1 John 4:7-21
Following Jesus into Eternal Life
by Rev. Jeffrey Bergeson
My wife and I enjoy comedy. One comedian we really like is Jim Gaffigan, and he frequently talks about food. In one set, he notices just how much food is eaten during holidays—that holidays seem to be an excuse to eat lots of extra food. He says, “I don’t usually eat a burger, a bratwurst and a steak, but…it is the 4th of July…and I’m gonna need my energy if I’m gonna be blowin’ up stuff! It’s what the Founding Fathers would have wanted…” We justify how much food we eat around the holidays. Anyone have children? Me, too. And my kids will, I admit, sometimes do something wrong…and I’ve learned to ask them “what did you do?” instead of “why did you do that?” Because the “why” question teaches them to justify their bad behavior rather than acknowledge what they’ve actually done.
In our passage this morning, a lawyer stands up to test Jesus and to justify himself. And it is my conviction that if we want to follow Jesus into eternal life, we must follow Jesus beyond our own self-righteousness. Following him out of all the ways we try to justify ourselves.
Self-righteousness is not always a ‘high and mighty’ attitude of being holier-than-thou. It’s not only when we think “I’m better than you.” Rather, self-righteousness is any attempt to justify yourself and your behavior. It’s any way that we try to make ourselves feel good about who we are and make ourselves feel justified in our behaviors and attitudes toward others: “Sure, maybe I don’t __________, but at least I’m not like __________!” or “Yes, that is how I act, but it’s my right to act this way!” In other words, it’s any way we try to tell ourselves that we’re ‘in the right,’ other than because of Jesus. It’s trying to look good without putting on Christ.
The lawyer asks two questions. One is to test Jesus, and one is to justify himself. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus turns the question back to the lawyer and he responds with the greatest command and the one like it: Love the Lord with all your heart, soul, strength and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus agrees and says, “do this, and you will live,” but the lawyer, in order to justify himself, asks, “And who is my neighbor?” And we take the bait, too! “Yeah, who is my neighbor?”
The lawyer never asks about God or how to love God. Either it’s too complicated or abstract to bother asking, or somehow it doesn’t actually matter, or—more likely—he thinks that he’s got that one down pat. “Yeah, yeah, sure, whatever. Love God with blah, blah, blah… done. Check. Moving on. What about my neighbor?”
But Jesus invites the lawyer and us to see ourselves and God in a different light, because truly loving our neighbors rightly will not come until we love God rightly, and we cannot truly love God until we understand who God is and who we are and what God has done for us. Only then can we truly love God, and from that place of love, then we can love our neighbors as ourselves.
So Jesus doesn’t answer his question: he takes up the question and turns it on its head by telling a parable to redirect the lawyer’s focus. The thing about this parable is that it’s incredibly memorable and moving. It leaves a very distinct impression on our hearts, but it’s also open-ended enough to keep rattling around in our minds, causing us to keep asking questions and seeing things differently.
We all want to be the Good Samaritan. In fact we’re told to “Go and do likewise.” Maybe sometimes we justify ourselves and think that we already are! But for Jesus to say, “Go and do likewise,” “be like that guy”… means implicitly that we are not by nature already like him. We’re to be found somewhere else in the parable, in fact, anywhere else, because we’re all supposed to be like the merciful Samaritan, so by definition we’re not… and the parable unsettles us.
The lawyer asks “Who is my neighbor?” to justify himself. Under Law: Who am I obligated to love and who can I hate or ignore? We must remember that Jesus is the Son of God—the Incarnate Deity. So the lawyer is trying to justify himself to God! That just never works; that’s not a good place to be. And I think there are three characters in the parable that implicitly do the same thing and three that don’t.
The first is really a group: the robbers. They implicitly justify their violent behavior perhaps thinking, “We deserve what he has!” or maybe even “we need what he has, so we’ve got to take it to live.” They justify they’re robbery.
The 2nd and 3rd characters are the priest and Levite. The priest, the highest religious leader, is probably thinking something like, “I am holy, and that bleeding man is unclean. I can’t possibly mingle with him and jeopardize my holiness.” The Levite is more of a minor clergy, but probably thinks along the same lines as the Priest. As I said, I have children, so we sometimes watch Veggie Tales. And in the Veggie Tales version of the Good Samaritan, these two characters sing: “We’re busy, busy, horribly busy. Much, much too busy for you!” Both the priest and the Levite ignore the man, believing it’s not their responsibility to help or they’re unable or unwilling to get dirty.
