Trump’s Threat to Muslims, Refugees (and you and me)


Today’s post comes from a larger one I wrote on Trump’s threat to people I care about and to our democracy. At the end I will make a few additional comments about more recent developments in the last few days.


I worry for my Muslim friends, especially my former refugee clients. As a student in grad school for social work, I interned this last year at an agency that helps resettle refugees here in Chicago. The case worker I interned under is Iraqi and many of the clients we worked with were either Syrian or Iraqi.

Refugees by definition have fled their home country because of a well founded fear for their lives. The situation for refugees in America is a little different than in Europe. We are not directly connected to Africa or the Middle East, so we can better control the volume and flow of people coming here. Refugees go through a vigorous screening process before they are given the ok to come.

Yes, it’s not always possible to obtain original documents and no screening process is one hundred percent reliable. But the refugee process is more rigorous and time consuming (it can take two years) than any other way of coming here. There are easier ways for foreign terrorists to slip in and US refugees have rarely been implicated in terrorism. As of October 7, 2015, only three of the 784,000 refugees resettled in the US since 9/11 have been caught plotting terrorist acts.

If that still sounds like a scary number, it’s worth noting that, statistically speaking, terrorism is a minor threat compared to other everyday risks. Americans are more likely to be killed by lightning or peanuts than they are to be killed by terrorism. Its also worth noting that most US domestic terrorism is committed by white Christians (self-professed, at least). But we know its ridiculous to stereotype all such people, right? No population is completely free from potentially dangerous elements. It’s unfair to expect that or scapegoat entire populations based on the actions of a very few.

As a side note, the refugee crisis is broader than the Middle East and it is only going to get worse. We can’t fix everything, but many less affluent countries are doing much more than we are. And in light of our environmental habits and foreign policy choices, I think it would be hard to dispute that we bear at least some responsibility for what is going on.

And for the most part, refugees and immigrants more generally do not take jobs away from American citizens. They often add to a countries economy as they did in Germany. Many other common notions about immigrants, such as the idea that they bring increases in crime, are wrong or at least simplistic.

Trump’s Threats

Donald Trump has consistently whipped up fear and hatred toward Muslims and refugees. He called for a ban of all Muslims from entering this country, suggesting that any one of them could be a terrorist. He has entertained shutting down Mosques, registering Muslims, and insinuated that they know who among them is a terrorist (i.e. even innocent Muslims are in some way culpable if one of them commits an act of terror). According to him, “Islam hates us.”

He insists that terror attacks committed by fringe Jihadi groups and which violate the Qur’an and Hadith be branded “Islamic.” (How would we feel about someone insisting that the KKK be labeled a “Christian terror” group?)

Although he will not tell us what his plan to defeat ISIS is, he is clear that he wants to bring back torture and also kill the families of terrorists, even if they are innocent. Trump has indicated that he is willing to violate the Geneva Convention and even steal invaded countries’ resources. The way he describes Muslims, and especially refugees, is as an invading horde or an infestation. He regularly lies about refugees not being screened and being a Trojan horse for terrorists. He has promised to deport all Syrian refugees we have taken in.

Many of the advisors and cabinet Trump is choosing to surround himself with also hold extremely Islamophobic views. For example, his chief strategist Steve Bannon is an “alt-right” white nationalist who, as executive chair of Breitbart, spread anti-Muslim hate speech.

General Michael Flynn, his pick for national security advisor, once tweeted that, “fear of Muslims is RATIONAL.” According to the New York Times, Flynn appears to believe that:

“Islamist militancy poses an existential threat on a global scale, and the Muslim faith itself is the source of the problem, he said, describing it as a political ideology, not a religion. He has even at times gone so far as to call it a political ideology that has ‘metastasized’ into a ‘malignant cancer.'”

I can’t imagine how terrified many of my Muslim and refugee friends must feel right now. Their futures and possibly their very lives hang in the balance. Where will they go and who can take them in if they are deported? Their home countries are war zones and most surrounding countries are flooded with refugees. How will they survive (let alone thrive)? And if they remain here, they are subject to discrimination, harassment, and even violence. If, God forbid, another terrorist attack occurs, they will likely be scapegoated mercilessly.

The Danger of Escalating Violence

To be honest, I fear that Trump’s belligerence toward Muslims will incite more radicalization; and this in turn could endanger more people (including Westerners) and snowball into escalating violence.

We know that terrorists often come from marginalized groups that feel oppressed. We know that both Jihadi radicals and many far-right conservatives want to sow a “clash of civilizations” narrative where (Western) Christianity and (Eastern) Islam are irrevocably at war with each other. Not just extremists on either side, but the cultures in toto.

We know ISIS is already using Trump in their recruitment videos. They are saying (essentially), “look how much they hate you. Look how they treat you. You will never be accepted there. Join us and have your vengeance.”

