Refugees, Romans, and Trusting God

Now that we’ve thankfully moved past the Starbucks Christmas cup debacle, the American Church is facing a new and actually pressing crisis: the Syrian refugees.

Without getting into the politics of it all, the question I keep seeing hashed out is simple. Should America accept Syrian refugees?

My answer (and this is my opinion) is that America should accept Syrian refugees through the same process and channels as always used. After all, we’re the home of the huddled masses, yearning to be free. Security is a built-in concern these days, so let’s trust the system to work.

But for many, it’s the follow up question that gets complicated — how should American Christians answer the question about refugees?

I would start by pointing to Romans 13 (quoting The Message translation):

1-3 Be a good citizen. All governments are under God. Insofar as there is peace and order, it’s God’s order. So live responsibly as a citizen. If you’re irresponsible to the state, then you’re irresponsible with God, and God will hold you responsible. Duly constituted authorities are only a threat if you’re trying to get by with something. Decent citizens should have nothing to fear.

3-5 Do you want to be on good terms with the government? Be a responsible citizen and you’ll get on just fine, the government working to your advantage. But if you’re breaking the rules right and left, watch out. The police aren’t there just to be admired in their uniforms. God also has an interest in keeping order, and he uses them to do it. That’s why you must live responsibly—not just to avoid punishment but also because it’s the right way to live.

6-7 That’s also why you pay taxes—so that an orderly way of life can be maintained. Fulfill your obligations as a citizen. Pay your taxes, pay your bills, respect your leaders.

The second sentence is the one that seems pertinent to me. “All governments are under God” is a significant statement; too often, we act as if government is out of God’s control, when the truth is much uglier: government is out of our control. And that’s what scares many American Christians.

Because we live in a democratic republic, it’s easy to understand how we get things mixed up. We vote for our government officials, so that means we have a say in who represents us and what values they bring to the table. We expect our vote to carry a certain weight with our representatives because without it they couldn’t hold office. As a result, we feel like the government is ours to control. Lobbyists feel otherwise.

Here’s the Apostle Paul, however, setting us straight. Government is not ours to control. It’s God’s. End of story. Paul spends seven verses explaining just how God uses the government to His purposes, and how Christians should trust God to work.

And Paul was writing under the rule of Rome. When they crucified Christians. And used them for bloodsport in massive arena games. And blamed them for the downfall of the world.

Yet we get pissy over coffee cups. But whatevs.

The heart of the issue is one of faith and trust. Some people don’t trust the government. Given the history of American politics, that’s not unreasonable. Some people don’t trust individual politicians. That makes sense too. Some people don’t even trust the system by which we elect our government — again, I understand.

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t trust God.

Because that’s what this boils down to. Plenty of American Christians don’t trust the God they worship. Having grown accustomed to the ease of living afforded by our country, we cannot fathom that God would ever test that ease. That’s right – I’m throwing myself in the mix. I struggle with the Syrian question because I know in my heart taking care of the poor and oppressed is a Scriptural command from God.

In my head, however, there’s a filibuster going on about national security, vetting processes, and the fact that I don’t want a potential terrorist moving into any of the rental properties in my neighborhood. (Because suburban Atlanta is a hot target these days.)

I think a lot of us are feeling this way and we’re pointing towards politics as the source and expression of the tension when it’s really a spiritual battle.

And it comes down to the question of do you trust God or not?

I don’t want anyone to harm my country. I don’t want helpless people to suffer at the hands of evil ideologues. There’s a paradox at work, and that just so happens to be the place where God shines brightest.

So, I’m going to trust God, who put my government in place, to use that government to His will and purpose. I’m going to trust God that if we let Syrian refugees in, it’s for His will and purpose.

I’m going to trust God, because, in the end, there’s no one else worth trusting.

The Battle for Privilege

I was tempted to write something about the dismissal of Atlanta Fire Chief Kelvin Cochran, who was relieved of his duties as my hometown’s top fire fighter due to (ironically) incendiary comments he made in a self-published book. Here in the South, religion and politics make for combustible bedfellows, and it’s easy to rattle off a knee-jerk reaction to stories similar to this one.

Many Christians are up in arms over Cochran’s firing. They’re calling it persecution, a violation of the First Amendment, a violation of his civil rights (which, here in the home of the Civil Rights movement, is a big deal).

