I am blessed to teach an online course at Biola University, my alma mater, and through it to challenge students and myself to engage in critical issues that present themselves to us in our newspapers and around the water cooler. My goal, as I show students how to approach the various issues we cover is to show how to think about and speak about them as a Christian—which is to say that we want to engage with (pardon the alliteration) the facts, the faith, and as a friend. For illustration purposes, I will talk about these in relation to the recent travel ban handed down by President Donald Trump.
What does it mean to handle the facts or engage with the facts of a given issue? My wife and I discussed this topic and the rising difficulty associate with it after she read an article whose headline clearly accused Donald Trump in being responsible for the tragic death of Navy SEAL Ryan Owens and a number of women and children during the previous weeks mission in Yemen. Upon reading the article, my wife found herself asking something akin to ‘wait, why is this Donald Trump’s fault?’ Several issues arose in the article that challenged the direct accusation of the headline. The mission had been planned during the Obama Administration, but had yet to be acted on while more intel was being gathered. The women and children killed were actually killed in another incident and were themselves potential combatants. The late-Ryan Owens was a member of SEAL Team Six, an elite tactical force that is able to judge the necessary level and timing of engagement (i.e. they no when to pull the trigger and when not to). Since editors write the headlines it is not uncommon for pieces like this to be provocatively titled, but to be misleadingly titled is another thing altogether. The only goal of such deviation from the facts of the story can be to either influence you prior to reading to subconsciously color how you think about the fact presented (generally referred to as confirmation bias) or so that you see the headline, think negatively about President Trump and move on without reading the story. Either way the goal is to keep you from critically thinking about the actual facts involved.
As a Christian, it must be acknowledge that this is a devastating trend. Christians are, among other things, people who love and desire to live in line with the truth. Truth, of course, is defined by accordance with reality. What, then, makes a statement or interpretation true is its accuracy and precision with explaining the way things are. So, to desire to live in line with the truth is a desire to act on the basis of an understanding of how things are. Consider, as I mentioned above, the recent travel ban. What does it mean for Christians to live in line with the way things actually are in association with this topic?
A good place to start is to point out that this issue will not directly impact the majority of Americans. The vast majority of Americans are not in any way effected by the ban itself. They may be effected by the results of the ban (i.e. protests), but the vast majority of Americans are not banned, nor do they know a friend or relation who is banned. However this is a hot button political issue, so the next thing we can say is that even though we are not directly impacted by it, we are called to love our neighbors (i.e. those who are effected by it) and at least try and understand and think critically about it. That is to say, we should try and understand the truth of the matter. This is why facts are important. The truth about the travel ban is tied up in facts (facts are here defined as things we know or can know). So what are the facts and where does one find them?
Beginning with the latter question, I have found journalistic integrity so lacking in the last eighteen months that I no longer trust the typical media sources like The New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, etcetera. Thanks to the internet it is just as easy to find the actual document by googling “travel ban ‘text'”. The first hit is the actual text document of the ban. In other words, you can read the actual executive order on anything with an internet connection. FYI, it is shorter and quicker to read than most of the stories I read about it. I will leave it to you to read it, but there are a few questions that it is helpful to ask and answer:
- Is this a ban on muslims?
- This is the biggest question being presented in the media. The answer is no it is not (according to the text of the executive order). In fact, the words muslim, Islam, or Sharia are not mentioned in the text at all. Furthermore, the clause that addresses exemptions on the basis of religious persecution does not indicate a specific religion. As such, given the amount of intramural persecution amongst the sects of Islam, muslims under-persecution may still receive admittance (though this is unlikely on mass-scale). The point is that it is not religiously specific.
- Similarly, not only does the ban not mention specific religious traditions, but it does explicitly mention only seven countries. While these are countries that are populated by a majority of muslims, they are not the only countries that sponsor Islam. Thus muslims from nations or confederations that have not exemplified a tendency to radicalize or anti-western or anti-liberal values are still open for visa issuing.
- A concern that should be noted however, is that President Trump did promise to ban all muslims during his campaigning. So, though this executive order does not accomplish that, we should be wary of the possibility that this is only the first step in moving that way or in the escalation and implementation of this policy (as the weekend revealed).
- What is the rationale of the ban?