We have seen how Western colonialism and violence have bred anger and responding violence. More terrorism. (Not unlike what their terrorism and historical violence has done to us.) If Trump enacts policies that violate the civil rights of Muslim Americans and is willing to target innocent Muslims, bomb Iran, etc.; can there be any doubt this would invite push back? Trump can kill groups of terrorists, but he can’t “bomb the hell” out of an idea, an impulse.

What happens when new terror groups rise up and new terrorist acts are committed? Can we count on a Trump administration to make careful distinctions in policy and rhetoric between extremists and Muslims in general? Why would we, given what he’s already said and done.

And what happens if Trump’s domestic promises of restored jobs and greatness fail to materialize? Can we expect Trump to take the blame or advance a nuanced account of the challenges we face? Of course not. He will find a scapegoat like he’s consistently done. And Muslims are easy scapegoats right now in the cultural milieu we find ourselves.

Constituting only 1% of the population, many people don’t have daily relationships with Muslims. So they revert to stereotypes. Such a small demographic lacks political power. Since most Muslims in the US are ethnic or racial minorities, racism and xenophobia come into play with Islamophobia.

As my friend Brian points out, one difference between Islamophobia and anti-Semitism in the West is that some Muslims actually do legitimately harmful things. Most Jews are not committing acts of violence against Westerners. (Though to be fair, Israeli Jews often do harmful things against Muslims, and vice versa). Terrorist acts are visibly and undeniably evil.

Fear and hatred toward Muslims is more widespread than we would like to believe. FBI data shows that hate acts against Muslims have tripled just in the last year. There is an entire cottage industry of books and websites trying to argue that Islam is inherently violent and totalitarian. Muslims that seem nice are either not being consistent or they are crafty, just biding their time to impose Sharia on you.

I’ll never forget some of the comments I saw on a post by Evangelical leader Franklin Graham. In the post Graham is agreeing with Trump’s call to ban all Muslims from immigrating to the US. The post got a lot of push-back, but it also got 167,000 likes and a lot of chilling cheers such as some of the following:

“…This is about a culture of evil power lust based on the twisted teachings of the Quran!…Islam teaches you need only kill people for Allah to be brought into heaven…All Islam carries this demonic seed!!”

“Ship all of them out of OUR COUNTRY, ENOUGH OF THEIR MADNESS!!!!!!”

“Pastor Graham I would go one step further, deport them all. I would feel a little sorry for any peaceful ones, but they had a chance to help this country out by reporting on where the other ones are located.”

“Remember the story of David and Goliath?? David killed him with a sling shot with God’s power. This shows that when your life is in danger you do away with the evil by destroying them. In the Bible times you find walls around the towns. Why? To keep the enemy out!”

“…they only teach hate and death to other religions in there…so yes get rid of all mosques.”

“The man advocating the quarantine of dogs does so not out of hate for the dogs. Rather it is because he knows that many are rabid and a threat to human life….The solution in such a case is not to kill them all, for which a strong argument exits, but to exclude them…”

“Unlike the Judeo-Christian faiths, Muslims are not bound by truth. They are not only permitted to lie, they are commanded to; it’s called Al-Taqiyya. To Muslims Mohammed is the perfect example and they are to follow his example similar to the way Christians are to follow Christ’s example. According to the Hadith…Mohammed was a terrorist, murderer, deceiver (lier) racist, misogynist, rapist, and pedophile and promoted the same for the advancement of Islam. That’s a historical fact…any Muslim that does not subscribe to terrorism, rape, racism, ect. either is not in fact Muslim at all (AKA Secular Muslim) or they are practicing Al Taqiyya to deceive the Kufar (Unbeliever). Allah is referred to in the Koran as ‘The greatest of deceivers” (AKA Liar). To deceive is a central value of Islam. Never forget that.”

With anti-Muslim sentiments like this so high, and now with an Islamophobic administration in power which has promised to do tangibly harmful things to Muslims, there are legitimate reasons for fear.

Addressing Some Common Misconceptions

The accusations in the comments above are scary, but are they true? It is beyond the scope of this post to give that question the attention it deserves, but in a word, NO they are not. A tiny minority of Muslims are terrorists and their brand of Islam is definitely dangerous. They and it deserve to be eradicated, just like every other movement of hate.

There are also other troubling norms that are reasonably widespread in the Muslim world: homophobia, dehumanizing treatment of women, intolerance of other religions, cruel judicial punishments, etc. We liberals need to be honest about that. Yet, these kinds of problems are not exclusive to Islam, not all Muslims fall prey to them, and in many cases there is legitimate theological debate about if they are true to the spirit of Islam.

On the other hand, most Muslims are peace-loving people. For millions of Muslims, their Islamic faith has transformed them to love God and be loving and compassionate toward others. I’ve seen this in my Muslim friends and also read about it in my study.

