As a pastor, Christian school & child development center president, college professor and former military chaplain, many have expressed their concern and confusion to me and asked my opinion regarding what to think about the prospect of America’s receiving Syrian refugees. Like many of you, I’ve wrestled, and wrestled greatly, with the issues involved. I normally do not weigh in on these kinds of things, but for whatever reason, this situation has been heavy on my mind – and I can’t seem to shake it. I’ve studied, read, dialogued with others, and reflected. I’ve decided to address the crisis at length, the result of my reflections being the following prayer.
My apologies in advance that this is not the short, bullet-pointed blog post you can read and digest while doing seven other things. I think those kind of reductionist writings over-simplify and insult what is clearly a complicated issue, so I will not be a part of dumbing down the situation in an effort to increase clicks. I do hope you’ll make the time to reading the prayer all the way through – even though it might take a while. If you’d rather not, I understand. Some of us are content to let twitter tweets and facebook status updates guide our minds and hearts on certain subjects, but I hope that won’t be the case on this one.
You may not agree with everything I write here, but that’s ok. The beautiful thing about prayer is that one can be completely authentic with God in a way that others may not appreciate. And if you and I need to be corrected, God will correct us if our ears are attuned to His voice.
I hope this piece helps you to reflect on this crisis and I hope it helps you to think through, and pray through, God’s heart on this issue. If you make the decision to read and work through it in its entirety, you may wish to do so in a distraction-free setting where your heart will be open and attentive to anything God may wish to speak to you. — Jason
For the past week a debate has been raging in our country, and yes, I’m concerned about that. But I’m also concerned about the debate that is raging among your people – the Church – in America. And I’m even more concerned about the debate that is raging in the souls of many of us who are trying to figure out where we stand on the issue of Syrian refugees. Please help us to think through these issues in a responsible, Christ-honoring, people-loving manner. I ask that you hear this prayer and give us the grace of your wisdom.
I must be honest, God, and tell you that initially, this issue didn’t have my full attention. It was only a post from a very famous and respected Christian leader, Franklin Graham, that made me take notice. He opened a rather lengthy political diatribe with the statement, “Islam has declared war on the world, and it’s high time we acknowledge it and respond decisively.”
I can’t tell you how confused I’ve been about this statement. I understand that our world faces terrorism and I know that his statement comes on the heels of a horrible attack in Paris. But Islam is a religion that is not monolithic, right? Just as in the Christian church, there are several sects, theological traditions, political perspectives and national agendas that lay claim to the socio-religious ideology of “Islam.” Is it really possible that everyone who professes Islam could speak with one voice…about anything? Especially something as volatile as war?
So again, I’m confused as to why a man that many Christians revere as a “man of God” would publish such a sweeping generalization – a generalization that could feasibly motivate Christians to view and treat with ill-will many Muslims who do not see themselves as being “at war with the world.”
I’m also confused as to why, even if he does believe that Islam has declared war on the world, he would point to political action as the solution to this. He is a Christian leader, and as such, I would expect him to speak from his own personal area of expertise – living life as a Christian. However, he didn’t speak to my soul – he spoke to my politics.
He told me, and all the people in my congregation who trust his leadership, that the solution was largely political. He said we need to “elect a president and leaders willing to take the fight to the Islamic State” – even though he said earlier that it was Islam – not the Islamic State – that had declared war. He said we need to join forces with Russia, France, and Germany to “destroy this enemy.”
Now, maybe there’s some wisdom to that – maybe there isn’t. But God, didn’t you tell us – as Christians – to “love our enemies” and “pray for those who persecute us?” Didn’t You say “If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat, and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink?” Isn’t that what Jesus modeled on the Cross when he prayed for forgiveness for those who were executing Him? Isn’t that what Stephen, the first martyr, did when he prayed for God to not hold the executioners’ sin against them? Isn’t that what St. Meinrad of Einsiedeln did in the Eighth Century when he showed extravagant hospitality to those he knew had come to execute him?
This is what I don’t understand, God – I’m American and I’m thankful for my country. I’ve even served as an officer in my country’s military. But isn’t it Your kingdom that is forever? Isn’t it Your kingdom that is “within me?” And isn’t it Your kingdom that demands my first allegiance?
If so, then why should my first and primary reaction to terrorism be to demonize all of Islam as if it (if Islam can really be called an “it” anyway) thinks with one mind, exists as one people, and speaks with one voice? Should it be to depend on political leaders and the military? Yes – I’m an American, but I know that You’ve called me to be an ambassador of Your kingdom and Your love before anything else. That said, God, please help me get and keep my priorities straight. Help me to know what’s eternal, what’s temporary, and how to prioritize the former while not neglecting my responsibility to the latter.
Now, God, what about these refugees? I have no idea if or how many of them have terroristic intentions. Some polls say this and some polls say that, so I just don’t know what the truth is. But even so, I’m fairly sure that the overwhelming majority of these refugees are people who are fleeing a literal hell on earth in search of a place to make a life for their families. Most of them are Muslims – adherents to a religion I believe to be theologically flawed – but I don’t care. They are still people that bear Your image – people I believe You love. They are being hunted and they need protection and provision.
