Friday, January 27, 2017

Flashback Friday: Sanctuary

Given current headlines I thought this repost was appropriate.  Although originally published way back in 2007, not a lot has changed in this debate. My stance has changed somewhat since then, however (and especially given the enormity of what's presently dominating headlines). I'd now argue a less passive, and more aggressive, response that what I write below. We cannot ignore the Biblical mandate to love the "least of these". And the theme of God's people being refugees, sojourners, and strangers runs deeply throughout the whole Bible. So, as Christians, we cannot be silent in the face of this oppression.


Do you remember Elvira Arellano? She was an illegal immigrant who made headlines in fall of 2007 for claiming sanctuary in a Chicago church. This headline led me to study my Bible about the role of sanctuary cities and a word study on refuge. At the time, the debate over illegal immigration died down, although as current headlines show the debate never went away.

Also in the fall of 2007, the city of Simi Valley, California sent a bill of $40,000.00 to a local church for the police required to keep order during a protest outside their doors. The protest wasn't organized by them, wasn't planned by them, and really wasn't even participated in by them. But the rationale was that since by their actions, allowing an illegal immigrant to seek refuge in their church, they incited the protest and that they should be the ones held responsible. Yeah, that made perfect sense.

If this would have held up, it would have set a dangerous precedent for the church. Would a church be held financially responsible if there's a protest on their stance against homosexuality? Or what if a synagogue is vandalized with anti-Semitic tagging, would you hold them responsible? At the time, most agreed that this was an infringement on that church's First Amendment right and a ploy to passive-aggressively stake their ground on the illegal immigration debate.

But is this something we, the church, Christ's ambassadors, should be getting involved in in the first place? There's no legal standard for a church being a sanctuary for fugitives. Rather it's an unwritten rule, kind of like fighting on Holy Ground in Highlander. But what's the history behind it? Obviously our country began as a refuge for many seeking religious freedom. The motivation behind the Establishment Clause in the First Amendment was to keep the government from dictating a state religion so any faith could be practiced freely. Churches were central as sanctuaries pre-abolition just as they were involved during the Civil Rights Movement. So there's historical precedent. But is there Biblical precedent?

When settling in Israel, the refugees from Egypt were given instructions by God to set aside "sanctuary cities". These were cities where one could flee if accused of murder so that their case could be heard by the elders before they were killed in revenge. The fine print though, was that they had to be innocent. Romans instructs us that we should obey the law of the land because every authority on Earth is there but for the grace of God. So is it right for a church to be a sanctuary for someone breaking the law, even if we don't agree with that law?

Another refugee from authorities wrote many Psalms about God being his only refuge. David was being hunted down and though he lived in caves and some towns let him hide, he knew that his only refuge was God Almighty.

But we are also commanded not to "oppress an alien; you yourselves know how it feels to be aliens, because you were aliens in Egypt." (Exodus 23:9) And let's not forget about the Good Samaritan, a foreigner. We also read in James, "Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, 'Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,' but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it?" (James 2:15-16)

So what should we do? Where's the line between giving to a "foreigner" in need and giving them employment? Where's the line between being sympathetic to illegal immigrants and offering your church as a sanctuary? First, we need to heed to existing laws. Second, we need to reach out to meet the needs of those who are here illegally. They are here for a reason, after all; Mexico is an absolute mess between its economy, political corruption, and rampant violence between rival drug lords. Finally third, we need to be careful not to skate on the thin ice of the hot political topic du jour. We need to let our lights shine, be the salt of the earth, and represent Christ in all we do. My question for all those "safe churches", are you doing everything you can to help the immigrant you're harboring to get on a path to citizenship? What are the circumstances of him or her facing deportation (immigration officers have their hands too full to want to deport someone 'just because')? Or are you just seeking headlines?

Yes, families are affected, and depending on where you live chances are there is someone in your congregation who is here illegally. But the church as an institution exists to meet the needs of its parishioners. In this case, that means helping them gain citizenship, legally. Sanctuary in the Bible requires innocence, and unfortunately none of us on either side of this debate are wholly innocent.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Lamenting Protest?

Given our political and cultural climate, I've begun the year reading Prophetic Lament: A Call for Justice in Troubled Times by  Soong-Chan Rah. I want to orient my heart towards God's sovereignty in spite of the environment I see around me and am in search of the right personal response.

In the second chapter, 'The Funeral Dirge,' Rah describes lament as expressing historical suffering. He then quotes from Brown and Miller, eds Lament: Reclaiming Practices in Pulpit, Pew and Public Square how lament takes the form of "arguing with and complaining to God about one's situation and protesting its continuation". Protest jumps out from that quote so Rah continues to say,
"Lament is an act of protest as the lamenter is allowed to express indignation and even outrage about the experience of suffering." (Prophetic Lament, pg 44)

These quotes burned in my heart over the weekend as millions marched in protest of the current administration. In an act of insufficient solidarity I posted the latter quote on Facebook. Meanwhile my wife, indignant over the response she saw from many who called themselves Christian on Facebook, stood up for the protesters.

