Tuesday, July 5, 2016

I Was a Stranger and You Did Not Welcome Me

I have written a great deal in the past about fear and the terrible things it drives us to do. I've also written a lot about tribalism and the evils of walling ourselves off in aggressively exclusive communities. (You can look for those terms in the search box in the upper left to find past blog posts).

This past week we have been treated to a case that encompasses both - an Emirati man in traditional dress taken down by local police in Avon, Ohio for the crime of talking on a cell phone outside a hotel.

The fact that the mayor later said that police were "following protocol" and yet claimed that the incident "does not reflect our community" is absurd. Local rules and protocols reflect exactly what kind of community they want. That's what representative democracy is supposed to do. If this is not the kind of community that the citizens of Avon want, their elected officials need to do a better job of translating those wishes into rules and actions.

It is tempting to blame this incident on Donald Trump. Initially, my thought was to write a blog post about this story titled something like "Living in Trump's America". But the reality is that Trump did not cause the paranoia, the fear, or the xenophobia. He's just using it for his own selfish ends.

In the days immediately following the Oklahoma City bombing, before Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols were identified and apprehended, Sikhs and Muslims across the country were attacked at random. In other communities and in days gone by it has been Hispanics. Or blacks. Or gays. Or Irish. Or Italians. This is nothing new, though it is no less shameful for that. We have not made nearly as much "progress" as we like to think.

It's easy to single out the frightened 911 caller here, and I'm glad that there may be consequences for someone calling 911 and claiming without evidence that someone is "pledging allegiance to ISIS or whatever". More problematic is the law enforcement response. Cranks call 911 all the time. That doesn't mean we have to provide muscle for their desire to lash out at others.

But beyond the obvious paranoia, tribalism, and xenophobia on display here, I want to point something out to a particular audience. For those of us who are followers of the Christian faith (as I am), and for those in particular who claim a desire for the United States to be a "Christian Nation" (I do not) - in the face of this story I am struck by these words of Jesus from the Gospel of Matthew:
I was a stranger and you did not welcome me (Mt 25:43)
This is the very antithesis of welcoming the stranger. The man was obviously from a foreign land. Rather than greet him with welcome, he was greeted with fear, xenophobia, and force. He was accosted and humiliated, made worse because it was done under the color of law by people who supposedly represent us all.

If you really want your nation, or your community, or the world immediately around you, to reflect the Kingdom of God, then you need to take this kind of thing seriously. It is not in sermons and Sunday services that faith lives; it is in our everyday actions, as simple as making a phone call or greeting a stranger.

The security-minded response - the voice that wrote those law enforcement protocols - claims that "we have to do this", that "this is necessary to keep us safe". And after all, what is the minor inconvenience of one man (he was released shortly thereafter, once it became clear to everyone that he was not a threat) next to the safety of the community?

You are welcome to that point of view, of course. I would make only two observations. First, it is a vantage ruled entirely by fear. If you are going to allow fear to own your decisions, admit to it. I prefer a different path.

Second, you cannot hold this position and simultaneously claim to wish for a "Christian Nation" or a Christian community of any sort. To take the "safety first/security above all" road is to give up on God and Christ entirely. Jesus did not say, "Invite in the stranger after he's been through a thorough background check and has been screened for weapons". 2000 years ago the world was every bit as dangerous, indeed far more so, than it is today. Yet his words are what they are.

We must all choose, every day, between fear and courage, between isolation and connection, between security and vulnerability. These are never easy choices, and there is room for compromise and balance between competing concerns. But we should make these choices mindful that every choice we make remakes the world a little bit, for good or ill. Next time, let's try welcoming the stranger rather than handcuffing him.

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