If you’re wondering where the student protests and activism of Mizzou, the Syrian Refugee Crisis, and the Paris Attacks collide, I can sum it up I one word – prejudice. More broadly, how we treat those who are suffering and in need is often affected by the color of their skin, the name of someone’s god, or other areas of difference. A “USA Today” article out today suggests that as many as 23 governors are taking executive action to prevent the resettlement of Syrian refugees in their states due to “fears about terrorism.”
Many of them took to Twitter to proudly proclaim their racism and xenophobia. It’s a real shame that both racism and xenophobia are so en vogue that our politicians, who we hope would represent the best of who we are as a nation, are actually showing themselves to be who we are at our worst – scared and small.
Here’s where it gets tricky – 22 of the 23 obstinate governors are Republicans, conservative Americans who often appeal to the evangelical, Christian voters to secure their political future, voters who often appeal to the sanctity of life in opposing abortion, an unwavering belief in the Christian scriptures, and the (false) belief that America was, is, and should be a “Christian” nation. No whether these politicians actually represent the will of their Evangelical constituents has yet to be seen, but what is true is this – there is a disconnect between the “Judeo-Christian” values these politicians purport to be espousing and the refusal of extending hospitality and compassion to people who are suffering. It seems everyone wants to be a Christian until we are actually called upon to follow Christ – and that goes for all political and non-politics entities. Everyone wants the power associated with the Risen Christ without practicing the life the Living Christ called us into – a life of loving service, humility, and counter-cultural justice seeking. Jesus is neither Republican nor Democrat, and the United States is not now nor has it ever been a “Christian” nation. But in this moment where we are faced with a humanitarian crisis such as the world hasn’t seen since World War II, spreading vitriolic, Islamaphobic rhetoric and shutting the gates of our hospitality to the stranger is definitely NOT the Christian thing to do. For too many, being a Christian only means opposing abortion and/or homosexuality. To those folks I would say – Come on up a little higher. Being a Christian is to follow the way of life found in the cross of Christ.
Matthew 25 details a parable where Jesus suggests that in serving the “least of these,” we serve him. The flip side of that is that in refusing the hungry, the thirsty, and the stranger, we are literally refusing Christ himself. Hearing Gospel mandates such as this in times like these is where the rubber of Christian discipleship meets the road of life. It is in moments like these that we have to make a choice to accept or reject Christ.
Our Lord himself was once a refugee fleeing terror in the Middle East. The Holy Family fled to Egypt fleeing the terror and murder of a brutal regime in Bethlehem. If memory serves me correctly, when Hebrews had previously lived in Egypt, terror in the form of Ten Plagues rained down upon the Egyptian populous, and yet the the arc of scripture suggests that when this Middle Eastern family of refugees sought asylum in Egypt, it was granted. Our Lord knew what is was to be a refugee. His summons to Christian discipleship in serving the “least of these” came from from a visceral experience of being counted among them.
Aside from the general, scriptural command not to be a selfish jerk, the idea that all Syrians should be treated as terrorists because of the actions of a few terrorists is the very definition of racism. When Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, white men, used a van laden with explosives to kill 168 people in Oklahoma City in 1995, they were dismissed as “lone wolves.” When James Holmes, a white man, walked into the Aurora, Colorado movie theater in 2012 to open fire on the unsuspecting movie goers, he was dismissed as a “lone wolf” suffering from mental illness. Later in that year, when Adam Lanza, a white man, walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School and opened fire on children, he too was dismissed as a “lone wolf” suffering from mental illness. In 2014 When Frazier Glenn Miller, a white man, opened fire at the Jewish Community Center of Overland Park, Kansas killing three people, he was a “lone wolf.” In 2015, when John Russell Houser, a white man, “methodically shot 11 people” in a movie theater in Lafayette, Louisiana, he was dismissed as a “lone wolf.” When Dylann Roof, a white man, opened fire in Mother Emanuel AME Church, having preyed on the church’s hospitality, and ultimately killing 9 black worshippers, he was dismissed as a “lone wolf.” White supremacy is too often depicted as isolated incidents rather than an overarching cultural ethos. Yet when some terrorists who happen to claim Islam perform terrorist acts, they somehow represent all of Islam or all Middle Easterners. Or when black people perpetrate crimes and murder, they represent all black people. Or when a few Latino immigrants perpetrate crimes, all the sudden all Latinos are drug-peddling, criminally-inclined, rapists. If the same logic were applied evenly, white men would not be allowed in large crowds, but this is how white supremacy works – whiteness is permitted the nuance denied to people of color. Refusing to name this or excusing it as the cost of doing business is to allow white supremacy to perpetuate, the same white supremacy that over-incarcerates, under-educates, brutalizes, murders, and plunders black and brown bodies while ignoring and dismissing the lived experiences of black and brown people.
