Deuteronomy 10: 17 For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. 18 He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. 19 And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt.
Matthew 25: 35: “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in…”
For today’s message and some of the prayers and readings we are drawing from the Peace Sunday resources of the Mennonite World Conference. Technically, MWC Peace Sunday is next Sunday, September 23. But we have other plans for next Sunday, don’t we? So, we’re observing Peace Sunday today.
What our friends across the Mennonite World want us to remember this day is that, “A Renewed Peace Church Welcomes the Stranger.” The Mennonite World Conference calls us all to be “A Renewed Church,”, as we approach in 7 years the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Anabaptist movement during the 16th Century Reformation.
“A Renewed Peace Church Welcomes the Stranger,” in part, because there are so many “strangers” needing welcome today. There are now more refugees and seekers of safety and asylum in the world than there were at the end of World War 2. Over 65 million people are on the move, displaced by war, injustice and corruption, criminal gangs, and climate change, poverty, domestic and sexual abuse, political, and ethnic and religious persecution. Some of these are internally displaced people, living still in their same country, but away from the place of their birth, as in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Others have had to flee to neighboring countries, such as the Rohingya who left Burma for neighboring Bangladesh, Somalis and Sudanese residing Kenya, Guatemalans and Hondurans who fled to Mexico, and Mexicans who fled to the United States. Some of them have crossed many borders, like West Africans, North Africans, Syrians and Afghans in Europe.
These are the strangers whom our Mennonite World Conference partners call us to welcome, not only for their own well-being, but for our own spiritual renewal as well. But for that to happen, we must face a very common fear and overcome it: the fear of the other, the stranger.
The first Mennonite Peace Sundays I remember, back in the 1980’s, had to do with the Cold War and the threat of nuclear weapons. Then the big, urgent, question we faced was, “But what about the Russians?” or “What about global Communism?” Valid questions, because Soviet and Chinese Communism piled up so great a toll of death, destruction, injustice and human misery.
Back then, however, we drew some comfort, guidance and perspective from a Mennonite statement that had been issued in 1961, at an assembly in Pennsylvania. Here are a few quotes from that statement: “Our love and ministry must go out to all, whether friend or foe… we urge upon governments such a positive course of action as may help to remove the conditions which contribute to the rise of communism and which tend to make people vulnerable to communist influence….we cannot be involved in any anticommunist crusade which takes the form of a ‘holy war’ and employs distortion of facts, unfounded charges against persons and organizations (particularly against fellow Christians), promotes blind fear, and creates an atmosphere which can lead to a very dangerous type of totalitarian philosophy…our word of warning must go out particularly against the use of the pulpit, radio, and the religious press, in the name of Christianity, for this purpose… “
This statement was helpful; it acknowledged that we must not ignore, whitewash, deny, nor downplay the evil we were up against at the time: Marxism. But it also warned us about how our reactions to any evil can be just as evil as the evil against which we are reacting, especially when we are driven by fear. In effect, how do we fight monsters without becoming monsters ourselves?
But when Soviet Communism collapsed across Europe, and our country and Communist China entered into friendlier terms, was this Mennonite statement from 1961 to be just filed away and forgotten? Not so fast. One morning, Becky called me from work and told me to turn on the TV and watch the news. It was September 11, 2001, and what we saw still chills the blood. The next new global threat turned out to be Islamist terrorism. Not Islam itself, nor Muslims, but terrorism in the name of one particular version of Islam. It is a version of Islam, by the way, which most Muslims fear, loathe and grieve. Even though it has killed thousands of Christians, Jews and other people, even here in the U.S., most of its victims are other Muslims.
So, the next pressing question was: “What about the terrorists?” or “What about Al Qaeda, Bin Laden, or ISIS?” Again, we must not downplay nor deny the violence, brutality and evil of such terrorists and their terrorism. Nor is there any justification for it. But after September 11, 2001, I looked again at that Mennonite statement from the 1961, and I tried switching the words, “terrorism” and “Islamic Jihad” for “Communism” or “Marxism.” Here’s how it would sound: “Our love and ministry must go out to all, whether friend or [Islamist terrorist]… we urge upon governments such a positive course of action as may help to remove the conditions which contribute to the rise of [Islamist terrorism] and which tend to make people vulnerable to [Jihadist] influence… we cannot be involved in any [anti-terrorism] crusade which takes the form of a ‘holy war’ and employs distortion of facts, unfounded charges against persons and organizations (particularly against fellow Christians), promotes blind fear, and creates an atmosphere which can lead to a very dangerous type of totalitarian philosophy…our word of warning must go out particularly against the use of the pulpit, radio, and the religious press, in the name of Christianity, for this purpose.”
Do those switches work? Does the statement from 1961 apply just as well to religious terrorism and terrorists? Makes you think of how “what goes round comes round.”