Are these people simply good in spite of an ideology that is really all about ruthless domination? Again, I don’t think so. The Al-Taqiyya claim that Muslims can regularly lie to deceive others is just wrong. The Quran everywhere calls for honesty, with extremely circumscribed exceptions. The doctrine of Al-Taqiyya is most prominent in the historically persecuted Shia branch of Islam and it has to do with being able to avoid torture.

There are definitely violent injunctions in places in the Quran. Beyond the Quran, Sunnah, and Hadith; there is certainly intolerance and imperial religious violence at times in Islamic history. Though to be fair, the same is true of Christianity and other religions that become intertwined with empire.

The question is, what is the context of these violent passages? Most scholars would agree that there are three main stages of early Islam under Muhammed. Early on, Islam was a tiny persecuted movement in Mecca. At this stage, Muhammed called his followers to pacifism and forbearance.

Later, after Muhammed fled to Medina, he exercised political power but was still in a precarious place, under constant assault by the stronger Meccan coalition. At this point, Muhammed believed Muslims were given the option to fight against those who opposed them – but only defensively and the way they fought was to be bounded by restrictions not unlike our “just war” school of thought: no killing of non-combatants, proportionality in violence, a preference for mercy and peace, no unnecessary destruction of crops, protection of holy places and leaders (including Jewish and Christian ones), and so on (Esposita 132-57; Dagli 1805-17).

After Muhammad retook Mecca (with virtually no bloodshed), he started to have much more control in the Arabian Peninsula. There are Quranic passages after this that strike many as more violent and unbounded than those that came before. For example, this is when the infamous “verse of the sword” was revealed.

There is debate about what passages like this mean and whether this new phase introduced a more aggressive mandate that “abrogated” earlier restrictions or, rather, if it was restricted to a particular situation and (contextually) more bounded itself than critics usually imply. Under the latter reading, earlier passages that urge peace and moderation in justified fighting are not abrogated but are meant to always apply.

Islamophobes and terrorists side with the former interpretation. Most Muslims and Islamic scholars I have read say the latter (for example, see here or read Caner K. Dagli’s essay “Conquest and Conversion, War and Peace in the Quran” in The Study Quran).

It’s important to note that Muslim belligerence sometimes stems in part from their sense of being under assault. Such a perception goes back to the crusades, but more recently it stems from events such as the following:

British massacres of Muslim in colonial India, invasion of Afghanistan, and economic exploitation of Egypt; French exploitation of Lebanon; the creation of the state of Israel (on which see below); the Russian invasion of Afghanistan and violent suppression of Muslims in Chechnya; ethnic cleansings of Muslims in Bosnia and Myanmar; and America’s oppressive Mid-East policies (e.g. propping up regressive regimes, CIA backed coups, dubious invasions with hundreds of thousands of lives lost as “collateral damage,” areas destabilized, drone strikes, carte blanche support for Israel – even when they engage in injustice, military bases throughout Muslim majority countries, etc..) (Goldschmidt 193-408; Aslan 225-77; Atmstrong 302-401).

With Israel in particular, we are simply not thinking empathetically about how it would feel, psychologically, to have Zionism imposed from the outside. At the time of the Balfour Declaration, 93 percent of Palestine was non-Jewish (Goldschmidt 266). It had been under Muslim rule for thirteen hundred years. From an Arab perspective, the creation of Israel broke a previous promise England had made to them (Goldschmidt 202).

I remember reading about a Saudi King who asked President Roosevelt why a national homeland for the Jews could not be carved out from a part of Germany, since they were the ones who perpetrated the holocaust (Goldschmidt 236). Can you imagine how the Germans would feel about that, especially if the Israelis did there what they do in Israel/Palestine.

Or imagine if America became so weakened that some outside power like China could decide to give a good chunk of the American East coast (including culturally important cities like New York) back to Native Americans for a national homeland. We’d be shamed and incensed.

I’m not saying that Arabs, Palestinians, or Muslims haven’t done terrible things to Israelis; but they’ve had a lot of terrible stuff happen to them too. And as a rule, we are not even trying to understand their perspective.

And that ties into a final point. Much of the violence perpetrated by Muslims is as much based on economic, cultural, and geopolitical realities as it is Muslim doctrine. When various peoples are poor, oppressed, shamed, and desperate; they resort to scapegoating and (desperate) violent measures. Where there are power vacuums, they will be filled. Where people feel marginalized and disenfranchised, they will lash out. This is true for people in general, not just Muslims. We’ve seen it here in America too.

Likewise, Muslim attitudes towards those of other faiths is complicated. Islam is a proselytizing religion that seeks to convert others to its way of life. There are places and times it has been intolerant of other belief systems, especially polytheism. But in general, it has not sought to forcibly convert others. Jews, Christians, and Sabeans were protected “peoples of the book” who were allowed to continue practicing their religions under certain restrictions. Both Caner Dagli (1810-11) and Reza Aslan (271-72) argue that this protection was sometimes extended to Hindus, Zoroastrians, and others.

