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

img_8555

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.

Refugees

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.

Postscript

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.

Advertisements

An Open Letter to My Evangelical Friends and Family

img_8530

This post is part of a larger one I wrote about a month ago on the threat President Trump poses to people I care about and to my country. In that post I also had some harsh words for Evangelicals, many of whom I see as compromising their faith by unilaterally supporting Trump.

While I do think those problems are serious and widespread, things are never that simple. People and movements are complex. I known many good people who are Evangelicals. I think of my mom, who is one of the best persons I know. She is wise, industrious, kind, and resiliently joyful. In many ways she is my hero.

Or I think of the Filipino pastor who married me and my wife. Belief-wise he’s an old-school Fundamentalist. But he is also warm and funny. He drove four hours to help pick up my mom from the airport. And when we found out that her flight had been delayed, he was willing to wait in Manila all night for her. He gave me and Jen a lot of good advice. Quite a worldly-wise man in spite of his beliefs.

I can think of many other examples. I wouldn’t want to downplay that. Here might also be a good place to acknowledge that progressives like myself have our own blind-spots and flaws.

But those problems I identified remain. And I fear that political power and alignment with an administration as immoral as Trump’s will only further compromise Evangelicals’ commitment to love and justice.

Evangelicals, I implore you: good intentions are not enough. They must be matched with knowledge. History is strewn with examples of people who did massive amounts of harm under the best of intentions. If God reveals truth in creation – if all truth is God’s truth – please don’t be afraid of science or the testimony of your neighbors. Be willing to engage others and the world in a fair and open-minded way. Please learn to be more discerning in the sources you trust.

Be willing to approach Trump’s claims critically, given his history of whoppers. Are you willing to call him out when he lies? Are you willing to defend our free press, even when you disagree with the perspectives some sources take? People of the truth should have nothing to fear from transparency, fact-checking, or an open exchange of ideas.

Please consider arguments from a number of different perspectives about if the Bible is truly infallible or if it must be for God to use it in a powerful way. Please prayerfully study the Scriptures to see if I am right about love being at the center of God’s character and what he calls us to. I believe the Bible itself will bear this out, but also consider what other sources in natural theology such as miracles or religious experience indicate about the Divine. How would making love the center of your hermeneutic change how you approach God and others?

Please reflect on why the Bible spends so much time focusing specifically on the needs of “the least of these” – widows, orphans, the poor, and strangers. Why not just say “love everyone” and leave it at that? All lives matter.

Of course, all lives do matter. We are suppose to love everyone. Some aspects of loving others are universal to all individuals and groups. For example, for all people, love means being honest to them, respecting them, listening to them with an open mind, treating them with kindness and compassion, and seeking their happiness and maturity.

But vulnerable people groups need more than the everyday kindness or curtesy we might extend to another. They have urgent needs that more well-to-do souls simply don’t struggle to have met. They face oppressive circumstances that sometimes are quite different than those of majority groups. The Biblical authors were wise enough to recognize that. What would it mean to apply that insight more broadly to today?

Please reconsider how you treat LGBTQ people. Does the Bible even condemn being trans? you might be surprised. Whether gay or bi people should act on their same-sex attractions; please, please recognize they don’t choose them and cannot change them. Conversion therapy needs to go the way of the dinosaur.

If you expect gay Christians to remain life-long celibates, make sure you are going out of your way to provide them with the fellowship and support they will need to walk down that lonely road. Please reconsider your very condemnation of their love. I have written on why I changed my mind on this matter here. But if you continue to personally believe acting on such an orientation is wrong, reconsider your crusade of legal opposition to the rights of LGBTQ people.

Please reconsider how you treat women. Reconsider if the Bible’s overall trajectory is truly patriarchal. Recognize that any social arrangement of “separate but equal” based on something intrinsic such as race or gender inevitably lends itself to abuse and dehumanization. This is just a fact of social systems and human nature.

Please recognize how consummately strong, intelligent, charismatic, and gifted women are for most of the same things men are. See how women too have a variety of dreams and callings. Don’t be threatened by that. See it as something to celebrate and nurture. Respect women’s ability to chart their own courses, pursue their own dreams, and chose to be with the person they love. Abortion is a legitimate thing to oppose (obviously), but please learn to embrace other forms of birth control as tools that can be used for good as well as ill.

