’s Story of Good Cops Catching Bad Cops is Charles Campisi’s account of his service over multiple decades in the New York City Police Department (NYPD). As chief of the department’s Internal Affairs Bureau (IAB), “the police who police the police,” it’s less a riveting narrative and more an organized collection of stories about catching crooked cops, peppered with Campisi’s opinions about all kinds of things related to police work and its public perception. The book will challenge both the dogmatic cop hater and the dogmatic cop apologist, describing more corruption in the police – but also police working harder to stamp out that corruption – than some on either side may expect.

Some of the stings to catch crooked cops are impressively elaborate. Some of the stories of criminal mistakes are downright (and occasionally darkly) hilarious. Overall, this is a very “pro-cop” book, contrasting the overwhelming majority of under-appreciated honest cops with the inevitable “bad apples” that Campisi spent his career expelling. Campisi takes ample opportunity to correct misconceptions, misunderstandings, and misrepresentations of police work by those who don’t understand it from the outside (important things for informed cop critics to recognize). For example, sometimes a corruption story would hit the press, and they would be accused of hiding it if wasn’t for the media exposure, even though IAB had already spent hundreds of hours behind the scenes gathering evidence against the perpetrators. Campisi also presents compelling evidence that the modern NYPD is cleaner, more professional, more fair, and more effective than earlier periods in its admittedly troubled history.

On the flip side, Campisi clearly demonstrates the temptations of power and the constant vigilance required to minimize corruption (important things for informed cop supporters to recognize). The NYPD should be commended for specifically addressing these challenges – for example, forcing regular officers into two-year IAB stints to overcome the cultural perception of internal affairs as less-worthy “rats”. Yet the challenges remain formidable, and some of Campisi’s details suggest his opinions may be a little optimistic. The chance involved in some of the stings, and the difficulty of proving previous crimes, makes one wonder how many other incidents slip through. Campisi doesn’t think there’s a solid “blue wall of silence,” giving copious examples of good cops exposing bad cops, but he also shows the heavy cultural incentives cops have to overlook abuses. Even with the infamous travesty of Louima and the broken broom handle, while cops eventually exposed Volpe, they initially were silent, with union reps backing them up, making one wonder how often other things stay hidden.

The Louima story reveals another major shortcoming with the book: its treatment, or rather lack of treatment, on racial issues. “In a perfect world,” it wouldn’t matter that Louima was black and Volpe was white; Campisi understands that “in this world,” it does, but he doesn’t seem to understand why – as if the incident itself is independent from the world in which it occurred. He is astonished that Volpe did what he did and unable to explain it, seemingly oblivious even to the possibility that a dehumanizing attitude toward black people could have played any role in allowing it. Campisi also only sees positives to the city’s “stop, question, and frisk” policy, as if its large effects on innocent minorities are acceptable collateral damage in the war on crime, and not counterproductive to it, and he predicts ominously that its severe reduction will lead to increased crime. But crime has only decreased to new record lows in the two years since. Campisi’s remarks still include some useful facts and perspective, but for better coverage of NYPD’s relationship with minorities, see Corey Pegue’s highly riveting Once A Cop. (Campisi also cautions against having too much “community” in “community policing,” saying “muggers and armed robbers are never going to show up at a Community Council meeting to discuss their problems.” While there’s an overall point to be made, the violence-reducing gang-member call-ins described in David Kennedy’s Don’t Shoot come pretty close to that!)

This brings me to two striking threads common in books on the NYPD. The first is the remarkable contrast between New York City’s current and past crime levels. Major categories like homicides have now dropped almost 90% from their peaks (so have “officer-involved shootings”). Visceral descriptions of NYC’s lawlessness of, say, the late 70’s, always give me hope that if they could turn things around from there, it’s never too late for my city of St. Louis, either. The second, however, is that NYC has an apparent advantage in its sheer size. NYPD has a force of over thirty-six thousand officers! Their IAB has more officers than some city’s entire forces, and they can afford to set up elaborate stings and throw resources in various directions. And positive changes can have positive effects on millions of people. Both threads are demonstrated in dramatic fashion throughout this book.

Many people have polarizing attitudes toward police officers, though most of us want the same things: safe streets, low crime, and a fair application of justice for all. Maybe Campisi’s book can be a resource towards that end. While there may be major disagreements about how systemic “bad cops” are, perhaps we can all agree on the importance of stopping their bad activities, from the injustices they inflict on their victims to the ways they ruin the good names of other officers. Perhaps people from opposite sides can join in hearty cheers when Campisi expresses indignation that “too often” the PBA union “seem to forget that every cop’s most basic sworn duty is not only to enforce the law, but also to obey it.” If nothing else, perhaps this book can at least help people who like to express their opinions on these important matters to be just a little more informed.

