Jesus Already Answered the Refugee Question

The Good Samaritan by Jan Wijnants (1670)

The Good Samaritan by Jan Wijnants (1670) (Wikimedia)

Politicians and theologians in the United States frequently turn to the writings of the Christian Bible for guidance on contemporary political issues. Often this requires some stretched or complicated logic, and, at times, texts from the Torah have to be weighed against Jesus’ teachings in the gospels or Paul’s paranetic guidance in his epistles. This is hardly surprising, since the writings in our Scriptures span over a thousand years of different political events, all of which took place in times with radically different questions from our own. Applying those texts to modern circumstances requires some skill and effort.

That is why the question of the Christian response to the Syrian refugee crisis is so refreshing. It’s one of the few times where we have clear, unambiguous, explicit guidance from Jesus about what is expected of those of us who claim to be Christians. That guidance is found in what is perhaps Jesus’ most famous parable, that of the “Good Samaritan” found in Luke 10:25-37. The story is so widely known that in popular, secular culture, someone who goes out of their way to help a stranger is often called a “Good Samaritan.” News reporters and the general public, however, would probably think twice about using the phrase if they knew how Jesus’ original audience would have heard it.

The northern and southern regions of what was – for a brief time under Kings Saul, David, and Solomon – a united kingdom had a long history of enmity and conflict. After the death of Solomon, the northern region formed the Kingdom of Israel, and the southern region formed the Kingdom of Judah. Samaria was the capital of Israel, and Jerusalem the capital of Judah. Over time, religious practices increasingly diverged, with what would become modern-day Judaism centered around Jerusalem and its temple. By the time of Jesus, Jews had over eight hundred years of fractious, sometimes violent, conflict with Samaritans. They hated each other for political, ethnic, and theological reasons. Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem viewed Samaritans as polytheistic pagans whose scriptures and practices were, at best, a perversion of the true worship and commandments of God.

Jesus’ own teaching on scripture and practice indicate that, as an orthodox Jew, he agreed with them (see Matt 5:17-18 as an example). In fact, Jesus’ religious movement was so completely entrenched in Judaism that his closest disciples taught for years after the crucifixion that you had to convert to Judaism if you wanted to be saved (they changed their view after the Council at Jerusalem). With that in mind, and considering the centuries of hostility and conflict, if you want to hear how Jesus and his audience heard the word “Samaritan,” imagine how an evangelical Christian living in the United States would hear “Muslim.”

So, with that as our historical framework, let’s look at the parable of the “Good Muslim.” It begins when someone comes up to Jesus and says, “I want to inherit eternal life. What do I need to do?” At this point, anyone who went to the Sunday School I went to as a child knows the answer is, “Accept Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior!” Jesus, however, gives a very different answer. As a good teacher, he first asks the student, “What’s your read of Scripture?” The response is, in brief, “Love God and love your neighbor.” Jesus answers, “That’s right!”

Apparently it occurred to the person asking the question that if “neighbor” meant more than just the people who are like us and whom we like, “loving” them might be a bit too much to ask, even if the reward is eternal salvation. Their follow-up question is, “So, um, who exactly is my neighbor?”

Jesus responds with a story. I’ll paraphrase it here. A deacon from a church in Nashville came to Atlanta for a religious conference, and was staying at a hotel near the airport. As he was walking back to his hotel from a nearby restaurant, three strangers held him up at gunpoint. They took his wallet, his smartphone, his wedding ring, and then, just for fun, made him strip naked and beat him so badly he couldn’t walk. They left him there, bloody and naked on the sidewalk.

The pastor of the local First Baptist Church was attending the same conference, and was on his way to the restaurant the man had just left. He saw the poor deacon lying there, bleeding, and immediately crossed the street, not wanting to get involved. He was afraid that the man might be an HIV-positive homeless person, and that he would be exposing himself to the disease if he got too close. A Roman Catholic priest, also there for the conference, saw the bloodied, crying man and thought it might be a trap of some kind. What if, knowing there was a religious conference in town, a bunch of thugs had disguised one of their own as a crime victim, hoping to lure a naive clergyman into coming over so that they could ambush the do-gooder? The priest decided to play it safe, and crossed the street as well.

