Conversation with Conservative Pastor Joel Hunter, Spiritual Advisor to President Obama

I have interviewed many people over the years, but I don’t think any of those conversations has ever been as timely and important as this one with Pastor Joel Hunter, a theologically conservative Christian who for eight years was a spiritual advisor to the theologically liberal President Barack Obama. Now retired from full time pastoring, the former senior pastor of “Northland, A Church Distributed,” in Central Florida, stays as busy as ever building bridges and coalitions to help people who are in vulnerable communities.

His website, appropriately titled “Imitating Jesus beyond Church Walls,” where he also blogs, bursts with hard-won biblical insight and understanding that he’s learned both as a pastor for nearly five decades and through serving in challenging public contexts, regionally, nationally, and internationally. These are too numerous to detail here, so you really must check out Joel’s website for yourself sometime, especially if you’re meeting him for the first time here.

For some time now, we have been living in a fast-paced and significantly changing world in which inescapable demands have been placed upon us to gain a godly wisdom for such a time as this, and to live by it everyday. The last decade or so has been particularly demanding, socially, economically, and politically. Even our best efforts at public witness in America have often revealed how divided the church had become. The only consensus today seems to be that society at-large says that it is turned off by what public Christian influence there is. Both church and society have come out losers here. And then along comes Covid–19.

In Joel Hunter’s public life and ministry, we find not only a clear understanding but a biblical working out of the demands of Christ’s discipleship on us at a time such as this. He is a respected and important voice in Christian leadership. Of his long and varied callings, we could have talked for hours about a great many things. Instead, we took a hour by phone for a fascinating and insightful conversation about what he learned during eight years as President Obama’s lone conservative spiritual advisor. We then moved from those personal experiences to President Trump’s spiritual advisors. We also talked about Covid–19, as well as about the kind of pastoring that brings healing into congregations that are divided politically, and the importance of crossing boundaries to build relationships. Some of his answers may surprise.

Charles Strohmer: Let’s jump right in, Joel. We first met at a Christian conference in DC when Barack Obama was the President, and you got my attention when you spoke about being a conservative Christian pastor who was also a spiritual advisor to President Obama. What did that responsibility entail during those eight years?

Joel Hunter: Several things. I wrote devotions for him every week out of the Scripture. We prayed together periodically. Really it was a mutually encouraging relationship. I went through some tough times and he called me to make sure I was doing okay. And right after he was out of office, I was making a transition from being a congregational pastor (after almost fifty years) to being a faith community organizer in Florida, and he called me before my last sermon as a congregational pastor and asked, “What are you doing, Joel?” And I said, “I have no idea. I’m going to be a community organizer. What am I doing?” Because that’s what he was before he went into politics. So we’ve had a mutually encouraging relationship, and I have been quite honored to call him a friend.

Charles: When you sent devotionals or prayed with him in person, what kind of approach did you take? Was it personal, or about family matters, or political areas?

Joel: It was all personal. It really wasn’t a political relationship. He did call me a few times before making big announcements. For example, he had just come out for gay marriage, so he called me before that got into the news cycle because he knew that with my conservative Evangelical background I’d be beaten up over our relationship, which I usually was. But almost always our relationship was about personal issues. So when I would pray for him I’d say, “What do we pray about?” By the way, when I would ask him that, he would never ask me to pray for him. He was always asking me to pray for somebody else. He’d said, “I got this letter this week …,” or, “There’s this family that …” It was always about somebody else.

He was also that way in conversation. You could not maintain a conversation about him. He was always more interested in talking about somebody else. That came out of a genuine sense of compassion and humility and the understanding that I’m here to offer others some good. So let’s go to the Lord about that.

Charles: How were you as a theological conservative able to square being a spiritual advisor to a theologically liberal President? It must have been a struggle.

Joel: Yes, we came down on various sides of issues. But when you love and appreciate somebody, you give them the space they need and you trust God to take care of all that. I’ve never needed someone to agree with me in order to love them fully. I would have a very narrow band of relationships if I demanded theological agreement before I loved people. And that’s the way Jesus was. Jesus crossed all kinds of boundaries in order to love people who were not like him. So it sounds difficult, but it was really very easy. When you see somebody as a person who you know is trying to do others good, and you know that even if you disagree on the interpretation of Scripture, that both of you have a keen appreciation for Scripture, then the rest, well, you’ve just kind of got to let go.

Charles: How did you get that gig?

Joel: Early in 2008, I was featured in a New York Times article on racism. A few weeks later, Joshua Dubois, Senator Obama’s religious outreach person, called me and said that Senator Obama would like to have a conversation with me. So I said, “Great,” and about a week later Senator Obama and I talked for about thirty minutes on the phone. His basic question was, “How can the government and faith communities work together without violating the commission of each?” And I said, “Senator, probably the most unused resource for community healing and well being in this country are faith communities. We have the highest percentage of volunteers and we just want to make things white dovebetter.”

I was then asked to be on a couple panels that asked the presidential candidates, during the campaign, questions, in forums. So I had opportunities to ask questions to people like Hillary Clinton. After I had asked her a question during the second forum, I felt someone behind me tugging on my coat and saying, “Hey, would you come back and pray with Senator Obama before he speaks?” I said, “Sure,” and so I followed this guy down through the catacombs of the building, thinking I’m going to be one of fifty pastors surrounding him. But when I got there it was just me and him in the hallway. And that week the press had just beat him up something terrible. So I said something like, “Senator, you’ve had a rough week.” And he looked at me and said, which was typical of him, “No. The single mom trying to put food on the table had a rough week. I’m fine.” So I prayed with him before he went on, and after that we had a deep relationship.”

Charles: Did he have other kinds of spiritual advisors in his circle?

Joel: There’s an article in the March 15, 2009 New York Times that talks about five of us. I was the only white Evangelical pastor. But there were others in his circle of prayerful encouragement. A couple of times T. D. Jakes and I were with him together in the Oval Office. And sometimes, like on his birthday or special occasions, he would get on the phone with several of us, including people like Joseph Lowery and other great old African-American preachers.

Charles: Was it beneficial for him to have a circle of spiritual advisors who were different theologically?

Joel: Absolutely. He thrives on various perspectives. He’s incredibly smart. I can’t tell you the level of his intellect. So it’s easy for him to take in various perspectives and come up with his amalgamation of what’s just been said and go with that.

Charles: Since Donald Trump’s election, there’s been an avalanche of stories in the media and the press about his conservative and charismatic spiritual advisors. Do you know if he has other kinds of religious advisors in his Presidential circle?

Joel: No. I know many in that group. They are all of the same theological perspective. This President really puts a premium on loyalty and on agreement, so that’s his circle.

Charles: President Trump has quite a different method than, say, President Lincoln. I mean, in her excellent book Team of Rivals, Doris Kearns Goodwin writes extensively about how Lincoln surrounded himself with advisors, including on his cabinet, who were different from him, including even some political enemies. But that method really paid dividends when it came to gaining the kind of wisdom needed back then to keep the union together, even through a civil war.

Joel: Yes. And that’s how President Obama was first elected. He had that team of rivals, a broad field of political friends and advisors. But the machinery of government always takes over. As the time went on, especially in his second term, it did become more consolidated into fewer voices and political agendas in order to get things done.

My mama used to tell me that I would never learn very much from people who think exactly like I do. You learn from people who have a different perspective or a different truth. So I acquaint differences with flourishing, or being enriched.

Charles: How did you process, internally, deal with, struggles you had, being a conservative Christian pastor, with some political decisions President Obama made that you clearly opposed?

Joel: Well, one time I was out driving with my wife, Becky, and I get this call, “The President would like to speak with you.” So I pulled off into a parking lot because I didn’t want to be talking to the President while I’m driving along. So he comes on the phone and says, “Joel, I just want to tell you about a decision I’ve just made. I’ve just had an interview (I think he said it was with ABC) to say that I’ve come out for gay marriage.” And my first response was, “Mr. President, I don’t see that in Scripture.” And his response was, “I know you don’t. But listen to how I arrived at that.” Then he talked about the difference between civil law, which is for all of the citizens, and moral or religious law, which is for the adherence of believers in that particular realm.

As I understood President Obama, you stick this guy and compassion comes out. If somebody’s being left out, it’s almost more than he can take. He made his decision on the basis of what he conceived as fairness, and compassion, and people being hurt unnecessarily as it translated into a law for all citizens. I understood that. When I was interviewed afterward and asked about it, I said, No, that’s not my definition of marriage. When I spoke about it to my congregation, I said you’ve got to be discerning between what’s fair for everybody and what’s right for those us who interpret Scripture in a certain way and our lives that way.

Charles: Over the years, I noticed that there’s a lack of understanding in some Christian circles about the difference between the purpose and function of civil law in American polity and that of moral or religious law. For one thing, I’m convinced that if you try to force a moral law on a people who don’t see the point of obeying it, you’re going to foster rebellion.

Joel: That’s right. Our natural human bent is to try to gain as much power for our POV as we can. Many Christians use politics for that. But there’s not a full trust of God in that process. We need to note this when we’re making decisions, as to why we are making decisions. Are we making them to keep in control and impose our views, or are we making them because we just want to do what we believe is right and then let the circumstances take care of themselves.

Charles: So President Obama didn’t track with your view on gay marriage, but do you know if over those eight years your prayers or wisdom for him influenced him policy-wise or personally or with his family?

