Thursday, November 26, 2015

Lincoln's Thanksgiving and Ours | The Power of Advocacy

Abraham Lincoln was one of our greatest presidents because he was also one of our greatest theologians. He so often hits the right note, observing the propriety of giving thanks while also issuing a call for continuing repentance. In his national Thanksgiving proclamation, he gives thanks for the many blessings of life in the nation he led, while also remembering and lifting up those most adversely affected by the nation's "lamentable civil strife." One could wish that more of our national leaders on a day like thanksgiving would also, in this humble way, recognize our complicity not just in the effects of various civil struggles, but also the global implications of our national defense strategy, which are horrific.

I am also inspired today by Sarah Josepha Hale, whose persistence and advocacy efforts led to thirty states establishing days of Thanksgiving, and finally in the result of a powerful letter to the president, a national proclamation of the Day of Thanksgiving.

So today, as #blacklivesmatter and refugee advocates campaign and write letters and publish and march and speak, we remember that the persistence even of a single citizen towards a good cause can have incredible impact (Luke 11:9). 

Let's give thanks for leaders like Lincoln. May their kind increase. Let's give thanks for tireless campaigners like Sarah Josepha Hale (who also, incidentally, wrote "Mary Had a Little Lamb"). Let's pray it takes far less than thirty years (the amount of time Hale campaigned for a national day of Thanksgiving) for our leaders to listen to the real needs of those affected by our national perverseness and disobedience. Lord come quickly, and give us the spirit to give thanks in all circumstances.

By the President of the United States of America.
A Proclamation. 
The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God.
In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union.  
Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle or the ship; the axe has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consiousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom.
No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People.  
I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union. 
In testimony whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the Seal of the United States to be affixed. 
Done at the City of Washington, this Third day of October, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and of the Independence of the Unites States the Eighty-eighth. 
By the President: Abraham Lincoln
William H. Seward,
Secretary of State

Thursday, November 19, 2015

All our sins on the heads of Syrian refugees

When he has finished atoning for the holy place and the tent of meeting and the altar, he shall present the live goat. Then Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins, putting them on the head of the goat, and sending it away into the wilderness by means of someone designated for the task. The goat shall bear on itself all their iniquities to a barren region; and the goat shall be set free in the wilderness. 
The Syrian refugee population is the scapegoat for the United States. We know we've sinned. We are aware (even if that awareness is deeply sublimated) that our global military activity is largely responsible for the destabilization not only of Syria but of many places across the globe. But we cannot bear this burden, it is too much for us. So we, collectively, have cast our iniquities on to the refugees. The governors and many other prognosticators have laid their hands on the heads of the refugees, and said, "Away with you to a barren region. You cannot come here."

Because we have passed our iniquity to them, we must name them sinner on the way. They are violent Muslims, bent on global domination. They are terrorists, guilty of much, never mind that the terrorist act most recently perpetrated that sent the governors into scapegoat mode was committed by radicalized nationals of European nations.

In a scapegoat mechanism, the facts don't matter. There is just the goat, and the need for it to be sent away.

In this very moment, the Christians who have most loudly lamented the decline of faith in America have proven the bankruptcy of their own religion. Suddenly we aren't a Christian nation anymore, we are just Americans, and you can't hold civil authorities up to Christian standards. They're just keeping us safe.

Keeping us safe by scapegoating the vulnerable. Apparently they are willing to sacrifice anyone for perceived safety (which is really just political posturing, because they want the votes). Any goat will do. It's better if the goat doesn't get the goat of those voters they're trying to win.

I have quite a bit of firsthand experience resettling refugees. When I was a pastor in Wisconsin, our congregation helped resettle a family. Today they are dear friends. If you've met a refugee, you know they arrive with little or nothing, other than internal resilience and hope. Most refugees who come to the United States learn English quickly, find jobs, become self-sufficient in astonishingly quick order, and contribute to our nation in countless ways.

I also have quite a bit of firsthand experience living abroad. I used to be a missionary in Slovakia. I know what it is like to not speak the language, to complete bureaucratic forms I didn't fully understand but needed in order to stay, to cross borders, to be documented.

In particular, I knew the hospitality of my colleagues and friends who helped us. Slovaks who spent countless hours waiting in line, walking with us to ensure we could be their neighbors, teach with them, be at peace, feel at home.

I know what it is like to be welcomed, to be loved, and I am horrified beyond anything I can adequately articulate to realize our great nation, the nation of opportunity and dreams, has communicated in resounding fashion to anyone globally who is listening that we have no interest in welcome, we will exclude and divide anyone from us for any particular and irrational reason if it allows us to practice our fear.

The thing is, these governors know better. They know the refugee resettlement process, or they have staffers who do. They know its pace (long and arduous--the family we resettled in Wisconsin lived in a refugee camp for eighteen years before finally coming here). Not only that, they know the potential impact their words can have on those who already live here. They know that when they condone racial profiling and religious exclusivism, that they crank up the heat on xenophobia. They are responsible, and they should be ashamed.

Never mind if they are Christian or not, in this case the governors have exercised that famous Schmittian dictum, "Sovereign is he who decides on the exception." So they have decided to throw their sovereign weight around, and see if their pathetic chest-thumpings will stand. Oh proud governors that they are, with such powerful laws and beautiful high walls, who can keep vulnerable refugees on floating rafts crossing the Mediterranean from crossing the border of Arkansas. They will be able to remember in their retirement the glory days when they kept those damn refugees out of their states.

I seem to remember (although most conservative Christians are convinced I never read my Bible) reading in Scripture a repeated refrain, "Remember that you were once slaves in Egypt" (Deuteronomy 15:5, 15). A basic, fundamental, absolute encouragement of our holy texts is the maintaining of empathy with those currently going through what we once went through. We were once slaves in Egypt. Their story is our story. So now the story of all those who sojourn is our story also. "Do not mistreat or oppress a foreigner, for you were once slaves in Egypt" (Exodus 22:21; Leviticus 19:33).