The third person to come along was a Muslim man who was staying at  the same hotel, waiting out a layover on his international flight. It had been a long day for him. The hotel was full of impassioned Christians all attending workshops on “Muslim extremism.” The looks and attitude he had been getting from the guests had not been exactly kind. None of that mattered, however, when he saw the battered man, crying in pain, by the side of the road. The Muslim man immediately took off his shirt, tearing it into bandages to stop the blood from the other man’s wounds. He then picked up the stranger, summoned a cab, and took him to the nearest hospital. At the hospital, the Muslim man gave his credit card, to make sure that the injured deacon would get the best possible care despite his lack of identification or insurance card.

After telling the story, Jesus asked his audience, all good, faithful Christians,  “Who is the one who loved his neighbor in this story? Who is the one who will have eternal life?” They knew the answer before he even asked:  The Good Muslim.

The parallels are less than subtle. When we look at a Syrian, Muslim refugee we see someone who is politically, ethnically, and theologically a “stranger.” Jesus makes it extraordinarily clear, however, that there is only one way to see them: as our neighbor. Knowing that, Jesus’ command is clear. “Love your neighbor as yourself” is, along with loving God, the heart of all God’s commandments (Mark 12:30-31; Matt 22:37-40). Simply put, if a person claims allegiance to the teachings of Jesus, there is no other option than to help someone in need, no matter how different they may be from us, no matter how much we may dislike them, even if we think it’s a trap or dangerous, and even if they are our sworn enemy.

Few of us live up to that command perfectly, and I sincerely hope that God will be more merciful to us (in our failures to love one another) than we are toward those whom we are commanded to love. Let us pray that is the case, because, in the gospel of Matthew, when Jesus taught about who would be saved, he did not say anything about what people believed regarding who was their “personal Lord and Savior.” Jesus gave only one criteria: those who help vulnerable people when they are in need are the ones who are saved (Matt 25:31-46).

Our political leaders are quick to claim religious justification for the policies that serve their interests. They would do well to remember Jesus’ words of caution. Simply claiming to act in his name is not enough (Matt 7:21-23). Jesus expects us to act, not according to some bigoted stereotype of what we think it means to be a Christian, but in accordance with his clear and unambiguous teaching that every single person is our neighbor, our brother or sister.

An entire nation of people very different from (yet remarkably like) us is lying, bloody, by the side of the road. We can cross the street and pretend it’s not our responsibility, or we can take the risks and costs on ourselves to help. For those who rely on secular sources of guidance, the appropriate response may be more complex or nuanced, but for those who claim the label “Christian” the choice is clear. Like the Good Samaritan, we must find a way to help, even if it means reaching deeply into our national resources of ingenuity and wealth to do so safely, effectively, comprehensively, and quickly. It’s the neighborly thing, the loving thing, and the Christian thing to do.

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Thoughts on Service and Honor

My Grandfather during WW2

My grandfather, 2LT Aubrey T. Villines, Sr. (center), on a ruck march during the Second World War.

By virtue of education and occupation, I now spend a lot of time in a world that is a couple of social echelons above that of my childhood. In contrast to the blue-collar, middle-class environment that defined my neighborhood and public education, our son graduated from a private school where the annual tuition would be enough to buy a new car every year. He now attends an elite, Northern liberal arts college where the families of half the students can afford the $65,000 per year cost of attendance, out of pocket, without financial aid.

Over a decade of social overlap with members of the “one percent” has taught me more than a few lessons about class differences, and has occasionally made me self-conscious of our solidly middle-class income and home. Comments like, “Our nanny has an apartment that’s bigger than your whole house,” and “You don’t make enough money to understand why I vote Republican,” have had the cumulative effect of reminding me that our family’s definition of wealth and prosperity is out of step with the one used by wealthy elites. In fact, there have been moments of jarring collision between the working-class values that shaped me and the lives led by those in the upper class.

None stands in more stark relief for me than the Spring concert when our son was in elementary school. The auditorium, which could comfortably seat 300 people, was packed with parents and grandparents who listened intently as their cherubic progeny sang their hearts out. For the final performance, the music director asked everyone who had ever served in the military to stand. The school’s founder, a retired Navy Commander in his late eighties, was at the front, bracing the American flag. I stood, as did two other parents. One was a Coast Guard officer, the other an Army officer. I was was the only NCO.  The other two men were in or near their fifties, I was in my early thirties.