President Barack Obama greets Dr. Joel C. Hunter, senior pastor of Northland, A Church Distributed, in Longwood, Fla., during the Easter Prayer Breakfast, Monday, April 14, 2014, in the East Room of the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Joel: I think I know several ways that he took my perspective into consideration when he was making decisions. But I’m really not at liberty to talk about that. I can say that he invited my family to the Oval Office and told them that I had a profound impact I’d had on his life and presidency. He was very kind to say that.

Charles: If you got a call from President Trump’s Chief of Staff to ask you if you’d be his spiritual advisor, would you jump at the chance or would you beg off?

Joel: It’s the President, you know. Scripture tells us to pray for those in authority. I don’t think I’d last very long! But I would do everything I could to give my interpretation of Scripture as to what the subject was and be as supportive as I could while I was doing it.

Charles: Some years ago I participated in conference call with a number of religious and political leaders. We were talking about “learning wisdom from the other.” Which is a biblical idea. Tim Keller was part of that conference call, and when I asked him for his thoughts on this, he immediately located that kind of learning in the Bible’s teaching on common grace. I want to quote for you part of what he said and get your thoughts on it. All human beings, he said, “whether they believe in God or not, share gifts of wisdom, insight, creativity, and beauty because these gifts come to everyone. Christians call this common grace, because they consider these as gifts that come from God. If that’s the case,” he concluded, “then I could expect that my neighbor who does not believe anything like I believe might still have wisdom from God that I have to listen to.” You seem to me to have that kind of heart.

Joel: It’s how I’m wired. My mama used to tell me that I would never learn very much from people who think exactly like I do. You learn from people who have a different perspective or a different truth. So I acquaint differences with flourishing, or being enriched. I’m sure Tim, he’s a friend, must have had this in mind, that our full worship of God depends upon our full pursuit of truth wherever it is. “All truth is God’s truth,” as the saying goes. And as Kepler said, “I think God’s thoughts after him.” It’s so important for us, no matter where truth is coming from, whether from the realm of science, or philosophy, or even from other religions that have a sense of how God has created the world. I’m thirsty for it all. And I bring it all to Christ, because, as it says in Colossians, Jesus is before all things, and in Christ all things hold together. So I am always trying to learn all I can because I believe it will bring me closer to Christ.

Charles: Do you find people have sticking points when it comes to crossing boundaries to build relationships?

Joel: Yes. Our biggest enemy is inertia. We want to do what we’ve always done, and change costs. And that cost we can see. What we can’t see is the cost of not changing. And that’s a tsunami. It’s trying to say, Hey it’s worth changing to be more like Jesus. It’ll be more inconvenient and more uncomfortable, but boy will life be better.

People are driven toward ideology instead of to the harder work of relationship. Ideology has its appeal because it’s so simplistic, and it makes you feel self-righteous, and it gives you a sense of belonging that’s automatic but not real.

Charles: What can we do to break out of listening only to our own peer groups so that we can cross boundaries, be less self-focusing and more relationally open to people who aren’t like us?

Joel: What won’t work is argument and shaming. That works for maybe about a day. I had a professor who used to talk about how difficult change is. “It’s like pushing mush with a stick,” he would say. “The little part you’re pushing moves but the rest of it just stays the same.” But what does work is the general appeal, especially to believers, of what is right and what they could do that they could do fairly easily.

For example, years ago Becky and I created an initiative called Simple Help. You do one thing a day that takes less than five minutes and costs less than five dollars. There are thousands of us that are doing it, and incrementally the world gets better. When you do this it builds in you a mentality that says: I am making a difference. Most people think: I can’t make a difference. But if you don’t think “solve the world’s problems,” but you do think “I can open a door for someone,” or, “I can share with someone how I got through what they are going through, “ those little things make a huge difference. You just have to make the help concrete and accessible enough that people can act on it, and not feel like they’ve got to solve everybody’s problems all at once.

Charles: One ever-present stumbling block to learning wisdom this way can be social media, where a Manichean worldview is increasingly present, in which the world is said to be divided into two enemy camps that are eternally at war with each other. Christians are falling prey to this, too. It’s tragic. It’s further dividing the body of Christ. Using some of the principles you’re learned and applied over the years, how can we start to change that dynamic on social media, or is it hopeless?

Joel: Well, one thing is that I don’t do social media very much. I don’t have a Facebook account and don’t spent spend much time online trying to discuss issues. I’m on Twitter and Instagram, but mostly just to keep up with my friends. But what you’re pointing to is not just characteristic of social media. The whole country right now is becoming more and more polarized and politicized. There seems to be a choice, almost an ultimatum, that you’re either going to be a bridge builder or a wall builder.

You can have an approach that is Christ against the world, very adversarial, battle of light and darkness, which is not Christianity. So some Christians see this as a pitch battle between good and evil and we’re on the good side and everyone who doesn’t agree with us is on the bad side. To me, that is not at all resembling the life of Jesus.

Jesus had this philosophy and approach to life that all the world was God’s, and that even those who didn’t know him, those deemed unacceptable, need to be served and respected and reached out to with the love of God. It’s not about what’s in them. It’s about what’s in us. So I can’t help but hope that the voices that continue to make friends instead of create enemies will in the end gain more ground. But it is going to be a difficult slog with our present adversarial approach. .

Charles: All across America you can find all kinds of congregations filled with all kinds of people. They are ultimately united in Christ through the fellowship of the Spirit, but they still may have different if not conflicting social, economic, or political views within the same congregation, especially during the Trump Presidency, the difficult CV-19 period, and increased racial tensions and activism. You’re a pastor. How can pastors and ministers who are shepherding politically diverse congregations speak to these issues in their sermons, Sunday schools, Zoom groups?

Joel: First of all, put everything is a scriptural context, not a political or cultural one, because pastors need to be representatives of the healing and enlightening truths of Scripture. So whatever we’re talking about, we need to find the place in Scripture where this is a principle. It’s also very important that God made us for relationships. He himself is a relationship. When the Bible says that God created male and female, he created “them” in his own image [Genesis 1:27]. The word there for God is “Elohim,” which is a plural word used in a singular sense. In other words, God is a relationship. So if we’re made in the image of God we’re made for relationships.

How this applies to Covid-19 and also to the political divide in our congregations is that you won’t get very far in maturing your congregation by arguing issues or by trying to come down from the mountain with the answer. You will only get as far as you will build actual relationships with those in the congregation and empower or equip them to build relationships with those outside the congregation. Now, that doesn’t depend on a bunch of people assembling in a building. What it depends on is loving your neighbor as you love yourself.

So the answer is right there, dead center in Scripture, but we’ve become so accustomed to the paradigm of western Christendom; that is, we all gather inside a building, we listen for a while, and then we go back to our regular lives. That’s a very shallow version of Christianity. And that’s going to get wracked by both pandemic results and by the coming culture of a younger generation that has no appetite for institutional religion. So we’d better figure out how to build meaningful relationships that makes the world better. That’s what the first century church was. It was built on relationship, and the world came to Christ because those relationships were making the world better.

Charles: I’m thinking of Jesus’ heartfelt felt prayer for his followers in John 17, just hours before his death. Today we Christians seem so far away from anything even close to that kind of unity in diversity that Jesus wants of us through the fellowship of the Spirit. Instead, we seem increasingly divided by our rigidly held, conflicting ideological positions. That won’t hold the church together.

Joel: No, it won’t. People are driven toward ideology instead of to the harder work of relationship. Ideology has its appeal because it’s so simplistic, and it makes you feel self-righteous, and it gives you a sense of belonging that’s automatic but not real. The harder work of relationship is full of frustrations and ambivalence and “I don’t know if I’m doing any good here or not.” But it’s the only real work there is. Ideology is not a real-world comfort or strength. It’s just siding up with an idea, and getting mad that everyone isn’t going along with you.

Charles: To focus specifically on the rising division over race in our country, what are some creative strategies for helping white pastoral leadership who are resistant to, or even hostile to, discussions about racism in the current divisive crisis? Often the critical source for their hostilities comes from political perspectives.

Joel: One of the keys that Jesus talked about was that before you see the problem with your brother, notice the problem in yourself; before you would take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye, look at the log in your own. Self-examination is key to spiritual maturity. If white pastors will educate themselves, be brave enough to note the structures of privilege that they have because they’re white – the almost invisible systems of racism in which they were raised, designed for white people to keep power.

Part of the resistance is that automatically when we talk about racism people get defensive because they feel like they’re being accused of something that they didn’t intend. But this is not about accusation. It’s about education and self-evaluation. I think of the Psalm that says “create in me a clean heart, O God,” and the Scripture that says if a person says he has no sin, the truth is not in him. All of these call for the question that the disciples asked Jesus the night before he died: Is it me, Lord? Am I the one?

If we can encourage one another to ask that question, if we can say to ourselves and to each other that all of us have some complicity in the present problem – all of us have ways in which we could improve and walk closer to Christ – then we could say: Well, I guess they’re not trying to blame me. I guess they’re just trying to say that there’s something I need to discover that will make the situation better. I think that’s how to approach it.

