11 October 2012

Voting Beyond the "Culture Wars"

You've all seen them on TV and received them in the mail: political ads. They're everywhere. We can't escape them. I don't even watch TV, but I still get my daily allotment from the lawn signs I see whenever I jog through my neighborhood.

I recently received an ad in the mail from a local politician geared toward the religious (but probably particularly Christian) community. Beneath all of the flashy graphics and proof-texted statistics the only two issues he covered were abortion and the "sanctity of marriage."

Christians have bought into this idea that abortion and homosexuality are the only things that should demand our attention. We've developed a political litmus test, where politicians either pass or fail solely on these two contentions. These two factors override all others.

This, however, is too simplistic. By advocating for only one or two issues like these we are relinquishing our responsibility as Christians to speak out on a huge range of other important issues.

Now, don't hear me wrong. I'm not saying that abortion and marriage are unimportant. On the contrary, I think that they are very significant in our society today. However, these are two issues largely influenced by our culture. Government policy has little affect on them. Political policy merely serves as Band-Aid, ignoring the roots of the problems. A woman's decision about whether to keep her baby or to abort him or her is largely determined by the stability of her family and the moral values that were instilled within her. The same thing goes with an individual's stance on homosexuality. Laws are not going to change people's hearts. Only Jesus Christ can. Thus, we should be more concerned about teaching the Biblical values of life and love in our families and churches than we should be concerned about making this a political agenda.

Further, Christians should be advocates of all life, not just life for the unborn. Pro-life should mean being pro-life for all people, from conception until death. When we widen the scope, we suddenly become very much concerned about people who are impoverished and trapped in unjust systems. We should desire that fetuses not be aborted, but we should also desire that this world be a world worth living in for the children who are actually born.In the same way, we should not just be against homosexual marriage. We should be against divorce and abuse that happens within heterosexual marriages. We should affirm Biblical examples of sacrificial, mutually submissive covenants. By exemplifying Christ in our marriages and  mentoring young women from troubled homes we can have a greater impact on our culture than any governmental policy can.

The Bible says little about abortion and homosexuality, but it has a lot to say about looking after the poor, the widows (or, in our society, single moms), orphans, and immigrants. As Christians, we need to seek justice for the marginalized and disadvantaged in our society. In Deuteronomy 15, God commands his people to not be "tight-fisted" people, but to give to those in need generously. We need to be concerned about our monetary stewardship as a nation and to strive to be blessings to other nations around the world. We need to be actively involved in taking care of our environment. God has affirmed the goodness of his creation time and time again through the Biblical narrative. Creation does not have a monetary value but a spiritual and moral value. The birds of the air, the flowers of the field, the mountains, the valleys, the entire ecosystem is subjugated to pollution and depletion. These environmental factors largely impact others. Prolonged droughts and invasive species are a result of our sin, and they are often causes of famine (which leads to poverty), economic crisis, and widespread migration. 

There are many other issues. Slavery and human trafficking is becoming a worldwide endemic and we need to be political activists on their behalf. Our immigration policies are broken, and we need to seek to love our foreign friends, although we may differ on the specifics of the particular policies. Nevertheless, we need to seek to love both God with all of our hearts and to love our neighbors as ourselves. When we strive to fulfill these two greatest commands, we will critically think about the issue of overriding political choices and the web of interconnected, Biblical concerns that should demand our interest.

08 October 2012


Photo from Kendi Everyday
19 years after playing school with my dolls.

10 years after beginning high school.

6 years after beginning college.

2 years after beginning graduate school.

I became what I think I was always meant to be. 

I became a college professor.

 Teaching has been the perfect fit for my personality because it enables me to engage my creative side as I think of new ways to present Biblical content. I consider myself to be both analytical and artistic. One of my teachers in high school even called me the "most balanced right-brained, left-brained person" she had ever met.

For a while, though, I wasn't sure if I would be able to keep pursuing Biblical studies as a discipline, much less a profession. Toward the end of my college studies and especially during grad school I just wanted to abandon Biblical studies altogether and take up another profession.
In grad school, the area of study I once thrived on became a source of dread and disdain. There was no room for creative thinking, no application of Biblical truth to the public realm where people often ache for illumination. It’s really quite ironic, actually. My deepest desire for the ministry God had called me to was to instill a thirst for God’s Word/knowing God through his Word. While studying to accomplish this I desired neither God nor his Word.

But now I'm teaching. I can feel the pent-up frustration and my forced inhibitions subside. Creative ways at presenting Biblical material weren't permitted in the scholastic world, but they certainly are permitted (and received very well, might I add!) in the education realm. In grad school I was forced to conform to a personality that frankly wasn't me. And because of this, I thought that my own unique qualities were incompatible with the area of Biblical studies. Now I know differently, and I can't express just how free and empowered I feel. Finally, I'm free to be who God created me to be.

So don't feel like you were created "wrong" or that your personality traits and gifts cannot be used in a certain discipline or profession. God can use our traits that make us unique. He wants to use these traits. Knowing who you are and understanding who you are not will help you understand the "you" God created you to be. And the true "you," my friends, may just be the breath of fresh air that this world needs.

17 August 2012

The Elephant in the Old Testament

Photo by Indorock
Social media is a minefield for conflict. Seldom a day goes by that I do not see some sort of heated argument appearing in my news feed. Something about being able to type out responses in an online social media format makes even the shyest person bold in sharing their thoughts and opinions. Maybe you're one of those people who loves conflict and heads into it straight on. Or maybe you'd rather avoid conflict at all costs and only post about neutral, everyday topics.

Regardless of which category you find yourself in, I know you have at some point seen what I like to call the "Holocaust argument." I would say that the Holocaust argument is the argument of all arguments in the Facebook realm. The Holocaust doesn’t even have to be directly related to the argument at hand. As long as you can somehow insinuate that someone's stance is in some way anti-Semitic, their point automatically becomes invalid.

Here's a case in point:
Owned by my own mother. ;)

In the same way, the argument to win all arguments in Christian circles is genocide in the OT. The issue of genocide is a stumbling block for both believers and skeptics/cynics alike. You can say anything about the Christian faith and someone will inevitably refute Christianity on the basis of the genocides in the Old Testament. The mass killings that God commanded make God seem untrustworthy. They make us question his goodness. How do we rationalize God’s seemingly cruel and insensitive behavior in the OT? How do we explain God’s seemingly different disposition in the NT? Is God really a good God if he ordered the killing of so many people?