Listen to women when they tell you that something is offensive or even threatening. Respect consent and expect the same from others. Don’t tolerate assault or abuse. Ever. From anyone. Even respected authority figures. Become more aware of how thoroughly misogyny colors our history and still infects us in many ways. Be attentive to seeing it and confronting it in your own life and in your community.

Please reconsider how you treat people of color. Learn more about our racist history and about how much racism still pervades our lives today. Remember, racism is not necessarily about conscious hate; it is about systems of inequality and oppression. Become more aware of such systems.

Build relationships with black and brown people. Listen to them when they share with you about their fears and the dangers and indignities they face. Don’t assume they are wrong just because their experience is different then your own. Partner with them in opposing racism in all its forms. Not as a “savior,” but as an ally. This might mean stepping back sometimes and letting others lead. Some problems are not as easily solved as others, but at least recognize the problem and steadfastly pursue a just resolution.

Be intentional about watching yourself for stereotyping and kneejerk fears. Some people of all races really are bad news, but know that implicit bias is a thing. Take care to the sources you imbibe. Some will be more trustworthy than others. Some cater to prejudice (intentionally or not).

Learn to see the good in other cultures, not just the bad. Make room in your communities for leadership and representation by minorities. Be intentional about letting them bring their cultures and perspectives into the substance and not just the veneer of your teaching and worship. Don’t just expect them to take on your own culture. Don’t be afraid to “get it wrong” or apologize. This is messy work. Just keep trying and learning.

Please reconsider how you talk about and treat refugees and immigrants. Yes we have to take reasonable precautions for our safety and well-being. But there are ways to do that which are not xenophobic. Not everything is a zero-sum game. At least sometimes everyone can come out on top. Remember that “legal” is not necessarily the same thing as just; and “illegal” is not necessarily the same thing as criminal (in the moral sense).

Consider doing a study on what the Bible says about strangers and aliens. You may be surprised. Keep in mind that as Christians we are supposed to see others as, first and foremost, fellow image bearers of God. Our primary citizenship is in heaven, not the USA.

Be mindful of how racism and ethnocentrism can subtly creep into our reactions toward others, even when we are not intending to be hateful. Again, be mindful of the sources you gain info from. There are those that are intentionally trying to sow fear and animus; and not always for deserved, representative reasons.

If possible, built relationships with immigrants and/or refugees. Learn more about the challenges they face. Advocate for their rights and for immigration reform. Lobby the government to treat other countries in a fair rather than exploitive way. Resist unwarranted notions of American superiority or exceptionalism.

Please reconsider how you view and treat poor people. Build relationships with them. Treat them with dignity as equals. Don’t just give, be ready to be blessed in return. I know many of you are exceptionally charitable. Evangelicals are known for that. By all means, keep up the good work! Such work not only provides needed aid; when done well, it also builds up beloved communities.

But charity is no substitute for more thoroughgoing economic justice. Everyone has a responsibility to do the best they can with the hand they have been dealt. Of course we want to encourage people to work and take personal responsibility. Most people want to work. And we want to create jobs.

But the idea that people can normatively pull themselves up by their own bootstraps is not reality. Its very hard to escape poverty. Some people start out life with the deck stacked against them (or stacked for them, as the case may be). Sometimes circumstances happen that are outside their control. Injuries happen, plants move, industries change, stock markets crash, heads of households betray, and others act in a discriminatory way. And when they are able, those in power will engineer the laws and system to maximize profits at the least cost. No matter if this is sustainable for ordinary workers or the environment.

If that is the reality, why not work to ensure that peoples’ basic needs are met: needs like housing, clothing, food, education, and healthcare? Why not build coalitions of power from below – countervailing power to the power from above that tends toward exploitation?

The system is never neutral. Laws are crafted to benefit someone (see Reich). Please become more of a voice for the poor and working class. Don’t just give them charity, fight for their rights and for laws that reflect their interests. This isn’t just “bleeding heart,” it makes good economic sense.