Charles: Tell us a little about what you’ve been doing, publicly, since retiring a few years ago from pastoring full time. I know you like to regularly convene all sorts of people for regional conversations, with your Community Resource Network.helping hand

Joel: I went into the pastorate out of the civil rights movement, so I have always had in my heart a special place for people who were being left out. It’s important to me to spend my remaining days, and I hope they are many, to circle back a place where I can build bridges and coalitions to help people who are in vulnerable communities. So I’ve been trying to do less nationally and internationally and do more in my own region in central Florida. So I was chairman of the Central Florida Commission on Homelessness, and right now I’m doing racial reconciliation with a lot of groups in our area. The more you can do in your own region, where you have the most influence, the more sustainable it’s going to be. So I’m working with a lot of people who have been left out and seeking biblical justice that is restorative and relationally reconciliatory. We have this ministry of reconciliation.

Charles: We’ve been talking about a pretty challenging kind of discipleship. It can be rough at times, learning from people who are not like us, building new relationships. But it’s a discipleship journey in which we get to know Jesus a little better all the time, understand more of his interests across the spectrum of life. So we need to see what Jesus is doing and partner with him for God’s glory and human flourishing. Your closing thoughts for us?

Joel: Well, the older you get and the more you know, the more you realize how much you don’t know. But my grandmother used to say, “Leave a place better than you found it.” And Jeremiah 29:7 talks about seeking the well being, the flourishing, of the city, because in its well being will be your well being. So I would just ask people to be involved in doing whatever good they can for whoever they can, especially those who have been left out. And their lives will be filled with more satisfaction and more peace than they have anticipated.

Charles: Thanks very much for taking time for this conversation, Joel. Much appreciated.

Joel: Glad to help. Thanks for what you’re doing.

©2020 by Charles Strohmer

Images of Joel Hunter courtesy of Community Resource Network. Dove and Children images courtesy of Creative Commons.

Stranger at the Gate

The second time I saw the aged gentleman was at the gate where my wife and I were waiting to board our flight back east. He had been pushed there in a wheelchair by a muscular sheriff, equipped in full gear and accompanied by a social worker. I could understand the social worker’s presence, but a sheriff’s? Law enforcement did not fit the scene I had witnessed the first time I saw the fragile but well-dressed figure, an hour earlier, standing unsteadily in the queue at the airline’s check-in counter, just ahead of me and my wife.

He was alone and should not have been. Shrunk down with age, he was standing alongside a rolling walker as if he were balancing on thin ice. He would inch a tentative step or two closer to the walker and then slightly stoop to grab support from one of its handle grips. The walker sometimes wiggled on its small wheels as he moved like this. Then as if having second thoughts, he would release his grip and stand as straight as his frail frame allowed, for as long as possible – never for long.

He wore the pained expression of a helpless person deeply disturbed about something. But what? He regularly alternated his gaze toward the check-in counter and then to the nearby, large plate glass windows and sliding doors that offered a view of the drop-off area at the curb. He seemed to be searching for an explanation to come from either counter or curb. But none came.

Although it was 9:30 in the morning, there was hardly a soul in the small airport on California’s central coast. Four ticket holders had arrived before me and my wife, and we had all arrived too early to check in; there were no airline personnel at the counter. The third in the queue was the elderly gentleman. One of the ticket holders talked briefly with him from time to time, but he spoke softly and I couldn’t catch what he was saying. When I mentioned this to my wife later, she explained that he was agitated and kept whispering, Where is she? Why did she leave me here? When is she coming back?

Around 10am, he seemed to give up expecting any help to arrive from the counter or the curb. I was a mere two arm-lengths distant, but by the time I had quit arguing with myself about whether to assist him in the effort, he had labored himself down upon the rolling walker’s padded seat. As if on cue the check-in crew appeared. My wife rushed to assist him and to ensure that a flight attendant got the picture.

In a matter of minutes we had been checked in for our flight to Dallas and ushered uneventfully through the TSA scanners. In the waiting lounge near our gate–an hour to fill, and eager to finish an engaging book–I promptly forgot about the man I would soon know as “David,” whom I had last seen talking with a flight attendant at the check-in counter. A half-hour passed and suddenly there he was. The sheriff had left him with the social worker at a convenient spot near the gate. The two were sitting next to each other but not talking. I had a good view of his downcast face. When we made eye contact, he looked sorrowful.

They boarded him first. My wife and I were among the last. A ticketing issue and a full plane prevented us from sitting together. Never mind. We had been given window seats. As we boarded I followed her profile up the narrow aisle with my eyes until she found her seat, then I looked for mine. And there he was again, in a bulkhead seat on the aisle, the window seat next to him empty, no social worker in sight. He was clutching a wad of papers and a prepackaged sandwich in his right hand. He looked preoccupied and I hated to interrupt him.

Excuse me, I said. He looked up and turned sideways as best he could to make room as I bent to squeeze past him–banging my head sharply on the low overhead compartment–to occupy the seat next to him for the three hour flight. On planes I often argue with myself about whether to engage the person next to me, or to pretend invisibility and disappear into a book. This time I favored the book I hadn’t finished in the lounge. (Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction, if you’d like to know.) I pulled it out of my carry-on bag and made sure my seatmate knew what I had planned. I wondered about the sheriff, but felt it wasn’t my place to pry.

Before I could get back into issues of prose structure and style, however, the joke I made about banging my head had brought a smile to his face. We introduced ourselves and made some small talk. He carried a gracious, almost dignified, manner, and seemed keen to tell me something. But I wasn’t getting it. At times he spoke in complete thoughts and was easy to follow. Sometimes he fell silent, leaving a thought uncompleted. Other times he jumped from topic to topic sans any segues that I could detect. Even when I leaned in, it was hard to hear his softly spoken words above the engines. I thought I caught the words “her daughter,” “kidnapping,” and “two women,” but I wasn’t sure, so I let it go.

Do you live in Dallas? I asked. I’m going to Connecticut, he said. Oh, you must have been visiting someone in California, I said, wondering why anyone had allowed this fragile figure to travel across the country on his own. No, he said, I’ve been living in California with my wife.

helping handA hostess locked her cart next to us at the bulkhead and handed out pretzels and drinks. I accepted a cranberry drink and took a protein bar from my carry-on. Papers and sandwich still clutched in his hand, David folded the papers out of the way and began slow work on the sandwich.

Man, you’ve got a long day ahead of you, I said after he’d finished eating what he could of his sandwich. You’re probably not going to get to Connecticut until midnight. My children are in Connecticut, he said. They want me and my wife to live with them there. I’m going to make arrangements. Then I clearly heard “her daughter” and “kidnapping,” and also “two women” and “one-year-old boy,” but for no apparent reason. I wanted to ask why he said this but decided not to.

My wife had a stroke in Florida last year, he said, emerging from silence. She can’t walk. Her daughter got her to move to California. Said she would take care of her. So we moved. But I’m done with her now. Who does he mean? I wondered, now more curious. [Unclear] we never should have done that, he added. [Unclear] worst decision we ever made. We lost everything.

As we flew on, I learned that he was eighty-six and that for thirty-two years he had been an assistant to the headmaster of a large boys’ school in the Midwest, and that afterward he had retired to Florida. That long career accounted for his gracious, disciplined deportment, but it could not hide his distress whenever he returned to “the kidnapping.”

This put me in a dilemma. The journalist in me wanted to probe, question, conduct an interview, get the story. The Christian in me wanted to be a listening ear, to befriend the stranger, to reach out somehow with grace.

I carefully slid from my seat and walked the long aisle to the toilet. Earlier in the flight, David and I had talked about our churches, and discovered we were brothers in Christ. When I got back to my seat, I said I was sorry to hear about his wife and that I would pray for her and the move to Connecticut. Thank you. I’ll say a prayer for you, too, he said. We had a nice house in Florida, he added after a pause. We should have stayed there.

I was learning something. But what? Even though he occasionally repeated himself, I was still missing many of his words. Whatever story he was telling, I wasn’t getting it. Afterward, it reminded me of trying to understand a movie you had walked in on in the middle of. I did catch that the kidnapping had taken place in California. It clearly pained him to talk about it, but talk about it he did.

When he asked if I’d seen the Amber Alert on the news in California, I explained that I’d been on vacation and tried not to listen to the news. They kidnapped a one-year-old boy, he said. Can you believe it? A one-year-old. It was on the news for days. When? I asked. A few days ago, he said. The boy was in protective custody. But they caught them. Her daughter put a knife to the social worker’s throat. Told her she’d kill her if she didn’t let them take her son. That’s terrible, I said, words failing me. They kidnapped him, a one-year-old boy, he said again. Can you believe that? That’s so terrible, I said again. David fell silent, and I wondered who he was talking about.

Will you have to fly back to California to bring your wife to Connecticut, I asked? No, he said. The social worker is arranging that. We’ve lost everything. After my wife had her stroke, her daughter convinced her to move to California so she could look after my wife. So we moved there from Florida. But we found out that she only wanted my wife’s money. Her daughter spent it on herself and her daughter. The social worker told me that after they caught them. Caught who? I blurted out.

My wife’s daughter and her daughter, he said. They caught them in Los Angeles. The social worker told me they think they were headed for Mexico. Kidnaping, attempted murder. Can you believe it? They’ll go to jail for a long time, won’t they? I guess so, I said. My wife is heartbroken, he said. When I told her about her daughter she cried. But the little boy is safe now. But can you imagine him growing up with them?

I could not.

