God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline. -2 Timothy 1:7
There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear . . . whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. -1 John 4:18
In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets. -Matthew 7:12
When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die. -Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Like any good evangelical kid raised in the 90s, I cut my teeth on classic CCM artists like Jars of Clay, Newsboys, PFR, and DCTalk. In the introduction to the track “What if I Stumble” on their album Jesus Freak, DCTalk opened with a quote from Brennan Manning that I am reminded of at this particular historical moment.
The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today is Christians, who acknowledge Jesus with their lips and walk out the door and deny Him by their lifestyle. That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable.
The New Testament is littered with mandates for those who would “take up their cross and follow” Jesus. Having majored in Biblical Studies as an undergrad, I feel I can speak with some authority when I say that I don’t recall ever coming across a passage in the Gospels or elsewhere that said, “Prioritize the national interest over your moral duties to your fellow human being.” But maybe I missed it, given where the rest of the so-called “Christian right” appears to be, at present, with respect to the current administration’s policies.
However, I don’t think I did. Rather, I think that the evangelical right has, to oversimplify somewhat, a refugee problem (or maybe we should call it an “Aleppo Moment“?), one that impeaches its witness as a messenger of the good news that Jesus of Nazareth preached in his time on earth. Let’s set aside the politics of the Executive Order (EO) from Friday and the accompanying chaos (for which the administration really has only itself to blame, though a currently-hysterical left-wing, and an obliging media happy to stoke that hysteria, certainly are amplifying matters in a manner that is only giving the administration cover for their conduct [I discussed this point at some length here]). I do not pretend to know much about the intricacies of our immigration system, though it does not take an immigration expert to notice that the system is a mess. Furthermore, I don’t think that national borders are a bad thing, and I agree that ensuring that individuals who enter this country do not have a malicious intent for doing so certainly is common sense. The EO likely won’t make a difference with respect to any of these matters, but that’s neither here nor there for purposes of this post.
Nevertheless, politics aside, it’s surprising to see Christian leaders more willing to defend the government of the most powerful nation on the earth rather than lobby that same government to do what it can for the “least of these.” Even if you feel that we should halt immigration from certain parts of the world for pressing national security reasons, I would hope that you at least feel that we should find alternate means to assist those in need. Inexplicable to me, however, are attitudes like those of Franklin Graham, who evidently said last year:
We should stop all immigration of Muslims to the U.S. until this threat with Islam has been settled. Every Muslim that comes into this country has the potential to be radicalized—and they do their killing to honor their religion and Muhammad.
Ok, I’ll admit, he’s not wrong, inasmuch as every Muslim does have the “potential to be radicalized” – in the same way that every person has the potential to become a terrible person. Just as it was foolish to pretend that contemporary Islam has no current problems with radicalism that are rooted in some basic flaws with contemporary Islam, so it is foolish to act like every person in a hijab or keffiyeh might be secretly hiding a bomb under their veil. But forget the foolishness of it all – this mentality of Graham’s is, if I may say so, anti-Christian. “Love your neighbor as yourself” is at the core of the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, and this mentality simply cannot co-exist alongside loving one’s Muslim neighbor.
Worse yet, Graham came out recently in defense of Trump’s EO. Here’s what he had to say:
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.
Again, he’s not wrong, insofar as the Bible doesn’t really have much to say about the specific contours of American immigration policy. But his statement is so wildly off the mark, given the latent inference of his statements. To wit, he recognizes that, as an American and a Christian, he has dual obligations – what the Bible says and what the country needs. But he gets his priorities entirely backwards. “We want to love people . . . but we have a country . . . and there are laws . . . .” For Graham, at least as evinced by this statement, his American citizenship takes priority over his duties as an ostensible member of the kingdom of heaven, at least when it comes to passing on public policy questions.
This is emphatically wrong. I have something of a complicated relationship with the faith tradition in which I was raised. One thing, however, that I still firmly believe, which was instilled in me at a very young age, is this: The duties of a Christian and the duties of an American citizen are not coterminous, and there are times where one must take priority over the other. Hence why Jesus, when pressed by the Pharisees regarding the duties of a Jew to the Roman government, told them, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and render unto God the things that are God’s.” Or, if you prefer something more contemporary, Derek Webb reminded us:
My first allegiance is not to a flag, a country or a man
My first allegiance is not to democracy or blood
It’s to a King and a Kingdom
The particularly painful irony is that Graham is the president of a group called Samaritan’s Purse. This organization, which admittedly does good relief work the world over, is named after a parable in the New Testament (yes, you guessed it, the “Parable of the Good Samaritan”). That parable begins with Jesus being asked “Who is my neighbor?” by a legal expert inquiring because he “wanted to justify himself.” Jesus, detecting his disingenuous intent, told the story of a Jewish man who set out on a journey. On that journey, the man was attacked by robbers and left for dead. Two “men of God” – a priest and a Levite – came upon him and moved right along, likely because they suspected the man was dead and they could not approach a dead body for fear of defiling themselves according to the Levitical code. A Samaritan then came upon the man, and the Samaritan took it upon himself to help the man, salve his wounds, and leave him in the care of an innkeeper to ensure he made a full recovery, covering the costs thereof. Jesus’ punchline – “Who was the man’s neighbor?” – must have hit the legal expert hard, because he could not even identify the neighbor by his ethnic identity in the story, instead responding meagerly, “the one who showed the man mercy.”
Why was this so scandalous for the legal expert to hear and admit? Because Samaritans were despised by the Jews. They were half-breeds, practicing a false religion and worshiping a false god. Undoubtedly, many of the stereotypes Jews of the day had about Samaritans are similar to ones we have today about certain religions – say, Islam. Yet it was the Samaritan – or, to translate into the present, the Muslim – who was righteous in the end, while the religious folks in the tale, and the inquiring legal expert, were exposed as hypocrites.
My point is this: Franklin Graham, while harboring stereotypes about an entire religion (and presumably ethnic groups who are predominantly Muslim, as well – I doubt Graham has a problem with Cat Stevens coming into the country, for instance), heads an organization named after a story that seeks to undermine religious and ethnic stereotypes while making a broader theological point. And Graham is seen as a figurehead for evangelicalism in America, meaning that his views influence millions. This is deeply problematic, and if evangelicals who concur with Graham’s sentiments do not come to terms with this apparent contradiction between word and deed – or between their obligations as Christians over against their obligations as American citizens – then they will not only damage themselves and their credibility, but they will also do harm to the message they seek to share with the world at large.
Postscript: It feels a bit futile, or self-indulgent, expending digital ink just chattering about these issues, especially since, to confess, I am very late in realizing my own responsibilities to those in need in the Middle East at present and then acting accordingly (sidebar: one of the reasons why a myopic focus on politics makes one a terrible person is that you end up focusing on the drama of the moment while overlooking the human lives caught up in it all). As such, if you made it this far in the post, and you aren’t doing something already financially to help the situation, might I encourage you to support an organization (World Vision is one of my favorites) working to make a difference on the ground? Talk is cheap (and protests lately tend to be counterproductive), but, as those old-time Gospel singers AC/DC reminded us, Money Talks.
For all of us must appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each may receive recompense for what has been done in the body, whether good or evil. -2 Corinthians 5:10