Please reconsider how you view and treat Muslims. If you can, seek out friendships with them. Let them know they are welcome and safe in your community. Even if they were your enemies, Jesus commands that we love them. And love means treating them the way we would want to be treated.

But in fact, most of them are not our enemies. As I argued earlier, despite our differences, Muslims are essentially just like everyone else. And Islam too can be interpreted in a number of ways. Be willing to read about Islam from sympathetic sources. Or as you share your faith with them, ask your Muslim friends about what they believe. Arguably there are objectionable things in Islam; but a lot of the stereotypes about it are either wrong or simplistic straw-men.

More controversially, I would say be open to the idea that God could be inclusively at work in the lives of Muslims. This doesn’t mean that Christianity isn’t uniquely true or that Christ isn’t the ultimate source and end of their salvation, but it means God can meet people where they are and transform them without perfect knowledge. When you meet saintly Muslims, as I have, its hard to deny the Spirit’s fruit.

Stand up for the rights and lives of Muslims. Both here and abroad. Lobby the government to pursue fairer Middle East policies – for example, in Israel. But be willing to face fierce pushback from those animated by fear and prejudice. As I will write about more shortly, how we navigate beating back terrorism while protecting ordinary Muslims will be one of the great tests of our time. The temptation will be to write off all Muslims as subhuman. But that is not an option for Christ-followers. Will we fear God or man?

Implicit in all of this, please consider expanding the meaning of “pro-life.” Pro-life should not just mean pro birth. It should encompass the entire life-span. And it should encompass everyone; whatever their race, nationality, gender, or creed. Do all lives really matter to you?

Pro-life should include not just punitive measures against those who wrongfully take life (as needed as those are), but also preventative and restorative measures that decrease abortions and help families thrive.

While I am not a pacifist, the message of Jesus calls us to strongly prefer peace and non-violence when possible (at the very least). Are we willing to sacrifice just as much for waging peace as we are for waging war? How might such an ethic play out in how we view guns, warfare, or the death penalty? Obviously, that’s debatable. But I’m asking you to prayerfully consider it and read about it from a variety of perspectives.

Please remember, love should be our governing impulse; not power.

Finally, Evangelicals I implore you: be thinking about what moral lines you will not cross, no matter what incentives or threats are proffered your way. Most of you who are honest and informed know that Trump is a morally compromised leader. Perhaps you thought he was the lesser of two evils. I obviously don’t agree, but we are past that now. Just because he was better on the most important things (in your view) doesn’t mean he isn’t wrong on others. Be willing to criticize him where he is wrong and pressure him to be better. We liberals need to do that as well with our favored representatives.

But Trump is not the only danger. The coalition that helped elect him includes other dark forces. Don’t be fooled by the “alt-right” moniker. Their stated goals are racist and even genocidal. Many of Trump’s cabinet and inner circle harbor other intense prejudices – for example, Islamophobia.

Another part of Trump’s coalition are rich businessmen; be they Wall Street executives, oil tycoons, or weapons developers. Read about what Trump’s new Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson did in Africa. It is chilling stuff. And we appear to be cozying up more to Putin’s brutal dictatorship in Russia.

There is a fascistic wing to the Religious Right that is very serious about making America into a Christian theocracy (see Hedges). Ruthlessness, greed, and power appear to be the common threads that hold all of these groups together.

Evangelicals, you are naïve if you think you can keep your seat for long at this table without intense pressures to compromise your faith. Be on your guard! In what ways might you have already started to go down that road?

And I warn you: Donald Trump has promised to do evil things, and I fear he will seek to do even worse before it is over. Be vigilant. What will you do when he calls for reinstating torture? How about targeting innocent civilians? Will you speak up against that? What if he seeks to violate Muslim Americans’ constitutional rights (or something even more sinister)? Are you willing to stand up for their religious freedom too? Even if that becomes unpopular or dangerous? What if he calls for deporting refugees who have been screened and are here lawfully? Would you stand up for them? Would you take them in and shelter them? Are you willing to protest unjustified police shootings (when that clearly is the case) and advocate for reform in our criminal justice system? How do you plan to address more subtle but just as deadly threats to poor people, Latinos, and others? We all have some soul searching to do in the days ahead.