Other folks are up in arms over Cochran’s statements. They’re saying his words created a hostile work environment, were effectively creating a religious power structure, were diminishing to the homosexual community (which, here in the “excellent epicenter of the LGBT South, is a big deal).

I can see both sides of the issue. And what’s at stake is neither free speech nor religious liberty nor LGBT rights nor a safe work place.

What’s at stake is privilege. Namely, who gets it.

Christians want to be able to say what they want without fear of reprisal, even when how they say things invites angry response.

The community of tolerance wants to be accepted without demonization, though they often caricature people who don’t buy into their view of tolerance.

Both groups are fighting for the same thing, and it’s not just principle: it’s the privilege to exercise their principle with relative impunity. Our society loves underdogs, but it gives power to the overlords. Right now it’s an all-out battle to decide just which group gets to hold power.

It’s sad, really. Both sides are screaming at one another to be accepted, to be heard, to be understood. Both sides say they want to live at peace. But neither side is willing to give up the press for privilege, because it delivers too many benefits, too much power, too much ease. To live at peace with one another would require struggle, sacrifice, a persistent willingness to work through issues as they arise. It requires walking with one another.

But too many folks want to walk over one another.

So the Battle for Privilege rages on…

Independence Everyday


This made me laugh.

Today is the Fourth of July, the annual day when America stops to celebrate itself. And we’ve much to celebrate – one of the youngest and yet most influential nations on the planet, we are pretty much the geopolitical equivalent of the Millennials: we came into the game early, believed we belonged, proved ourselves despite some mistakes, and now we’re sitting in the catbird seat wondering, “What next?”

It’s been a rollicking ride, to say the least. I’m no historian, but we’ve undergone quite the transformation. Once a backwater repository for people who didn’t want to be picked on anymore, we’re now the Ritz-Carlton of refugees. For nearly three centuries we’ve been the rewrite of Shangri-La; our national anthem might as well be New York, New York  because if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere. And yet we find ourselves at a crossroads. Things have changed. We still believe certain things are true about our country, but we are also increasingly aware that the nation we live in isn’t built entirely on sunshine and big brass ones.

If America were a shiny Jeep Liberty (cause, really – what else would we be?), then we’d have to admit there’s a good bit of dirt on the undercarriage. The same is true of almost any nation.

But we feel it more than most, I think. Our mythology has always been that we were the nation that wasn’t a carbon-copy of the despotic and tyrannical days of yore; we were the nation that gave rise to the voice of the people, the nation that proved that power was not best when concentrated in the hands of a few. We stop and celebrate our independence every July 4th, we sing the song for the people, by the people, of the people, but the reality is that we have drifted far, far away from that narrative.

And it bugs us.

Some folks break out the tea bags and stockpile the ammo, waiting for the day that history repeats itself. Others push for reforms that will never come. Some just embrace it as the manifest destiny of all nations – that at some point the safety and security of all we’ve become is paramount over the rights and liberties that made us what we are. Others adopt that most modern American of attitudes: “Dude, as long as I still get wifi, who cares?”

Two hundred and thirty seven years after we told the British Empire to step off, we’re still trying to figure out what it means to be American.

And maybe that’s as it should be. Maybe the most daring of political experiments should never come to a tidy conclusion, where certain ideas and beliefs become ruts that trap us. Maybe it’s right that we continue wrestling with the soul of our nation in order not to fall into the trap of other former powers who lost their souls and then lost themselves. Maybe our greatest gift to ourselves is the permanence of uncertainty, that we rise and fall on our ability as a nation to never settle on a “right way”.

It would be ironic, wouldn’t it, if our stability as a nation rested on our instability as a culture?

I’m not a fan of everything that’s changed about our country. I look back on previous generations and lament the loss of certain of their characteristics in this day and age. But I’m also quite pleased that we now have a country where you can’t own another person legally, you can’t get away with abuse in private, and you can’t claim superiority to another person simply because you were born into privilege. Yeah, we’ve lost a lot of who we used to be, but you know what? A bunch of it needed to be lost.

That’s what makes us America – we’re constantly examining who we are in order to become who we want to be.

