Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.

[Hebrews 13:2 NRSV]

Pastor Jim WatsonOur guest blogger this week is the Rev. Jim Watson, pastor of Zion Lutheran Church in Valley City, Ohio. Pastor Watson is a recent arrival to Northeastern Ohio, having served in the Northwest Lower Michigan Synod for 10 years following graduation from Trinity Lutheran Seminary. We give thanks to God for Pastor Watson’s presence among us. He is a gift to our synod and a blessing to the people he serves.  During our seminary days, I found him to be a voice of reason. He exuded a confident, caring and reassuring presence. His responses were calm and measured, as you will soon notice after reading this post.

Pastor Watson’s blog is NotJaws, and this post is entitled Who Are We? It is written in response to the terrorist attacks in Paris and the subsequent calls by politicians to refuse resettle Syrian refugees here in the United States.

Read on and savor the thoughtfulness of one of Northeastern Ohio’s newest spiritual voices.


Who Are We?

After a new round of violence this week, the world tries to pick up the pieces and move on. While the terrorist attacks in Paris are the ones that seem to capture the headlines and move Facebook to make it easy to overlay our profile photos with the French flag, there have also been new suicide bombs taking lives in Beirut and Baghdad, and the crisis of refugees from Syria continues.

Paris_attacksI’ve been reading and thinking and praying a lot about all of this violence, and right now I don’t have the words to express all of the sadness and darkness I feel. Anyway, there’s no shortage of commentary about it all, and I’m not sure that what the world needs is another expression of grief and shock and outrage, or another random person’s opinion about how to make the situation any better.

But I think I do have words, and I can’t not say them, about a new move within the last day or so. Due to the belief that one of the Paris attackers might have entered Europe alongside refugees from Syria, here in the U.S. there has been a wave of politicians panicking and trying to stop any Syrian refugees from coming to the U.S. (or at least, to the politicians’ neighborhoods). This move is wrong, and shortsighted. And in so far as it’s based on Christian principles, it bears false witness to the Christian faith.

Of course, it’s wise for every country to screen people who want to enter the country. We can and should and do ask, “Who are they?” What’s their reason for coming here? What kind of residents would they be? What will they need, and what will they contribute, while here? There’s already a process in place to do that, and from the reports I’ve seen, the process works. No one admitted to the U.S. through this screening process has committed an act of terrorism here.

It’s more important for us in the U.S. to ask: “Who are WE?” Are we still a nation that holds to our principles, instead of caving in to panic? Do we still believe, as the plaque on our Statue of Liberty confesses, that we welcome people who come here for a better life free from persecution? Are we really people who value freedom and the equality of all people? Or are we just like the worst of the thugs around the world, taking what we want, calling it ours alone, and building fences around it to keep others out?

Syrian-refugeesThe fear behind this wave of anti-immigration moves is unbecoming, un-American, and un-Christian. As human beings, we should have compassion on others who suffer. Of course, we hate ISIS and want them defeated, and don’t want to see them challenge our quality of life. Where is our compassion for the people whose country is already in ruins because of ISIS? The refugees from Syria are ordinary people just like us, seeking life and safety. As Americans, we have strength and responsibility and principle in this world to make a difference for good. Are we the land of the brave? Or are we going to run and hide and let other people man the front lines of defense? As Americans, our war efforts in the middle east over the last 12 years have destabilized the whole region. We owe it to ourselves and to the world to try to improve the situation. As Americans, we have grown and become stronger by welcoming large groups of immigrants from different parts of the world at different times. What’s changed, that we feel so threatened now?

As a Christian pastor, my strongest feelings about asking “Who are we?” are related to some of the supposedly-Christian sentiments recently. A couple of conservative Christian politicians – who also happen to be running for president – have suggested that while most Syrian refugees should be kept out of the U.S., it might be okay for us to try to rescue the Christians.

AP_syria_refugees_03_jef_150709_16x9_992One problem with this is the general tendency to muddle ISIS and Islam together. While ISIS claims the name “Islamic” and uses symbols and phrases from Islam to further its goals, Muslim leaders around the world have denounced ISIS and shown how its ideas and practices actually violate core Islamic beliefs. When we ignore this, or stay willfully unaware of it, and allow ISIS’ atrocities to contribute to fear and bias against all Muslims, we are bearing false witness against others, and harming ourselves by our ignorance.

Another problem is the statement by one of these politicians that “there is no meaningful risk” of a Christian committing a terrorist act, conveniently forgetting, or choosing not to see, that the killer of nine innocent Christians in their church in Charleston (only five months ago, today) was a Christian (in fact, a member of an ELCA church, the denomination I also belong to). The faith we profess does not automatically make us a different type of human being.

But an even bigger problem for Christians is how this line of thinking bears false witness to our own faith. We are supposed to be the people who are known to the world by our love – yet we come across as just another group of privileged people looking out for ourselves. We are people who ought to be guided by the entire story of God’s presence with God’s people – yet we’ll pick out a few Bible verses that exclude people or practices we dislike (women as leaders, same-sex relationships, people who disagree with us politically or religiously) while ignoring the hundreds of passages where God commands people to seek justice, advocate for the poor and powerless, and treat “aliens” exactly as we would treat ourselves, because we too have been aliens and refugees in the past. We are people who confess that Christ is our Lord – yet when it comes to “doing for the least of these” we decide to turn our backs on the people he most identifies with. We are followers of a faith whose core principles include caring for widows and orphans – yet we shrink from doing that if their skin color or ethnic heritage or religious tradition or income level doesn’t pass some test that seems more important to us.

Christians. Americans. Human beings. Who are we? What do we stand for? Are we people of principle and honor and faith? Or are we the worst kind of hypocrites, using the language and the symbols of integrity while we’re really just hoarding what we have for ourselves?

Who are we?

Read Pastor Watson’s post in its original site by clicking HERE.


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