These three characters implicitly justify themselves and their behavior.
But there are also three characters who implicitly do not.
The first is the Samaritan. Now, if we only looked at his actions, maybe we could think of an ulterior motive, but v. 33 won’t allow us to think that. The NRSV says he was “moved with pity.” Now, I’m a nerd. I make no apologies for that. The word in Greek for “moved with pity” is spla(n)gchnizomai. The root of that word is spla(n)gchnon. Try saying that: spla(n)gchnon! Spla(n)gchnon is all the mushy organs below your lungs. It is the bowels—the seat of love and pity. It’s your gut, moved with affection to have compassion for someone in a bad situation. The Samaritan does not try to justify himself. His compassion is justification in itself.
First is the Samaritan. Second is the man robbed. He cannot justify himself. He never says or does anything. He is unable even to beg for mercy! He’s “half-dead” and that’s not an English paraphrase; that’s literally what the Greek says.
And friends, spiritually speaking, without Christ we’re all half-dead. We’re not fully alive. Yes, we may be breathing, our hearts pumping, but really, we’re helpless and hopeless and only half-living, unable to save ourselves…without receiving God’s mercy. And God’s mercy, I think, is what this parable is all about. Finding life. Which brings us back to the first question asked: What must I do…?
See, the priest and Levite were supposed to be mediators between Israel and God. On different levels, they represented God to Israel and vice-versa. But their understanding of holiness got in the way. Yes, God is holy, but Jesus says, the priest and the Levite are not what God is like. He asks, “Who was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” And it wasn’t either of the ‘religious professionals.’ It was a despised Samaritan who showed mercy. And so, we see that God’s holiness is connected to mercy!
This is important! Back in Luke 1:72, at the circumcision and naming of John the Baptist, his father Zechariah’s tongue is loosed, and prophesies, declaring that God “has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors,” which includes rescue from the hands of their enemies. And later in chapter 1, verse 78 refers to the “tender mercy of our God.” That word “mercy” in verses 72 and 78 shows up three more times earlier in Luke ch. 1 always in reference to God, but not again in Luke until here in the Lawyer’s answer. “The one who showed him mercy.” This is what God does! God shows mercy. So the Samaritan—not the Priest or the Levite—truly shows who God is.
Okay, back in 1:78, where it says his “tender mercy.” The word “tender” is that spla(n)gchnon word—bowels, guts—which in Luke shows up there in 1:78, again in ch. 10 when the Samaritan sees the half-dead man, and then only two other times in Luke (7:13 and 15:20), which respectively refer to: Jesus seeing the widow of Nain with her dead son; and the father in the parable of the prodigal son when he sees his younger son returning and runs to greet him. The Samaritan, in his compassion and mercy, represents the holy God of Israel. And we are to be holy as God is holy, which includes showing mercy!
Sadly, there are probably times that we act more like the robbers or the priest and Levite—justifying our way of life and who we think we should care for or ignore, but really, without Jesus, we’re all half-dead and in need of healing. We are beaten and bruised by the world and our sin—bleeding, naked and left for dead. And the Lord God in a surprising and maybe even offensive visitation has come and shown mercy on us.
Nowadays, the phrase “Good Samaritan” is met with joy and delight. But this parable would have shocked and probably even offended many of its original audience. So how might we ‘re-cast’ this story today for the same shocking effect? How about this:
A Fox News Anchor was mobbed during a recent rally in Washington, D.C. Now it just happened that the President of the United States was passing by, but when he saw the man, he said, “You know, I’m very much a germaphobe. I don’t want to get into that bloody mess.” And he passed by on the other side. Just then, a State Representative came to the place and said, “This is horrible! I’m going to bring this before the Senate to take action,” and, likewise, passed by without helping. But a Syrian refugee, a Muslim, saw him and was moved with compassion and cared for the man.
