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.