It was a vivid, visual reminder that the social tier that produces our political and cultural leaders is not the social tier that places its life on the line to defend the policies they put in place. Over 300 people – physicians, attorneys, politicians, academics, corporate executives – were gathered in that room. The question was asked who there had taken an oath to serve their country. Fewer than 1 percent stood, and only one of them was an enlisted person, a former soldier who was also the only one under fifty.

The author, at left, as a newly-minted paratrooper studying at the Defense Language Institute (1993)

The author, at left, as a newly-minted paratrooper studying at the Defense Language Institute (1993)

Larger samples of age and demographic data also support that anecdotal visual. This trend is reflected in the makeup of Congress, a statistic that likely includes very few former NCO’s or junior enlisted. The numbers also show that military service tends to run in families, as it does in mine (including my grandfather, a mustang who climbed from private to Lieutenant Colonel and served in WW2, Korea, and Vietnam). Increasingly, however, those are not the families that are casting the votes – in Congress or in the shareholder meetings that actually govern our country – that send us to war.

Wanting our leaders to have “skin in the game” is reason enough to encourage our elites to consider military service, but I don’t think it should be our primary motivation. Those with power will always have ways to keep their families out of harms way. I think the formative aspect of military service is a much better argument for military service among the ruling class.

Uncle Henry

My Great Uncle, TSgt Henry Clay Travis

Another anecdote from observing my son’s academic world is perhaps relevant here. I had the opportunity to sit in on a class at our son’s top-notch school. A gifted professor was leading a spirited discussion on the Stanzaic Morte Arthur, a medieval text that, among other things, deals with the price of honor and loyalty to friends and family. The professor asked the students, “Is there such a thing as too much honor?” One student answered, “These days, probably. Then, no.” There were murmurs of assent from the other students in the class.

It occurred to me that the students, all of whom were obviously smart, thoughtful, and conscious of the many social and political nuances and relevancies of this 700-year-old text, are likely to choose careers where concepts like “honor” and “loyalty” are considered anachronisms. They are unlikely to enter career paths where commitment to integrity and an established code might mean life or death for themselves and for their comrades-in-arms. Whether a member of the military ever sees combat (and, unlike my grandfather, I never did), joining into the centuries of tradition that train our warfighters shapes us in ways that no other experience can. To a servicemember, there is no such thing as too much honor, and there is no price too high to pay for the sake of loyalty.

Aubrey Thompson Villines, Jr. - 2LT

My Uncle, 2LT Aubrey T. Villines, Jr., during Vietnam.

The military has a long, successful history of inculcating the importance of those archaic values. It carries forward other anachronisms too, like honoring the generations who preceded us, and respect for those who have earned their place of leadership or authority through diligence, skill, and sacrifice. My own understanding of leadership was shaped as much by knowing I could trust that my NCO’s and officers earned their place, and that they would put my needs above theirs, as it was by the sophisticated, formal leadership training I received. Having watched the world of elite education firsthand, I am deeply concerned that we are training our future leaders to begin at the top and only periodically peer down from there, a critique that William Deresiewicz articulates beautifully in his book Excellent Sheep. Military service, even for those who begin as officers without having been enlisted, teaches leadership from the bottom up. Living that out changed the way I understood my obligations and expectations as a leader in ways that I think are unique to the military.

That life also let me to shared experiences of collaboration and interdependence with people from the widest range of socio-economic backgrounds I have ever encountered in one place. As an enlisted person, I served alongside a (fellow enlisted) Harvard graduate with a law degree from Boston College, as well as a soldier from the swamps of Louisiana fresh out of high school. In Basic Training, I was one bunk over from a soldier from the south side of Chicago, and one bunk over from him was a guy who enlisted after finishing his Master’s at Tuskegee. In an era where our neighborhoods are increasingly segregated by class and income, and where social mobility is, at best, stagnant, military service is a rare opportunity to actually work alongside people from a diverse range of backgrounds.

Grandpa, Great-Great Grandpa, Barbara

My grandfather, Aubrey T. Villines, Sr., newly graduated from OCS, stands with his grandfather, John Castner Villines, and his newborn daughter, Barbara.