Now…maybe you liked that version! How about this one:
A woman wearing a cat-ears knit-cap was at that same rally and was accidentally trampled. Now, a Presbyterian Teaching Elder happened, but was running late to a Social Justice and Community Responsibility Panel discussion… and so hurried away. Then a Licensed Social Worker also came to the place, but didn’t stop because she was on her way to meet with a client. But then came someone wearing a “Make America Great Again” shirt, who stopped and helped the woman.
Wherever we personally stand, if Jesus’ parable doesn’t make us uncomfortable or challenge our notion of neighbor, then we’re not hearing it as Jesus told it. We’ve justified ourselves like the lawyer.
So let me ask: Who is the Samaritan in your life? From whom would it offend you to receive help? Who is difficult for you to love? To whom do you have trouble showing mercy?
Because here’s the thing: in Christ, God has shown mercy to all! And therefore, in Christ, God is revealed to show us what it means to be holy and a neighbor by showing mercy to all!!! If God, in Christ, has made all of us his neighbors, then who isn’t our neighbor?
As much as I struggle with loving some people, this parable tells me that I don’t get the luxury of justifying to myself those whom I am to love and those I don’t have to. God is neighbor to all! Unlike the priest and the Levite who wouldn’t give their time, money, efforts or affections, God in Christ, represented as the Samaritan, is moved to compassion for us. At his own cost and effort, he cleans us up, gives up his rightful seat on his animal to carry us, brings us to a safe place and cares for us there, providing for our every need to bring us healing and new life even though we were half-dead and unable to heal or justify ourselves.
The Samaritan does not need to justify himself, nor does he. He acts and speaks with compassion, mercy and authority. The man beaten and left for dead cannot justify himself. He cannot and does not say: you should help me because… and yet he is helped by the Samaritan. The Samaritan, in a way, justifies the half-dead man to the innkeeper who probably would not have taken in the beaten man and cared for him unless the Samaritan had already started to care for him and provided the resources for the innkeeper to continue to care for the man.
And so the Samaritan also justifies the innkeeper’s actions! The innkeeper may not have otherwise continued to the care for the man without the Samaritan’s resources and command. But the Samaritan, that is God, does all this at his own expense, brings the man to the inn keeper, pays the inn keeper, gives him charge to care for the man, and promises to pay him back upon return. And so the Samaritan justifies both the man robbed and the inn keeper to each other. Neither tries to or needs to justify themselves or their actions. The Samaritan does it for them, just like God in Christ, justifies all those who believe in him.
So, can you see yourself as the half-dead man and how Jesus has saved you—justified you? Good! That’s actually the first step in being able to fulfill the first commandment—it is the beginning of how we are to love God. But the parable keeps rattling around in my mind…
Before Christ saves and heals us, I think we’re the half-dead man in the parable, but after Christ gets to us, I’ve begun to think that we’re more like someone else in the parable: I think we become the innkeeper!
See, when Jesus asks who of the three was the neighbor to the man robbed, the answer is, “The one who showed him mercy,” which of course is the Samaritan moved to compassion. And Jesus commands the lawyer, “Go and do likewise.” But in the parable, the Samaritan initially takes care of the beaten man but then commands the innkeeper to do the same thing he had been doing. “Take care of the man…” The innkeeper has to trust the Samaritan, allowing the Samaritan to justify his strange behavior of caring for this stranger, and the innkeeper must obey the Samaritan in order to receive the promised compensation. But…Jesus doesn’t tell us in the parable if the innkeeper ever did it or not…which leaves us asking: would we? Will we?
Will we trust God enough to care for those he cares for, and to care for others the way he cares for them—to use the resources he gives us now and trust that he’ll provide all we need later to continue living in obedience, in giving of ourselves to fulfill the command to love our neighbors? Will we be the innkeepers of the world—which, by the way, that word “innkeeper” in the Greek means “all-receiver”; welcoming everyone, which, based on the parable, does not mean letting people remain the way they are when they’re welcomed; they must still be cared for and healed and brought to wholeness through Christ’s resources given to us—but I digress… will we be the innkeeper, letting Jesus justify our strange behavior of loving and caring for others to bring healing and wholeness to broken and hurting people? Or will we continue to justify ourselves like the priest, Levite or robbers?
