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.


  1. We are sinners, what else would you expect.

  2. This is truth that is difficult to hear, but truth nonetheless. Thank you for being a mirror.