There are three positions, and only three positions, that can be taken on this issue:

1. The Israelite God is an absurdly vengeful God, and Jesus is the Christians’ attempt to redeem this side of Him. Some very fundamental Christians take this view, as well as many atheists, such as Richard Dawkins. This is probably the only time that fundamental Christians and Richard Dawkins will be found in the same category!

2. The people who wrote the Bible were mistaken about God. They justified their zeal as God’s commandment to them to kill other people. Believe it or not, there were many students during my time at seminary who believed this. This is an easy answer to the problem. However, it creates many more problems. It makes the Biblical authors liars and downplays the inspiration of Scripture. If we cannot trust their account about God, how can we trust the rest of Scripture?

3. God is a God of love, but he is also a Holy God. These two traits may seem contrary, but they coalesce. The genocides in the Old Testament do not damage God's goodness but actually reaffirm it.

We are going to unpack this third position and discuss how it is Biblically accurate. The Bible tells us three different things about the genocides in the Old Testament.

1. The genocides in the OT are an act of justice.
The first thing that must be understood is that God is not a toddler who is throwing a temper tantrum because someone took what belonged to him! By commanding the Israelites to annihilate the Canaanite nations, God was administering justice.

Take a look at what God tells Abraham in Genesis 15:16. God just finished promising Abraham that he would give him and his descendants land to inhabit. But he tells him that they can't have it just yet. Why? God says, "After four generations your descendants will return here to this land, for the sins of the Amorites do not yet warrant their destruction.”

God does not give Abraham the land immediately because the Canaanites’ sin had not reached the “no turning back” point. God was patient with the Canaanites and even gave them opportunities to repent. Take Rahab, for instance. When the two spies entered the land at the beginning of Joshua, they came across a prostitute named Rahab who knew all about Yahweh. Somehow word reached the Canaanites about the exodus from Egypt and the people were afraid of Yahweh (Joshua 2:8-11). However, as we will see in a little bit, their Canaanite religion offered them far too many comforts for them to abandon it in favor of Yahweh.

     Finally, it must be understood that God is not guilty of ethnocentrism. God is not racist. God does not favor Israel over the Canaanites because their race is somehow more appealing to him. God orders the killing of the Canaanites out of judgment. They knew about Yahweh but refused to repent. We know that God is not racist because he later punishes Israel because she disobeys him and refuses to repent, just like the Canaanites did! Through the prophet Amos, Yahweh asks his people, "are not you Israelites the same to me as the Cushites" (9:7)? God is a God of justice, and he does not show partiality.

2. The genocides in the OT are an act of salvation.
This is perhaps the most difficult point because it does not fit into a neat, little package like we would like. But sometimes the easy answers are not the best answers.

It is important to remember that the commandment to kill an entire people group in the OT was a unique part of salvation history. God had the plan since Eden and the fall of humankind to redeem the world. This plan culminates with Christ. In order to bring Christ into the world, though, God had to establish Israel as a nation. For reasons we do not know, God chose Israel as the context through which to reveal his Son. By granting the Israelite's land and setting them up as a nation, God is creating the conditions necessary for Christ's Incarnation.

Although it is not perfect, as no analogy is, I like how N.T. Wright puts it. He thinks about the Biblical narrative as a drama. This drama has several different acts. It begins with the first act of Creation. It progresses to the Fall. Then Israel is introduced in the third act. The plot culminates with the Incarnation of Christ, but you cannot jump from act one to act four. You need to have Israel before you can have Christ.[i] 
As such, the instances of genocide in the Old Testament are a unique part of salvation history that are not to be repeated. Why did God choose to do act three this way? Couldn't he have done it some other way? Why didn't he give Israel a different land to inhabit? We simply don't know. We can't know. I wish I could give you an answer, but this is just simply the way God chose to do it. 
Regardless, act three is finished. We cannot use this special instance in salvation history as justification for genocide today. We now have the life and character of Jesus Christ as a model for dealing with conflict. We are not called to rage holy war; we are called to turn the other cheek.

3. The genocides in the OT are an act of hope.
Here's the big question that needs to be asked: How much does God want to save the world? The hope of salvation depends on the preservation of the Israelite faith. The Canaanite faith was deeply enticing, and if the Israelites had occupied the land with them in it they would have undoubtedly succumbed and renounced their faith in Yahweh.

You see, we tend to confuse Canaanites with “cave men.” Generally speaking, the Israelites were the “cave men.” The Canaanites were a very sophisticated and cosmopolitan civilization. They had extravagant cities, beautiful architecture, an advanced temple system. Compare this with the Israelites. They were nomads who had little material positions. They traveled in tents. They were ex-slaves. Think of how seductive the rich, prosperous Canaanite world would have been to the poor wilderness wanderers!

I always picture an Israelite boy and a Canaanite boy playing together in a sandbox. The Canaanite boy explains to the Israelite boy what his gods are like. "Our gods live in our magnificent temple. Have you seen our temple yet? It's HUGE! Our gods are rich and give us all sorts of riches too. They also live in the trees and ground and air. They give us what we want if we worship them. But they don't require us to live upright and moral lives. What are your gods like?"
The Israelite boy responds, "Well, we actually only worship one God. He's invisible. He lives in that little, grungy tent we have over there, although he does so willingly. He doesn't really give us lots of material possessions. Oh, and he commands us to be holy like he is holy."
Can you imagine the Canaanite boy's reaction? "Your god's 'invisible.' Riiiiggghhhtttt." The poor Israelite boy would get beat up.

The Canaanites believed that the divine was imbedded within creation. Their gods were not transcendent, or outside of nature, like the Israelite God was. They could see their gods and control them. Their gods granted them their immeasurable wealth. This kind of religion is extremely attractive to our human nature. We crave control without surrender. We only want what a religion can give us. We do not like to fully devote ourselves to something if we can manipulate it to our advantage.