And since “there is no compulsion in Islam” (Surah 2:256 cf 109:6; 18:29; etc.), there is no conflict for Muslims in democratic countries tolerating people of other faiths or no faith.

Similar complexities revolve around the Islamic notion of Sharia. Like Judaism, Islam tends to emphasize orthopraxy (correct action) over orthodoxy (correct belief) (Esposita 159). This does not mean theology is unimportant to Muslims, nor does it mean they are merely “legalistic” (though of course some are).

Sharia has many meanings and is broader than just “Islamic law” – though it includes that. It is a body of Quran-based guidance that shows Muslims how to live. There are different schools of interpretation and different levels of rigidity in how Muslims approach it.

Traditionalists want to equate the early law schools with God’s own unalterable will. Reformers argue that only the Quran is completely divine. The other elements that go into Sharia are human and the products of social custom and human reasoning. As such, they are contingent on social and historical circumstances and are subject to change (Esposita 158-66; Aslan 164-73).

Even in terms of the Quran, as Reza Aslan points out, it was revealed in a progressive and flexible way: with new revelations superseding old ones and adapting to the Muslim community’s changing circumstances (Aslan 170-71). While revelation ceased with Muhammad, reformers argue that keeping true to this adaptive spirit and the (for the times) radically egalitarian ideals of the Quran and early Muslim community means emphasizing those aspects of it; seeing it’s values of justice, compassion, and mercy as the interpretive center and trajectory through which to approach the rest and be able to adapt it where necessary.

Some critics claim that certain communities in Europe with a high Muslim immigrant population have become “no-go” zones where non-Muslims are unwelcome and where regressive forms of Sharia are enforced. There are certainly poor, predominately immigrant communities that face challenges, including crime and a sense of alienation. These problems are as much socio-economic as they are religious (Esposita 233).

While I cannot completely rule out the possibility of some such de facto “no-go” communities, many such claims have been debunked and most of the sources I see such claims in are Islamophobic and in other ways not credible. I and I think most Muslim immigrants would agree that they should follow the laws of whatever country they find themselves in, granted these laws are just. Regressive forms of Sharia should not be tolerated. For more on the challenges of Muslims in the West see Esposita 221-40.

All of this to say, Sharia has different meanings and is subject to a variety of interpretations and applications (not unlike Jewish halaka or even Christians’ use of the Bible). Just like them, some interpretations are more compatible with a constitutional democracy than others. But also just like them, it would be unethical and unconstitutional to insist that Muslims completely disavow Sharia. We would never say Jews had to disavow Jewish law or Christians disavow the Bible in order to live in or participate in our democracy.

Muhammad was a complex historical character. As a non-Muslim, I’ll freely admit that there are aspects of his life that I find troubling. Particularly his marriage to a young girl (although there are a variety of Muslim explanations of what this really meant and when it would have been consummated). And yet, there are also things I admire about Muhammad, like his honesty, compassion, and forbearance.

He was willing to fight and even be ruthless at times, but I think painting him as bloodthirsty is a distortion in light of his overall character as well as the historical and situational context he lived in (see Aslan 3-108). It’s also important to remember that the attributes of Muhammad most Muslims seek to copy are his benevolent ones (Goldschmidt 40-41).

Those who would seek to know more about Muhammad deserve to read from a variety of credible perspectives (including sympathetic ones and not just those out to damn him).

I could write about many other things. For example, I could write about how Muslims view God not just as a harsh judge, but also as profoundly loving. But the bottom line is this: Muslims are basically like everyone else. Some are good people and others bad. Likewise, as with other religions, Islam can be interpreted in a variety of ways. To some, Islam inspires violence and hatred. For others, it leads to love and kindness.

In contrast to Trump’s caricature, the refugees I have worked with are mostly good people. I’ve laughed with them, watched them kiss and play with their children, and even been invited into their homes for coffee and baklava. I know they are not the menace Trump and many of his followers imagine. I weep and rage at the hatred and ignorance I have seen spew forth from many against Muslims and particularly Syrian refugees. I fume at the privileged hypocrisy that cries “religious freedom” and would strip the rights of those of a different faith.


Since I wrote that a month ago, some of my worst fears have been realized. President Trump reiterated his wish that we would have stolen Iraq’s oil – even going so far as to suggest we might have another chance at that. He expressed his belief that the Muslim world hates us so much that nothing we do could make things worse. He expressed the desire to move the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. This and other actions have signaled Trump’s disdain for Palestinians and his willingness to support Israel’s apartheid policies against them.

He signed an executive order that will ban immigrants and refugees from seven Muslim majority countries. The ban includes refugees who have already been approved to come, even seeking to turn away some who had just arrived at the airport!

Such a blanket ban is illegal, immoral, and unnecessary. Hearts are broken, hopes are dashed, and people will die from this.

It is also disingenuous and displays Trump’s corruption. To wit: citizens from countries banned have historically posed little to no terrorist threat to the United States whereas citizens from Muslim countries not included in the ban (for example, Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates) have posed such a threat. Not coincidently, Trump has business connections with the countries excluded from the ban.