The Syrian refugees are us. When we say we will refuse them, we are in fact saying we will refuse ourselves. In our refusal, we are casting ourselves into exile. We no longer know who we are.

Of course we should also care for many others. Our track record at caring for homeless veterans is abysmal. Far too many families with U.S. citizenship are homeless. Rather than this being a zero sum game, a rhetorical strategy to deflect from our responsibility towards refugees, the recognition that we have been inadequately up to the task of sheltering veterans and homeless families is essential, but only inasmuch as we recommit again to shelter all.

We are a nation wealthy enough, and capacious enough, to shelter all. We could welcome all the refugees of the whole world, all of them. Best estimates put the number at 16 million. We currently commit to welcoming less than 100,000 total refugees annually, and we are having a national debate over welcoming an additional 10,000. 10,000. Maximum of 65,000 over the next five years. In a nation of 320 million. “Accommodating sixty-five thousand refugees in our country . . . of three hundred and twenty million is akin to making room for six and a half more people in a baseball stadium with thirty-two thousand.”

We should weep. Those of us who are Christian, really any of us who are people of the Book, should remember that the people of Israel went into exile after the prophets (delivering the word of God) condemned them again and again on practices comparable to ours. We have forgotten the exile also.

Honestly, we have forgotten so many stories. We have forgotten the story of the welcome by first peoples here on these shores, or the welcome of neighbors and neighborhoods who received our ancestors when they settled here. We have become so narrow and scared in our focus that the best we can do, the highest we can rise, is to a national debate about whether or not to welcome some of the most vulnerable and injured people in the world.

We are cold and complicit. We are unwilling to admit that we contributed in large part to the political situation that eventuated in the rise of Syrian refugees. We then blame them for the very thing we caused. We are failing at empathy. We are failing at Christlikeness. We are failing at being Americans. And lest I recycle the scapegoating, I confess, pathetic Lutheran that I am, that I am complicit in so many ways in the system that has led us to this place. I, we, are responsible. Lord have mercy.

And the world is watching.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Be Informed About Refugee Resettlement, and Take Action

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Together we #StandForWelcome for #SyrianRefugees in the US. Info for calling your governor: @LIRSorg
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Dear Clint,
In light of the tragic attacks in Paris, we must stand together with vulnerable Syrian refugees who seek safety and a future. Reacting out of fear, Governors of over 25 states along with Members of Congress, have proposed extreme measures that would exclude all Syrian refugees from the protection of the United States resettlement system. This is not an acceptable response to this tragedy.

Our faith calls us to stand for welcome, even in the wake of fear. "Make sure that nobody pays back wrong for wrong, but always strive to do what is good for each other and for everyone else." 1 Thessalonians 5:15 As people of faith, we cannot turn our backs on our Syrian brothers and sisters as they flee the same violence from which we seek to protect ourselves.

The United States refugee resettlement program has a sophisticated and multi-layered approach to vetting any prospective refugee prior to entering our country. Indeed, refugees are the most highly screened population that enters the United States. The current screening processoften takes years to complete and includes face-to-face interviews, database checks, and biometrics by the Department of Homeland Security, FBI, Department of Defense and multiple intelligence agencies.

LIRS asks that you contact your Governor and Members of Congress TODAY and urge them to protect Syrian refugees. Your tireless commitment to protecting the world's most vulnerable does make an impact. Please consider forwarding this alert to your friends to amplify your voice!

There are two ways that you can take action: 
While the United States must balance the integrity of our resettlement system with our desire to provide protection to vulnerable refugees, we must not bow to fearAs Christians, as Americans, and as global citizens we must stand for welcome. We will keep you informed as Congressional action continues to center on Syrian refugees. I remain grateful for your commitment to vulnerable populations, especially as so many are responding with fear rather than welcome and protection.
In peace,

Brittney Nystrom
Director for Advocacy

Monday, November 16, 2015

We Stand for Welcome

Dear Clint,

We are broken with grief at the senseless loss of life in Paris, as well as the deaths in Beirut, Egypt and across the Middle East – all at the hands of brutal terrorists. These actions of ISIS are the embodiment of evil, carried out by champions of death and cruelty. They are intended to cultivate fear and mistrust in our very midst.  

We live in a world where there is so little time allowed for grief. Even as we mourn, and leaders of the world’s nations commit to bringing the perpetrators to justice, we cannot forget the new victims of ISIS, suffering under an onslaught of terror today, tomorrow and the day after.  

Every day, average Syrian people, including Christians persecuted for their faith, are being tortured and murdered, bombed and traumatized. An open field, a perilous journey, separation from family, a rickety boat, a refugee camp – are their only hope for safety. And for the most vulnerable, a relatively small number, who have no chance of ever being able to go home in safety – starting life anew in a strange land is the only possibility other than death.

The protection that the United States offers to a very small percentage of the world’s refugees must not be foreclosed for Syrians who themselves are fleeing the terror of ISIS. The US refugee program has, since 9/11, built up rigorous and multilayered security screenings to ensure that those we admit as refugees do not mean us harm. To close the door on resettling Syrian refugees would be nothing less than signing a death warrant for tens of thousands of families fleeing for their very lives.

As Christians, as Americans, and as global citizens – we must choose to stand for hope and life. We must not bow to the fear that ISIS spreads, to the seeds of doubt they cast over the land, or to the test they present to our most cherished values.

We are a nation and people that stand up to those who slaughter innocents. We stand with the most vulnerable who seek safety and a future.  And we stand for welcome.

Yours in faith,

Linda Hartke
President and CEO
Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service