- The travel ban declares safety concerns to be the guiding rationale. Obviously and explicitly these concerns are related to terrorism. There are a few parts to this. First of all, the travel ban haunts the issuing of visas for 120 days from the order, May 27, so that the Department of Homeland Security can work with other departments to create new and hopefully more effective screenings to keep radicals or those with anti-American sentiment (thus those who are easily radicalized) out of America. In conjunction with this, it is believed that ceasing the issuing of visas will encourage terrorists to attempt to use other means to get into America, for example the Syrian refugee resettlement program. Thus the order haunts that as well to insure that no terrorist can take advantage of such a system.
- The document notes that various law enforcement agencies have thwarted terrorist attacks that were planned by those who entered the country via a refugee program or on student and employment visas.
- Another point of interest here is the explicit mention of honor killings. The ban, whether you think this is political theater or not, the ban makes note of those who might attempt to carry out honor killings on American soil. This ought to be especially interesting to those who have converted out of Islam (as atheists, Christians, Jews, etcetera) and the LGBTQ community as both groups can become targets of honor killings.
- Is the ban permanent?
- No the ban is expressly temporary being limited to 120 days (as stated above) with the opening to shortening as progress reports at 30, 60, 90, and 120 days.
- That said, the ban may be extended. This is something to watch out for and be concerned about if legitimate reason for extension is not given.
- The order also contains in it a clause which explicitly states that every 180 days the Attorney General will release a public statement containing the number of foreign nationals charged with and convicted of terrorism, statistics of foreign nationals that have radicalized after entering the US, statistics on gender or sexuality related crimes perpetrated by those who have entered, the cost of the implementation of the results of the ban, and any other relevant data. That is to say, all-in-all it is a pretty open process. Though there is always the danger of spin and, ugh, “alternative facts.”
These are the facts of the text. Another set of facts that should be added to this is the clear problems with implementation. Many were detained or barred fro entry in spite of having the necessary requirements (i.e. preexisting student or employment visa). This has been universally condemned by both political parties. These, as far as I can make out, are the facts of the situation. These then are the content that Christians are to wrestle with.
We wrestle with these facts from the place of faith. As Christians we ought to consider several theological categories and concepts that guide our thinking:
- Eschatological – Jesus reigns. A primary tenant of the Christian faith is that Jesus is God, he became a man and died a substitutionary death on behalf of humanity so that whoever believes in him (his proclaimed identity as God and his teachings as instructive for the life pleasing to God) will be saved from the punishment of their sins. After his death, Jesus was raised to new life and ascended into the presence of God the Father (Heaven) where he is seated on a throne where he rules over his in-breaking kingdom and from which he will return to consummate his kingdom.
- Love of Neighbor – The second greatest command in the Bible is the call to love our neighbors. It is clear that Jesus has expanded the concept of neighbor to stretch beyond the bounds of immediate proximity to the broader community of man. Who is my neighbor? Everyone. As a member of a democratic republic there are steps I can take to pursue a global act of loving my neighbor who is a Syrian refugee or a coptic Christian.
- Discipleship as Death – One of the most famous passages in Scripture is the call to carry your cross. “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow me.” Jesus declares that the life of the disciple/Christian is a life of self-denial and even death (the cross after all being the equipment of execution that Jesus himself would endure). In the simplest terms then, we need to deny our own will and wants for the sake of others.
- The Kingdom of Heaven – I am first and foremost a citizen of the Jesus’ kingdom not Donald Trump’s America or, for that matter, Barak Obama’s. I honor both, as the scriptures require of me, and I do so joyfully understanding that it is a blessing to live in America, even an America lead by politicians that I am oft in disagreement with. I desire to see America flourish and I pray that God bless it, so that America might bless other nations. But, I believe in the words of Dr. Russell Moore who says that we are “Americans best, when we are not Americans first.”
Each of these and much more must play into our decisions and understandings about certain socio-political issues. With this travel ban, these are some of the major theological issues at play.
In Four Loves, C.S. Lewis argues that friendship is the most foundational and the most Christian form of love. In Befriend, pastor Scott Sauls calls Christians to engage and reach out to those who disagree with us and to seek to understand others. Friendship is critical to our engagement in the world. At the church I attended this Sunday, the minister pointed out how a religious zealot (read: fundamentalist) and a tax collector (read: former traitor to his religious people) were both among the disciples that followed Jesus. The preacher declared that part of Christian witness to the world is the desire to befriend and associate with those the world would think we should hate. Baffled by our love for people who are ethnically, ideologically, and racially different than us will be a testament to the power and reality of the love of Jesus.