A Conversation on Love vs. Power As At The Heart of One’s Theology and Ethics

image

Image by culturaljetlag.wordpress.com

[This post is based on a Facebook conversation I had with friends. It includes the original post and my responses to two questions. I’m pleased with it because it helped me tie together some disparate thoughts I had on a range of issues such as Calvinism, colonialism, inequality, how we become like what we worship, and how solidarity with others is just as important as a sense of duty.]

People deify power. It makes them feel safe and in control. We all crave this, especially in times of crisis.

Much harder, I’m finding, is consistent and utter devotion to Love. That takes risk and sacrifice.

But Love, when perfected, casts out fear. In a roundabout way–a narrower, more arduous way–it leads to a deeper kind of power and assurance.

Love and power can co-mingle, of course. But one or the other of them will always take the lead. Always.

I will have a lot more to say about this in the coming days, because it is absolutely the crux to everything I am about. But I’ll close for now by asking you this:

Do you worship a god whose power and entitlement limit how and to whom his love is expressed? Or do you worship a God whose power is definitively – even essentially – guided by his bottomless wellspring of love?

Choose carefully. We tend to become like what we worship.

Do you treat others as means to getting what you want? Or do you treat them as precious ends in and of themselves?

Do you create hierarchies in your mind of what kinds of people are really important–what kinds of people are worth humanizing; empathizing with; actually engaging in fellowship; and allowed to be the full range of things you might want to be yourself? Or do you treat others – ALL others – as perfect equals?

Stated this way, it sounds like an impossible ideal. Foolishness. Which of us does not miss that mark or need God’s grace?

But there is a movement, friends; a direction and goal you and I are headed. A habit of the heart and hands. One way or the other.

God’s grace is not a cheap grace. It urges change. Because it loves Itself, it loves us, and it loves those around us.

Choose wisely, my friends. As for me and my house, we will choose Love.

QUESTION 1): “I wonder how you are defining power.”

ANSWER: I have a few things in mind.

Perhaps its easier to describe than define in any absolute sense. I guess power in general has to do with the ability to do something. We talk about power a lot in the social sciences. That’s because it has such potential to either benefit (e.g. “empowerment”) or harm (e.g. “oppression”) others.

I guess I’m referring to a negative way that power is often understood and/or used. Often power is viewd as “aversarial, limited, coercive, and potentially exploitive.” I have power over you if I am the winner and you are the loser. I have power over you if I can dominate you and you serve me. I have more power if I can engineer the social system such that I am more likely to start ahead or get ahead based on something like my gender, race, class, or what not. I have more power if I can horde more resources or better control the social network and environment than you.

I think you can see the problem with that way of conceiving power vis a vis humans. Instead, as Jesus said, those who would be leaders are suppose to be servants (Matthew 20:26) who work for the common good – perhaps especially in regard to those on the margins who are most vulnerable. I think that actually fits in pretty well with social science notions of “shared power” and “empowerment.”

The idea here is that humanity is like a connected web. We are all in this together. We all have dignity and worth and unique things to contribute. We should all have our basic rights respected and our basic needs met. If we can focus on our shared identity and keep expanding the web of who we consider as “in” our group or family, so to speak; we begin to see that helping others is like helping ourselves. And helping others really can be empowering, both to them and us. There is a generative synergy and dynamic to love that is real and powerful.

But love can also take risk and what feels like a “humbling” loss of power or privilege. It can feel very “weak” at times. Perhaps in an absolute sense and from a human perspective, it really does sometimes involve a loss of power. That’s why I said that love should be the guiding force. Our power should be guided by love; not our love meted out on the basis of what is convenient or expedient to us. But that is in many ways unnatural and so it takes intentionality and work. All the more so in that social science shows us that people with power or privilege have a hell of a time giving it up or even recognizing it for what it is. Those of us who have various types of privilege tend to see actual inequalities as a “fair” status quo and any increase in the equality of a historically oppressed people group as an “unfair” threat to our power.

This interplay and contrast between power and love is also important in terms of our theology about God. So much of what I see as wrong and harmful in theology has to do with emphasizing God’s power over his love. Let me give you a few examples.