“Alongside” is the key adverb there. Military service means knowing, trusting, and sacrificing for the person on either side of you, no matter how much or how little you might have in common. This is vastly different from the controlled, scripted opportunities for “cross-cultural understanding” or “community service” through which young elites are dutifully filtered before returning to their lives of privilege. I remember the moment in Basic Training when I realized that my strong academic skills and linguistic facility had absolutely zero likelihood of determining my success, and that I needed to rely on the people around me, people with far less experience with the skills that – until then – had defined “achievement” for me, to survive. When I was going through PLDC in the Okefenokee swamp in July, I didn’t care if the guy pouring his canteen of water over my head to stop me from puking had read Chaucer. I was just glad to know that if I needed him to, he would carry me out of that godforsaken swamp, or die trying.

We do our best to teach our future leaders that they should value everyone equally, but that equality takes on an entirely different dimension when you realize that the “value” of the person who is saving you from heat exhaustion has nothing to do with their level of education or tax bracket. Our next generation of leaders could benefit greatly from that kind of education.

If they are not going to get it through the military, then we need to have a serious discussion about where they might. There are millions of people for whom honor, sacrifice, and loyalty are not abstract concepts. Our future leaders should be among them.

Grandpa's Grave Marker

After presenting the Flag of the United States to my Grandma Sue, I stood, in uniform, at attention, on this spot in Lynchburg, Tennessee as my fellow soldier was finally laid to rest. I carried forward his watch, and others will succeed me.

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Flag-Waving and Flag-Shaming Distract from Real Issues

Map Showing Incidence of Slavery in 2013

Visualization of the Data from the Walk Free Foundation (linked below) (SRC: User Kwamikagami, Wikipedia)

In a tiny microcosm of how the manufactured outrage machine in this country works, my Facebook feed is saturated with discussions about how important it is that we remove some of the symbols associated with the Confederacy because of their links to defending slavery 150 years ago. Politicians on both sides of the aisle are uniting to argue for removal of the flag of the Army of Northern Virginia (which some mistakenly call the “Stars and Bars” – the name of the actual flag of the Confederate States of America). Huge amounts of airtime is going to this issue, and impassioned statements are everywhere to be found.

Meanwhile, yesterday, Congress approved a bill giving the President the authority to move forward with his stated goal of negotiating a new Trans-Pacific trade partnership. The Republicans wanted this, as did President Obama, to ensure that mega-corporations could get even richer – with no concern for how it impacted everyday, hard-working Americans.

This is particularly germane to my opening paragraph because President Obama also opposed Senator Menendez’s amendment to block trade agreements with countries listed by the State Department as “Tier 3” in terms of human trafficking and slavery. Despite White House opposition, the amendment passed, and Paul Ryan is now actively working to gut it through a customs bill.

So, to be clear, while the corporate-owned media has us focusing our energy on a flag that, while still used today as a symbol by white supremacists and other idiots, dates from a war where slavery ended in this country 150 years ago; our leaders in both parties – including our President – want to make it as easy as possible for American companies to use actual slave labor, right now, in 2015.

Millions of people in countries like Malaysia, Mauritania, India and Saudi Arabia live in real slavery right now. Thousands of them will die this year as a result of the conditions of their enslavement (this includes the ones being sacrificed to build the World Cup stadium in Qatar). Our government helps make this possible, in the service of the billionaire class who benefits from the labors of the lives they own.

I’m not trying to understate or minimize the importance of our ongoing dialogue about racism and the systems of injustice which perpetuate it. Instead, I want to point out how the system is designed to focus our energies on symbolic causes célèbres rather than the very real issues of life and death.

If slavery is such a horrid concept that even a flag associated with the institution (from 150 years ago) warrants so much energy, why aren’t we willing to at least hold our elected officials accountable for curtailing the widespread use of slavery by our trading partners? If Amazon and Wal*Mart shouldn’t even sell a flag that represents the history of slavery in the United States, why should they be allowed to sell goods produced by actual slaves living in horrid conditions of brutality and slaughter?

If we all agree that slavery is horrible, why aren’t we willing to make even the tiniest sacrifices to actually end it?