In a very similar way, the Israelites were ready to abandon their faith in Yahweh for a false religion that promised them riches and success. If they followed the gods of the Canaanites, they could enjoy all of the benefits without having to commit to anything. The Israelites would have escaped Egypt only to get as far as Canaan before blowing it. But God was desperate to save the world. 
He was so intent on saving the world that he risked his very reputation as a good God.  He ordered the sacrifice of thousands of sinful people so that the Israelites faith would be preserved for us. He wanted me to be saved. He wanted YOU to be saved!

In Joshua 24:14-23, the Israelites have finally obtained the land God had given them. Before his death, Joshua gives the Israelites an ultimatum. "Serve Yahweh, or serve the gods of the Canaanties and Amorites." Those are the Israelites only two options. Not serving is NOT an option. The Israelites quickly choose Yahweh, and Joshua reprimands them. "You are not able to serve the Lord. He is a holy God; he is a jealous God. He will not forgive your rebellion and your sins." 

What is going on here? Joshua just gave this amazing evangelistic speech, and people start pouring down to the altar. Instead of welcoming them with outstretched arms, as any good preacher would do, Joshua sends them back to their seats. 
You see, Joshua knew that the Israelites weren't ready for total commitment. He knew their hearts. They would serve Yahweh for a while, but then they would turn their devotion to other gods when they had something better to offer. Much like the video we just watched, the Israelites were seduced by the benefits that God would give them. It would not be long before a religion that offered something shinier and newer would replace their faith in Yahweh.

Unfortunately, we often do the same thing today. We follow Christ for what he can give us. When he does not meet our every desire, we begin following after other idols. 

Perhaps we are uncomfortable with the issue of genocide in the Old Testament not just because it is difficult to explain. Perhaps we are also uncomfortable with the issue of genocide because it makes God a God who is very serious about sin. God is a jealous God, and he takes idolatry very seriously. It would be so much easier for us if God fit into the mold we wanted him to fit into. It is so much easier when God becomes an idol that we can meld and alter according to our every whim. We want an easy-going idol who is lenient about sin. We want the God who looks the other way when we follow other gods. We don't want the God who commands the deaths of thousands because they follow other gods.

But God takes idolatry very seriously. And we don't want that kind of God. We want the idols of the Canaanites who did not demand much of their patrons. We want to serve God AND our career. We want to serve God AND success. We want to serve God AND comfort. 

Our God is a jealous God. He wanted to save us so desperately that he risked his reputation as a good God so that salvation could eventually come to us. 

God requires absolute devotion from us. Following half-heartedly is not an option. 

So choose for yourself this day whom you will serve: Whether it be a form of Christianity that meets your present desires, or the God of the Old Testament and New Testament who wants so desperately to save you from idolatry.

The issue is not whether you will serve, but whom you will serve.

[i] http://ntwrightpage.com/Wright_Bible_Authoritative.htm

26 June 2012

Confessions: Fragility

Photo by AL Photography

Growing up, my mom had a large cabinet filled with two sets of fine china. As a little girl, I would peer into the glass windows, tracing the soft blue and pink floral patterns with my finger. I begged my mom to let me take them out so I could play tea party with them. My mom insisted that the plates and teacups were very valuable. Someone very special had given them to her as a wedding present, and she didn't want to risk breaking them. They were only to be used for very special occasions. But I never remember using them to dine on. It made me a little sad thinking about how they were never really enjoyed. Did they feel like Mrs. Potts and Chip from Beauty and the Beast, longing for someone to come waltzing into the house to dust them off and put them to use?

Lately, I have felt just as fragile as those pieces of china. This summer has left me feeling insecure to the point of paralysis. I doubt myself, I doubt my abilities, and I'd rather stay locked up in the china cabinet where no one has the opportunity to harm me.

I'm supposed to be writing a thesis about the Old Testament prophetic features of Revelation. But I feel like it won't be "new" and "cutting-edge" enough and I keep procrastinating, dreading the thought of having to defend it in front of my committee of world-renowned Biblical scholars. I might be chipped.

I just accepted a teaching position at a small Christian university, where I will begin teaching Bible courses full time this upcoming fall. I try to appear calm and confident about this new job, but inwardly I'm not sure I have what it takes to do well. What if the students ask something I don't know? What if I say something inaccurate? What if I'm boring? I might get chipped. 

To make matters worse, I have received so many kind words of congratulations. My friends have started calling me "professor." It all makes me cringe. I don't feel like I deserve any of this. I know I don't deserve any of this.
It amazes me sometimes how highly some people think of me. More often, it sends me into fits of despair. So often, people have only seen the best side of me and assume that that's the "normal" me. In reality, it's the side I want everyone to see as my "norm" as I hide the ugly counterpart. It's easy to do in this day and age by carefully controlling the content on my Facebook profile. This blog. I can easily present the illusion that I'm a perfect person who is completely confident and in control.

But I'm not. I'm flawed. I'm fragile.

I know how cynical, vain, and lazy I can be. I fear that these flaws will overpower the best parts of me. I also fear that the very best parts of me aren't enough and that if I do offer them, they'll be criticized, chipped. Then they'll be far less valuable than I initially thought they were worth.

But maybe, my gifts, no matter how little value I seem to give them, are too valuable to God not to be used. Maybe leaving the china in the cabinet thwarts the intentions of the Giver.

Maybe, like me, you feel like what you have to offer isn't good enough. You fear being vulnerable and "throwing yourself out there" will ultimately break you. But God, the Great Giver, only gives good gifts. Even if they may seem imperfect and insufficient, criticizing the gift is criticizing the Giver.

So take the risk. Open the china cabinet. Use the dining pieces indulgently. Enjoy the carefully-crafted teacups and saucers. 

The tragedy is not chipping and breaking the plates. The tragedy is never appreciating the gift that the Giver gave you.

20 April 2012

Creativity as Divine

"Creative Mess" by CasseteFace
I ran home in record speed.

As I threw open the door and dashed into the house, my husband looked up from his reading, startled. I gave him a "can't-talk-now" look and hurried past him to my art studio. I grabbed my comic's storyboard and started writing, praying that the creative impulse that had just struck me would linger long enough until I connected the vivid world hovering in my imagination with the physical pencil and paper. I couldn't help but to chuckle to myself, thinking,
Aaron probably mistook my urgency for a very necessary trip to the bathroom. 