Classical theism tends to emphasize God’s transcendence and invulnerability. God is unchanging, unmoved by emotion, and meticulously controlling and forseeing of every action. A lot of contemporary theology (for example, process theology or open theism) emphasizes a more dynamic and relational view of God. They tend to see classical theism as too beholden to Greek philosophical categories rather than the covenantal Yahweh of the Hebrew scriptures or the incarnate God in Christ of the New Testament. Their resistance to much of classical theism is also because they tend to prioritize God’s love over his power. For me, I probably have more respect for classical theism than some; but I agree with their insight that God’s relationality and love should be emphasized more centrally.

In the middle ages there was a dispute that continues between those who thought that God’s will was the final determiner of what is morally right or whether his will is essentially constrained by a specific kind of moral nature. For those who sided with will; God could literally command that murder, rape, or lying was right and these would be morally binding simply because of God’s sovereign choice and authority. God’s power/will is not constrained by anything inside or outside him. This view is known as philosophical “volunteerism.” It has been rejected by most theologians because it is Biblically, morally, and practically disasterous.

But I believe that Jerry Walls and David Baggett are right that Calvinists (and I think others) fall into a sort of practical volunteerism in trying to justify morally abhorant actions or commands by God as his sovereign right. I agree that God has the authority to command human action, but what is plausibly taken as his commands needs to fit with his good nature, and preiminantly with his love. So many of the harmful norms blindly promoted or accepted in some religious contexts recur because God’s will is emphasized over his love.

I think Calvinism itself shows this dynamic of power over love. Calvinism tends to see God’s sovereignty as his primary attribute, with his main goal as to bring glory to himself. He controls everything toward that end. He forordains and controls people such that they would fall. Some he determines to remain in sin so he can punish them eternally and exemplify his justice, all to his glory. He determines some to be eternally saved, all to his glory. All of this happens unconditionally and irresistably. There are numerous problems with this related to justive and culpability for evil. But perhaps the biggest problem is the eclipse of God’s love by his power. As Austin Fischer puts it, love becomes just another cog in the glory wheel. How different this is from the Triune God who IS love (1 John 4:8) and who humbled himself enough to become incarnate and be crucified because of his love for the world and for their salvation (Philippians 2:5-11; John 3:16; etc.).

I’m going to quote philosopher Jerry Walls and New Testament scholar Joseph Dongell at length here because I think that they capture well this difference of love vs. power as at the center.

“In a fascinating historical study, British theologian Colin Gunton identifies key points at which he believes some central Christian doctrines got of track. One particularly interesting development is that in Western theology since Augustine ‘the theme of love becomes subordinate to that of will.’ Gunton sees this manifested in the way the doctrine of double predestination is understood in some traditions. Part of the fundamental problem, Gunton believes, is a deficient understanding of the doctrine of the Trinity. The doctrine of the Trinity above all shows that God necessarily exists in an eternal relationship of perfect love between Father, Son and Holy Spirit. God’s will must always be understood as an expression of his essential nature of perfect love (Mk 1:11; Jn 3:34-35; 5:19-20; 17:20-26). Because he has such a nature, he genuinely loves all persons and genuinely invites them to share his love (Jn 3:16; 14:19-21; 1 Jn 2:2; 4:7-12).

As we saw in chapter five, Calvinist John Piper recognizes the possibility that God may not choose his son for salvation, but he insists that he would adore God in that case…Does Piper’s attitude reflect piety at its best, or is it deeply at odds with God’s character revealed in Scripture? Interestingly, the title of the article in which Piper insists on adoring a God who might consign his son to hell is “How Does a Sovereign God Love?” We believe Piper has the question backward and that that his article reflects the unfortunate subordination of love to will that Gunton identifies. Given the full revelation of God in Scripture, the question we should be asking is, how would a God of perfect love express his sovereignty?

When love is subordinated to will, then the fatherhood of God, which is emphasized in the Trinity (Mk 1:11; Jn 1:18; 5:19-20; 17:20-26; 20:17; 1 Cor 15:20-28), takes back seat to the image of God as King or Ruler. God’s essential relational nature as a being who consists in three persons becomes secondary to the notion that God is a sovereign monarch whose will cannot be thwarted.