It is true that the attacks perpetrated in Paris were heinous assaults on real human victims, humans who had no idea there were going to be casualties in a war I’m sure they were unaware they were a part of. The fear brought about by the closeness of this attack is real. Paris is a place many Americans have been to, seen, smelled, heard, and tasted. I myself was in Paris just a few short months ago. But, when only white, or European, or (ostensibly or historically) Christian people are worth American tears; when we allow terror and fear to cause us to be our worst selves – selfish, small, fearful – we allow terrorism the upper-hand. What we have learned in the wake of September 11, and every attacks since then including the Paris Attacks, is that one of the tactics of terrorism as a military methodology is infiltration. Make no mistake: the xenophobic rhetoric bring spewed and accepted by far too many Americans is evidence that the enemy isn’t at the gate, it’s inside – both our hearts and our borders. The demagoguery we are witnesses is the designed outcome of terrorism. Xenophobia is the intentional result of terrorism because it reinforces the narrative that there is a war between the West and Islam. It creates and reifies the conflict that will cost the lives of our young women and men in uniform and innocent bystanders in movie venues, and it is a great recruitment tool for terrorism around the world. Terrorism is preying upon the wounds that have long divided us, conversations and interactions that we have for too long been unable or unwilling to engage in, and behaviors and ways of being that we have too often been unable or unwilling to change. White supremacy and racism are among the greatest dangers, not only to American national security, but to the soul of humanity in general. It is our greatest weakness. And until we exorcise this demon and replace it with a spirit of community and love, we will always be susceptible to terrorism tearing asunder our communities, our nation, and our world.
Preaching and praying for Paris; changing Facebook photos to the French tricolor; reciting “La Marseilles” and the French motto – Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite; and posting statuses of solidarity with Parisians are all well and good, but they appear vapid and incomplete if we don’t follow it up with solidarity and strength for our Syrian sisters and brothers following the footsteps of Jesus Christ, fleeing a terrorizing and murderous regime, and if we don’t commit to countering the poisonous rhetoric of xenophobia, western and Christian privilege, and white supremacy sweeping its way across our nation, infecting our presidential debates, and making its way into our public policies.
We cannot be driven by fear to create a better world. We must be motivated and inspired by hope. We must appeal to the goodness of one another and see divinity and humanity in the greatest and in the “least of these” – those suffering from the long-term effects of decades of terrorism, imperialism, colonialism, disease, exploitation, and poverty – if we are to build and inherit the Kingdom of God prepared from the foundation of the world. And for God’s sake, if we’re going to call ourselves “Christian” then we must be willing to follow Christ when it’s hard, when we’re afraid, when we’re confused, and when we’re tempted to shrink into the smallness and the shadow in our souls.
Mizzou. Paris. Ferguson. Beirut. Charleston. Baghdad. Brooklyn. Syria. Earth. We have an opportunity in this mission moment to respond to Jesus Christ who is found in fleeing refugees, terrorized concert-goers and sports fanatics, disenfranchised communities, dispossessed peoples, the dead, and in those who mourn. “Whatever you do, or don’t do, unto the least of these, you do, or don’t do, unto me,” the Lord says. It’s time to flip the paradigm and challenge the temptation to be our worst selves. We can and must do better. The fate of the world is depending on it.