Loving our neighbors isn’t about drawing a line and categorizing people who are or are not our neighbors. Loving your neighbor as yourself is about showing undeserved mercy to others, bringing them healing, just as God has shown undeserved mercy to you when you were a stranger and half-dead without Jesus. Loving your neighbor as yourself will be costly, just as it was costly to Jesus to show us love. But…we are promised that God will provide all that we need in order to care for others—material resources, yes, but also the Holy Spirit in us to show them mercy, to love them like our Heavenly Father loves us.
If we are to love our neighbors as ourselves we will do well to: first, consider how we love the Lord our God, and more importantly how Jesus loves us in such a way as to dismantle our ways of justifying ourselves to bring us wholeness. May we all follow Jesus out of our self-righteousness and into eternal life, understanding all that God has done for us in Jesus Christ at great cost to himself! Don’t ask, “who is my neighbor?” but realize that God in Christ has become your neighbor, and neighbor to all, choosing to show mercy to everyone. Do that first. Then, go and do likewise, and you will live.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Friday • November 4, 2016 • 12:30pm
Chirst Presbyterian Church • 4225 West Sylvania Ave. Toledo, OH 43623
Keynote Speaker: Amgad Beblawi
Amgad Beblawi was coordinator of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s mission in the Middle East and Europe for the past six years. As such, he serves as a resource for PC(USA) global partners, PC(USA) mission participants, and mission personnel engaged in God’s mission in these regions.
Amgad served for the previous five years as the Presbyterian Mission Agency’s associate for Middle Eastern congregational support in the United States.
Amgad holds master’s degrees in theology and biblical studies from Fuller Theological Seminary, in the Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Egypt.
Amgad lives in Louisville, KY. with his wife Susan Templet Beblawi, and son Justin.
Featuring: Synod of the Covenant Mission Partners for 2016
Hany Gad Beshay Mikhail, George Shukri Makhlouf, Salam Hanna, Cathrine N.A. Abuamsha, and Mary Mikhael
It is estimated that more than 250,000 Syrians have died since civil war broke out in the country five years ago. Another seven million are displaced. The United Nations and other world organizations say the crisis has set Syria’s development status back by four decades.
While more than four million people have left Syria for other countries, those that remain hope to one day see their country at peace and thriving. Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, in partnership with the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon (NESSL) has been helping Syrian Christians rebuild their homes through a $100,000 grant.
As part of her visit to the Middle East, PDA Coordinator, the Rev. Dr. Laurie Kraus joined other organizations for a conference in Lebanon, followed by a visit to Syria where the PDA dollars are at work restoring life to the city of Homs.
“We met with hundreds of people displaced from Homs and other towns and cities in Syria who had either been threatened or were forced to leave by ISIL,” said Kraus. “I talked with families that had been there for five years. They left during the initial fighting in Homs in February 2012 and haven’t gone back.”
Kraus met with a displaced couple who had resettled in the Christian Valley of Syria. The man is a dentist and recently opened a practice in his new community. Both say they are not stigmatized but do not feel fully received by the community. However, there are challenges to returning to life in Homs.
“There are concerns about reestablishing a viable work life in Homs because the city and its economy are still very fragile,” said Kraus. “There are many many buildings and apartments in Homs that are not rebuilt, on blocks that remain filled with rubble and empty of people. Do they go home to a rehabilitated apartment or do they stay where they have work and their children are in school? There’s a tension either way and it is not a simple homecoming story. Further, many families experienced trauma as they endured assaults on Homs and eventually fled, and those feelings linger, making a decision to return more complicated.”
Kraus and the rest of the team heard similar stories through out their visit as people struggle with remaining in a devastated community or seeking to start anew in another city or country.
“It reminds me of many families that fled New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Some had to move to other states and never came back,” said Kraus. “So there’s a whole layer of story and pathos unfolding around hard choices they’re still going to have to make about where they want to invest their lives and try to re-create healing and wholeness for themselves and their families. It’s not an easy decision.”
In her talks with community leaders and residents, Kraus said there is a common belief and commitment from Christian, Orthodox and Muslim faiths that Homs must be restored. She says the interfaith groups believe that a multi-religious cultural environment is very important to the recovery and stability of Syria.
While touring the devastation in Homs, Kraus saw the impact of the bombing and shelling on the religious community.
“You’d walk down the block and see a wrecked church or Orthodox communion and mosque, all within steps of each other,” she said. “Apartment buildings looked like pancakes after being leveled by the bombing.”