Trump also expressed his desire to give Christian refugees preferential treatment over others. As Alan Noble  observes, his Executive Order on refugees includes:

“mandatory reports every 180 days on crime, radicalization, terrorism, etc. committed by foreign nationals. This is propaganda by Trump to justify his terrible policy. It’s a stacked-evidence fallacy…The idea is to exclusively report about the bad things done by a group of people. If this was an actual effort at transparency, the report would also include data on the successes and contributions of those foreign nationals. But Trump is not concerned with that because it doesn’t fit his narrative. These reports will breed animus towards Muslims.”

Scapegoating and demonizing minorities is nothing new. And it never ends with mere words. Already it is set to kill people. Coz that’s what this kind of action means in the real world. Such flagrant hatred and violence incites responding hatred and violence.

This unnecessarily endangers our service men and women on the front lines. It frays friendships we have worked to establish. It creates the virtual certainty of more terrorist attacks. That crisis can then be used by the Trump administration as a pretext for further solidifying power and “unifying” people for the crusade against Muslims that the Right has openly lusted after for years.


Essential Theology: the Everywhere God


I believe that God is omnipresent, that he in some way exists everywhere. This follows from him being the Ground of all Being. If everything everywhere continues to depend on his upholding for its existence, then he must inhabit and infuse everything with his sustaining power and presence.

I suppose one could see God as a proximally distant, deistic first cause who wound the universe up like a machine and who now lets it run independently, free from direct contact with him. I guess this is a possiblity. But it is not the classical view of God. Nor is it the typical one of many traditional peoples – who tend to see everything infused with the divine.

In my view, the omnipresence of the divine is one of the most widely agreed upon and (I think) best evidenced aspects of God. It is held by Jews, Christians, Sikhs, Hindus, Zoroastrians,  Neoplatonists, Chinese philosophers, many Native Americans, and others as well. Buddhism and Islam have, in different ways, a view of the divine that is effectively analogous to omnipresence (see below). It is also taught by most sources of sacred revelation of which I am aware.

While some texts in the Hebrew Tanakh might seem to limit God’s knowledge and locale, others emphasize his unsurpassed knowledge and his presence everywhere. That God is omnipresent is also the view of modern Judaism. “Can a man hide himself in secret places so that I cannot see him? declares the Lord. Do I not fill heaven and earth? declares the Lord?” (Jeremiah 23:24).

Christianity affirms God’s unique revelation in the incarnation of Jesus, but it also teaches that God is omnipresent. “[there is] One God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Ephesians 4:6).

Hinduism sees all things as manifestations of Brahman, though our ignorance masks this reality.  “All that we see in the world is Brahman” (Chandogya Upanishad 3.14.1).

One source describes it in this way: “Thus, Brahman is conceived of as the very essence of existence and knowledge, which pervades the entire universe, including every living being. The goal of Hinduism is to somehow “wake up,” and realize one’s own connection to the divine reality that may be called Brahman or God. Because God is everywhere, God is also present within each living being.”

In ancient Chinese religion, Tian (“Heaven”) was the Supreme Being. Although conceived of as personal, at other times it was seen as an almost pantheistic force. Tsu-Kung Chuang writes, “Tian ultimately became a symbol for the universal and inherently good principle of creativity constantly functioning in the background as the source and origin of all things, permeating all things and unifying all things into a harmonious whole” (Spencer “The Global God” 191-92).

Many Native Americans also believe that the divine is omnipresent. Algonquin tribes see Manitou as the personal spiritual life force that manifests in everything. I remember watching a documentary on the American West. In one episode the narrator chronicaled a treaty the Cheyanne agreed to with white settlers. Sensing deception, they warned the settlers that “the everywhere God” would see if the treaty was broken and judge them if they were unfaithful to their word (as they in fact were).

In some Buddhist understandings, Nirvana is an enlarged and transformed state that envelopes perception of all things.

Keith Ward characterizes one Mahayana Buddhist viewpoint in this way: “Mind includes in itself all states of being of the phenomenal world and the transcendental world…That means that the attainment of nirvana is not a transfer from the empirical world to the realm beyond; since there is no realm beyond; there is only the one world, seen either as empirical or as transcendental. Thus it is that ‘All sentient beings intrinsically abide in eternity and are entered into nirvana’ (46). All that is needed is to realize this, and the unsatisfying nature of impermanent nature (which was always in a sense illusion) will be overcome in the experience of absolute bliss (which is only seeing the same reality in its true nature)” (Ward, “Concepts of God.” 64-65).

Because Islam so emphasizes God’s transcendent uniqueness, it is hesitant to associate God with anything in the world. Some Muslims deny that God is literally omnipresent. They say he only resides on his throne in heaven. To say he is everywhere or in everything is idolatrous. However, this view would also say that God’s knowledge is omnipresent. They would say he sees all things, controls all things, and can be confessed, worshipped, and vitally encountered anywhere. In effect, this is not wholly different than what others mean by God’s omnipresence.