But I could reflect on our conversation, and I had plenty of time for doing that during the four-hour layover after my wife and I deplaned in Dallas, before our flight home to Knoxville. As we said our goodbyes, David warmly shook my hand, said Thank you, and added: Say a prayer for my wife. He was wheelchaired to the gate where he would connect with a flight to LaGuardia. There, his family would pick him up for the drive to Connecticut. I kicked myself for not having asked him for his number so I could follow up. Many times I almost asked, but it never seemed appropriate.

I found a comfortable chair in a quiet area of the large terminal, where I pulled a pen and a small spiral notebook from my shirt pocket and scribbled pages of notes about the last three hours. Who would’ve thought this likable person was suffering so much? I spent days afterward thinking about him, and whether I’d been the right kind of seatmate.

God and AdamThen the penny dropped. He was heartbroken and needed to talk with someone other than with social workers, the police, or even his family about what had just happened to him and his wife. Talking with them, as necessary as that had been, had not been a means to the emotional distance he needed from so much anguish. Perhaps our long, off-and-on conversation had been that means of grace. David had seemed seem calmer, more at peace, when we said our goodbyes.

In a gentle, beautiful book, The Shape of Living, David Ford notes that people who suffer from severe evil and injustice are overwhelmed by it; they suffer alone and need to be held in non-physical ways that bring divine grace. But how do you hold a stranger that way in the middle of an airplane—on a flight across the country?

As I reflect on my hours alongside this kindly African-American gentleman, I remember one of the many things I learned from reading Abraham Joshua Heschel. It’s a line from God in Search of Man: “Something sacred is at stake in every event.” As a Christian, I’ve come to interpret this to mean that when I come into the presence of another human being, especially a suffering one, I can enter into the presence of Christ and it’s no longer about what I want, it’s about what Christ wants.

If I could talk to David again I would of course ask how life was going now for him and his wife, but I would also ask him if he was checking me out early on in our conversation to determine how much he could say to this stranger at the gate. Then I was glad that, by God’s grace, I’d leaned away from the journalistic me and instead leaned in as a listening ear.

©2019 by Charles Strohmer

Images courtesy of Creative Commons: Richard Lehoux; Mandajuice; Waiting for God

This essay as first published on Foundling House, Sept. 2,2019.

Snow, a novel

crescent moonIn his aesthetic masterwork The Little Drummer Girl, acclaimed novelist John LeCarré has his main character, the British actress Charlie, lured from the London stage into the violence and intrigue of Middle East terrorism – you’ll have a part in “the theater of the real” is the way Charlie’s Israeli intelligence handler puts it to her. The novel itself is superior layered theater. Snow, by Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk, is remarkable theater in its own way.

Many are the nonfiction books today about the play of religion and secularism between Islam and the West, but Snow as novel takes us into that story in a way that “issue” books cannot possibly do. Snow as art invites readers into a world of conflicting impulses, tormented loves, and even farcical actions that can emerge from the warring values residing within individuals caught in the bitter and very real theater of today’s collision between Western ideals and Islamic extremism. Pamuk, a Turkish writer and recipient of international literary awards, sits his readers down to a compelling drama that takes place during a three-day period in the life of the poet Ka, who has just returned from twelve years of political exile in Frankfurt to the remote Turkish town of Kars, the home of his cultured, middle-class youth.

Many are the threads of Snow’s absorbing plot. Ka, hoping for an anodyne solution to a long and depressing period in which poems have quit coming to him in Germany, has accepted an assignment as a journalist to go to Kars to write about a wave of suicides by teenage girls forbidden to wear their head scarves at school. He arrives by bus at the start of a blinding three-day snowstorm, which quickly seals Kars off from the Western world, Ka’s frame of reference for more than a decade. But it’s the possibility for love, we learn, which is Ka’s real motivation for accepting this assignment. For in Kars there lives the beautiful Ipek, a recently divorced friend of Ka’s from his youth. He has gone to boldly and abruptly declare his love (read: obsession).

The elation of romance is matched, if not surpassed, by the happiness Ka finds when a flurry of poems suddenly begin accumulating in his notebook, poems which Ka finds upon reflection to be organized around the “mysterious underlying structure” of a snowflake. But neither romance nor poetry can save him from a personal crisis of faith, which becomes as disorienting as the city itself becomes in the play between religious radicals and secularists.

Ka’s crisis of faith touches not only in his romance with Ipek but also his encounters with her sister (a political Islamist) and others: the police, several of the town’s odd and zany characters, poverty-stricken families, and militant religious and secular groups. There’s Nicep, a curious irony of religious student wanting to become the world’s first Islamic sci-fi writer, who tells Ka that because Ka is of the intelligentsia he will never become a believer in God. There’s the mysterious, charismatic Blue, who is in hiding. In one of Ka’s long conversations with Blue, in which Ka reasons that surely God must be the source of the happiness he is now experiencing through the new poems, Blue replies: “I don’t want to destroy your illusions, but your love for God comes out of Western romantic novels… And know this: People who seek only happiness never find it.” Through such scenes, there are many of them, we enter into the sympathies, cognitive dissonance, and conversational insights of Kar’s townspeople, who are entangled in the interplay of religious-secular tensions and contradictions.

And in what is central to the novel, Ka, through the forceful personality of the famous actor and playwright Sunay Zaim, finds himself becoming the pawn of a leftist theater troupe. In collusion with a military determined to restrain local Islamist radicals, Zaim pulls off a bloody coup during a theater production in a packed house. The intrigue that follows sets in motion events that endanger Ka’s life, and it is only after the snow finally ends, the roads are cleared, and Kars reopens to the West that we discover the end of Ka’s bid for love and happiness.

Even though it has been eighteen years since September 11, 2001, many people in the West, arguably more so in America than in Europe, still hold remorselessly to caricatured pictures of Muslims and their communities. Pamuk invites us to look elsewhere. In Snow, he opens the curtain on a world we are not familiar with. You won’t be disappointed if you accept his invitation. But then again, as LeCarré’s Charlie learned, you might find some roles back in the theater of the real, including perhaps your own, disturbing.

Reviewed by Charles Strohmer

©2019 by Charles Strohmer

Image: Creative Commons, courtesy of Marshall Space Flight Center

Strangers in a Strange Land: What I Didn’t Know about the U.S. Immigration Controversy

In recent weeks a friend and I have enjoyed meeting at a local gastropub for long conversations about building the controversial wall along the southern border of the United States. Well, why not? Timely topic, good food, tasty brews. What began as an informal “wall / no wall” debate did not get us very far, but not because we ended up seething at each as many do on Facebook and other social media about this topic. Nor did we not get very far because we had exhausted the topic. Just the opposite. The “wall / no wall,” either-or polarization, we realized, had merely offered us a starting point that necessitated stepping back to see the bigger picture of immigration control, what President Trump and others call the broken immigration system.

Fixing a system of course entails engaging in systems thinking. As someone has aptly said, if you jiggle over here, something is going to wiggle over there. Said another way, you can never do merely one thing to fix a system – just ask any car buff who has restored an old jalopy. So Jim and I met again, but not to talk about fixing the system. Our goal was to start getting to grips with the bigger picture, or at least to see as much of it as we could identify given our resources. After all, how can wise decisions be made about fixing a system with multiple problems unless the bigger picture is first known?

This article identifies key aspects of the immigration big picture along our southern border, but what follows is not the last word on the subject. I offer it as a learner. The immigration picture at the southern border is complex and changing, and it has been grossly misrepresented by politicians, news media, and influential others who have us focused on watching a “wall / no wall” game of ping-pong. My aim is to share what I have learned so far (some of which was surprising) about a system that is not working. If it helps you, I would like to know about that. If you can help me further in my understanding, I would like to hear from you too.

The “wall / no wall” way of seeing is like a race horse wearing blinders. The thoroughbred’s peripheral vision is deliberately eliminated for the purpose of focusing the horse’s attention on the track ahead. Blinders narrow the horse’s vision to help keep it from running off course and to protect both jockey and horse from accidents and injuries. During a horse race this is beneficial for the horses, the jockeys, and the sport. Nothing beneficial, or sporting, has accrued to our country, or to the immigrants, by having a blinkered vision of immigration.

THE BORDERLAND
The U.S. – Mexico border is the world’s most transited international border. Four states make up its approximately 1,950 miles. California: 140 miles. Arizona: 370 miles. New Mexico: 180 miles. Texas: 1,254 miles. There are 5 Mexican states along the border: Baja California, Sonora, Chihuahua, Coahuila, Nuevo León, and Tamaulipas, and 23 U.S. counties and 39 Mexican municipalities. A variety of towns, cities, small farms, deserts, and ecosystems comprise the borderland area, whose total population is estimated at 12 million people.

There are 48 legal crossing points along the long border (that figure does not include numerous railroad and ferry crossings). The crossings are staffed with thousands of U.S. Customs and Border personnel and maintained around the clock year after year. To that large number add tens of thousands of U.S. Border Patrol agents (they typically do not work at the crossing points) and their vast amount of equipment and its maintenance. Add up all the personnel, their equipment, and its maintenance and it is easy to see why the economic cost of running three shifts (24/7/365) to secure that border runs into hundreds of billions of dollars annually. (This figure does not include ICE agents and their equipment or the military.)