Without the benefit of the New Testament, such a perspective is perhaps understandable. This is not to deny that God’s love is revealed in the Old Testament (Lam 3:22; Hos 11:1). However, the full meaning that God is love was revealed in its clearest light only with the incarnation (Rom 5:8; Gal 2:20; 1 Jn 3:16; 4:9). In the brilliant light of the incarnation, we learn that from all eternity there was love between the Father and the Son (Jn 17:24, 26). Moreover, the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentacost revealed that God’s eternal dance of love included the third person of the Trinity as well (Rom 5:5; Gal 4:6; 5:16, 22; Eph 3:16-19). That is why love is not merely an activity of God – it is his very essence.

In a nutshell, our case against Calvinism is that it doesn’t do justice to the character of the God revealed in Scripture. It does not accurately portray the holy One who is “compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love” (Ps 103:8), the God for whom love is not merely an option or a sovereign choice, but who is such that his eternal nature IS love (1 Jn 4:8)…

By subordinating love to will, Calvinism fails to glorify God as he has revealed himself in history and ultimately in the incarnation of his Son. The love of God as revealed in the incarnation is not a matter of mere words but the Word made flesh who actively seeks the well-being of his fallen children. A love that truly and passionately promotes the well-being of the beloved, even when it is costly, is the sort of love that has existed from all eternity in the Trinity and was revealed in the life of Jesus. This is the kind of love, moreover, that God commands his children to demonstrate by following his example (1 Jn 3:16-18). Because God loves all sinners in this fashion and actively works to promote their eternal well-being, there is rejoicing in heaven when one of them repents (Lk 15:7, 10). A God who commmands this sort of love and who positively delights in the repentance of sinners surely has no need or desire to show his sovereign power by passing over some fallen humans, nor would he truly glorify himself by doing so.” (“Why I Am Not A Calvinist” 218-21).

I hope that this illustrates more what I mean. I think there is an intimate and important connection between the emphasis in theology and in ethics – between who we worship and who we become. If we view God as good in a way that is primarily loving and only secondarily judgmental, there is an organic link between God with his character and what we are seeking to become, how we are to live.

But many view God as a tough judge who sees us as scum, who could explode in anger and judgment, who is furiously wrathful with us, who loads burdons on our backs, who demands right doctrines/beliefs, a micro-manager, a bully, authoritarian to the core, etc. But he wants US to be loving. His justice is different than our own. His love is different from our own, self-serving. This either creates a yawning gap between the God we are suppose to love and the commands he gives us or, I think more often, it creates leaders and people who become like this idol they have made God into. Is it any wonder that this view often creates nitpicky, authoritarian, egotistical, rigid, narrow minded Christians? And it is no coincidence that it is Calvinists who emphasize God’s authority who are most likely to be obsessed with the authority of males over females and with Christian privilege in American government.

In the anthology “Global God,” theologian William David Spencer has an interesting chapter entitled “God of Power versus God of Love: United States of America.” The book charts various global perspectives on God, comparing them with how the authors see God as revealed in Scripture. Spencer’s chapter is one of two on God in America. Spencer argues that throughout American history, Christians have tended to emphasize an “imperial” view of God that has propped up their colonial greed and sense of “manifest destiny” granted by “Providence:” “Those who saw themselves called by such a God also saw themselves as invested with a portion of that absolute power to subdue the land and its inhabitants as ‘Providence’ so willed.” He argues that if they would have seen God’s power as essentially guided by love and as calling us to mimic that love, especially as exemplified in the person and teachings of Jesus, the history of the Americas might have been very different.

I could give other examples or find other connections, but I think you can see what I mean.

QUESTION 2): “…By whose measurement should we make everyone perfectly equal? I mean, I agree that we should all be granted the same rights and have the same access and opportunities to succeed (and fail) in life. But…I don’t think it’s possible to arrive at a state where you could treat every person the exact same way, and I can see how bad things would get trying to accomplish that.”