Despite the devastation, a few families at a time, are beginning to make their way back into their restored apartments.
“One family’s flat had been completely restored while the one next to it was still in ruins. Most of us wouldn’t go back into a building where there were no other restored apartments, especially when the building next to it could collapse at any moment,” she said. “But people are going back into buildings like this. They are making a commitment to rebuild flat by flat, house by house.”
Kraus talked with one couple, an engineer and a pediatrician, who had returned to their home and were the only ones living in their block.
“Their block is dark at night. There is no one else in their building or on their street,” Kraus said. “The wife goes out at 3:00 in the morning to make house calls on children. They’re living like pioneers at a frontier outpost. They are living there because they believe it’s the only way to bring back their city.”
Kraus says she’s deeply moved when she thinks about what these families and communities are giving up in order to rebuild their life in Homs. But people are coming back. They’re going to school and they’re teaching.
“I met with an elder after church who was so proud when he shared about his son who is a high school senior,” she said. “Many young people want to leave the city when they can, but his son wants to stay and go to school in Syria so he can help people come back and build a life. A lot of people have given up on Syria but they haven’t seen the people we’ve seen who are just working day and night to make it happen. We want to work with this community to continue the rebuilding, which we believe Presbyterians will be generous in supporting.”
The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) has been trying for 10 years to convince the Wendy’s company to join the Fair Food Program (FFP), which focuses on the rights of farmworkers. Despite its pleas, the Ohio-based fast food company has said no. Now the CIW is ramping up its campaign by calling for a national boycott of the food chain. This is only the second time in the group’s history that a national boycott has been called. The first time was 15 years ago against Taco Bell.
The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has supported the CIW from the beginning as it worked to secure Fair Food agreements from Yum Brands, McDonald’s, Burger King and Subway. At its recent meeting in Louisville, the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board officially endorsed the call for a national boycott.
“Rather than support Florida growers who uphold human rights under the Fair Food Program, Wendy’s switched its tomato purchases to Mexico, where the denial of human rights in the produce industry was well-documented in last year’s Los Angeles Times expose,” said the Rev. Gradye Parsons, stated clerk of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) “This is unacceptable, especially from a company that has prided itself on using U.S.-made products. Therefore, the PC(USA) joins the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in calling on Wendy’s to sign a Fair Food agreement.”
The FFP is a partnership between farmworkers, Florida tomato growers and more than a dozen major food retailers. Under the agreement, participating retailers agree to only purchase from suppliers who meet a worker-driven Code of Conduct, including a zero-tolerance policy on slavery and sexual harassment. In addition, retailers pay a penny-per-pound premium which makes its way directly to the workers. In the last five years, buyers have paid more than $20 million into the FFP.
The PC(USA) was the first Christian denomination to sign on for the national boycott, the timing of which anticipates the company’s annual meeting on May 26.
“We encourage Presbyterians to join the Wendy’s Boycott National Day of Prayer on May 23, and for those in the area, to gather outside Wendy’s corporate headquarters in Dublin, Ohio during the annual meeting,” said Andrew Kang Bartlett, associate for national hunger concerns, Presbyterian Hunger Program.
“The Presbyterian Mission Agency stands in solidarity with our sisters and brothers in the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in their longstanding struggle for fair labor practices in the agriculture industry,” said Tony De La Rosa, PMA’s interim executive director. “In so doing, we commit ourselves to advocate ‘…as a prophetic witness to Christ’s transforming justice by speaking and living out God’s truth and compassion.’”
Susan Sampson of Temple Terrace Presbyterian Church in Tampa says the board’s endorsement is for anyone who is an ally of the Campaign for Fair Food.
“The Presbyterian Hunger Program has been supportive of the Fair Food Program for many years and we are grateful that they continue to support the human rights of farmworkers, and have taken this step as well,” she said. “I wholeheartedly support the Fair Food Program and the Wendy’s boycott. I invite my fellow Presbyterians and all people of faith to join with the CIW in the boycott and make fair treatment of farmworkers common practice throughout the industry.”
The CIW’s Gerardo Reyes Chavez says the PC(USA) endorsement of the national boycott is great news for their campaign.