Health concerns and socioeconomic issues are also in play, especially at major crossings such as the three between San Diego and Tijuana, where as many as 50 million people pass through those three border crossings every year. The population for that region is estimated at 4,900,000, making it the second largest bi-national area of conurbation in the U.S., not far behind the Detroit – Windsor area’s population of 5,700,000.

Increasing air pollution has been a significant problem in the San Diego and Tijuana region due to the tens of thousands of cars and trucks that transit through the three crossings every year. And San Diego, already the second largest city in California, is one of the fastest growing cities in the U.S. Because of its location on the Mexico border, developers in San Diego are seeking ways to expand into Tijuana. Although increased development would benefit many people in Tijuana, if handled unwisely it would adversely effect the city’s poor, which includes thousands of deportees from California who are typically turned over to Mexican authorities in Tijuana, where many have no place else to go and live in dreadful conditions.

California’s and Arizona’s borders with Mexico are nearly completely sealed. New Mexico has many miles of old fencing; it is one of the Trump administration’s chief goals to replace that fencing with better barriers. Sealing the border of Texas with Mexico is also a priority of the Administration. But that project is hugely problematic. The Texas-Mexico border is formed by the winding Rio Grande River, whose often twisting, jagged route not only serves as a natural barrier but also creates problems both for crossers and patrol agents. This long common border has 28 international bridges and border crossings, including two dams and one hand-drawn ferry, for commercial, vehicular, and pedestrian traffic. Also, according to the Texas Department of Transportation, the “Texas and Mexico border crossings are vital to the economies of Texas and Mexico, and have contributed to Mexico’s status as Texas’ #1 trading partner.”

One hundred and fifteen miles of the Texas border with Mexico are fenced (e.g., tall steel slating), the longest stretch near El Paso. Business Insider reports that a “host of laws and regulations – from international treaties to flood-zone requirements – make wall-construction along the Texas-Mexico border a daunting task.” When fencing does get constructed, it usually ends up being placed far inland, cutting across private property. “And Texas landowners haven’t taken too kindly in the past to government officials attempting to co-opt their land.”

Amid all this are the immigrants themselves. Although they live in today’s world, they are part of the perennial human problem of “the stranger,” and they are at the mercy of how both the U.S. and Mexico authorities treat them.

MOSES THE STRANGER
Let’s remind ourselves that the United States is not the only country that has been embattled over seemingly unresolvable differences of political opinion and prolonged legal wranglings over the status of immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers. Millions of refugees fleeing the war in Syria to nearby countries and to European nations is a recent case in point. Previously, the war in Iraq saw millions of Iraqis displaced from their homes. Just over forty years ago, huge numbers of the so-called Vietnamese boat people were arriving by boats and ships on the shores of many countries, including the United States. Seventy-five years ago, Jews were fleeing Nazi Germany. And so it has been throughout history.

The challenges that countries face from immigrants date back even to biblical times, to what the Bible calls the treatment of “the alien,” “the foreigner,” “the stranger.” The well-known story of Moses offers insight into the perennial challenges. In brief: the Hebrew people (aka the ancient Israelites) lived for hundreds of years as resident aliens in Egypt. Under Egyptian immigration policy they fared well and “were fruitful and multiplied greatly and became exceedingly numerous” (Exodus 1:7). But when a new leader of Egypt perceived this large population of resident aliens as a national security threat, he changed the policy toward them. He turned the Hebrews into slaves and forced them to live and work in the harshest of conditions.

Enter Moses, raised from infancy in Egypt and specially educated from childhood in Pharaoh’s royal court. It was an unusual upbringing because Moses was not an Egyptian. He was a Hebrew. Yet he was groomed as an Egyptian prince and led a privileged life among the Egyptian elite. At age forty, however, after killing an Egyptian and burying the body, Moses fled from Egypt to escape the death penalty. He ended up hundreds of miles away in the land of Midian, in the northwest Arabian desert somewhere, and worked as a shepherd for forty years.

What is not well known is that in Midian Moses was given the status of a gēr (“alien” or”stranger”) and was taken in by a gracious Midianite priest and his family. Moses married one of the priest’s daughters, who gave birth to a son, to whom Moses gave the name Gērshom (“stranger in a strange land”).

When Moses turned eighty, he was called by God to return to Egypt to free the Israelites from slavery. As God’s appointed leader of a million-plus refugees out of Egypt, the Bible records that Moses received a set of commands from God for the social legislation of this large unwieldy population. One of those commands, which stands out by virtue of its repetition in a number of contexts, applied to how the Israelites were to treat the strangers (aliens, foreigners) in their midst.

“Do not ill-treat a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in Egypt” (Exodus 22:21). “Do not oppress a stranger; you yourselves know how it feels to be a stranger, because you were strangers in Egypt” (Exodus 23:9).

This was a significant law because it was not only Israelites who had fled from Egypt. Many non-Israelites had left Egypt with the Israelites and had become refugees themselves. God, apparently, had no qualms about that. If there had been a question among the Israelites about how to treat non-Israelites in their midst, it was no longer a question. They had God’s view on the matter.

Some rabbis have discovered as many as four dozen places in the Torah where the alien/foreigner/stranger is mentioned, including in the context of the treatment of widows, orphans, and the poor. And more than once the Torah specifies:

“You shall have the same law for the strangers as for the native-born” (Exodus 22:49; Leviticus 24:22; Numbers 15:16, 29).

As Rabbi Sacks reminds us, “Not only must the stranger not be wronged; he or she must be included in the positive welfare of Israelite / Jewish society.” But even more remarkably, the “law goes beyond this; the stranger must be loved”:

“When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 19:33-34).

This divine law, echoed in Deuteronomy 10:19, signifies the high value of life that God places on the human beings that today we call immigrants, refugees, foreigners, aliens, and asylum seekers. It is a law focused on the treatment of strangers. It is a law to which the people will be held accountable. It is a law implied when Jesus, the archetypal alien in the world, says, “I was a stranger and you took me in” (Matthew 25:35). It is a law that fits hand-in-glove to another of the Torah’s repeated commands: the exercise of impartial justice, which, incidentally, Jesus took to soaring heights, blowing some minds, in his parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10). Ultimately, it is a law that finds its root in the truth of Genesis chapter one, where we see that human beings, male an female, created in the image of God, are called good, and very good. That is the value God placed on human beings.

ARTICLE 14(1)
Down through history, nations have granted protection, if not possibilities for citizenship, to individuals, families, and groups fleeing persecution, slavery, and threats of death, even if these nations do not acknowledge its basis in divine law. Today, one finds this protection appearing in Article 14(1) of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). The UDHR is a milestone document that owes much of its emergence to a biblical influence.

Article 14(1) does not define what kind of protection policies nations must implement. It leaves each nation to its own jurisprudence for determining that. The same was true for ancient Israel. Its commands regarding treatment of strangers was a kind of general social-legislative principle to which the people would be held accountable (by God). But the commands were not themselves policy. As is frequently the case in the Torah, once a general principle has been revealed it is then up to the monarch, the courts, or the political system to hammer out a policy consistent with the principle.

CITIES OF REFUGE
A compelling example of ancient Israelite policy grounded in the above concert of laws appears in the appointment of six cities as “cities of refuge,” as they are called in the biblical text. After the people were no longer wandering refugees in the Arabian desert but settled in a new land, they turned six of the already-existing cities of that land into sanctuary cities. The chief reason for doing so was to provide legal asylum for anyone to flee to who had killed another person. As safe havens, the cities of refuge limited and controlled injustices, for they gave the accused a place to stand trial, where it would be determined if the killing was accidental or intentional. And these cities were spread out in key locations throughout the land, so no one involved in a court case would have to travel too far.

The legal proceedings for determining guilt or innocence are spelled out in Numbers 35 and Joshua 20 but do not concern us here. What needs underlining, however, is that the six cities were places of physical and legal refuge not just for Israelites but for “aliens and any other people living among them” (Numbers 35:15; Joshua 20:9).

Also, these cities were overtly religious cities, in that all six had to be Levitical cities, that is, cities of the priests, the Levites. In other words, these places of asylum were an integral part of ancient Israel’s religious life. This was significant. For it was not just to the king, or to the courts, or to the elders but also to the priests that the people looked for rulings of justice.

With the law of asylum in place across the country in six of the (forty-eight) Levitical cities, the accused (who may be an alien, and innocent), when received into a sanctuary city, knew that he awaited trial under the protection of divine mercy and grace. Whenever the accuser (aka the “avenger of blood”) had tracked down the accused to a city of refuge, the accuser was forbidden by divine law from taking the life of the accused, and a trial would determine the latter’s legal status.

U.S. SANCTUARY CITIES & THE CONSTITUTION
Here, then, in the ancient Middle East we see an example of a nation-wide policy in a criminal justice system that is based on the high value of life that God has placed on immigrants, refugees, foreigners, and asylum seekers even if they have been accused of committing a capital offense. The United States, of course, has no official religion. Constitutionally, it is not a religious polity. It is not possible for Congress to replicate ancient Israel’s religious cities of refuge in the country but, as the apostle Paul recommends, we can learn from ancient Israel’s history (1 Corinthians 10:1).