For the past few months, I had been un-inspired to do any sort of art. Every time I sat down to draw or paint I'd stare at the blank sheet of paper or canvas, waiting for something to "hit" me. So why, out of all the times I intentionally set time aside to create, did I suddenly become inspired while on my daily run on the neighboring nature trail?

For reasons I cannot explain, sudden moments that are 
pregnant with creative possibilities seize me without forewarning. These are moments that only artists, poets, and musicians can understand. When these moments come upon me, I feel so alive. It's almost as if I've tapped into some sort of infinite creative energy. It's all I can do  but to pray the moment doesn't leave me before I've managed to crudely assemble it onto paper. Even then paper can't completely encapsulate the immense imagery and ideas of the ethereal, creative realm.

Finishing up my second degree in Biblical studies, where creatively is ironically minimized and occasionally even scorned, I began to think that my interests in art and creative writing wasn't really all that important. But then I read this passage from Scripture:

Exodus 35:30-36:1
Then Moses said to the Israelites, “See, the LORD has chosen Bezalel son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, 31 and he has filled him with the Spirit of God, with wisdom, with understanding, with knowledge and with all kinds of skills— 32 to make artistic designs for work in gold, silver and bronze, 33 to cut and set stones, to work in wood and to engage in all kinds of artistic crafts. 34 And he has given both him and Oholiab son of Ahisamak, of the tribe of Dan, the ability to teach others. 35 He has filled them with skill to do all kinds of work as engravers, designers, embroiderers in blue, purple and scarlet yarn and fine linen, and weavers—all of them skilled workers and designers.1 So Bezalel, Oholiab and every skilled person to whom the LORD has given skill and ability to know how to carry out all the work of constructing the sanctuary are to do the work just as the LORD has commanded.”

What first comes to your mind when you think about the Spirit of God coming upon someone? Do you think about Samson and his supernatural strength? Do you think about Isaiah, and his profound prophetic messages to apostate Israel? Very rarely have I ever thought about God's Spirit sweeping down upon someone for the task of creating!

God didn't need a tabernacle to house him, because as Solomon later recounts in I Kings 8:26 even the heavens cannot contain God. How much more the earth, or the tabernacle/temple? But God graciously complied with the Israelites' house. Here's what tickles me - He essentially says in this passage from Exodus, "Well, if I'm going to dwell in a house it might as well be pretty." Yahweh saw the aesthetics of the tabernacle as something of importance, even to the extent that he gifted certain people with the job of overseeing the tabernacle's visual appearance.

When someone is complimented for their work, they typically reply, "I get it from my dad," or "I come from a long line of artists." But maybe we shouldn't attribute creativity to mere genetics. Sure, Bezalel's grandmother may have been a jewelry-maker. But what if Bezalel's artistic abilities was also given to him by God, simply because God sees creativity as important and he just wanted to give this ability to him?

In ancient Greece, it was believed that a person's capacity for creativity was not a product of his own ability but was a mark of the divine. An artist was merely the vessel, or conduit, of creativity. Poetry, woodworking, and music were spawned from what they called a "muse." This muse would come upon someone and grant them supernatural ability. Thus, if someone's sculpture came out disproportionate or lumpy, if wasn't the human creator's fault; he just had a bad genius. Similarly, when a person created a breathtaking masterpiece, it was attributed to the muse.

In Roman thought the "muse" was called a "genius." Now, in our modern world, a person no longer has a genius. A person is a genius.

But maybe we need to begin thinking about creativity as the mark of the Divine. Maybe we are mere conduits of God's creative activity and his Spirit comes upon certain people to create beauty, order, vision, and joy for His Kingdom. Maybe God's Spirit doesn't just come upon warriors like Samson or kings like David, but upon artists like Bezalel and Oholiab.

People who know the Creator should be the most creative people in this world. May we surrender ourselves to the purpose of God's Kingdom so that we may become the point of contact between heaven's creative power and earth's destructive captivity.

16 April 2012

Loving the Strangers Among Us - Part 5: A Call for Biblical Human Rights

Two Somali boys I tutored in Columbus, Ohio

This is part 5 of a 5 part series that theologically critiques the perceptions that underlie the U.S. immigration issue. This final part explains the Biblical roots of human rights and explains why civil rights should not trump human rights.
Read part one here
Read part two here
Read part three here
Read part four here


Looking Forward: A Call for Biblical Human Rights

Thus far we have delved deeper into three different perceptions on the immigration issue in the United States, exposing their mythic structures and addressing them in light of Scripture. What if, however, some of these perceptions were true? What if in a few years we discover statistics that undocumented immigrants are taking from our economic resources, or that the majority of Hispanics living in the U.S. are negatively affecting our American identity? Should this affect how we treat them Biblically?

The answer is an emphatic “no.” Undocumented immigrants are human beings created in the image of God, and for this reason alone they have intrinsic value. Their impact on our society has little to do with how we should love them and show hospitality toward them. We have this idea in the U.S. that all people are equal, yet we fail to treat undocumented immigrants with the same kind of equality we treat other people who are here legally. One of the famous lines from the
Constitution is that "all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights." Somewhere along the way, however, we've agreed that these "unalienable rights" are for citizens of the United States only and not for "all men." In the cartoon series The Simpsons, the writers satirize this concept by placing the words “Liberty and Justice for Most” above the U.S. insignia in the town’s courthouse. We as Christians need to restore justice so that it is “for all” and not merely for "most." By rooting our understanding of human rights within the Christian tradition, we can assure that citizen/legal rights do not trump human rights. 