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Dear 47 Senators

US Constitution

Article II of the US Constitution (National Archives)

Dear 47 “Senators” and Those Whom You Teabag:

It has come to our attention, while observing your attempts to hold our nation hostage with your rhetoric of arrogance and ignorance, that you may not fully understand our constitutional system.  Thus, we are writing to bring to your attention two features of our Constitution – the executive power invested in the President and the accountability you have to the American electorate.  We hope that you will seriously consider these points before you again attempt to inject your infantile rants while the adults are speaking.

First, under our Constitution, Article II, Section 1, “The executive Power shall be vested in a President of the United States of America.”  Your party’s constant attempts to undermine the President’s authority notwithstanding, he remains the person whom the majority of the voters in this country chose to represent us as the head of our nation’s executive branch.  This may be confusing to you, because the gerrymandering that sustains your colleagues in the House along with the disproportionate representation of low-population states in the Senate (something constitutionally designed, ironically, to prevent extremism), has somehow deluded you into thinking your fringe views represent the majority of Americans.  They do not.  The President is the only person chosen by the majority of American voters, and as such he has the authority to enter into executive agreements with other nations.  You may not like that, in part because his diplomatic efforts are likely to impede your ability to someday work as an overpaid K-Street lobbyist for a defense contractor, but that’s how things are.

Secondly, you may want to note that Section 3 of our Constitution indicates that you are elected by the voters of a state, and no longer by a state’s legislators.  This means that if you continue to deviate from all manner of logic, decorum, and integrity you will increasingly offend the “average” voters in your home state.  You may think that the billionaires who bankroll you can dupe the middle class into voting against their self-interest and supporting you, but that will only work up to a point.  If you continue to embarrass our nation on the global stage, the democratic process will do its duty and you will not remain in office.  Your terms will be measured in years, perhaps months if you continue to behave in an impeachable manner.

What these two constitutional points mean is that, if you continue to purvey weapons-grade stupidity, you will only weaken your ability to have a say in the governance of our great nation.  More importantly, and pay close attention to this one, you are also undermining our national security.  We understand that your political statecraft has so far been limited to puerile tantrums pitched before sympathetically ignorant audiences, but should you be willing to listen more than you speak you might have the opportunity to learn about actual statesmanship.  We are not naïve enough to blindly trust terrorist regimes (even the ones you seem to like because of their willingness to provide you with oil), but as adults we understand that the formalities and obligations of diplomacy are essential to the equitable and effective conduct of international relations.

All of this may be difficult for you to comprehend.  You are interested in vituperative grandstanding for the purpose of single-minded political gain.  On the other hand, we are doing our best to act with the values that make our country great:  character, integrity, loyalty, and duty.  If you decide to grow up and act like Americans, maybe you’ll begin to understand.

Sincerely,

The United States Electorate

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Government Shutdown Not About Compromise

Let the Free Market decide if your son should breathe!

(c) Drew Sheneman – http://blog.nj.com/njv_shenemans_sketchpad/index.html

Please, please stop saying that the government shutdown is because “both sides won’t compromise.” This is simply not the case. The Affordable Care Act is the result of HUGE compromises on the part of Democrats. The ACA is a very conservative, capitalist-friendly bill that was conceived by a conservative think tank and initially implemented by a fiscally-conservative, Republican governor.

And yet, having gotten everything they wanted in the bill, Republicans now want to know why Democrats won’t “compromise” with them while they are holding the federal government hostage.

Imagine that you and one other person make up the board of your homeowner’s association. You think the nice old lady who plants flowers around the entrance sign should get a little compensation for her efforts. You think she should get $100. The other board member thinks she should get nothing. You two “compromise” on $20.

After it’s settled, voted on by the entire homeowners association, and then also approved by the local gardening club for good measure, the “compromise” amount (on which you conceded nearly everything – it’s basically a token amount compared to what you initially tried to accomplish) is written into the association budget.

Then, the following year, the other board member refuses to sign ANY checks to ANY vendors – including the ones who have already provided services to the association – because you won’t “compromise” with them on the $20 you had already decided on the previous year – as the result of considerable compromise on your part.

This isn’t about “compromise” – this is about Republican grandstanding on their bankrupt ideology of protecting the very wealthiest elites at the expense of hard-working American citizens.

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