I wasn't surprised by the response. But it does beg the question, should Christians protest?

Theologian Pete Enns wrote a post this morning addressing that very point. Enns doesn't ignore the paradox of our dual-citizenship as Christians. Although Christ's kingdom is not of this world, Enns notes that it is our civic duty to "hold powers to account when we see injustice being done". I'm not sure I'd go that far, but I have come to the conviction that Christians cannot remain silent in the face of injustice. Our voices can take different tones- vocal, relational, or financial support for the marginalized and oppressed, active protest, civil disobedience, and even lament.

Zack Hunt, author of the blog formerly known as American Jesus (that's not really its name, but that's what I like to call it) marched on Saturday. In doing so, he invited the online ire of many Christians. What would Jesus do? Would Jesus demand rights? Would Jesus incite violence? Would Jesus use vulgar language? (Would Jesus deal in alternate facts?)

I think those questions are immaterial. Jesus would listen. Jesus would welcome the protester into fellowship. Jesus would love because Jesus is love.

So why protest? Why not just sit comfortably behind a computer screen (like I'm doing now, I admit) and share platitudes like "Jesus loves you!"

Occupy Wall Street co-founder Micah White, in an article published by The Guardian, describes protest this way: "Sometimes, the people march. Other times we hold general assemblies, tar and feather opponents, occupy pipelines, go on strike, dance in a circle, riot in the streets or pray together. In each case, behind every act of protest is an often unarticulated theory of social change: a story we tell ourselves about why the disobedient behavior we've chosen will usher in the change we desire."

Doesn't this describe Christianity? Isn't this movement started by a band of working class, under educated, minorities an intentional lifestyle meant to usher in the change we desire? Isn't this exactly what Jesus taught us to pray, "thy kingdom come, thy will be done?"

And when we fail to see the answer to this prayer, "on earth as it is in heaven" isn't the appropriate response lament?

So that is why Christians should support protest. Because to live a Christ-like life in a culture that opposes it is, in itself, an act of protest.

Friday, January 20, 2017

A New Era

"First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—
and there was no one left to speak for me."
-Martin Neimöller

I lost count of the number of times I wanted to dust off this old blog during the election season. Every news article I read about broad-brushing Christians and who they were voting for, every pushback against major candidates in the name of religion, and every headline about yet another injustice urged me to speak up.

But who would listen? That's ultimately what stopped me. I convinced myself that my voice didn't matter- there were already well-known pastors, bloggers, and theologians who were speaking up (some of whom now mocked for it)- and my audience was limited anyway. And to be honest, i felt like it didn't matter. Most everyone I talked to had their mind made up and no bombshell headline or "October surprise" was going to get them to change it. Yet there were also many I knew who felt marginalized, who felt they didn't have a voice, who felt like none of their brothers or sisters in Christ could ever understand where they were coming from.

So I prayed about it. A lot. And I finally heard an answer: "don't be afraid of your voice."

"But if I say, "I will not mention his word or speak anymore in his name," his word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones. I am weary of holding it in; indeed, I cannot." -Jeremiah 20:9

I honestly didn't think Trump was going to win. Yet despite the polling, I could sense the political winds blowing in his favor so I expected he would make it close. At the same time, I couldn't believe it as I was watching the returns with my family as Hillary lost Ohio, then Pennsylvania, then Michigan (although they stayed too close to call, the momentum was already well in Trump's favor).

I wanted to be hopeful. So many of my friends reassured me that he's surround himself with good people and that his tone would change once the magnitude of his office set in. Neither happened in my opinion. So over the holidays, with this blog looming over my shoulder, I continued to watch the news for every irresponsible tweet, every unqualified nomination, and still more injustice.

And then there were the talking-heads asking the question that ultimately brought me to this point, "what is the church to do now?"

I've been teaching adult Sunday school for the past year and I've been surprised how so much of the Bible is political. I always recognized Jesus-as-Messiah as being counter-political. I recognized the political subversiveness in his teaching. But it wasn't until we studied the book of Revelation that this point really set in. The Gospel is political, there is no denying it. But how we apply that 'Gospel-politic' has been debated for centuries. Obviously, I'm not going to solve that here.

But I will offer my take. This blog began motivated by the unholy marriage between the church and American politics. It returns in a new era, but the motivation is the same.

Today, Donald Trump will be sworn in as President of the United States. Today, I am a Christian. And I will no longer be silent.

(Don't get me wrong, I will continue to blog about many of the same things I did before. But I plan on digging more deeply into the political messages of the New Testament. This isn't all about Trump, rather our misguided expectations putting too much of our faith into politics, regardless of which sides we're coming from.)