That very understandable and legitimate fear of terrorism has recently morphed into another kind of fear: fear of the stranger, that is, the immigrant, the refugee, the asylum seeker, the other whose language, whose culture, color, customs and religion are different from those of lifelong citizens and residents. That’s not only an American issue, by the way. The fear of the stranger is global.
Now, there’s no comparing 99.999% of border-crossing immigrants with Communism or terrorism. 99.999% of today’s immigrants and refugees are fleeing violence, not seeking to foment it. But you wouldn’t know that from the kinds of hysterical, scapegoating, xenophobic responses that they so often get, in politics and the media.
But even their harshest critics have this one element of truth: immigration and borders must not be chaotic, lawless, or unregulated. Borders and mass migration can indeed attract some unsavory opportunists. But that does not excuse the ruthless political opportunism of those who use immigrants and refugees as convenient scapegoats for their own fears and failures, or as pawns to sacrifice in their game of divide-and-conquer over their own people.
So now let’s hear that Mennonite statement from 1961 again, this time substituting words like “immigrant, stranger, refugee or the other” for “Communist” or “terrorist:” “Our love and ministry must go out to all, whether [native-born or immigrant]… we urge upon governments such a positive course of action as may help to remove the conditions which contribute to the rise of [refugees] and which tend to make people vulnerable to [mass migration and asylum seeking]….we cannot be involved in any anti-[immigrant] crusade which takes the form of a ‘holy war’ and employs distortion of facts, unfounded charges against persons and organizations (particularly against fellow Christians), promotes blind fear, and creates an atmosphere which can lead to a very dangerous type of totalitarian philosophy…our word of warning must go out particularly against the use of the pulpit, radio, and the religious press, in the name of Christianity, for this purpose…”
Did those switches in the 1961 statement against anti-Communist hysteria work? I think so. More so than not.
But what about the differences, and the changes that the stranger, the foreigner and the immigrant may bring, to our culture, our country, and our community? That’s the fear that I encounter most: that as newcomers arrive and settle, we who were born here may become strangers and aliens without ever having gone anywhere. Like whenever you call a business office or a governmental bureau and get a recording in which you hear, “Por ayuda en Espanol, oprima el numero 2.” Me, I fear most that none of the numbers that the recording rattles off will have anything to do with why I am calling, and that I will never actually ever get to talk with a real flesh-and-blood human being, but will go round and round back to the same irrelevant numbers and recordings. Talk about scary changes….
But let’s look at that fear of change, which of course comes with the arrival of the newcomer, the stranger, and the other. Long ago, when we lived in the Detroit Metro area, I offered some classes in community education programs for several school systems, about things like the influence of African cultures on American culture. I also prepared and offered a class called, “Our Diverse-City” with slides, stories and information celebrating the many cultures that make up the ethnic mosaic of Motown and the burbs. You’d almost think that everybody in the world has at least a distant relative in or near Detroit.
I never did offer that class, however. For one thing, only one person signed up for it. But secondly, I was way off the mark. I realized one day that I wasn’t really excited about all the diversity in Detroit; I was excited about all the diverse ways in which people of different cultures embodied and expressed just a handful of a few same common universal values that I treasure. Like family, faith, the interdependence of genders and generations; education; hospitality, the rule of law, a good work ethic; compassion and the golden rule; respect for property, your own and that of others. What made the Middle Eastern and the African American and the Eastern European, the Appalachian, the Hispanic, the Asian and the French Canadian immigrants and communities around Detroit so appealing and interesting was not how they differed about these basic, universal values. They did not. What was most appealing to me about them and their cultures were the ways they actually upheld these same universal core values, just in different ways. But whenever there was much diversity and difference from those basic core values, like respect of property or people, families and the community became war zones.
So, whenever we fear that the refugee, the stranger, the immigrant and the asylum seeker will bring changes to our lives, let me assure you that, yes, they will. The same as our ancestors did, wherever they went. And the same as we have, sometimes to our parents’ chagrin. But I can also assure us, from my own experience and observation, in my own extended family even, that nine times out of ten, immigrants and refugees do not threaten nor challenge the bedrock values and virtues that we hold dear. They only change the outward expressions of them. Sometimes, even, they outdo the native born in upholding these values.
For example, having the family sit down together at the dinner table, at a regular time, to eat and talk together….. in a lot of mainstream American families, the TV’s on, or everyone’s on their cell phone or their playstation, so whenever you’re hungry, go find whatever you want in the fridge and heat it up in the microwave. That’s how a lot of Americans live anymore. Immigrant families, however, often keep the family dinner tradition going, just like most of our parents and grandparents did. Dinner together is a haven in a strange and scary new culture. Same virtue and value; different menu.
That’s why, in our multi-cultural neighborhood just outside Detroit proper, the monthly Parent/Teacher Association meetings at our daughters’ school, and the quarterly Parent-Teacher conference nights, looked like assemblies of the United Nations, so much did these immigrant families value education. Which is not to say that they are superior. I’m just pointing out that the values and virtues which got them all the way here, so often on behalf of their children, are values and virtues that they also tend to reinforce in our community and our economy. So, why do we fear losing those virtues and values to immigrants and immigration?