Refugee camp in Kenya (UNHCR)
informal essays

The Heart of God Toward the Foreigner

Many Christians in the United States disagree about how to treat refugees. Many “welcomers” want to bring in as many as possible, and misread opponents as letting fear overrule clear Biblical imperatives to love our neighbors. Many “hesitaters” want to tread more carefully, and misread opponents as letting naivety and oversimplified interpretations overrule practical wisdom and discretion about genuine limits and concerns. This is my attempt to encourage understanding, first by considering the welcomers’ charge of a Biblical imperative for welcoming refugees as national policy, and second by considering the hesitaters’ charge that terrorism and specific issues related to Islam justify significant constraints on such a policy.

Have you ever studied what the Bible says about immigrants and refugees? When I do, it excites me! The overall theology of “welcoming the stranger” is not simply about wanting to be nice and help some people; it’s a core indicator of the heart of God, in contrast to the natural heart of man, and it runs through the entire Bible! While a study of Biblical principles will not give us the ultimate answers of practical application, we cannot arrive at those answers without a starting foundation.

Foreigners In The Old Testament

The Bible doesn’t use words like “immigrant” and “refugee” the way we do. But the Old Testament has a Hebrew word, ger (Strong’s H1616), which is often translated alien or sojourner, meaning a “temporary dweller” or “newcomer” with “no inherited rights.” It generally seems to indicate a person who has left another place to dwell with people of a different origin, which sounds similar to what we would call an “immigrant.” It also seems to indicate immigrants without access to land or wealth, which would have much in common with “refugees,” who are fleeing any previous land with only whatever they can carry with them.

God gave the Israelites numerous commands about how to treat the sojourners living among them.

You shall not wrong a sojourner or oppress him, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt (Exodus 22:21 ESV)

Do not oppress a foreigner; you yourselves know how it feels to be foreigners, because you were foreigners in Egypt. (Exodus 23:9 NIV)

God seemed aware that such foreigners, having no land, wealth, or inheritance, along with their visible differences from the native population, were at risk of being oppressed, just as the Israelites had been in Egypt. God often identified them with other needy people such as orphans and widows, and he promised blessing if Israel obeyed his commands to provide for them:

At the end of every three years, bring all the tithes of that year’s produce and store it in your towns, so that the Levites (who have no allotment or inheritance of their own) and the foreigners, the fatherless and the widows who live in your towns may come and eat and be satisfied, and so that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. (Deuteronomy 14:28-29 ESV)

Notice how God did not merely forbid active injustice against the needy but made explicit rules to help with their provision. Ruth was such a sojourner who famously participated in one such practice:

And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, nor shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner: I am the Lord your God. (Leviticus 23:22 ESV)

In fact, God even elevated the sojourner as being deserving of the same rights and love as the native Israelite:

You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God. (Leviticus 19:34 ESV)

God felt so strongly about the treatment of sojourners that he not only promised blessing to those who used their tithe to feed them with other disadvantaged groups (see Deuteronomy 14:29 above), but he also promised a curse on those who would unjustly treat them:

Cursed be anyone who perverts the justice due to the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow. (Deuteronomy 27:19 ESV)

Note that all of these passages refer to treatment of foreigners already living with the Israelites. On the one hand, it could be argued that while they clearly describe a concern for foreigners already living in a nation, they say nothing about an obligation to invite more foreigners who are not already present. On the other hand, it could also be argued that there doesn’t seem to be anything about restricting foreigners, either. The text does seem to assume the dwelling foreigners are a relative minority, but it doesn’t seem too concerned about how they’re arriving at all, only about how to treat them once they’ve arrived.

On that point, at least, the text seems clear. God knew that sojourners among the Israelites were needy people at risk of oppression, and he made numerous commands to prevent injustice against them.