Natural rights, or what we frequently call “human rights” are given to people simply because they are part of the human race. In Western tradition, human equality does not typically need to be defended. It is the starting point in the issue of human rights, not the conclusion.[1] Westerners, then, fail to realize just how much our current understandings of human rights are rooted in Biblical principles. Even the German philosopher Nietzsche remarks, "the poison of the doctrine of 'equal rights for all' - it was Christianity that spread if most fundamentally [...] Christianity has waged war unto death against all sense of respect and feeling of distance between man and man."
[2] Similarly, Michael Perry, an American law professor, notes that “the conviction that human beings are sacred is inescapably religious.”[3]

It is easy to think about “rights” as being simply political privileges granted to citizens, such as the “right” to free speech, the “right” to carry arms, etc. Human rights are more than this political “right.” If we are to take human rights seriously, we need to realize that a human right is a claim. It is an “ought-ness.” Ramachandra so rightly concludes the following concerning human rights: “When we use the language of human rights we are not appealing to the generosity of governments, civil institutions, or other individuals. Rather, we are making a claim as a matter of justice: to receive what is owed to us. We do not beg for rights, we claim them.”[4]

Therefore, human rights involve more than solely being “left alone,” or infringed upon. All humans, regardless of their social or legal status, have the right to receive certain things, such as food, shelter, and medical care. When we withhold these things from people, even undocumented immigrants, we are withholding justice from them. 
Ronald Sider of Evangelicals for Social Action summarizes this best by saying the following: 
The goal of justice is not only the recovery of the integrity of the legal system. It is also the restoration of the community as a place where all live together in wholeness. Opportunity for everyone to have access to the material resources necessary for life in community is basic to the biblical concept of justice.[5]
Water companies in Alabama should not refuse to supply undocumented immigrants with basic necessities.[6] This is something that all humans are entitled to, not just legal residents. When human rights are debated, the debate is really about who should have the power and authority to “interpret the community’s traditions and culture.”[7] This is usually because people are vying for political and economic power. When we value law, money, or our nationalistic identity to an idolatrous state, we withhold Biblical human rights from undocumented immigrants. As followers of Christ, we are called to actively seek this kind of justice in our communities by welcoming and loving the “strangers” among us.

One summer when I was in college, I learned much about loving the "strangers" who were in my own neighborhood of Columbus, Ohio. I worked extensively with an Ethiopian woman named Hawa who had just immigrated to the U.S. There was one particularly stressful day where I multi-tasked between helping the husband fill out applications for jobs and sifting through the utility bills, trying to explain the process to Hawa. I remember looking into Hawa's worried brown eyes. Much shorter than I, she tottered back and forth, trying to balance the baby in her womb who was due very soon. Her husband spoke very little English, and I knew that she felt burdened trying to understand the American lifestyle solo. 

To my surprise, I looked at her and said, "Let's pray about all of this." Hawa immediately agreed. I don't know if I was more astounded by my bold suggestion or by this Muslim woman's eager reply. We prayed right there in the little apartment that God would take care of them. I prayed silently that others would see not a foreigner who was "taking advantage" of the free natal clinics, but a fragile human being who was very much in need.
I called the water company afterward and begged the person on the other line not to turn off their water just yet -- the check was on its way. Praise God that they were understanding of the situation!

From working with people like Hawa and many others (Fadumah, Omar, Mohammad, Hayu, Lisbeth...) I've seen just how alone and often neglected legal immigrants and undocumented immigrants can be. The immigration laws in our country are broken and they definitely need to be fixed. But more than that, as followers of Christ we need to start thinking Biblically about the human rights that undocumented immigrants already living in this country are entitled to. If we are serious about loving God with all of our hearts, souls, and minds, we will be intentional about treating immigrants as human beings created in the image of God.

04 April 2012

Loving the Strangers Among Us - Part 4: The Identity Argument

Joel, the Nicaraguan boy my parents sponsor with his friends
This is part 4 of a 5 part series that theologically critiques the perceptions that underlie the U.S. immigration issue. This third part analyzes the American identity argument prevalent in the United States and critiques it Biblically/theologically.
Read part one here
Read part two here
Read part three here


Argument Three – Undocumented Immigrants Threaten Our Identity

“We send troops thousands of miles away to fight terrorists, but we refuse to put them on our own border to keep them out. We will never be able to win in the clash of civilizations if we don’t know who we are. If Western civilization succumbs to the siren cong of multiculturalism, I believe we’re finished.” [1]

The more foreigners who come to the United States, the more the culture of the United States changes. As any sociologist will tell you, people are resilient to change. We like our world to remain constant. Consistency assures us of our identity. With thousands of undocumented immigrants coming into our country each year, we have grown wary of change and often view their cultural identities a threat to our own. According to the Migration Policy Institute, 76% of undocumented immigrants come from Hispanic countries in North America. A high 78% of these come from Mexico.[2] To many Caucasian Americans and African Americans, this is too much change!

This influx of undocumented immigrants has raised many significant questions about the concept of national identity. What does it mean to be an American? Who can be a part of this identity? Many Americans do not want Hispanics to be a part of their nationalistic identity. Samuel Huntington, for instance, accuses Hispanics of being unwilling to assimilate, become citizens, or to set aside their cultures, languages, and customs. He maintains that the heart of American’s national identity is Anglo-Protestant beliefs and values, which includes the English language and Western European culture.[3] Strangely, though, Huntington views undocumented immigration as a positive shaper of American culture because it unites Americans against an enemy. He writes, “If external threats subside, deconstructionist movements could achieve renewed momentum.”[4] In other words, the meaning of American identity is already under attack internally due to multiculturalism. Americans thus need an external enemy (i.e., undocumented immigrants) to maintain our identity. This gives us a common creed that unites us, whereas multicultural creates multi-creeds, which tears us apart.

In his book In Mortal Danger, Colorado congressman Tom Tancredo raises his concerns about undocumented immigrants’ negative contributions to American society. They not only hurt our public services, but they participate in gangs and drug trafficking. Victor Davis Hanson, too, has issued grievances against undocumented immigrants. He nicknames his home state of California as “Mexifornia,” claiming that the multiculturalism there makes governing California difficult. He accuses undocumented immigrants of viewing themselves as victimized, which has further created “tribalism.”[5]

Many of these ideas have come to fruition through recent laws that have been passed that restrict undocumented immigrants in Arizona and Alabama. Within the past 2 years, both states issued laws that immigrants must carry their required documents on them at all times. Government officials are free to question anyone’s legal status and detain those who are not able to present documentation. Further, those who aid undocumented immigrants by providing housing, employment, or transportation are in violation of the law. Ironically, these increased restrictions have actually isolated them more, forcing them to become a separate sub-culture. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Theologian Vinoth Ramachandra reflects on the inconsistencies in American culture regarding this issue. He writes that, due to technological advances, “globalization and the idea of a global village are being constantly touted, [but] national borders in rich nations have been vigorously reasserted and fortified to keep out refugees and undesirable immigrants.”[6] We applaud the idea of being technologically connected to people in a global scope. We want to be able to transfer money to someone in Japan, video chat with a business partner in India, but as soon as foreigners show up in our back yard we do not want them here. What kind of values are we attaching to being “American” that we do not want others to be a part of it?