“We are appreciative of the hundreds of thousands of Presbyterians who have steadfastly stood beside farmworkers in making our vision of a just and dignified agricultural industry a reality through the FFP,” he said. “Today, Wendy’s has heard the call of farmworkers and Presbyterians together to take responsibility for human rights in their supply chain, and be part of a program that is ensuring justice for tens of thousands of farmworkers across Florida and the East Coast.”
In March, the CIW announced the launch of the Wendy’s boycott during a multi-state Workers’ Voice Tour where students and people of faith joined them in actions from Florida to New York and through out the southeast. The group organized a demonstration at the University of Louisville and met with PC(USA) leaders before continuing their tour.
Award-winning film focuses on detainees and those who minister to them
Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA), working in conjunction with Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services (LIRS), has produced a new documentary on immigration detention in the U.S. “Locked in a Box” follows the lives of individuals who have fled their homelands in search of safety and freedom in the U.S. Instead, the road to freedom has led them to months, or even years, in detention. The film also provides insight on those ministering to the incarcerated.
“Everyone is talking about detention and immigration. We wanted to get at the heart of the issue and tell the human story,” said David Barnhart, film director. “What you see are people: fathers, mothers and children. What immigration detention is doing to families leaves me speechless.”
Susan Krehbiel is PDA catalyst for refugees and asylum and has spent significant time meeting with detainees and those ministering to the incarcerated.
“Personal contact is so important because detainees get lost in all of these debates,” she said. “There are people being held across the country who could use personal visits.”
PDA officials say the immigration detention system continues to expand with 27,000 to 34,000 immigrants in detention on any given day. Approximately 250 facilities, many for-profit, are scattered across the country.
“The response from Congress is enforcement first. Fixing the broken immigration system will come later,” said Krehbiel. “Everyone admits the laws are broken, but the focus is enforcement. We need to shift away from that approach.”
Working in partnership with LIRS, PDA has supported the development of visitation ministries, legal orientation programs and other community based services to help those who remain locked up.
“This film tries to lift up visitation ministry as a way for churches and others in the community to engage and see firsthand,” Barnhart said. “People have come out of the visitation experience unable to speak because they’re so angry and impacted by it.”
Barnhart said most of the detainees came to the U.S. to protect their families, seek freedom and a new life. Many, he said, were fleeing war, drug trafficking and gang violence where their families were threatened.
“Many people that come here have some form of post-traumatic stress and other serious issues,” said Barnhart. “One former detainee we talked to traveled through 12 different countries to escape religious persecution, torture and jail. Another saw his own son murdered by gangs and had to flee his country just to survive. They come here seeking asylum and then find themselves locked up for months and even years.”
Church officials believe incarceration is the problem and not the answer, saying there are other solutions that are much more humane and helpful to those who come to this country seeking freedom.
“Many of our partners provide community-based programs so immigrants could be released to a partner with the resources and support they need,” said Krehbiel. “Some of the delay in processing is the low number of immigration court judges. Those working now are overwhelmed with a backlog of cases and it slows down the process for people.”
PDA officials are encouraging churches to schedule screenings of the film as they have done with previous church documentaries.
“Just from word of mouth, we already have more than 30 churches that want to host screening events and panel discussions, inviting other churches and community members to participate in the conversation,” said Barnhart. “The film is a reflection piece that can facilitate discussion and find ways to engage and be involved through advocacy or visitation ministry. It can be a resource for the church and wider community.”
“This is a powerful documentary that will inspire Presbyterians to take part in detention visitation and to question our government’s practice of detaining migrant adults and families with children,” said Teresa Waggener, manager of the Office of Immigration Issues with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)
Recently, the film won top honors in the Tryon International Film Festival in North Carolina. For more information on the film, click here.
We are a world grieving. We mourn the many deaths, not only in Paris, but also in Beirut, Baghdad, and Egypt. Any sense of security we have had is badly compromised by these horrific events; moreover, our fear of ISIS grows with every successful execution of its violent agenda.
Much has been taken from us but we still hold the choice as to how we react in our grief and fear. Many politicians have rushed from grief to fearful judgment. More than half of the governors of our states have attempted to protect their citizens by issuing declarations denying entry of Syrian refugees into their states (as if all of the potential terrorists are Syrian). Some have gone so far as to call for denial of entry to all refugees at the present time, as if that will guarantee safety to the citizens of their state.