When Israel later disobeyed God’s commands, and God spoke warning and judgment through the prophets, he made it clear that oppression of the sojourner was part of the disobedience that had brought the promised curses upon them:

For if you truly amend your ways and your deeds, if you truly execute justice one with another, if you do not oppress the sojourner, the fatherless, or the widow… then I will let you dwell in this place (Jeremiah 7:5-7 ESV)

The people of the land have practiced extortion and committed robbery. They have oppressed the poor and needy, and have extorted from the sojourner without justice. (Ezekiel 22:29 ESV)

Thus says the Lord of hosts, Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another, do not oppress the widow, the fatherless, the sojourner, or the poor, and let none of you devise evil against another in your heart… But they refused to pay attention and turned a stubborn shoulder and stopped their ears that they might not hear… Therefore great anger came from the Lord of hosts..and I scattered them with a whirlwind among all the nations… (Zechariah 7)

This all set the stage for Jesus to come and take things up a notch…

Foreigners In The New Testament

25 And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” 26 He said to him, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” 27 And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself. 28 And he said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.”

29 But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:25-29 ESV)

Jesus answers the lawyer’s question with the famous story of the Good Samaritan. Sometimes I think this story is so familiar to us, yet so removed from the original context, that we miss how radical it was!

The Samaritans were the descendants of some Israelites who had remained in the land during the exile, intermarrying with Gentile immigrants and incorporating pagan practices into their worship. When Jews returned from the exile, the differences between the groups led to much conflict over who truly belonged to the land and who was worshipping God in the right way – both groups claimed to be following the original Pentateuch and worshipping at the original location.

Both Jewish and Samaritan religious leaders taught that it was wrong to have any contact with the opposite group, and neither was to enter each other’s territories or even to speak to one another. During the New Testament period, although the tensions went unrecognized by Roman authorities, Josephus reports numerous violent confrontations between Jews and Samaritans throughout the first half of the first century. (Wikipedia)

In this context, Jesus tells the story of the “Good Samaritan.” (Note how when Jesus asked who was a neighbor to the man, the lawyer couldn’t even bring himself to say, “the Samaritan,” but simply “The one who showed him mercy.”)

It would have been radical enough if the assaulted man was a Samaritan who was being helped by a Jew! But to make the Samaritan the one that was the helper? The one that had the wrong religious beliefs? The one that belonged to a group that committed violence against his group? Now that’s really radical!

In one fell swoop, Jesus not only challenged the Jew to love the negatively-viewed outsider as much as his local neighbors, he also challenged the Jew to have a more positive view of that outsider!

And yet this should have come as no surprise! The quote from the law to “love your neighbor as yourself” comes from Leviticus 19, the same chapter where we saw the commands to love the sojourner as yourself (v.34)! The heart of God has always been to love both your “neighbor” and the “foreigner” as yourself.

On the one hand, Jesus was only telling a provocative story to explicitly make a connection that had been there all along! On the other hand, Jesus was making the connection even stronger and more radical! Unlike some of the original sojourners, who were living among the Israelites and entering into covenant with them, the Samaritans were completely separated, following a corrupted religion, and even fighting violently with the Jews! And yet Jesus was still calling the lawyer to love them as himself.

The Heart of Evangelism

After all, Jesus loved the Samaritan. He wanted them to follow him just as much as the Jews, and he went out of his way to spend time with them. (Recall Jesus’s declaration to the Samaritan woman at the well about the true worship that “the Father is seeking,” John 4).

In fact, God’s heart towards loving foreigners has always been inseparable from his heart to save them. While sojourners were apparently not required to”enter into the covenant with the LORD” (Deuteronomy 29:10-13), it seems clear that their positive treatment by the Israelite was intended to encourage this. When King Solomon dedicated the temple, he prayed:

When a foreigner, who is not of your people Israel, comes from a far country for your name’s sake 42 (for they shall hear of your great name and your mighty hand, and of your outstretched arm), when he comes and prays toward this house, 43 hear in heaven your dwelling place and do according to all for which the foreigner calls to you, in order that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your people Israel, and that they may know that this house that I have built is called by your name. (1 Kings 8:41-43 ESV)

This was all a foreshadowing of Gentile inclusion in the Gospel – including Rahab’s and Ruth’s integration into the very line of Christ. While there was some initial wrestling with the details of this inclusion (did Gentiles need to be circumcised??), there was no doubt about its significance. Jesus “has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility” (Ephesians 2:14). He has given us the “ministry of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:18), and we look forward to the time when we shall see “every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb” (Revelation 7)

If we truly believe that hell awaits the unsaved, and that God is not willing that any should perish (2 Peter 3:9), then we should especially rejoice at the opportunity for a nation with millions of Christians to welcome immigrants from “closed countries” to a land of religious freedom. Surely even just an increased chance that even one refugee might come to the saving knowledge of Jesus Christ (and I know many who have done just that!) is worth a great deal.