But what if they are, in fact, dangerous? What if it’s the case that some of them could, at some point in the future, attack our country from within the same way Paris was attacked on November 13? People are debating this non-stop – some responsibly and respectfully, and some childishly and condescendingly. Some believe many of the refugees are super-dangerous. Some believe they’re not at all dangerous. Others either don’t know or are somewhere in the middle. But if I were to assume the worst, God, and believe that some of their number are very dangerous, how should that affect how I treat the rest? Or should it affect how I treat them at all?
Most of my own life has been marked by failure. Failure to be who I’m supposed to be and do what I’m supposed to do. As hard as I’ve tried and as much credit as I get from people who think they know me – You know my heart. And You know it’s not good. Nevertheless, You’ve seen fit, for whatever reason, to love me. You give me second chances, third chances, and on and on. Even though my sin was as scarlet, You’ve washed me white as snow. Over and over again. You’ve shown me love, compassion and acceptance – even when it was my sin that made Your going to a horrible, execution-style death on the Cross necessary. You were hurt because of me. You suffered because of me. But still, Your compassion was greater – and You told me, and You told the world – “I don’t care how much it hurts. I love him, and I love them, to such a degree that no fear of pain, hurt, death or despair could keep me from doing what’s required to ensure his and their well-being.” That’s the compassion I know and have experienced. You’ve shown it to me. And You still do – every day – when others don’t – and even when I can’t show it to myself.
So it’s that compassion that gives me pause when I think of these refugees. Some of them may be dangerous – very dangerous. The hurt and destruction they could potentially bring might be catastrophic. But is that reason enough for me to abandon my call to show Your love to them the same way You’ve shown it to me? Is my safety worth that much?
You did say to love my enemies, right? And You didn’t qualify that with “unless it gets you killed,” right? Now to be sure, I understand that You have called the leaders of our government to protect their constituency. Many Christians, when we put on our “American hat,” refer to our responsibility as citizens to have a voice in government. Whether it’s by voting, debating issues online, or even running for and holding public office – I can’t say that it’s dishonorable to be concerned with such things – in fact, I’m quite certain that it’s honorable.
That said, God, here is my question: are the political devices, structures and schemes of men and women really the most powerful means You have given us to solve problems like the one before us? Do we really have, in our own strength and wisdom, what we need? Can we save ourselves?
I remember studying the history of the Christian church in grad school, and I remember how Your church began as a ragtag group of laughable and un-influential people with zero political power. I remember how these people were hunted by the religionists and the Romans, and I remember how it was not uncommon for their worship meetings to be invaded by soldiers who would haul them off to prison, labor camps, and even violent persecution that led to painful deaths. I even remember the emperor Nero impaling Christians and simultaneously burning them alive to light his palace garden.
How is it, God, that You were able to use such weak people who were so devoid of power, culture and learning, to revolutionize the world and effectively turn it upside down in the course of a few generations? How could a group of people armed only with their reverence for You and their commitment to the fatherless, the widow, the sick and the oppressed, bring down the single most powerful political structure that had ever existed? They had no weapons, no influence and no slick strategy. It’s almost as if You intentionally used the weak things of our world to shame those it revered as strong.
That said, God – is it naïve and stupid of me to believe that if Your people united behind the principle of taking You at your Word, that change could come about? Is it possible that, even in the Twenty-first Century, the entire political machine in America could be circumnavigated and the problem still solved? Could we ever get to the place to where we could all say, with one voice as people who are called by Your Name, to those who would harm us, “Yes, you may endanger us and even threaten our lives – but that will not stop us from loving you. Even though you come to execute, we will show you extravagant hospitality because our Lord showed us the same. And if we die, that’s fine, because after we do, we’ll be able to say that we lived in freedom – not in fear – and we’ll be able to say that your salvation was more important than our safety.”
Some have questioned whether bringing refugees into America is the most loving thing we can do in the first place, and I’m happy to hear people debate this point. I pray that You’ll give me a listening ear and a respectful heart when considering their position – one that in most cases is heart-felt and spoken in authenticity. They say that the American social structure is already taxed beyond what it can sustain. They ask, “If we already have so many in our nation who are suffering, how can we take more?” This is a fair question, and I pray that You’ll give our elected leaders wisdom as they seek to discern an answer. I’m glad I’m not charged with making that decision, God, but don’t let me forget that I am charged with responding to, with love and grace, whatever decision is ultimately made.
But even as our political leaders wrestle with that, God, let me ask You this: Didn’t You teach us that humanity’s single most important need is the need for reconciliation with You? Didn’t you say eternity is more important than the here and now? Didn’t You say that we are all sinners in need of Your forgiveness? And didn’t You say that the only way to get back to and be reconciled with You is through Your Son, Jesus? And didn’t You give us the Gospel as the means by which we can communicate both the problem and the solution?