Yet, Americans are resistant to deem this kind of exclusion as racism. We claim that it is not based on their race, but based on their status. Although this distinction seems clear, the escalating discrimination against undocumented immigrants has blurred the two lines. We may dislike undocumented immigrants on the ground of their legal status, but this dislike has stereotyped the ones we are feeling threatened by. We have become to associate undocumented immigration with the Hispanic race, and this has created racial profiling and racial discrimination. 
It also affects how we perceive those in the country legally. Thousands of Hispanics, including legal residents of the U.S., have fled Arizona and Alabama out of fear of discrimination.[7] An owner of a deli shop in Alabama, for instance, spoke out against the fear his Hispanic workers felt from the recent rulings. Although his employees had shown proper documentation prior to their hiring, the deli owner was verbally attacked by the community for being “un-American.”[8] Perhaps we are reluctant to think of this issue as racism because Americans typically associate race as having to do with the color of a person’s skin, not as having to do with the legal status stereotyped by a certain race.

In New Testament times, the dominant culture was prejudice against people called barbaroi, the Greek word from whence we get our word for “barbarian.” The word barbaroi referred to a non-Greek speakers and was an onomatopoeia. Their “primitive” languages sounded like “bar bar bar” to Greek speakers, hence why they were characterized by this name. Like undocumented immigrants today, these kinds of people were seen as “foreign invaders.” They were viewed as uncultured and unintelligent. They were looked upon with scorn because they did not assimilate with the dominant Greek culture.[9]

Paul makes a profound statement about the barbaroi when he includes them in his list of people who are “one in Christ” (Col. 3:11). The “barbarians” were not to be seen as inferior or as less than human. They were the majority culture’s equals, and the Christians thus had the responsibility to welcome them into their communities. Christians should not fear “threats” of other cultures, for our identity resides within Christ. If anything, we should embrace other cultures and people groups and be inclusive of them in our communities, as this is a complete picture of what God’s kingdom looks like. 

[1] Tom Tancredo, U.S. Representative of Colorado at the Family Research Council event in April 2006. Qtd. in Soerens, Matthew and Jenny Hwang, pg. 93. 
[2] Schildkraut, Deborah J., Americanism in the Twenty-First Century, pg. 3
[3] Who Are We?
[4] Ibid., pg. 177.
[5] Carroll R., Christians at the Border, pg. 42.
[6] Subverting Global Myths, pg. 113.
[7] Epstein, Reid J., “Hispanics Flee From New Alabama Immigration Law,” .
[8] Jamieson, Dave. “Alabama Immigration Law: Deli Owner Defends Documented Latinos, Receives Boycott Threats,” http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/10/20/alabama-immigration-law-deli owner_n_1022535.html?ir=Latino+Voices.
[9] Witherington, “Lecture on Acts 28.”

02 April 2012

Loving the Strangers Among Us - Part 3: The Economic Argument

Two Somali immigrants I used to tutor
This is part 3 of a 5 part series that theologically critiques the perceptions that underlie the U.S. immigration issue. This third part analyzes the economic argument prevalent in the United States and critiques it Biblically/theologically.
Read part one here
Read part two here

Argument Two – Undocumented Immigrants are Harming the Economy

“Take 12 million illegal immigrants out of the [U.S. poverty] statistics and it changes the percentage in poverty significantly! As in if they were not in the U.S. they would not be counted as in poverty!” [1]

In a recent episode of the popular sitcom The Office, the main characters fantasized about how they would spend the money if they ever won the lottery. While the majority of the office workers responded in typical fashion, one of the characters made a profound statement. “I already won the lottery. I was born in the U.S. of A.”[2] This characterizes what a lot of people, both within the U.S. and outside the U.S., think about US citizenship. Those who were natural born citizens somehow managed to “win the lottery,” while those who were born in other countries “lucked out.” As such, natural born citizens seem to have an entitlement to the prosperity that their country offers. Outsiders, however, do not have this entitlement.

Talk about undocumented immigrants “stealing” our jobs and lowering our wages has heightened all over the country. There is an unprecedented fear and resentment against those who “do not belong” here. They are taking what we U.S. citizens are entitled to. In an ad aired in March 2011, Republican Representatives Lamar Smith of Texas, Sue Myrick of North Carolina, and Gary Miller of California riled American interest in immigration’s impact on the economy. Myrick made the economic issue sound easy. She stated, “Right now, with unemployment hovering around 10 percent, we thought it was time to talk about the direct link between unemployment and illegal immigration.”[3]

It logically seems like the 15 million people unemployed in the U.S. are the result of the 8 million undocumented immigrants working in the U.S. "The numbers are simple," Miller said.[4] It is really not as simple as it seems, though. The majority of economists, even those who are otherwise critical of the issue, agree that undocumented immigrants provide a small net growth to the U.S.’ economy.[5] The idea that undocumented immigrants are taking U.S. citizens’ jobs has also been proven to be a myth. The majority of undocumented immigrants are what has been termed “low-skilled.” Since most Americans fall into jobs that are moderately-skilled, their jobs remained untouched by undocumented immigrants. Economist Ben Powell of Suffolk University concludes that “immigrants largely complement our talents, they don’t substitute them.”[6] This could not be illustrated more effectively than the vacancy of "low-skilled" jobs that have emerged following Alabama's strict immigration laws. Natural born citizens are not assuming the positions that immigrants left behind.

