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Tuesday, December 01, 2015

refugees, faith, and freedom

I worked on this post off-and-on for two weeks and was still holding it, thinking I could improve it. And, I wanted to link to numerous articles I had read that I thought were helpful. But, instead, it has just sat in the draft folder for too long. So, I'm posting and will come back and add to it, if so led. I'd rather do that then not ever post it at all. (1.1.15)

Thanksgiving week, 2015

Particularly since the acts of terror and loss of life in Paris, the question of how the U.S. will respond to Syrian (and other) refugees in days to come. Rather than speak quickly, I have read widely and pondered deeply because the question of how to respond is interwoven with compassion, faith, religion, politics, nationalism, fear, and many other factors. No one person or article can address the question fully; sadly, many have not addressed the question meaningfully at all, but have added to the problem by circulating false information and (intentionally or not) fanning the flames of fear.

After pondering whether and what to add to the fray, I want to focus on one particular part of a response and then link to some of the articles and commentary I have found most helpful (and accurate).

As a Christian and pastor, my first response has to do with faith and the teachings of Jesus, that kind of response has been handled well by others.

Thought, Speech, and Action

One meme I continue to see online goes something like this: "If you had a bowl of 1000 smarties and you knew 10 of them were poison, would you eat any of them?" One more accurate and thoughtful response points out that the actually percentage of refugees who have proven to be terrorists is more like .005% AND if you knew that each smartie you didn't eat meant the death of a woman or child, then yes, you sure would take the risk. Another outright lie suggests that "most of the refugees would be 20-something Muslim men of fighting age." Not only is that completely distorted and untrue, but it crystallized for me a point that I have not seen addressed well or at all: that is the distinction between thought, speech, and action.

In this country, THOUGHTS are our own (at least legally!). We may try to shape and sway them through media and marketing, but at the end of the day you can't read someone's mind and you can't make them think something they don't want to. We also have written into our founding documents that SPEECH is free and protected. There are some limits on that, like shouting 'fire' in a crowded theater, but broadly speaking, free speech is protected and guarded, even when it cuts against deeply held public values. Where we draw the line on stepping "out of bounds" is with ACTIONS. If you break the law (and are caught), you are arrested; there are consequences. That is true of running traffic lights as well as it is of committing treason.

So, you can think all day long about driving 100 mph on your local Main Street. You can make speeches and publish blogs about your belief that driving fast is okay (as long as no one is hurt). You may run into trouble if your "speech" starts to cross the line into threatening others... that's the gray part. But you will certainly be arrested and punished if you head out to Main Street and put the pedal to the metal.

I know there are some exceptions to all that, but ponder the refugees for a moment. Are we really ready to say that all should be kept out of the country because some might have thoughts many of us don't agree with? Is that our standard for justice, much less for compassion?

"But, there are surely some refugees that might harm us!" you say. Well illegal action or definitive intent to commit illegal action needs to be the line, I respond. Think about some other implications otherwise of that "one in a bowl of smarties" meme.

  • I read in the news that some percentage of young black men are in gangs and commit violent crimes. Does that mean we should enact laws against ALL young black men for thought, speech, or for a certain statistical profile?  
  • I read in the news that some percentage of school shootings are by young white men who (often) identify or are described as fundamentalist Christian and/or white supremacists. Does that mean we should enact laws against ALL young white men? against fundamentalist Christians? against white supremacists per se?
  • I read in the news that some percentage of Catholic and evangelical Christians so strongly believe abortion to be sin (and morally equivalent to murder) that some commit criminal acts. Does this mean we should enact laws against all Catholics and evangelicals? against all who identify as pro-life? 
  • I read in the news that some Christians (and Muslims and other religious groups) teach and preach that homosexual sex is a 'sin' and should be considered legally as hate speech. Does this mean that doing so should be a jailable offense?
It's one thing to be part of the "in-group" and decide that the person you disagree with should be penalized for a different belief. But if you do that based on thought or speech (or only on statistical data!), you are crossing a line that needs to be carefully examined before "they come for you."

I believe one of the great strengths of our democratic republic is the freedom of thought and speech we have written into the fabric of our society. We forget it sometimes, to our great detriment and moral loss. (Japanese internment, McCarthyism, etc., etc...)  So, in addition to the many other good reasons to welcome men, women, and children who are fleeing horrific torture and death, let us not forget the very freedoms we cherish  as we wrestle with protecting the freedoms we cherish.

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