Other Muslims, while being careful to reject identity between the Creator and his creation, do affirm that God is omnipresent. Sufis particularly seek a mystical, loving union with God. And in my view something very like divine omnipresence seems implicit in Quranic texts: “And indeed We have created man and We know what his own-self whispers to him. And we are nearer to him then his jugular vein” (Quran 50:16).

In spite of this broad agreement I should note that not everyone sees it this way. Many Mesopotamian, Greco-Roman, and African deities are spacially limited. Many traditional societies have a pantheon with a Supreme God who is distant from the world, and then lesser deities and ancestors-spirits who are more connected to everyday life. Even here though, the spiritual realm touches everything.

These commonalities might in some cases be based on philosophical or pragmatic reasoning (on which more shortly). But I believe they are more widely grounded in religious experience. People can experience God or the transcendent in a wide range of contexts – in nature, at a fiery religious service, in tender moments of human affection, in meditation, prayer, or reflection, and in other places too. Virtually any place or object can become a locus or channel of the divine. This might be more concentrated at specific holy sites, rituals, or objects (whether due to God’s will or simply human convention, I can’t say).

However, to many traditional peoples and mystics, it is not coincidental that almost anything can become a place of divine encounter. Rather, from a mature spiritual viewpoint God is in and behind all. Either (as some would have it) God is the only most Real entity and everything else is an illusion of which we must free ourselves. In this view, the goal is to be completely (re)unified to God or the Ultimate by disciplined shedding of the ego and attachment to the ephemeral world.

Or, in what I see as a more balanced approach, the world and individual personhood are real and of great worth, but they are thus precisely because God has so endowed them and purposed them and inhabited what is best in them. The goal of the spiritual life here is to simultaneously enjoy and value our physical life and embodied individuated relationships with others (in balance and in seeking to redeem them in line with moral ends) while also more and more seeing and adoring God in and behind them. This is a both/and enterprise. It doesn’t have to be either/or.

So anything that is good and beautiful can be enjoyed in itself, but with the deeper additional significance of seeing it as a manifestation of the overflow the transcendent goodness and beauty of its eternal Source in God. Any moment of suffering becomes a chance to perceive our merciful, compassionate God suffering with those who suffer.

I believe a mature view of God sees him as most identifying with the suffering and vulnerable. Thus, as we are more and more connected to God and able to see him in and behind the world, we begin to grow more and more in compassion and in a thirst for the liberation of others (liberation in any and every way, from any and everything that inhibits them from flourishing and from being connected to God).

This commitment to others and to God – this commitment to all (including a balanced self-regard) naturally begins to wean us of unhealthy ego and immoderate attachment to physical things, comforts, or pleasures. It’s not that those things are illusions or bad in and of themselves; it is rather that an enlarged view sees them in light of the vision of God and his coming kingdom of love and justice, where eveyone is able to flourish and so simultaneously enjoy God and the world.

So a moderate form of discipline and loss of self-focus unfolds. But it is not legalistically forced or artificially and inflexibly dictated by wooden rules. Rather, it grows organically. Spiritually. The law kills, but the Spirit brings life. And although a death to an outer self is called for – and this is scary and hard; one discovers that there is a deeper and fuller self underneath that is able to enjoy and relate to others, the world, and God. But precisely BECAUSE of its deeper connection to our unshakable and good God, it is more loving, joyous, and stable; less attached to any specific, transient thing.

The more extreme view that relativizes the world is not completely wrong. God can use that; though there are real dangers and abuses there too – particularly when it is not just self-chosen but forced on others.

In my view, there are extremes on both sides. It is wrongheaded to denigrate the physical. One can become so “spiritually” minded that they are no earthly good, and thus are not all that healthily spiritual after all. But I also know some people deeply involved in physically helping others and in striving for justice who get overwhelmed at the scope of the need and the obstacles and setbacks in reaching it. Some of them tend toward harsh anger, discouragement, bitterness, and disillusionment. This is completely understandable. But in my view they could use a spiritual infusion of love, hope, and vitality.

Perhaps God uses both types of extremes to balance us out. Or at least people drawn more towards one or the other without denying its counterpoint. I feel that one of the strengths of my perspective is that it accounts for both a real physical world and a real transcendent realm. And it doesn’t hold these in opposition to one another, but sees them as united in God’s purposes.

But I digress. The point in all of that was to say that the spiritual life, people’s encounters with God, often suggest God’s omnipresence and arguably are predicated on it.

Let me expound on that a little more, because I believe that God’s immanent omnipresence helps explain and synthesize a range of spiritual experiences that are sometimes interpreted as contradictory.