If that’s the case, God, and Your desire is to reach the world – refugees included – doesn’t it make sense that if these people were in America – instead of in Syria where ISIS wants to kill, rape, torture and demoralize them, just like ISIS wants to do the same to Americans – then wouldn’t they have an exponentially better chance of hearing that Gospel which would address their most ultimate of needs? If so, that’s a good thing, right?
So in effect – in spite of the weaknesses in our societal structure – maybe bringing them here is the best thing for them because they will have unfettered access both to the Gospel – if they are interested in it – and to Your people. After all, You said we were to be Your ambassadors and fellow laborers, right? How efficient would it be for these folks to be right next door – where we could have coffee with and talk with them?!? Where we could get to know and be friends with them? Isn’t that better than their being in a place where we can’t even communicate with them? Isn’t that better than their living in a place where their lives are not valued, where they live in fear, and where they are their children are hunted daily?
Every Sunday in our churches, God, we pray for the nations. We pray for the Gospel to be preached to the world. We write checks to missionaries, build multi-million dollar missions-sending corporations, and we go to altar and cry for the less fortunate because we believe that outreach is why the church exists. But now, God, when it seems like You’re bringing the mission field right to us, we say, “Danger!” We urge, “Caution!” We cry, “Violence!” We bring out and begin to worship our golden and revered idols – idols that have names: “Security.” “Nationalism.” “Western Culture.” “My rights.” Oh yes, we still prioritize missions, evangelism, hospitality, taking care of those who are targeted by terrorists in their own country – just not as much as we prize our idols – and just as long as it doesn’t threaten the idols that are truly the focal point of our deepest affections.
And to be honest, God, I’m as guilty of this as anyone. I’m not a prophet nor the son of a prophet, so I really have little credibility to preach this message. That’s why I’m not preaching it. I’m praying it and inviting others to pray along with me.
Honestly, I like the fact that my wife and family are relatively safe. I like that my place of worship is, too. I like my culture and its history. I like my stuff. I can cling to my rights with the best of them. But have I given myself over to these things? Have I sold the freedom You purchased for me on the Cross for some temporary and material distractions that inhibit me from occupying a central role in the greatest story ever told – a story that’s still being written? A story that makes a difference for Your glory and for others’ benefit? Have I been content to make mud pies in my trashy backyard when all the while You’ve offered me a luxurious holiday at sea?
Who knows, God? Maybe You’re sick and tired. Sick and tired of our comfort-based, me-oriented, war-justifying religion and You’ve decided to expose it for what it is, and us for what we are. And maybe you’ve decided to use radical Islam as the instrument of Your judgment and rebuke. As harsh as that may sound to some, haven’t You done this kind of thing before? Didn’t You use godless nations like Babylon and Assyria to get the attention of Your people after they left You and went whoring after other gods and idols?
Maybe that’s the real problem here, God. Not Islam. Not our politicians. And not even the non-Christians of America. Maybe the problem is that we American believers – myself included – are fakes. Posers. Frauds. Consumer Christians who are looking for the most possible benefits from Jesus – at the least possible price. Spiritualized groupies who mindlessly follow what spiritual celebrities tell us without checking their references, citations or their ability to present a rational and coherent argument. Clueless sheep who don’t care about the world or its people until loss hits too close to home and too close to our own country clubs – uh, I mean – churches. Ignoramuses who form our worldviews based upon facebook MEMES rather than careful, reasoned research, prayerful reflection and collegial conversation. Pissed-off parishioners who automatically dismiss a position because it’s held by a politician we don’t like. Survivalists who’ve allowed our faithless fear of death to tell us what’s important in life. Closet hedonists whose self-centered desire for safety and security trump our God-given call to cultivate a soul that make a difference in the lives of others who may never say “thank you.”
If that’s who we are and if that’s what we’ve become, maybe it’s time for a wake-up call – but that’s Your call and not mine. For what it’s worth, God, I pray that You would help Your Church to wake up and get our act together before it’s too late and we have to learn hard lessons at the hands of harsh enemies.
But for now God, could it be that You are setting before us an opportunity? An opportunity to show people that we won’t let fear – even justified fear – keep us from demonstrating the extravagant love and hospitality that You demonstrated for us as You suffered, cried, bled and died? An opportunity to say that even though some of us may disagree with the decisions of the federal government, we refuse to allow our attitudes to be soured because our God still reigns and He will still show Himself mighty to love, save, and redeem – even in the midst of a political decision with which we may express serious concern?
God, help us to love You well, and help us to demonstrate this love, and make it real and relevant, by our serving others well – even to those who may wish us harm.
It’s true that the threat of death may be great – but the opportunity for life – Your life – may in this moment be even greater. After all, is not the degree of virtue in love determined by the degree of sacrifice made in order to demonstrate that love? Wasn’t Your death on the Cross the greatest act of love the world has ever seen because it was, simultaneously, the greatest act of sacrifice the world has ever seen?
May I never fight so hard to protect my life if the manner in which I fight betrays the very principles of that for which I claim to fight in the first place. As it is in heaven, so let it be on earth, in my life and in my heart.
At the end of the day, God, may You align my heart with Yours such that I’d rather sacrifice my security and keep my soul.