Our hearts naturally turn inward toward our own ethnic groups! The heart of God naturally turns outward toward all ethnic groups! Thus I think it is fair to say that diversity is the heart of God.

Diversity Is The Heart of God

We are still not ready to address practical questions about constraints, but I want to pause to address a challenge to the more general position. There is a growing belief in some corners of the Internet that the celebration of “diversity” is nothing more than a liberal utopia, that there are fundamental differences between different groups of people and it’s better for them all to live separately in their own places. Many of these proponents desire a total or almost total restriction of immigration.

I believe this is kind of “ethnic nationalism” is a false view that is contrary to the heart of God. In fact, I would even like to speculate that to entertain such a view is to reject the blessing of God and invite his curse. It is true that the natural inward inclinations of our sinful hearts can lead to conflicts between ethnic groups, but our sinful hearts also lead to conflicts within our ethnic groups! God desires to redeem us and bring us all together.

There are certainly legitimate national concerns relating to integration and sustainability. I believe the current European backlash against immigration partially reflects a negative heart towards foreigners, but I also believe that heart is partially a reaction to immigration-related concerns being dismissed and shamed rather than acknowledged. However, to condemn immigration as a whole seems foolhardy, even if there are no spiritual consequences and only the effects of natural economics.

Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple, was the son of a Syrian immigrant. Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google, came to America when his family fled Jewish persecution in the Soviet Union. Interestingly, both companies were co-founded partnerships of native-born and first- or second-generation immigrants. The quintessential American story of arriving on new shores with nothing, and finding a way up through hard work and opportunity, is still being told today. In fact, more than 200 of the companies in the Fortune 500 were founded by first- or second-generation immigrants. (In addition to job-creating entrepreneurs, it can be argued that the mathematical reality is we’re going to need more immigrants to make up for our declining native birth rates and support Social Security for all the retiring natives.)

Diversity can make a country stronger. Is this part of the reason the great melting pot of America has been such a great nation? Considering that many of our ancestors were themselves immigrants, many fleeing persecution or famine or misfortune and seeking a better life, I cannot help but note the parallels to God’s reasoning for his original commands to the Israelites. Do not oppress the refugee, for you yourselves were refugees from Europe…

Due to the focus on seven specific countries, many are unaware that President Trump’s executive order attempted to shut down the entire refugee program (the actual text says, “The Secretary of State shall suspend the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) for 120 days.”) Seven countries were singled out for blocking all travelers, in addition to refugees, but refugees from all countries were suspended, without warning, and without evidence of any specific risks from any of those countries, for the first time since the program was established in 1980. As the program has undergone numerous changes since its inception, including security improvements, without a sudden, prolonged halt, the justification for halting the entire program seems unclear. In addition to the immediate effects on numerous families, many welcomers are concerned that this signals a shift in a more general anti-immigrant direction, especially given reports that the order was largely influenced by Steve Bannon, who is known to have more radical views on the subject.

But is all of this political discussion still a theological issue?

Individuals or Nations?

A common criticism of “welcomers” is that they are misinterpreting Biblical commands for individuals as commands for nations. It is important to consider this distinction. Many New Testament instructions are more naturally understood as applying to individuals under the New Covenant compared to the Old Testament theocracy. In addition, the United States political ideals of democracy and freedom have a more natural application for individual charity compared to government coercion, especially given freedom of religion and the rights of other citizens to choose not to participate in such charity. There are also arguments about the superiority of individual charity as it relates to the benefits of personal relationship along with accountability and practical effectiveness.

Indeed, there are some passages about welcoming outsiders that clearly suggest a personal duty:

Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares. (Hebrews 13:2 ESV)

However, it could also be argued that the presence of passages regarding both individual and national action simply indicates the consistency of God’s heart towards the foreigner on both an individual and a national level, and that there is room, at least on some level, for both kinds of welcoming.

The issue of immigration, by definition, concerns national policy. We have seen that when Israel was a nation, welcoming foreigners was clearly God’s intent. We see that many Biblical characters took refuge in other nations that allowed their entrance (including David, 1 Sam. 21, and Jesus himself, Matt. 2, in yet another connection to the Israelite’s status as foreigners in Egypt). We also see some instances of cities or nations being condemned for refusing to allow or properly welcome foreigners (Sodom and Gomorrah, Gen. 19, and King Sihon of Heshbon, Deut. 2).