Another common complaint against undocumented immigrants is that they are taking advantage of our public services, thereby costing taxpayers more money. This, too, has not been proven to be true. Undocumented immigrants are not capable of receiving government aid, such as food stamps and welfare, without proof of citizenship. The only two kinds of assistance that undocumented immigrants can receive are emergency care (hospital, natural disaster aid, etc) and education up through high school. Both of these services are also available to all American citizens. Further, undocumented immigrants in the very least pay taxes on sale transactions and social security. In order for an immigrant to be hired, he needs a (false) social security number. Payroll taxes are deducted from their paycheck and the Social Security Administration acknowledges that there are approximately $6 to $7 billion that do not match a valid Social Security number. It has been theorized that this is a main reason why Social Security cards are easy to forge. Unlike a driver's license or passport, a Social Security card's make has very little technology involved and resembles a blue piece of construction paper.[7]

This does not prevent politicians from using these economic myths to their advantage. On his website, New York Senator James L. Seward has an article detailing just what kinds of governmental assistance undocumented immigrants can receive. The senator places these two types of aid just mentioned (emergency and education) under the heading “Welfare.” This is very misleading. He concludes at the end of his article that “a fair interpretation of the federal statute and state regulation must result in the conclusion that illegal aliens should not receive any form of state public assistance. However, illegal aliens do, in fact, receive state public benefits.”[8] This statement is very manipulative of the term “welfare” and seems to deceive the reader into believing that undocumented immigrants receive more aid than they are legally capable of receiving. Ironically, if there is one government service that undocumented immigrants are receiving “illegally” it is foster care for the children left behind when immigrants are deported.[9]

We could sift through countless statistics on undocumented immigration and consult the plethora of studies that are available. Economics, however, is not the real issue at hand. The real issue is that we as Americans are feeling threatened by the presence of foreigners in the work force. Interestingly, Hispanics lived and worked in the U.S. without documentation for decades without too much attention. It was only when people felt threatened by the economic downfall in 1929 that Americans became hostile toward undocumented immigrants.[10] We feel that we are being threatened, but the threat has not proven to be real. When crises occur, we need answers to help us cope. Hispanics have in many ways become this economic scapegoat.

Even if statistics showed that immigrants really were causing negative effects on our economy, the root of our anger is that we feel that people should not have access to good wages, health care, and other economic benefits because of status. We think that as citizens we should have access to these benefits, even though we did not choose to be born here. Those who do not have citizenship should not have access to our economy, even though they had no control over which country’s economy they were born into.

Our reaction toward immigration may be to only accept them into our country as long as they are financially benefitting us (or at least not taking from us). This attitude, however, cannot be reconciled with Scripture. There should be no other commitments, including economics, that hinder us from fulfilling the command deeply rooted in Scripture that we are to love and care for the stranger.[11] The Greek word from which we derive our word for “economy” connotes the idea of full flourishing for everyone who is in God’s household. God’s household is open to everyone and he invites everyone to sit at his table. Because of this, “the human person should not serve the economy, but the economy should serve the human person.”[12]

We must remember that we are first and foremost citizens of God’s kingdom and everything that we own is currently “on loan.” We as Christians are called to be good stewards of what God has given us, and sometimes that means sacrificing our monetary possessions for the betterment of others. Christians who live in the U.S. talk on a regular basis about how “good” God is to us or how much God has “blessed” us. We know that everything that we have is a gift from God and is not something that we have obtained for ourselves. Our God is a gracious God.

If we say that all these good things in our lives are a product of God's goodness, what does that mean in other people's contexts? What about people, including undocumented immigrants, who do not have access to clean water and food? Would we say that God is not as good to them as he is to us? That God has not blessed them nearly as much as he has blessed us living in this country? We have this idea in the U.S. that "God will always provide.” This is a very interesting theological worldview that is very inconsistent with how the rest of the world operates. Why should God provide the jobs we need here in the U.S., or the new washing machine to replace the one that just broke down, or the money to "live comfortably" when he does not always provide for people who are desperately just trying to survive in other countries? We Americans have often assumed an attitude of entitlement and intermingled it with religion. What results in nothing more than a widely accepted "prosperity gospel."

Why were we born in the U.S., where God has given us so many graces? For reason that we do not know, we have so much in our lives that have come to us by no merit of our own. Has God blessed us? Tremendously. Does that mean that God has chosen not to bless others? Perhaps it better means that God has chosen to bless others through our well being. Those he blesses are the instruments by which he uses to bless others.

God does not desire us to be tight-fisted people who hold on to all of our good things (Deut. 15:11). May we extend our hands to others so that God can be known as a good God not just to those who are citizens of the United States, but to those who are living here on the fringes of society as undocumented immigrants. 

Continue to Part 4 - The Identity Argument

[1] A reader’s response to “Poverty Rate Hits 18-Year High as Median Income Falls.” http://bottomline.msnbc.msn.com/_news/2011/09/13/7742437-poverty-rate-hits-18-year-high-as-median-income-falls?GT1=43001 
[2] “Lotto.” The Office.
[3] “Does Immigration Cost Jobs?” 
[4] Ibid.
[5] Soerens, Matthew and Jenny Hwang, Welcoming the Stranger, pg. 136.
[6] “Top Three Myths About Immigration.” 
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NtRmS7q9DlM. This video is part of Learn Liberty’s video series on economics. I highly recommend the videos in this series, as they enlist leading economists to dispel many myths about American economics, including myths about the immigration issue. 
[7] Porter, Eduardo. “Illegal Immigrants are Bolstering Social Security with Billions.” The New York Times. April 5, 2006. Business/Financial section, pg. 1.
[8] http://www.nysenate.gov/report/what-benefits-can-illegal-aliens-receive
[10] Carroll R., Daniel M., Christians at the Border, pg. 33.
[11] Lev. 19:33-34; Deut. 10:18, 14:19-21, 24:14-15, 19-21; Mal. 3:5; Mt. 22:35-40, to name a few. Because of the scope set forth in this paper, I am unable to exegete these particular Scripture passages thoroughly. For extensive looks at the meanings of these Scripture passages, I highly recommend Daniel Carroll R.’s Christians on the Border and Jean-Pierre Ruiz’s Readings from the Edges: The Bible and People on the Move.
[12] Soerens, Matthew and Jenny Hwang, Welcoming the Stranger, pg. 137.

30 March 2012

Loving the Strangers Among Us - Part 2: The Legality Argument

Nicaraguan women at their village well 
This is part 2 of a 5 part series that theologically critiques the perceptions that underlie the U.S. immigration issue. This second part analyzes the "legality" argument and critiques it Biblically/theologically.