We can put that fear to rest.
Even when immigrants come here illegally, you might ask? Without proper documents and permission? I prefer to say. That’s another fear we may have: that illegal, unregulated immigration will undermine the rule of law. Those of us who have been to the Mexico/US Border on MCC learning trips have heard about how drug cartels can infiltrate and exploit peaceful migrants. But statistically, immigrants have a lower crime rate here than does the general population, with or without documents. We can insist that everyone wait their turn and follow the rules to come here. But the rules of immigration have not been changed since the 1960’s. So, they’re way out of whack with today’s needs. A person fleeing a death threat from a drug gang in Mexico could be on a waiting list for 17 years before he can legally enter the United States. Broken and outdated immigration laws are what make the border so lawless, more than the immigrants themselves.
Under the current immigration system, my own father and his family could never have come to the United States from Europe at the end of World War 2. American immigration law back then was based on bogus racial theories not all that different from the Nazi ideology that America had just defeated. Immigration rules then favored people of Western and Northern European background, but lumped Slavic peoples with last names like Swora, Homich and Hadvab (my relatives) among those considered racially “inferior,” along with Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, Latin American and African people, supposedly. Many fewer of them were allowed entry here. But President Truman went to bat for displaced Jewish and Slavic peoples in Europe because if they all had to return to their former homes in the Soviet Zone of occupation, that would only make for more Communists. Truman got Congress to agree to take in more people like the Swora’s, but only by borrowing against future quotas of Slavic and other supposedly “inferior people.” So, the Swora’s got here under a temporary special dispensation.
Before then, during the Second World War, my father and his family were not technically legal in Germany either, when they moved there to work factories to replace men who were fighting in Russia and North Africa. My grandfather falsified some documents in order to keep his family out of slavery and work camps where supposedly “subhuman” Slavic people were sent, often to be worked and starved to death. My grandfather’s German was so good that he could pass for German, even with a Slavic last name. But they lived with the constant fear of discovery and denunciation.
Had I faced what my grandparents faced, I can’t promise you that I would have done any differently. Are we all so sure that neither we nor our ancestors would have, faced with similar threats? The vast majority of people trying to come into Europe and North America from Africa and Latin America are fleeing threats of the same magnitude. If I should get worked up about what kinds of documents border crossers are carrying, or not, then, to be consistent, I am questioning my own citizenship.
Some fear, however, is still in order. A carnal, worldly fear can only be overcome and driven out by a holy fear: the fear of the Lord, which, the Bible tells us, is “to hate evil,” and “the beginning of wisdom.” So, I am more concerned about what a supreme Judge and Lawgiver says about the refugee, the immigrant and the stranger. This judge and lawgiver has a long and historic legal precedent in favor of the immigrant and the uprooted. Thirty-five hundred years ago, in the passage we heard earlier from Deuteronomy, this Judge and Lawgiver had Moses say, “God defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing [precisely the people whom Pharaoh and other emperors around Israel exploited, scapegoated, ignored or rejected].” He goes on to say, “And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt.” And in France, Canada and America.
This judge and lawgiver reaffirmed his commitment to the stranger, the foreigner, the refugee and the immigrant in the parable that Jesus told, when he said, “I was a stranger and you invited me in,” and “…whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ God, through Christ, does not only stand up and stick up for the foreigner and the stranger, God, through Christ, identifies with the foreigner and the stranger. God, in a way, is a foreigner and stranger in his own world, a rebellious, fallen world.
That wasn’t all that new a revelation about God at the time. Six hundred years before, as I mentioned during my sermon series on Israel’s Exile last summer, the glowing, fiery shekinah glory of God’s presence left the Jewish temple and went east, ahead of God’s people, into Babylonian Exile. And while some of the Hebrew people later returned and built a new temple, that glowing, fiery sign of God’s presence never did return from Exile. In recent years, the Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel summed up this sense of God’s exile in his own world when he wrote: “I pray because the Shekinah is an outcast; I pray because God is in Exile; because the world is corrupt; because we all conspire to blur all signs of His presence in the present or the past.”
If our God is an exile, and a stranger seeking refuge in his own world, then what does that make us, who believe Him and receive Him by faith? And what should we do? Again, that Mennonite Statement from 1961 gives us some guidance when it says, “…we pray for the direction of the Spirit that we may faithfully perform our mission as effective witnesses for Christ in a world replete with economic greed, hate, and warfare, struggling with competing ideologies and remembering that we are pilgrims here whose citizenship is in heaven and who are looking for the consummation of all things in the return of our ascended Lord and in His ultimate eternal kingdom.”
All the more reason then, that “a renewed Peace Church welcomes the stranger.” For our hope, our faith, and our exiled God make us strangers, foreigners, aliens and exiles too in this world full of foreigners, aliens and the stranger. That would be a sad thing to say, except for the wonderful company.