We see that Jesus confirmed and even expanded the idea of “loving the foreigner as yourself” to helping the foreigner when it is in your capacity to alleviate his hurting. While there is room for interpretation, it is interesting that even the quintessential passage about individual acts of charity has a reference to the “nations”:

Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. 34 Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, (Matthew 25:32-35)

James asks what good it is to see a brother without clothes or food and not provide for those needs (James 2:15-16) . Can we say we love a refugee family as much as we love ourselves if we have the ability to welcome them into our nation, yet refuse to do so?

But Does That Mean We Need To Bring Them Here?

Some “hesitaters” agree about the Biblical imperative to love and care for refugees, while arguing that this does not imply an imperative to welcome them into our country, especially if trumped by other concerns (pun not intended). Franklin Graham, leader of Samaritan’s Purse, has posted the following in response to discussion regarding Trump’s executive order:

As Christians we are clearly taught in the Bible to care for the poor and oppressed. At Samaritan’s Purse we have been working in the Middle East for over 30 years. We’ve provided things like food, heaters, blankets, coats, shelter plastic, and more for tens of thousands of refugees there and in other places around the world. We just opened a 55-bed field trauma hospital in northern Iraq where we’re treating Muslims who are being wounded by other Muslims in the fight over Mosul. As Christians we are commanded to help all, regardless of religious background or ethnicity, like the Good Samaritan Jesus shared about in the Bible. Our job is to show God’s love and compassion.

At the same time, he says:

Some people seem to have forgotten that the priority of the president of the United States is protecting the Constitution and the safety of Americans… We have to be sure that the philosophies of those entering our country are compatible with our Constitution… I believe the best way to help is to reach out and help these people in their own countries… We need to pray for political solutions that would bring peace and allow them to return to their homes as they desire.

I applaud Samaritan Purse’s work in this context, and I agree with some of Mr. Graham’s concerns. It does not make sense for every one of the currently estimated 65 million global refugees to migrate to countries like the United States, and it makes sense to assist many where they are, while pursuing justice through more comprehensive solutions. (As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “after you lift so many people out of the ditch you start to ask, maybe the whole road to Jericho needs to be repaved.”)

However, I would also ask the “hesitater” to consider that even intermittent charity in an impoverished refugee camp is hardly the life we would want for ourselves, and to consider the following scenario. What if we recognized a capacity to integrate a very small percentage of those refugees, and we were given a list of those considered most qualified for relocation to our country, whether due to a heightened vulnerability in their current location, or an existing family connection, or some other set of reasons, and we were asked us to consider accepting them, provided we reviewed their information and situation and felt comfortable with the result? I believe that, in fact, accurately describes the narrow policy scenario under discussion today.

Unavoidable Risks vs. Targeted Risks

At this point, the “hesitater” may respond with the following objection: But if we can’t be completely certain about their intentions, doesn’t the government have a responsibility to keep us safe?

If he is not afraid of being politically incorrect, he may also include a second, more specific, objection: Don’t we need to be concerned about radical Islamic terrorism? Or maybe even Islam in general?

Indeed, Mr. Graham’s posts specifically reference these concerns, which loom far greater than practical concerns about the logistical limits of relocation. What seems to be a debate between Biblical imperatives for welcoming refugees and the function of government, in my opinion, actually reflects a difference in risk perception.

There will be always be some risk in welcoming strangers, whether individually or nationally, so surely Jesus did not intend it to be a deciding factor against such action. Furthermore, loving the foreigner as ourselves means thinking not just about our own risk of harm but about the risk of harm to the crowds of peaceful refugees, both Muslim and non-Muslim, trying to flee war and terrorism themselves. Welcomers tend to perceive the risk of terrorism in this general “unavoidable” sense, built on a perception that the overwhelming majority of Muslims are peaceful and non-threatening.

However, it can also be argued that if we ignore warning signs to take care of ourselves, we will be unable to take care of others, even if we really want to. Hesitaters tend to perceive Islam, or some parts of it, in this specific “targeted” sense, built on a perception that a true adherence to the Koran does not tolerate freedom of religion or even democracy, and that an influx of Muslims means an increased risk not just of “random” terrorism but also an advancing of Sharia law, crime against non-Muslims – even a fundamental threat to Western civilization.

So it is not enough for the welcomer to pronounce a Biblical imperative for welcoming foreigners and argue for its practical application in modern America. It is not even enough to respond to the hesitater’s charge about a Biblical imperative of a government to protect its citizens – though this is necessary to consider as well. The welcomer must also consider the hesitater’s fundamental differences in perception about Islam. Where did these different perceptions come from? Are they based in rumor or truth? In the context of American freedom, I think we need to discuss what risks we expect our government to protect us from, how big those risks really are, and how this relates to Islam. I have opinions on these matters, but as this post is getting long I think I will save them for a second post.