There will always be people who deny this, of course. They’ll insist that what makes us great is what made us great in the past, those values and behaviors that gave rise to power and prestige on the world stage. But if you look at the thread weaving our history together, if you look at the central characteristic of the American story, you see that it’s always been our propensity for change that’s made us great. We are a nation built on thrown off ideals.

Our independence is what defines us, for better or worse. Usually for the better.

So today as Americans, wherever you may be, celebrate the country that gives you the opportunity to reinvent yourself. Celebrate the nation that believes at its core to be human is to change. Light a firework or fifty in honor of our independence, not just from Britain, but from the shackles of history; not just 237 years ago, but everyday.

Happy Fourth of July, America. Hope it’s a good one.

He’s The President…And Human Too


I haven’t been political in a while. There’s just not much return on it. Every time I write about politics, I get nasty comments and emails, and I’m just too tired to put up with crap like that. Besides, there’s nothing major going on now that wasn’t going on under previous administrations – the only difference is that everyone expected this president wouldn’t act like previous presidents. We were wrong.

But today I saw a picture that was supposed to be funny – I say supposed to be because the primary purpose of the pic was to share the pun caption. It was a picture of our president, Barack Obama, with a grossly exaggerated lower lip and the caption: “Apefirmative Action.”

I almost threw my computer across the room. Seriously? In 2013?

The gross, crass nature of the pun bothered me. First of all, it’s not even remotely funny. Second, it shows the derogative imagination of an emotionally damaged teen. Third, it bothered me to know that there are still people out there who haven’t realized the stunningly obvious truth about humanity: that regardless of race, we’re pretty much all the same. None of us is better or more special than another – and the fact that someone posted that picture pretty much makes that point. If you denigrate another race, you’re merely showing the inferiority of yours.

I was also bothered by the fact that the presidency isn’t worthy of respect anymore. Once upon a time people respected whomever sat the in the Oval Office because they understood that no matter what a particular president’s agenda might be, he was constrained by his oath to protect the American people. They knew of the burdens that weighed on the holder of the position and didn’t envy him.

Nowadays we treat our presidents as punch lines. I’m guilty of it too. After all, no matter what, he’s just a man, and men are not sacred. But while the occasional joke is fine, the persistent and pernicious assaults on the past few presidents in office reveal something deeper. A lack of respect. A sense of entitlement. A society of selfish people, clamouring for their way over the will of the People.

To be honest, we now treat the president as if he’s a C.E.O. and America is a company. We want him to maximize our profits, do whatever will make us the most happy. Forget what’s good for the company, forget what makes us stronger in the long run, we want what we want not. Gimme, gimme, gimme. And if you don’t, we’ll scream and yell and call for your ouster because we want bigger and better dividends, we want you do what we say.

But the truth is that President is not the same as C.E.O.; the ramifications are too big, too powerful. And there’s no way he could satisfy everyone with his performance because we’re too big, too diverse, too easily swayed about what matters to us at his moment. He has to do what he thinks is right; if we don’t agree, we have our legal revolution every four years at the ballot box.

All of this to say, disagree with the man if you want (and on many things, I do – same as with W), but when you stoop to posting racist pictures as a way of expressing your displeasure, you’re crossing a line and revealing an ugly truth about yourself: that after years of learning the truth about race, you’ve simply chosen not to listen. You are willfully ignorant. You make an active choice to be less than intelligent.

Which is why no rational person will listen to your screed. It’s as nonsensical as a baby’s babble.

And it’s why I won’t go any farther. You’re human too. You have a family, a life, hopes and dreams. You have a heart and a brain and lungs just like me, and while you may infuriate me with your rhetoric, you will not make me hate you. You are not a character, not an object; you are a real life flesh-and-bone person with a story that I don’t know. I don’t agree with what you’ve said, but I won’t go so far as to demonize you because you don’t fit my worldview, because that’s part of what it means to be human. I can’t be in control of what the other 7 billion people on this planet do, a fact I’m learning one painful bit at a time.

I think I’ve kind of typed myself into a circle here, so I’ll bring this in for a landing. Respect the person who’s different from you. Don’t be quick to demonize. Don’t allow your heart to descend into the depravity of racism and hate.

By the grace of God, we can be better.