People sometimes experience what feels like elevated states of union with a personal God where their individuality is swallowed up in an ocean of divinity (as it were). Obviously the Being encountered seems enormous, infinite, absolute. Some experience an emptying of self and a unified state of being that feels non-personal or at least different than personalistic conceptions of God. Some people have transcendent experiences of what seem like becoming one with nature or the universe.

If God can choose to come in different forms and is united to everything by virtue of his omnipresent upholding; could it be that people are experiencing heightened connections to him or to the natural (or spiritual) world through him? Could this doctrine be potentially applied flexibly and inclusively to synthesize a larger array of ultimate-seeming spiritual experiences? I think so. I will write on that more when I discuss God’s immanence and also when I write on God’s inclusivity.

As I’ve said before, I believe that God is transcendently distinct from his creation (however intimately connected they may be). And to be clear, I don’t believe that God is the only spiritual entity. I believe in angelic beings and also evil demonic ones. As well, human physical and spiritual capacities can sometimes delude us. So it could be that some experiences are simply delusions on the level of hallucination and that some are of other spiritual beings that are greater than us, but are not Ultimate Reality. Experiences have to be evaluated as they come. But I’m not satisfied with current dogmatic/exclusivistic criteria. I think God is bigger than that and that there are more rational ways to judge seeming religious experiences based on the ultimacy, weightiness, and (especially) goodness of the object or person encountered.

There are pragmatic reasons to assume that God is omnipresent. Most theists believe that God is just and will judge the world in perfect wisdom. But how can he do that without being everywhere present to see and understand people’s words and actions in their context? Belief in God’s justice as the upholder of the moral order is a major reason various peoples have inferred that God must be omnipresent (or something very like it).

Finally, I embrace God’s omnipresence because of the good spiritual and moral fruit it brings. As I expounded on above, it is plays a central role in mysticism and in connecting all of life to worship and centered love for God and others.

It plays into what theists call “the fear of the Lord.” As Morgan Guyton writes, “Honor is called ‘fearing God’ in the Bible, not because honorable people are walking through life in constant terror, but simply because they live as though the most important and powerful being of the universe is right next to them at every moment” (Guyton “How Jesus Saves the World from Us” 63).

This can involve a healthy soberness in light of God’s justice and a future accounting for how we live. It can involve a sense of his ever-present love, sympathy, graciousness, and empowering. Seeing God’s spark, image, or Self in others can foster compassion and a sense of co-identity with them.

It is because of this broad agreement grounded in religious experience, rational and pragmatic inference, moral and spiritual fruit, and possibly even divine revelation that I believe that God is omnipresent.

Refugee Stories: Part 1


beautiful indian child

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As many of you know, I work part time as an intern for a wonderful agency called RefugeeOne. We help refugees through all stages of getting settled into life here in America. I hope to occasionally share some stories from my encounters with these resilient people.

Yesterday and (again) today I had an adventure with a beautiful Indian family. It was a mom and her three kids. She has been here for three years, but has only just been able to get her kids to come over. I can’t image how hard that must have been to be separated from your children for so long and under such perilous circumstances.

I have to say, I almost couldn’t stop looking at them. Especially her kids. They are strikingly beautifully. I don’t just mean that in the sense of “inner beauty” or resilience, though they had that going for them too. And I’m not the only one to have noticed it. After coming back yesterday, in the elevator up to the agency another lady spontaneously exclaimed how beautiful the two daughters were.

The whole family has dark black skin; a different shade than I think I’ve ever seen. It almost had a blue or purplish tint to it. They had big dark eyes which, though different than my wife’s, as a husband to a Filipina wife I can definitely appreciate. They also had the chiseled, imperial looking facial features that I’ve learned to associate with Indian people.

I don’t mean any of this in a creepy or shallow way. I wasn’t lusting and I hope I am not objectifying them as some exotic, “Eastern” other. But I was certainly fascinated by them.

I was to take them to a Social Security office to apply for social security cards for the kids. I borrowed my bosses car and drove them out to one that’s a little farther away than the one  we usually use. My boss suggested that one because of it’s drastically lower wait time.

After getting there and finally being called up to the window, I found out that the mother didn’t have some of the documents she needed to apply. I had to text my boss to let him know and then drive them back. I offered to come back today to take them again – which I did. I could tell my boss was a little frustrated. I wasn’t sure how his mood would be when we got back to the agency.

But I was pleasantly surprised by how understanding he was. He gently ribbed the mother a little bit, saying he had told her to have those documents, specifically. But he was warm to them, chatted with them some, and helped retrieve and print out the documents they needed. At one point he was even joking with one of the daughters, telling her that her name means “star” in Arabic.

My boss Mark is an Iraqi American. His family came over here when he was 13. Because of Mark’s fluency in Arabic, we work mostly with Syrian and Iraqi refugees. Though there are plenty of exceptions to that, such as this Indian family. There are other case workers that deal more with our Burmese, Congolese, Cuban, and other such refugees (or assylees).