Read part one here

Argument One – Undocumented Immigrants are Breaking the Law

We deport. We decide. Get in line like my grandparents. Period.” [1]

One main argument against undocumented immigrants is based on the status of their legality. Since undocumented immigrants have trespassed on U.S. soil, they are in violation of breaking U.S. law. They should therefore be viewed and tried as criminals. In response to a Yahoo news article on the subject of immigration, one reader replied that “[…] anyone that breaks the law should be punished […] I believe that people that steal, rob, murder, drink and drive and break other laws should be punished. I also believe that people that hire illegal immigrants should be punished, as well as people harboring other law-breakers (of all laws and types). I believe in the rule of law.”

Many people who hold this perspective wonder why it is that Hispanics do not simply come to the U.S. the legal way. Other immigrants are capable of receiving proper documentation and obtaining citizenship. Those who come here illegally should just “get in line” and come the legal way. At a debate about immigration policies in 2006, U.S. Representative James Sensenbrenner commented that “American citizenship is priceless and it ought to be done the legal way just like my ancestors did.”[3] Americans across the country have echoed similar responses.

The problem with this reasoning is that immigration policies have radically changed since many of our ancestors immigrated to the U.S. over 100 years ago. For our American ancestors, however, there was no illegal way. There were no visas, no green cards, no U.S. consulates. You literally boarded a ship and traveled to the United States in order to build a new life. It would probably have been more difficult to come illegally than it would have been to come legally!

This all changed when the Chinese Exclusion Act was instated in 1882. Immigrants from Asia were excluded from entering the U.S. because they were seen as inferior. Females were especially seen as “suspicious” because they could bear children that would gain citizenship under the 14th Amendment. Ironically, the Chinese Exclusion Act paved the way for Hispanic immigration. Since there was a higher labor demand, employers hired undocumented Hispanics who were seeking safety from the Mexican Revolution in 1910-1917. In the 1920s, the Quota Act and the Johnson-Reed Act were instated to bar certain European ethnicities from entering the United States. The Irish and Italians were seen as educationally and culturally inferior, as well as a drain on the economy. Plus, a majority of them were Catholic, which was thought to be a threat to the American ethos.Over the next four decades, immigration laws gradually excluded more people groups, such as the poor, the sick, the uneducated, and those suspected of holding controversial ideologies (particularly Communism). This exclusion continued until 1965, when President Johnson signed a new law that enabled people to immigrate based on their employability and family ties, not based on race or ethnicity.

However, the employment-based immigration system does not offer as many visas as there are “low-skilled” jobs available. We can tell people to wait their turn to immigrate legally, but if someone does not already have a relative living here legally they will never get a turn, not if they wait 10 years, 30 years, or even 50 years. This, in short, is why people who are living in poverty have chosen to immigrate illegally. Telling them that they should simply immigrate the “legal way” is an oversimplification of the issue.
Another problem with the legality perspective is that it tends to idolize the law. In this perception, the United States’ law is viewed as flawless and absolute. Those who hold this perspective do not question the legitimacy or truthfulness of the law. To them, the issue is simple and “black and white”: the law says coming here without documentation is wrong, so it is wrong.

[A comic I created summarizing the history of immigration]

This argument for the supremacy of the law is particularly one of the most frequent arguments that Christians raise against the issue. Drawing from Romans 13:1-7, they argue that God put the government in place and it is the responsibility for Christians to obey it. We are not to question the laws that our country creates, because the governing officials are given authority from God. This logic is very dangerous for many reasons, not just for the immigration debate.

Unfortunately, this is a poor interpretation of this Scripture passage. As with all Scripture, passages are meant to be read within its larger context. Verses are not isolated segments, meant to be read independently of the passages that precede and follow it. In chapter 12, Paul discusses just how it is that the Roman Christians he is addressing can discern God’s will. “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world,” he writes, “but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (12:2). After our minds are transformed, we can understand God’s will. Unfortunately, many English translations do not accurately encompass the meaning of the latter half of 12:2. The NIV, for instance, translates the adjectives “good, pleasing, and perfect” as modifiers of “God’s will.” A better translation from the Greek reads as follows: “[…] so that you may be able to prove what God’s will is – that which is good, pleasing, and perfect.”

English translations (NIV, KJV, ASV, etc)
“God’s will is good, pleasing, and perfect.”
“God’s will is that which is good, pleasing, and perfect.”

Although these translation differences may be subtle, they make a significant difference in how we should understand the nature of God’s will. Are things “good” because God declares that they are “good?” Or can things be “good” in themselves, and God affirms and delights in their “goodness?”[4] In light of Romans 12:2, the latter is the best understanding of God’s will. We can know that things are within God’s will for humankind and creation because they are in accordance with his goodness and perfection.It should not be assumed, then, that the various laws governing immigration are in accordance with God’s will. Although they may be given authority by God, governments are fallible and often make laws that stand in opposition to God’s character. Theologian John Yoder writes the following concerning Romans 13:

The Christian who accepts his subjection to government retains his moral independence and judgment. The authority of government is not self-justifying. Whatever government exists is ordered by God; but the text does not say that whatever the government does or asks of its citizens is good.[5]

Relying on the law as an absolute entity can be an excuse not to strive to discern God’s will. It is much easier to accept all laws as “good” than it is to do the hard work of probing deeper into the nature of God and his plan for the world. It we want to understand and do God’s will, though, we have to open to the idea that the current laws concerning immigration are not “good, pleasing, and perfect.” Human laws are not the source of our allegiance; God’s will is. Ultimately, we are to “obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).

Continue to Part 3: The Economic Argument

[1] A response to a news article articulating why undocumented immigrants are not welcome in the U.S. http://news.yahoo.com/why-gop-demonizes-illegals-055000771.html
[2] http://news.yahoo.com/why-gop-demonizes-illegals-055000771.html
[3] qtd. in Soerens, Hwang, Welcoming the Stranger , pg. 64
[4] This follows suit with Aquinas’ philosophical conundrum about how we should understand the “goodness” of natural law.
[5] The Politics of Jesus, p. 207.