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

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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.

An Open Letter to My Evangelical Friends and Family

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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.

Refugee Stories: Part 2

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Image from drrichsweir.com

#refugeestories

I had an amazing day a while back with some of the refugees I work with. I wanted to share some about that because I found it to be profound on a few different levels.

Encounters with two different sets of clients stood out. The first was with an Iraqi couple I took to a doctor’s appointment. When they came out to meet me, already I sensed that there was something different about them. Their faces seemed to radiate warmth and an inner joy. You could see it in the eyes.

I don’t quite know how to do it justice. I’ve seen it before. This is a deep thing. It’s not a plastic grin. It’s not the face of one who only happens to be happy because they have managed to insulate themselves from the trials of life. Indeed, in my observation it tends to come out of the ashes of intense suffering.

J. R. R. Tolkien captures a little bit of it in his book “The Return of the King.” Gandalf and Pippin are at Minestereth preparing for the inpending onslaught of the dark forces of Mordor. Pippin asks Gandalf if all is lost, if there is no hope. Gandalf responds with an unexpected laugh. As Tolkien narrates,

“Pippin glanced in some wonder at the face now close to his own, for, the sound of that laughter had been gay and merry. Yet in the wizards face he saw at first only lines of care and sorrow; though as he looked more intently he perceived that under all there was a great joy: a fountain of mirth enough to set a kingdom laughing, were it to gush forth.”

Like I said, this is deep stuff.

As I greeted them and started driving, I quickly found that the husband was quite fluent in English. This isn’t always the case with the clients we serve, which can be frustrating for both of us. The man had came here about two years ago under a “Special Immigrant Visa” (SIV). His wife had only been able to join him a few days ago. Most people who are granted an SIV are folks who have assisted the US in some way and this puts their lives in danger. For example, local translators for the US Army.

A lot of people who talk about banning all refugees or all Muslims from coming to the US don’t seem to realize that at least in some cases, this would amount to abandoning and betraying brave men and women who have put it all on the line to help us.

This man asked me about my education and, on a hunch, I asked him about his. I could tell by his manner and language that he was intelligent and likely well educated. It turns out that he is a chemist. His son and one daughter are also in doctoral programs. Smart family.

Unfortunately they are not yet able to come to the US. If I understood right, children that are married or over the age of 20 are deemed independent and are considered for entry separately. It was clear from some of the things the man said that he loved his children but also worried about them. A worry surely compounded by their other son who went missing some time back and is assumed to be dead.

I don’t know where his remaining son is studying, but his daughter is going to school in Malaysia because they can’t afford American or European schools. One thing that makes it especially hard for the family, money-wise, is that under a student visa his kids are not allowed to work. This limits their ability to themselves pay for their education.

My client was sad that that he and his family were not safe in their home country. He said there was a backlash there against things associated with either the West or the establishment.

He was frustrated with some things here too. He has been looking for work since he got here, with little luck. In spite of his advanced degree and practical experience, his degree does not transfer over here without more classes. He is 65 years old and partially disabled, so this limits the amount of physical exertion he can withstand at a given job.

Like virtually all of our clients, he wants to work. The vast majority of our clients find jobs. But it’s tough for many of them who often have some kind of specialized training or knowledge that, for one reason or another, does not translate to opportunities here. Many of them have to take menial or low skills jobs.

I remember working with a client who showed me pictures of the exquisite woodwork he did back in his country. When I asked my boss – his case manager – about if he would be able to find a way to practice that here, I was told that the stark reality was that this kind of thing was machine pressed here and that probably the client would not be able to continue to do that for his living.

The man I was with today was concerned about if his son and daughter would be able to find jobs suitable to their education and skills. The idea tha they would invest so much effort in their education and have to end up as janitors or dishwashers frustrated him.

We talked of many things. Some more challenging like the above. But others more light-hearted and even humerous. A famous Iraqi singer was playing in my bosses car and my client recognized it and told me about him with pride. We talked some about history and religion and the ignorance of many about these things. We talked some about my wife, Jennylyn. Both this man and his wife had kind words to say to me, and I found that really encouraging.

In the end, he expressed interest in meeting outside of RefugeeOne. That was an opportunity that I was also keen on. I was excited by this new connection. I wanted to hear more of his story and was also thrilled by having someone I could learn more about Islam from (while sharing about my own faith as well, naturally).

Since that first meeting, I met my new friend outside of work once and also took him and his wife to another appointment. At the appointment he was in a foul mood. And although our first outside meeting went well, in it he alluded to some conspiracy theories about Jews that I couldn’t agree with.

In spite of this, I stand by my initial impression that he and his wife are good people. I saw further evidence of that at these subsequent meetings. But I share these additional tidbits as a reminder that even good people get bad moods and can buy into potentially dangerous beliefs. In refugee work, as in all things, it’s important to balance romanticism with realism.

The other encounter that stood out to me from that day was with a Syrian woman who I took to the DHS office close by our agency. Her English was not nearly as fluent, but she had a translation app on her phone that helped us communicate for the most part.

I’ve had to learn the skill of finding simple words to get across my ideas, explanations, or questions. Not unusually, I will have to rephrase something and also rely on hand gestures and body language to get my point across. There are often missteps and brickwalls. There’s a lot of need for patience, grace, and apologies when things don’t get through.

When we got to the agency, one immediate thing that moved me (and always does) was how some of the other Muslim women reached out to my client. “Salaam alaikum,” they said. Peace be with you.

We tend to see the hijab as oppressive. If forced as mandatory, I think it is. I think women, Muslim or not, should be able to wear whatever they want, free of shame. However a lot of Muslim women see it as empowering, as a way to signal their identity as a Muslim woman and a way of opting out of being sexually objectified. Many have also made it into a fashion statement. But one way it functions for sure in countries where Muslims are in the minority is for Muslim women to be able to identify and relate to one another.

Like my first couple, these women exuded warmth and goodness toward my client. They asked her about her life, her children, and a few other things as well. They seemed to genuinely care. After this, I was talking more with her myself.

Sometimes miscommunication can be tragic. I thought I had heard her say that she had 5 children still back in Saudi Arabia. She indicated that it was a difficult topic and so we moved on. I later found out that she just has 1 daughter, that her 4 other children had been killed. A difficult topic indeed! And as you might imagine, a reality such as that is not something that is announced like one might announce the weather. There was palpable pain in her eyes. She is worried for her remaining daughter. Much like my first couple, her daughter could not come with her because she is married and thus considered independent.

The reason for our visit to DHS was to get her a second Link card. Link is basically what food stamps used to be. I know the idea of government assistance leaves a sour taste in some peoples’ mouths. Here is not the place for me to detail all of my thoughts on the matter. But I will say that although it can be abused, some people literally depend on that to not starve. And especially for refugees, they tend to find jobs quickly and move off the program.

In both these encounters I was reminded of crucial, even mystical insights that have been forged in the fires of of my experience and reflection. Fundamentally, we are more alike than we are different. We are family. That calls for extra responsibility for one another, but it also gives us a wider range of people and cultures to learn about, celebrate with, and depend on.

I was reminded of how important love, grace, respect, warmth, trust, and relentless commitment are. How important human relationships in general are. Any larger worldview that does not place these near the center must surely be flawed.

I was reminded that goodness and even (in my view) moral and spiritual sanctity are not restricted to any one culture or religious context. More mundanely, I was reminded of how important language is to us. All and all, it was a good day.

Refugee Stories: Part 1

 

beautiful indian child

Image by traveldudes.org

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.