Mark can be disorganized at times. But I’m continually amazed at his character and competence. The guy can juggle a lot. It’s easy to idealize refugee work, but in reality it can sometimes be frustrating and it requires a lot of patience. It’s impressive to see how Mark commands a breadth of knowledge about housing, various agencies, laws, and practical matters of becoming acclimated to American life. It’s impressive to see how he combines patience, warmth, good communication, a genuine c0ncern for his clients’ well-being, and firmness and pragmatism in his interactions. This is an intelligent and good man.

But I digress. I was able to talk with the mother more today as I drove them back out to the same Social Security office. She talked about how her children were excited about starting school in the fall. She said that one of her daughters was already interested in getting a masters degree in human resources. Impressive forward thinking for a girl in her early teens. I discovered that they have no other family here. I wanted to press for more of her story, but didn’t want to pry.

Both yesterday and today, different kids threw up. Yesterday it was a daughters; today it was her son. Fortunately in both cases it was outside of the car after we had arrived at a destination. I told her that I was sorry if it was my driving. My brother Daniel and sister Barbi maintain that I’m a “crazy” driver. I’m not sure how true that is and I was certainly being careful. But she assured me that they are just not used to driving around in a car yet. In India they would usually take a rickshaw or (occasionally) a bus.

It’s the little things you take for granted that can seem strange or challenging to refugees. But that’s true for anyone in a new place. Hell, my wife had to teach me how to cross a crowded street in the Philippines.

To make a long story short, we were able to finish the application for the social security cards and then I drove them home. I share all of this partly because I thought it was a unique experience – one of my more memorable interactions with both refugee clients and my RefugeeOne compatriots. I share it to help humanize a little bit these people we hear about in the news. These ones we make into political talking points. The last reason I write this relates to my last point. And that concerns political rhetoric and ideology.

When I say that I worked with an Indian family, you probably automatically think “Hindu.” But if so, in this case you would be wrong. This family is Muslim. Muslims and Hindus have had a long and tumultuous history in India. Islamic empires brutally invaded India and controlled most of it between the 12th and 16th centuries. More indigenous communities of Sikhs and Hindus were able to wrest much of that back, only to become dominated by the Portuguese and English.

When India gained its independence in 1948, Pakistan and what would become Bangladesh were partitioned off from it due to their Muslim majorities. The modern country of India is predominately Hindu, but it has a significant remaining Muslim minority. In spite of all this turbulence; Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Jains, and Buddhists have often been able to live peacefully with one another. However, there are “fundamentalist” Hindus that nurture historical grievances against Muslims and dream about making India great again. There have been acts of terrorism and violence perpetrated back and forth by both sides.

I don’t know the actual circumstances of why my Indian family had to flee as refugees. But it is possible that it is related to persecution due their Muslim faith. Whatever the case there, I know that most of our Rohingya (Burmese) clients fled from an on-going ethnic cleansing that has to do with their minority Muslim faith.

What’s the point of all this? Here it is: When I hear Donald Trump say he wants to ban all Muslims from coming here or when he constantly tries to connect Islam to terrorists or oppressors, he is being dangerously ignorant. Yes there are evil extremist movements that are driven by a version of Islamic theology. Yes there are repressive elements that are reasonably wide spread in Muslim majority countries.

But those things can be found in other religions and cultures too. We in the West have a lot of our own skeletons in the closet. And most Muslims are not cookie-cutter villains. Most of the ones I work with on a weekly basis are good people. Some of the best I know. Like Mark. Like this beautiful family I was able to help. This hard working mother who would do anything for her children’s future.

When I interact with my Muslim clients and see how friendly and funny they are; how tender they are to their children; when I see how very ordinarily human they are; I just can’t see what Trump or his supporters do. Again, this is not to be naïve to dangerous figures or problematic issues. Refugees should be vetted. But it is to say you simply cannot stereotype a billion and a half people with any integrity.

My research also suggests to me that Islam itself is a deeper religion than some of its critics will allow. While there are things in the Quran and Muslim tradition that I have a problem with, I recognize that there are Muslims who make love and justice the center of their theology and hermeneutic.

Muslim’s themselves are often the targets of violence, terror, and oppression. In India. In Myanmar (Burma). In Bosnia. In Syria. In many different places. The West has often been callous to civilian Muslim lives lost as collateral damage in our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And of course there are problematic issues related to historic colonialism and our unequivocal support for Israel (even when she engages in human rights violations).

Bottom line: racist rhetoric, simplistic binaries, and dehumanizing language should be categorically condemned and opposed. They are flagrantly deceitful and wrong. We should certainly oppose unreasonably harmful systems, beliefs, and acts (wherever they are to be found). But we must take care that this never slip into lazy stereotyping or “othering.” By the same token, even where we disagree on larger issues, we should encourage beliefs and actions that grow love, truth, compassion, and justice (again, wherever they are to be found).

I’m grateful for everything the refugees I work with teach me, including these basic truths.