ANSWER: I don’t mean exactly the same. I just meant that we would treat everyone the way we would want to be treated; that we would (ideally) see everyone as family. This implies the equal rights and equal access to opportunities that you mentioned. It implies the end of patriarchy, racism, homophobia, extreme class and wealth differences (I recognize that there will always be some differences there, that people need incentives to work hard) and all other socially constructed forms of discriminatory difference or oppression. It involves a spiritual sense of brotherly and sisterly love that I believe transcends even this and (I believe) can only divinely given.

Allan Johnson captures some of what I mean in his book “Privilege, Power, and Difference.” He writes about how what he calls the do-a-good-deed approach of moral principle has a limited ability to motivate dominate groups to give up their privilege in seeking a truly fair world. What is truly needed is a sense of collective ownership and family. He writes,

“It [the do-a-good-deed approach] depends on an impulse of generosity toward others, and this impulse tends to rise and fall depending one how secure the privileged feel in their own situation…

The do-a-good-deed approach also rests on a sense of ‘us’ and ‘them’–the ‘us’ who help and the less fortunate ‘them’ who get helped. The problem is that the former feel very little reason to identify with the latter. When ‘we’ who are not poor or with disabilities, for example, help out ‘those people’ who are poor or with disabilities, there can be a real seperation and distance even at the momen of reaching out to help. In fact, the act of helping – of being able to help – can reaffirm the social distance between the two groups and heighten everyone’s awareness of it. Thus every such act of giving to others is always a statement, intended or not, of one group’s ability to give and the other’s inability to get along without it. And in a society that counts independence, autonomy, and self-sufficiency among its highest cultural values, it’s impossible to avoid the negative judgments attached to those on the receiving end and the status-enhancing judgments conferred on those who give.

Although doing the right thing can be morally compelling, it usually rests on a sense of obligation to principle more than to people, which can lead to disconnection rather than connection. I take care of my children for example, not because it’s the right thing to do and the neighbors would disapprove if I didn’t, but because I feel a sense of connection with them that carries with it an automatic sense of responsibility for their welfare. The less connected to them I feel, the less responsible I’ll feel. It isn’t that I owe them something as a debtor owes a creditor. It’s rather that my life is bound up in their lives and theirs in mine, which means that what happens to them in a sense also happens to me. I don’t experience then as ‘others’ whom I decide to help because I’m feeling charitable at the moment. The family is something larger than myself that I participate in, and can’t be part of without paying attention to what goes on in it.

Another problem with acting merely from a sense of principle is that part of the appeal is the good feeling it gives people about themselves when they do it, which can motivate them only in the short run. Confronting issues such as sexism and racism is hard and sometimes painful and even frightening work, and feeling good about being virtuous isn’t likely to sustain people over the rugged course of it.

What can sustain them is a sense of OWNSHIP, that the trouble is truly THEIR trouble and not someone else’s, because this means their responsibility to do something no longer feels like an option. It isn’t something they can choose to do if they’re feeling in a generous mood or can “afford” to at the moment. It is, quite simply, one of the terms of their participation in the world they live in, however large or small they define it. Without that sense of ownership, serious work on issues of privilege will always be what Roosevelt Thomas calls a ‘fair weather’ item on the agenda” (p. 72-73).

I know that this sense of humanity as one connected family or “in-group” is not natural to humans. We have evolved to value our children and biological family over others and our immediate in-groups vs. other out-groups. That’s why I say it is an ideal to be progressively sought. That’s also why I suspect it can’t be fully obtained without becoming connected with God.

In saying it is an ideal, I acknowledge that there can sometimes be ethical dilemmas. For example, in a life-and-death situation were we have to choose between our family living and some strangers living, we’ll likely choose our family. And I think if that’s truly the case, we should! But more often the choice is between great privilege and wealth for our families and a little less of that to help others who desperately need it. Between giving those in our family or in-group an extra leg up over others and sacrificing to give that unfair advantage up so that everyone can have an equal opportunity.

This article contrasting Donald Trump and Pope Francis’ contrasting visions might also help show you the vision I have of the world I’d like as well as the difference between the ideals of “vulnerable” connected power and personal “invulnerable” power. http://www.abc.net.au/religion/articles/2015/09/28/4320668.htm