In the difficult context of America’s broken immigration system, controversy has swirled around so-called sanctuary cities in recent years, particularly after President Trump signed an executive order in January 2017 to withhold federal funding from jurisdictions that limited cooperation with U.S. immigration authorities. Many of these jurisdictions include sanctuary cities – an imprecise term used for cities across the U.S. that are viewed as lenient toward non-criminal undocumented immigrants.

I am not an immigration professional, but here are some discoveries I made about this area of jurisprudence. Although the Trump administration implied that the President’s executive order was issued because sanctuary cities or counties don’t cooperate with U.S. immigration authorities, that is a misnomer. From what I can tell, a sanctuary jurisdiction is probably not working outside federal law. It tries to work within federal immigration law to limit its cooperation with federal immigration enforcement agents in order to protect low-priority immigrants from deportation. But it will turn over to relevant authorities those who have committed crimes. For instance, being undocumented is not a crime; it is a civil violation, which can be handled by local jurisdictions (2012 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Arizona v. U.S. ).

Also, undocumented immigrants have the right of due process under the U.S. Constitution. The due process clauses of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments, which concern the administration of justice, act as safeguards from arbitrary denial of life, liberty, or property by the government outside the sanction of law. For example, police cannot detain anyone who hasn’t at least been suspected of a crime. Meaning: to hold a non-criminal undocumented immigrant past the point when he or she should be released just so that ICE can pick the person up is unconstitutional. (ICE: Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a law enforcement agency of the federal government.)

In a sanctuary city, local police will most likely release an arrested immigrant after he has been cleared of charges, posted bail, or completed jail time for whatever he was arrested for. A non-sanctuary city might hold that same person until ICE can come to pick him up – even though that extra holding is not constitutional.

A piece of legislation from Congress, or a dictate from the Attorney General, or an executive order from the President that seeks to penalize sanctuary cities because they refuse to hold non-criminal undocumented immigrants for ICE pickup has marked the wrong target. For it is the cities that hold non-criminal undocumented immigrants for ICE pickup who are acting unconstitutionally. I would argue that sanctuary cities, in following the Constitution, are also practicing their own version (consciously or not) of the general law of Leviticus 19:33: not mistreating a foreigner who resides among them but treating them as native-born.

Further, when non-criminal undocumented immigrants know that they won’t be treated outside the law, it’s an incentive for them to cooperate with local law enforcement authorities when they need to. This kind of cooperation has been long understood and needed by police departments, sheriff departments, and other law enforcement agencies in sanctuary jurisdictions, which is why they pushed back against President Trump’s combative stance against their (legal) handling of non-criminal undocumented immigrants. Police chiefs in Los Angeles, Denver, Tucson, and other cities have made strong cases that their communities have been made safer and better because non-criminal immigrants know that when they come forward, for instance, to report a crime or to act as a witness, they will not be turned over to ICE.

SANCTUARY CHURCHES
Besides cities of refuge, houses of worship in ancient Israel protected people under threat of death. Across the United States today, sanctuary churches perform a Good Samaritan role for non-criminal undocumented immigrants who get stuck in the most desperate straits. Daily care for these “church families,” which includes food and finances, is multi-faceted and provided by members of the congregation and networks of pro bono lawyers, advocacy support groups, concerned individuals in the wider community, and even sympathetic synagogues and mosques.

Although the total number of persons in the U.S. who have sought protection from deportation inside churches remains relatively small, they have good and sufficient reasons for wanting to remain in the U.S. Many have worked and raised families here for years, if not decades. As with other aspects of our broken immigration system, this one is also complex and not easily resolved. Here’s a typical scenario: undocumented immigrant parents seeking legal status but unable to obtain it yet and facing imminent deportation. But their children were born in the U.S. and are therefore U.S. citizens (Fourteenth Amendment) and cannot be deported. The parents quite naturally and reasonably don’t want to be separated from their children, so they enter the safety of a sanctuary church in order to pursue their options and continue to plead their case with relevant authorities. Another scenario would be that of an undocumented parent with a child who is gravely ill.

These families are not trying to hide from ICE or USCIS (United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, the agency that handles citizenship eligibility for immigrants, work permits, green cards, adoption requests, humanitarian services, and much more.) The families notify USCIS and ICE of their new address. There is no law that prevents ICE from entering a church, mosque, or synagogue to detain an undocumented immigrant, but ICE has typically refrained from doing that, for any number of reasons. The agency will, however, enter to make arrests if it concerns terrorism or public safety.

Reports are surfacing, however, of a trend developing in which ICE may not be so accommodating to sanctuary churches as it was during the previous administration. Perhaps Congress could pass a temporary law that would ensure undocumented immigrants safety from arrest in a sanctuary church while USCIS and the courts are sorting out the family’s status.

COURT SYSTEMS & THE SIXTH AMENDMENT
Court systems in the U.S. are also significant in how undocumented strangers are treated. Because ancient Israel’s cities of refuge were deliberately located in strategic areas throughout the land, no one involved in a case would be burdened with traveling a long distance for the trial. The accused would find asylum quickly and the accuser and any witnesses would most likely be nearby. The parties would have recourse to a speedy trial and a case could be adjudicated quickly.

Although the Sixth Amendment of the Constitution guarantees the right to a speedy trial, adjudication of immigration cases in the U.S. has slowed to a crawl. Near the end of 2018, there were approximately 400 immigration judges in 58 courts across the country. This was up from approximately 300 at the end of 2016. But the system remains overwhelmed. According to Executive Office for Immigration Review of the Department of Justice, as of August, 2018, there were more than 730,000 pending immigration cases, which means that the average immigration judge would have a backlog of 1800+ cases. It is not unusual for average wait times for cases to be fully heard to stretch to two to three years.

Even if it cost as much as $100 million, or even $200 million, to add or reassign judges or other necessary personnel in order to lessen the backlog of immigration cases, including the reuniting of children with their parents, that is only two percent or four percent (respectively) of the $5.7 billion that President Trumped sought from Congress in January 2019. I suppose some ungenerous soul would say, “Let ‘em wait three years. No big deal.” Well, put yourself in their shoes. It’s a big deal to the families who are stuck in the queue. How would you want to be treated? Processing them through the system in a fairer amount of time would be more humane than keeping them on pins and needles about their final status for years.

DACA
Another part of the immigration big picture is the DACA program (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals). Launched in 2012, DACA allowed young people who came to the U.S. as children to be “lawfully present” without threat of being deported and to apply for a driver’s license and a work permit. When the program was rescinded in September 2018, federal courts kept most of the DACA recipients (700,000+ young people) from deportation pending a permanent legislative solution.

DACA is not a free-for-all. Immigrants who apply must have arrived in the U.S. before their sixteenth birthday and have lived in the U.S. continuously since June 15, 2007. They are required to be in school, or a high school graduate or hold a GED, or an honorably discharged veteran of the U.S. Armed Forces or the Coast Guard. They are ineligible if they have been convicted of a felony or various other crimes, and if they are deemed a national security threat. There is also a $495 application fee. DACA does not grant permanent resident status or a path to citizenship. (Much more straightforward information about DACA can be found here, which is where I found most of this information.)

EDUCATION
Education is another part of the picture. The education of undocumented immigrant children in K-12 public schools is guaranteed by law (Plyler vs. Doe; U.S. Supreme Court decision, 1982). Also, except in instances of a subpoena being served, federal law (the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act) prohibits public schools from providing any outside agency, including ICE, with information from a child’s school file that would disclose the student’s undocumented status.

Educating undocumented immigrants benefits our country. The sooner the immigration status of undocumented students is resolved, including the status of those stuck waiting in DACA limbo, the sooner those who can stay in the country are free to dream about how they will become long-term contributors to American society.

“BUILD A WALL”: A MISLEADING SOUND BITE
In March 2017, during an address to Congress, President Trump stated that “we will soon begin the construction of a great wall along our southern border.” No surprise there. “Building a wall” had been a hallmark of candidate Trump’s campaign for President. In January 2018, he began negotiations with Congress for $25 billion to build it. After that appropriation for funding failed, chiefly due to months of wrangling between the White House and Congress over the status of 700,000 DACA immigrants, the President in January 2019 asked Congress for $5.7 billion to build it. When those funds were withheld, the President promptly declared a formal national emergency to find funding for the wall. Resistance to Trump’s wall also comes from many in Congress who have said that open borders are best.

As I write this, it is far from evident what will be the outcome of the lawsuit filed in February by sixteen states to prevent the President from using that declared national emergency to access funds to build the wall. Meantime, on March 11, it was announced that the President wants $8.6 billion from Congress for “the wall,” as part of his proposed $4.7 trillion 2020 budget.

Since the presidential campaign of 2015, however, the sound bite “to build a wall” – repeated endlessly in the news media, blogosphere, social media, and on talk radio – has been a misnomer, if not misleading. Personally, and I’m embarrassed to admit this, but I never paid much attention to happenings along our southern border until the 2015 campaign. My excuse is that my work on foreign policy and diplomacy focused on U.S. – Middle East relations; migrants coming into the U.S. from Mexico and Central America were not part of that geography.

When I heard Donald Trump’s frequent take on “building a wall,” and with that sound bite becoming ubiquitous in the media, I got the impression that there was no wall. So I was surprised when, after doing a little research, I learned that a total of approximately 650 miles of wall already existed. I felt misled by candidate Trump’s repeated refrain about building a wall. It would have been more honest, I thought, if he had talked about repairing existing barriers and building additional sections.

