Monday, 6 February 2017

Doing Theology In The Light of Executive Order 13769...

I’d like to talk about Executive Order 13769.

If you don’t know what that is, don’t feel bad; it’s rarely ever called that.

I’ve heard it called the ‘Travel Ban’, the ‘US Ban on Muslims’, and the ‘Muslim Travel Ban.’

But I’m an academic; word accuracy is important to me. So I’m going to refer to it by its official name. 

So, it’s Executive Order 13769, titled ‘Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States’, signed by the President the last week of January.

This order limits refugee arrivals to the U.S. and suspended the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) for 120 days. After that period, the program would be conditionally resumed and would prioritize refugee claims from persecuted minority religions;

(which many interpret as prioritizing Christians as opposed to Muslims; whether or not Christians fleeing the economic and political tyranny of Israel's occupation of the West Bank, or Muslims fleeing Christian militias in the Central African Republic, would qualify is anyone's guess...).

The order also indefinitely suspended the entry of Syrian refugees; nationals from seven Muslim-majority countries — Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Yemen, and the aforementioned Syria- are temporarily barred for 90 days, at which point the list would be updated.

Outrage at the order was immediate and led to protests at several airports across the US. The days following have brought sustained protests and condemnations from several US-based Muslim organizations, as well as dozens of Christian and Jewish organizations and their leaders. A full list is available from ThinkProgress here:

Of course, the order had its supporters, many of whom were influential Christian leaders, a few of whom serve on the President’s Faith and Cultural Advisory Committee. Dr. Robert Jeffress, the senior pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dallas, was one of them. He told Huffington Post that he ‘wholeheartedly” supported the president’s order.

President Trump’s actions are in keeping with the biblical mandate for government to protect its citizens. While Scripture commands individual Christians and churches to show mercy to those in need, the Bible never calls on government to act as a Good Samaritan.

Dr. Ronnie Floyd, a senior pastor of Arkansas’ Cross Church and another member of the President’s evangelical advisory committee, also stressed the supposed difference between the ‘God-ordained’ responsibility of the government and that of the church:

Government’s first job is to protect the people and the church’s first job is to serve people. Our church and many churches will continue our extensive efforts to serve the vulnerable here and abroad regardless of what government policy is. We don’t advise the government on questions of national security and they don’t advise us on who and how we serve people.

The Rev. Franklin Graham, son of Billy:

It’s not a biblical command for the country to let everyone in who wants to come, that’s not a Bible issue. We want to love people, we want to be kind to people, we want to be considerate, but we have a country and a country should have order and there are laws that relate to immigration and I think we should follow those laws. Because of the dangers we see today in this world, we need to be very careful.

It’s interesting that Jeffress and Floyd attempt to draw a biblical distinction between the individual and the government when it comes to social care for those in need, in this case the care for refugees. It’s not particularly unusual that they’d try, as many Southern evangelicals strongly hold a conservative political outlook that is usually hostile to interference from ‘big government’, particularly in social matters. But trying to back up that political ideology by appealing to the biblical text is problematic.  The ancient Hebrew prophetic tradition would have made no distinction between the people and the leaders of the people-whether they were priests, judges, or kings- when it came to God’s dual mandate for justice and righteousness. The laws of God were for all, certainly the laws commanding hospitality, comfort of the afflicted, and justice.

As for Franklin Graham, he ultimately falls back on the need for caution and security; after all, who could possibly argue with that? But his concerns (such as they are; more on that later…) are ultimately unfounded. I have a Masters in post-conflict studies, so I’ve looked into the issues surrounding refugees in detail, and I can assure you that the US has probably the most intensive screening process in the world for refugees and has a very clear idea about which refugees it allows into the country.

First, the US requires that refugees register and interview with the United Nations, which then must refer them to the US. That’s a very important point: refugees don’t get to choose where they go; they might want to enter the US, but might end up in Brazil, Argentina, Germany or any one of a dozen other countries;

Refugees who pass that initial screening then get interviewed by US State Department officials and have (at least) two background checks;

Then the applicant has three fingerprint and photo screenings;

Then US immigration officials review the case;

Then Department of Homeland Security officials interview the applicant;

Then a medical doctor gives the refugee a full physical evaluation;

Finally, several security agencies (including the FBI) perform one last check after the refugee has been matched with a resettlement agency.

The process takes anywhere from 18 months to two years. It’s rigorous, thorough, and judging by the fact that no refugee who went through the process has ever been convicted of a major criminal offense attests to the fact that it works remarkably well.

Even if I hadn’t studied this issue at a post-grad level, information about how the refugee placement system works is readily available to the public. Why the President and prominent Christian leaders around him would deny all statistical evidence and infer that a process that is working well is in fact not working well at all is anyone’s guess.

Then there’s the fact that Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and Lebanon- the home nations of the 9/11 hijackers- were not included on the list. The reasons for omitting them are, again, anyone’s guess, but when you omit nations that actually have imported terrorists into the US  from an order that has the words ‘Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry’ in the title, you leave your motives open the suspicion.

But it’s in Graham’s appeal to the biblical text that I find his argument most seriously falls to the ground. He says ‘it’s not a biblical command for the country to let everyone in who wants to come’, and if ever there was an appeal to the letter of Scripture and a rejection of its spirit, this is it.

The Gospel of Matthew 25 has Christ, as the judge at the end of time, say, ‘I was a stranger, and you invited me in.’
The Greek word translated ‘stranger’ is ξένος (xenos) and it specifically means ‘foreigner’, someone from somewhere different. What that means is that it would be incorrect to use this verse when we reflect on our treatment of those from our own country or nationality who are poor, those of our own nation who are homeless, or those Americans without power or influence; ‘xenos’ refers to someone ‘other’. Christ explicitly refers to himself as someone who is not a citizen, an alien who does not speak our language, share our customs, or our culture… not ‘one of us’…

How are we to react to a ‘xenos’? The Greek word translated ‘invited me in’ is συνηγάγετέ  (synēgagete) and it means, variously, to gather together, to assemble, to receive with hospitality, and to entertain.  The term is pregnant with the ideas of warmth, comfort, and inclusion.

Executive Order 13769 is none of those things. It is cold, harsh, arbitrary, and vindictive.

This is why true Christianity and a commitment to a radical Gospel will always be at odds with the national state. It is the state that makes and controls borders; it is Christ and his followers who transcend them.

The words of Christ in Matthew 25 declare welcoming the foreigner to be a central tenant of our faith and our worship.

The words of Christ in Matthew 25 make it clear that there is no way of encountering him except in meeting the physical and spiritual needs of those in whom he has made himself manifest… and that includes foreigners fleeing war, terror, poverty, violence, and (increasingly) environmental collapse.

The words of Christ in Matthew 25 make it clear that meeting those physical and spiritual needs are of absolutely equal value; it was the Apostle James (2:16) who declared it worthless to bless someone with the words ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed’, and do nothing for their physical needs… So Franklin Graham saying ‘we want to love people, we want to be kind to people, we want to be considerate, but we have a country…’ is useless and insulting.

I’m positive that Jeffress, Floyd, Graham, and the whole list of 23 men and three women who make up the President’s Faith and Cultural Advisory Committee think of America as a ‘Christian’ nation and want it to be even more .Christian’.

How they think Executive Order 13769 accomplishes that is beyond me. To be honest, I don’t trust any of their motives in supporting it.

I think they just want to keep Muslims out of the US. Maybe they think it’s their Christian duty to do so. Maybe they think that will make America more ‘Christian’.

They’re entitled to their views. 

But in light of Matthew 25, they need to realize just who it is they are keeping out…

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