Stop the Band, Kill the Noise


“Smeagol isn’t listening! Not listening! My preciousssssss…”

About every six months or so, I get awfully tempted to become a real blogger, the kind that generates thousands of daily hits and tons of followers on Twitter. I make a deal with myself to sit down and craft content that will draw eyes and ire, generate reblogs and rebukes, and just in general put my name on the minds of people who troll/scour the Internet looking for that sort of engagement. I tell myself it’ll be easy – two to three times a day, I’ll post a list of things that are wrong with the church, or I’ll attack a strawman argument on a hot political issue, or I’ll wade back into one of the denominational war zones that always draw attention and alarm from the masses.

I plan all of this, and I’ll even give it a go for a couple of posts, and inevitably, it falls by the wayside. I can’t do it. I can’t keep up. My brain simply can’t conceive of a way to keep writing about the same things in the same ways over and over again.

Apparently I’m neither creative nor outraged enough.

Regardless – whether my lack of imagination or indignation – I have recently begun to marvel at those who can crank out that kind of content on a regular basis. My Twitter feed is filled with such people; I can’t refresh my feed without someone new posting a blog about 5 Reasons the Resurrection Is Absolutely, Positively REAL or 10 Secrets to a Dynamic Church or 39 Things You Must Do To Make Jesus Happy or Else He’ll Revoke Your Salvation.

(I’m kidding about that last one. Kind of.)

There’s one particular gentleman that I follow that posts links and blogs like that non-stop everyday. I know he’s not writing all of those posts himself, but I am utterly gobsmacked at the fact that he does write an awful lot. And they’re usually good. Some quite so.

Writers like that simultaneously inspire and deflate me. Inspire, because I love the fact that they sit at their keyboard and let the ideas flow down like mercy. Deflate, because so often those ideas are either recycled or reheated. They don’t add much new to the conversation.

I know, I know – there’s nothing new under the sun. Heck, even what I attempt to do here is admittedly what another writer did to far better effect. But what I always try to do is to make whatever I write in my voice, in my honest voice. I fail sometimes; there are occasions when I get up on a high horse and either try to sound smarter than I really am, or try to write with an authority I don’t possess, and when those occasions come along, I am reminded over and over again why I don’t write like that all the time.

Because it’s not me.

So why am I bringing all of this up? Lately, it seems like I’m drowning in noise, endless, repetitive noise. The same people clanging the same gongs for the same audience. Mostly, these posts are on some political or cultural issue, and they only exist to get someone’s dander up, or undies bunched, or pick another metaphor for useless agitation. The same medium through which I find my greatest outlet of expression – blogging – is the one that allows untold others to beat our collective cultural dead horses again and again, and to present the blogs on those poor, flagellated equine corpses as fresh and new and unique, when really they are none of those things.

And this harsh rehashing of the yada-yada-yada isn’t confined to one particular spectrum of the web; it’s not just the church people who do it; it’s not just the liberal media; it’s not just the fringe wackos or reality stars or any other specific class of people. It’s all of us. All of us. Adding to the noise, transferring information because we can, not because it’s needed. Even the very words I’m typing – noise, noise, noise. For some reason, today, it’s exhausting.

It creates a sense that the world will always be irretrievably broken, but if we try just that much harder, we can fix it – yes, we can! If we can get rid of the fundies, the gays, the illegals, the GOP, the Dems, the rednecks, the hippies, the commies, the druggies, the libs, the unenlightened, and the downright socially awkward, then we can all live in the glorious utopia that Our Forefathers first envisioned when they arrived on this fair continent and poisoned the Native Americans after swindling them out of their land.

Ugh. Just make the voices stop, Brain. If you don’t, I’ll stab you with a Q-Tip.

So what’s the take away? What do we do? Personally, I’m culling my Twitter feed, starting today. I’m getting rid of all the counterfeit voices, the people who simply channel the outrage of others without contributing thought themselves. I’m going to delete the emails that merely generate sound and fury. I’m going to hide the Facebook friends who only share tiresome photos and memes from random quasi-political groups.

And I’m quite sure that there will be people who decide to delete this post – and any of my subsequent posts – from their information flow. I can live with that. My style isn’t for everyone, and that’s fine by me.

Today’s just one of those days to take a stand against the people who want to manipulate us with fear or anger or both. I’m not gonna dance to their tune anymore. I’m stopping the band, and killing the noise.

Hopefully, it will give me more time for my own voice.

Yours too.