Vertical barriers (various kinds of fencing) began to be built in 1994 during the Bill Clinton administration. Twelve years later, during the George W. Bush administration, Congress passed the Secure Fence Act of 2006, which authorized construction of 700 miles of fencing along the southern border. President Bush announced that the Act would make the border more secure and that it was “an important step toward immigration reform.” Twenty-six Democratic senators, including notables such as Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, Chuck Schumer, Diane Feinstein, and Christopher Dodd voted for the Act. As did the then Senator Barack Obama, who said on the Senate flood that the bill “will certainly do some good.” It will provide “better fences and better security along our borders” and “help stem some of the tide of illegal immigration in this country.”

If Congress had authorized the $5.7 billion the President wanted “to build the wall,” and if he had used the funds strictly for that, the respected Office of Management and Budget estimated the he would have been able to build 230 miles. In February 2019, Congress did approve $1.4 billion to add more vertical barriers, which would finance about 60 more miles. That puts the price at roughly $24 million per mile, not including cost overruns.

The dollar figures, then, are all over the map, as are the locations of the barriers. And the President’s material proposals (concrete or steel) have shifted over time and may shift again. The U.S. government has commissioned numerous prototypes (typically about thirty feet high) for testing and evaluation. So questions about what kind of barriers and their costs remain. In short, Congressional purse strings dictate how many miles of barriers get built. If past history is any indication, even if Donald Trump were elected to a second term it is unlikely his promised wall becomes reality by 2024.

Further, the refrain to “Build the wall! Build the wall!” lends itself to disassociating human beings (immigrants) from their humanness and moving them into the abstract, as if the crucial problems of immigration control were equations of math or physics awaiting to be solved. This subtle but significant shift of perspective has dire consequences on how we think, talk, debate, and propose solutions to a problem in which human beings and their treatment is the fundamental reality of the big picture of immigration control.

ECOLOGY AND WILDLIFE
Harmful consequences to wildlife and biological life have arisen around sections of border wall built during past White House administrations. Along the approximately 650 miles of pedestrian and vehicle barriers of various lengths and compositions that currently exist along the 2,000 mile border, six eco-regions support abundant biological life and wildlife. As more sections go up, studies suggest the negative impact on animal life and natural ecosystems will continue unless the current and future Administrations take steps to reduce that.

Reporting on the adverse effect of the borderland’s fence, steel, and concrete barriers has been largely neglected by the national news media, downplayed by many politicians, and brushed aside by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS – the government agency tasked with building the barriers). But the negative consequences have not been ignored by science.

In 2018, the journal BioScience published a paper signed by more than 2,500 scientists from the U.S., Mexico, and forty-one other countries urging President Trump to think twice about the wall and the infrastructures that will be supporting it. The report documents how previous and current building of barriers bypasses environmental laws, harms wildlife populations, and devalues conservation investment and scientific research. The report concludes with practical advice for moving ahead more wisely.

The paper is not limp on national security, nor does is call for abandoning barriers. It does, however, argue for “forgoing physical barriers in places with high ecological sensitivity, such as cross-border corridors [for animal populations] or critical habitats for endangered species.” The scientists also call for Congress, the DHS, the EPA, the Mexican government, and relevant others to “recognize and give high priority to conserving the ecological, economic, political, and cultural value of the US-Mexico borderlands. National security can and must be pursued with an approach that preserves our natural heritage.”

One of the wildest areas of Texas is a particular case in point. Big Bend National Park lies in the jagged U-bend in the middle of the Texas-Mexico border. Covering more than 800,000 acres, it holds some of the most treasured conservation areas on the continent. The massive 1,125 square mile park protects 1,200 species of plants, 450 species of birds, 56 species of reptiles, and 75 species of mammals. Its archeological history dates back 10,000 years and includes sea fossils, dinosaur bones, and volcanic rocks. Business Insider reports that the park, which has no manmade barriers, “is home to several highly precarious ecosystems that have undergone intense conservation efforts in recent years…. [And] river, mountain, and desert ecosystems … sustain fragile populations of black bears and other large mammals, which are slowly recovering from an over-hunting epidemic that began back in the 1950s.”

(Numerous credible reports and articles can be found on the Web documenting why barriers can have negative impacts on the borderland’s animal life and biodiversity. To comment further on this here would take us too far afield. Here is an article that I found illuminating.)

CHOKE POINTS
Besides the other exigencies about building the wall that are being introduced in this article, “choke points” is another. A choke point (so-called: the strategy comes from the military) narrows down the distance that you or your group must pass through to reach a destination. Consider the 370-mile long Arizona-Mexico border for instance. Sans any kind of barrier, border guards, or surveillance anyone could cross that border whenever he or she wished.

But if you don’t want anyone to be that free, you could build a tall solid 370-mile long wall, and then no one could walk or drive across the border. That wall would of course play havoc with vital concerns such as tourism, commerce, and the ecology. It would also impose travel restrictions on family members and others who are living in, say, Phoenix or Tucson who needed to go by car to, say, Nogales, Mexico, just the other side of the Arizona state line. They would need to make long detours. A long detour would also be necessary for folk in Nogales, Mexico who had to get next-door to its “twin” city, Nogales, Arizona.

Knowing all this, you still have good and sufficient reasons to manage the flow of people across the border. So instead of building one long wall, you build sections of wall to funnel would-be crossers to choke points, which in theory would control the flow of people by forcing them to a check point where their identity and other relevant information can be discovered.

Arizona’s total of nine vehicle and pedestrian crossings act in principle as choke, or check, points. There are a total of forty other legal points of entry in California, Nevada, and Texas. For every new one that is added along the 2,000 mile border comes construction costs as well as ongoing costs for additional personnel and equipment and its maintenance, 24/7/365.

ELECTRONIC SURVEILLANCE
Federal and state governments have long recognized that physical barriers alone are not sufficient along the southern border. Underground sensors, infrared cameras, radar blimps, unmanned drones, tethered aerostats, laser illuminators, microwave transmitters, sensor towers, and other high tech surveillance tools have been deployed to help border patrol agents and law enforcement officials monitor illegal crossings and locate drug smugglers – all of which must be manned and maintained at a cost of billions of dollars each year.

And new tools continue to emerge. It was recently reported in the news that a new mobile video surveillance system is being deployed. Mounted on trucks that roam the roads and open areas, it can look into the mountains with infrared scopes from several miles distance in the day and at night to help locate smugglers.

It seems unlikely, however, that electronic surveillance will ever render the need for some physical barriers obsolete. One costly experiment seems to bear this out. Begun in 2006 under the George W. Bush administration and run by Boeing Co., the $1 billion SBInet program was meant to link and integrate existing video cameras, radar, and sensors along the highly traveled southwest border in order to provide U.S. patrol agencies quicker response times to locate and arrest illegal crossers.

By 2010, that “virtual fence” program had become untenable due to cost overruns, missed deadlines, accumulating red tape, and other setbacks. It was cancelled in 2011 by President Obama and replaced by a strategy “tailored to the unique needs of each border region.” This strategy would deploy “commercially available surveillance systems, unmanned aerial drones, thermal imaging, and other equipment” to provide “faster deployment of technology, better coverage, and a more effective balance between cost and effectivity” (Janet Napolitano, Homeland Security Secretary, 2011). (In 2010, President Obama authorized $600 million to pay for two more unmanned drones and 1,500 new customs inspectors, patrol agents, and law enforce officials along the border.

THE FUTURE?
Drama surrounding “the wall” from the political right and conservative media creates the impression that every immigrant at the southern border is an enemy. Drama surrounding “the wall” from the political left and liberal media creates the impression that anyone and everyone may immigrate. Both views serve the absolutized ideological politics behind each drama and ill-serve the strangers arriving at our southern border. Some are even dying in our deserts.

While working on this article I spoke by phone with Steve Johnstone, who has worked with No More Deaths (NMD), an advocacy group in southern Arizona founded by Catholic, Presbyterian, and Jewish leaders. NMD maintains a year-round humanitarian presence in the deserts of southwestern Arizona, where migrants often get lost and die. NMD volunteers hike the trails and leave water, food, socks, blankets, and if possible they provide emergency first-aid treatment. Earlier this year four of NMD’s volunteer aid workers were arrested while searching for three migrants who were lost in the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge. The workers, who were trying to find the migrants and get water and canned food to them, were convicted of misdemeanor charges and fined. Two of the migrants were found.

A large percentage of those rescued are mothers with their children and they often have similar stories. Their husbands were displaced from small farms in Mexico when NAFTA began to benefit U.S. agribusiness in ways that put countless small Mexican farmers out of business and their husbands out of work. In order to feed their families, the men crossed the border seeking farm work in the U.S. while their families remained in Mexico, but the government has made it increasingly difficult for these men to visit their families back in Mexico.

If more walls, tougher policies, and tighter border security did not deter these undocumented wives from trying to enter the U.S., the feds assumed that large hot deserts would. But the government did not consider the grief and determination of these wives and mothers. Out of desperation, many are willing to risk walking up to eighty miles in the Arizona desert in hopes of reuniting their families. An increasing number, however, are dying from dehydration, heatstroke, or hypothermia, having lost their way and run out of food and water.