Partial Conclusions

Potential constraints notwithstanding, I think a strong case can be made – on Biblical theological grounds, on general humanitarian grounds, even on fundamentally American grounds – for welcoming as many refugees as practically possible, as a matter of both national policy and individual connecting. (Truly, both aspects are intertwined and neither can succeed alone.)

Above all, we should strive not to lose sight of the fact that we are not talking about numbers and statistics but real people, created in the image of God, who have suffered unimaginable oppression, whose lives we have unique opportunities to enter into and spend time with, just as Jesus spent much of his time on this Earth. And yet it is more than simply the privileged helping the underprivileged. We all have so much to learn from each other, as we actively participate in tearing down walls of hostility and let God turn our hearts from our natural, sinful inward focuses to his outward love for all humanity.

May the Lord guide us into all wisdom and understanding as we endeavor to grow in faith, hope, and love. And the greatest of these is love.

(If you don’t want to miss the follow-up, sign up for an email notification at the bottom of the page.)

Some Works Cited

Pastor Kyle Rainbolt’s sermon on “The Outsiders” at St. Louis Trinity Church

A conservative blog post on immigration and the Bible

activism, informal essays

Children On The Battlefield

Brief – but jarring.

It was only a few seconds in one of the numerous firefight scenes in Star Wars: Rogue One. A little girl bawling in the middle of a battlefield, weapons firing all around her, then carried off to safety by one of the good guys.

It was jarring because the little girl felt so out of place. In our action movies, we’re not used to seeing children on the battlefields. And yet in those few seconds that little girl exposed one of the great lies of all of our cinematic glorifications of war.

Real wars have children in them.

From our fun sci-fi romps across galaxies to our grittiest, darkest looks at the horrors of historical battlefields, we shrug off the deaths of the bad guys, we mourn the losses of the good guys, we revel and recoil at the intensity of the blood and the limbs and all the other ugliness, but they’re usually adults, who sort of knew what they were getting into, whose sacrifices we can celebrate and honor…

Give us blood. Give us gore. Give us all the realistic R-rated violence we can handle.

Oh, but don’t give us children.

We don’t want to face that much reality. We want our movies to be an escape.

Not from a movie.
Not from a movie.

Nevermind the children of Aleppo who couldn’t escape from a reality we don’t even want to contemplate, as we gather for the holidays in the safety of our homes.

We should be thankful for those blessings. But if we only thank God that we have them without thinking about the people who don’t, it feels to me a little like Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the Publican (Luke 18:9-14)

Oh, God, I thank you, that I am not like those other folks….

Others

I don’t have all the answers to the great political challenges of our time. But I do know that we won’t find them when we give in to our natural tendencies to fear, to dehumanize, to forget the others, the ones who aren’t like us, the ones we don’t know and can’t see…

and yet: the ones who are created in the image of God just like us, the ones who are loved by Jesus Christ just like us, the ones who will one day gather around the throne from every nation, tribe, people, and language.

I’ve met a few children who were able to escape the real war of Syria. Their father suffered a head injury from the fighting. The UN Refugee Agency recommended their family to the United States, which approved them and connected them to an institute that settled them in an apartment across from our church office.

Some of our church members visited them and got to know them. When they got a house through a Muslim connection, our church members helped them move, and we took up a donation to help them pay their first few bills. How cool is that, for this Muslim family, regardless of whatever impressions they may have had of Americans or Christians not wanting them here, to see the love of Christ demonstrated to them, after all the horrors they’ve experienced, a love that they might never have seen had they not arrived. Some of the family came to church yesterday! I will pray for the Holy Spirit’s continued work in their lives.

Action

If you want to help refugees, there are several things you can do.

If you’re in St. Louis, you can sign up at GoodNeighborSTL.com to connect with a refugee family. It’s a partnership with Oasis International, a great local ministry you can donate to. Relevant recently posted an article with several options, including ways to directly help war victims still in Syria.

No one can worry about all the problems in the world all the time. We all must focus on our callings. But maybe we can at least remember the children on the battlefield. If it means anything to love our neighbors as ourselves, maybe, for at least a brief and jarring moment, we can think about what we would try to do if our own children were suffering so, or what we would want someone to do for us, and maybe some of us can go and do likewise.