As U.S. governors pledge to refuse Syrian refugees within their states and some presidential hopefuls promise to abandon the refugee program altogether, we the people have a choice to make. We can choose to follow those who would have us hide in fear or we can choose hope.
Our nation, for decades, has chosen hope and welcome for those fleeing war and persecution. Since 1975, more than three million refugees have found safety and security within our nation’s borders. Right now 11 million Syrians cannot go to school, tend to their land, or raise their children in the place they know as home. They cannot do these things because they, themselves, have been terrorized for far too long by numerous factions, including their own government.
Do we choose to abandon our plan to protect these Syrians because the people who have been threatening them are now threatening the West as well? ISIS has taken lives; they have taken our sense of security. Do we now hand over our hope and compassion to them?
Obviously, we need to move forward with a disciplined response, expediting security checks such as those employed by the U.S. refugee admission program. To refuse certain persons who are fleeing terror and persecution because they are “Syrian” or of some other particular ethnic group is unjust and may be illegal under U.S. law. We can be disciplined and, at the same time, led to love beyond our own limited, fearful vision.
After the crucifixion of Jesus, the disciples hid in fear. They locked the doors but God had another plan. Jesus appeared to them and said, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you” (Jn. 20:21). We were not meant to hide. We were meant to walk out in hope and compassion. Author, poet, and peace activist Wendell Berry wrote, “Healing is impossible in loneliness; it is the opposite of loneliness. Conviviality is healing. To be healed we must come with all the other creatures to the feast of Creation” (The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays, “The Body and the Earth,” p. 99). The way to end terror is to prove that those who demonize us are wrong. We are not a heartless secular culture. We must witness to the Gospel with generous hospitality. To hide in fear is a mistake. Fear is the ammunition of terror. Hope is the best defense.
Justice has always mattered to me—even before I knew there was such a word or what it meant. My first real memory of injustice occurred when I was about 4 years old, although I remember it as though it happened yesterday. Acting on a childish impulse, I stuck my head out the rear side window of the cab in which I was riding so that my braids could bob in the wind. Up ahead was a green traffic light hanging like a pendant above an intersection. I lit up with excitement, wondering whether we get through the intersection before the light turned red! Rotating my body slightly so that my eyes stayed fixed on the traffic signal, I held my breath as our taxi passed underneath what was clearly a yellow light. Success! But my joy was short lived. Seconds later, a police siren wailed and the driver of the cab dutifully pulled over to the curb. Neither my grandmother, whose lips were drawn tight, nor the motionless Black cab driver made a sound. A white police officer suddenly appeared at the driver’s window and declared, “You went through a red light.” With all of the honesty of a child I said, “Oh no, Mr. Police Officer. The light was yellow. I saw it!” “Hush child!” my Grandmother implored, in a tone that made me feel both a little afraid and confused. I obeyed her but did not understand why I needed to ‘hush’. When I became a teenager, then I understood exactly what, according to Jim Crow rules of etiquette, I had done. But I never ‘hushed’ again.
An act of justice is what drew me to the Synod of the Covenant. During my very first Synod Assembly, I entered in as a stranger. No one knew me and I had no official standing or role. My presence there was simply for the purpose of “experiencing” this particular Synod. The agenda that day included a family petitioning the Synod to intervene in an unresolved judicial matter. Their daughter had been raped while on a Presbytery-sponsored youth sleepover and the Presbytery involved was, in their opinion, dismissing their concerns and sweeping the matter under the rug (so to speak). While the parents were presenting their case, the Stated Clerk of their Presbytery attempted to dissuade the Assembly Commissioners from hearing them. One of the commissioners spoke out of turn and loudly said, “Let them speak!”, and a chorus of “Let them speak!” reverberated throughout the room. The outcome? The parents were heard and the Assembly Commissioners voted to intervene. When the matter was concluded I stood up, introduced myself, asked if I was permitted to speak, was warmly invited to do so and said, “Today, I witnessed the Church of Jesus Christ living out it’s call—and I thank you from the bottom of my heart.”
Beyond the limits of misused power, the confines of ‘order and decency’ and beyond what I can see, God is there…standing on the side of justice…being faithful and holy…and calling those of us who have been chosen to bear His name to do the same. May the Holy One continue to bless the Synod of the Covenant.