Johnstone, who has worked with NMD to rescue lost migrants, told me that before the 9/11 security sanctions emerged hardly anyone died in the Arizona desert, but afterward the deaths increased. “Just in the three-county area around Tucson,” he said, “the number of bodies that we know about is around 200, and that is a low estimate. The remains are taken to the medical examiner’s office, declared homeless, and buried without caskets.”

So maybe you thought it was all about the wall. It isn’t. More than 2,500 human remains have been found in the deserts of southern Arizona since 2000, and as a friend recently reminded me, leadership usually begins by defining reality. There are many aspects to immigration control reality, but relentless political focus on “the wall” is diminishing our capacity as responsible Americans to see that the human person is at the heart of the reality.

A deeply Christian culture shows hospitality to strangers. The book of Hebrews, in a subtle dig at one of Sodom’s sins, exhorts us not to neglect showing hospitality to strangers (13:2). And there is this:

“Listen also to the immigrant who isn’t from your people Israel but who comes from a distant country because of your reputation, because they will hear of your great reputation, your great power, and your outstretched arm” (1 Kings 8:41-42).

We also have the words of Jesus himself, the archetypal alien in this world: “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 7:12).

This article has touched on only a number of aspects of the immigration big picture, but I hope that it has offered enough background to show that problems of immigration control are systemic, that there is no one-size-fits-all solution. I hope that it has helped to bring the reality from the abstract into the human. It will not be easy to repair all that is wrong to everyone’s satisfaction, but we will be greater as a nation when we pull together in that direction.

©2019 by Charles Strohmer

Charles Strohmer is a researcher, freelance writer, and author of eight books.

Images: Washington Post/Carolyn van Houten; John Morre/Ghetty Images; Conde Nast Traaveler; CNN.

A note from Charles: For more of the perspectives that Waging Wisdom seeks to present, try following the blog for a while to see if you like it. You can always “unfollow” anytime. Just click here, find the “Follow” button in the right margin, enter your email address, and click “Follow.” You will receive a very short email notice when I post a new article. Thank you.

Re-enchanting the Star of Bethlehem

It’s no surprise to Christians that the star of Bethlehem and the wise men who followed it occupy a prominent place in the Nativity. My childhood memory is typical of many. Our family Christmas tree was topped off every year by a large star. Below it on the carpeted floor near the tree was our nativity scene, peopled by Joseph, Mary, baby Jesus in the manger, shepherds holding their staffs, and several winged angels and tiny white sheep. And of course three colorfully dressed wise men stood at a respectful distance gazing toward the newborn child.

But this might surprise. Around Christmastime every year, the phenomenon of the star of Bethlehem and the mission of the wise men interest millions who would not consider themselves Christian. Every December you will find them reading magazine articles or listening to current affairs stories purporting to explain the true meaning of the mysterious star. These explanations, however, typically lean heavily on naturalistic interpretations, particularly from the field of astronomy, ignoring important details from the narrative provided by Matthew’s Gospel. The net effect is the de-enchantment of the mysterious star. This approach may sit well within the larger cultural zeitgeist of secularism but it does not square with Christian belief.

A solely naturalistic or materialistic interpretation of the star ignores its revelatory nature. This is a serious matter, much more so than the historical inaccuracies commonly depicted in nativity scenes. A careful reading of Matthew 2 with Luke 2, for instance, suggests that the wise men, or magi, were not present at the birth manger. Apparently they arrived many months, if not a year or more, after the birth, and at a house in Bethlehem where Jesus was then staying with Mary and Joseph. Also, there is no biblical reason to limit the magi to three in number, despite their gifts being three (gold, frankincense, myrrh). And there is no mention that the magi were kings, as was popularized by the nineteenth century Christmas carol “We Three Kings.”

Such historical conjectures are small change when compared to accepting purely naturalist or materialist conclusions, which bankrupt the Nativity of its divine otherness. The star of Bethlehem is then robbed of its mystery, the magi are reduced to being clever astrologers, and Christ’s birth loses its revelatory meaning. Here’s how that occurs and why we don’t have Christmas when it does.

The problem with naturalistic explanations of the star
Solely naturalistic or materialistic views of the starry visitor that led the magi are many and varied: nova, comet, meteor, supernova, or the sighting of a new star. There is astronomical evidence for some of these stellar occurrences, any one of which could have produced a bright phenomenon in the night sky to set the ancient world abuzz. A new nova, for example, was discovered about 125 years before the birth of Christ by the Greek astronomer Hipparchus. According to Ptolemy, this nova was visible to the naked eye until decades after Christ’s death. Within naturalism, the shepherds (see Luke’s account, chapter 2:8-15) must have mistaken the bright nova for the angelic visitation that appeared, saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.” Daft, lonely shepherds. Spending so much time with sheep – stars don’t talk!

Another natural phenomenon was the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, the two largest planets of our solar system, around the time most scholars place Christ’s birth (4 BC). There is a consensus among astronomers since Kepler that this planetary conjunction occurred around 7–4 BC. It would have been a prominent sight on a clear night in the ancient Middle East. Modern astrologers typically assume that the magi interpreted this planetary conjunction as an astrological sign indicating the birth of such a significant person that it warranted their arduous trip from the East to Jerusalem.

Comets, too, were not unknown in ancient times. The famous Halley’s comet, originally discovered in 240 BC by Chinese astronomers, was also visible in 12–11 BC. Another comet appeared around 4 BC. If the star in Matthew was a comet, as the early church theologian Origen assumed, its dramatic appearance in the night sky would have quite the attention-getter. And its linear movement across the heavens would more closely approximate the account of the star in Matthew than would the movement of a planetary conjunction. Even so, the meaning of star of Bethlehem cannot be reduced to any purely naturalistic interpretations; nor can the way the magi followed the star to the Christ child be justified astrologically.

The star has a mind of its own
Significant non-natural characteristics of the star as it is described in Matthew cannot be explained by the science of astronomy. Fair enough. Any scientist worth his or her salt will admit that science cannot explain any phenomenon to complete satisfaction. That attitude is not being questioned here. At issue is the naturalism that explains away the divine otherness and meaning of the star of Bethlehem as silly religious nonsense or superstitious belief.

Also at issue is the occult method that astrologers claim the magi used as a kind of road map to follow the star from the East to Jerusalem and then on to Bethlehem. As someone who once practiced astrology, I have some sympathy for what astrologers are trying to achieve by this. Like many sensitive people they refuse to allow themselves to be suffocated within the metaphysical box of naturalism, philosophical materialism, or scientific rationalism. Their way out, when it comes to the star of Bethlehem, is to accept astronomical evidence for the conjunction but then to claim the magi among their number by introducing a tincture of occult otherness to the nativity narrative.

Mindful of potential audiences likely to include high numbers of rationalists and spiritual seekers, many Christmastime magazine articles and current affairs segments on radio or television will combine elements astronomy and astrology in their stories about the star and the magi. A close reading of Matthew chapter two, however, tells a different story. Here are the essentials.

The phenomenon that is called the star of Bethlehem seems to have acted with a kind of life and intention of its own. According to the text – and as Walter Brueggemann is fond of saying, “Stick with the text” – the star “appeared” at a particular time and it “went ahead of them [the magi]” … “until it stopped.” And it did not stop randomly anywhere; it “stopped over the place where the child was.” In other words, the star is not governed only by the laws of nature any more than a human being is. This “star” apparently has some sort of personal intention in its nature. As such, its meaning cannot be reduced to the laws of nature, whether by those of a nova, a planetary conjunction, or a comet.

If we set aside the bias of “silly religious nonsense,” the text of Matthew 2:1-12 seems to be revealing some sort of presence to the magi that is as supernatural as that of the angels appearance to the shepherds (see Luke’s account). The New Testament Greek language of Matthew’s account lends itself to this view. The word translated with our English word “appeared” includes meanings associated with a shining light and is occasionally used to describe the appearance of an angel, such as to Joseph (Matthew 1:20; 2:13, 19). The word is also used of Jesus when he “appeared” to his followers after his resurrection (Mark 16:9, 12, 14). It is a term, therefore, that can denote forms of luminous bodies other than literal heavenly astral phenomena, including stars.

The verb phrase “went ahead … until it stopped” is another case in point. The word “stopped” is used numerous times in the New Testament to describe people who have chosen to “stand still” (Matthew 20:32; 27:11; Mark 10:49). The verb “went ahead” is a peculiar construction in the Greek, used only a half dozen times in the New Testament, usually for “to lead” or “precede.” So the crowds are leading Jesus into Jerusalem (Matthew 21:9) and Jesus is leading his disciples to Jerusalem (Mark 10:32). Curiously, the construction is used once about prophecies being fulfilled (1 Timothy 1:18).

The text does not report that the star spoke to the magi (as the shepherds heard the angels). Pretty convincingly, however, the text does allow for the idea of personal intention and purpose in the nature of the phenomenon called the star of Bethlehem. This cannot be said of inanimate objects (comets, planets) obeying natural laws only.

The magi, their method, the true meaning
This brings us to the magi, to their careers and to the actual way they got their leading to Bethlehem and the child, and to the revelatory message and meaning of the Nativity.

The word “magi” (singular: “magus”) originated centuries before the time of Christ to describe a caste of very learned priests and scholars among the ancient Medes and Persians. Like Her Majesty’s Privy Council today, magi were the go-to advisors for kings of the time, for taking decisions domestic and international. They were educated in the literature and languages of surrounding nations and in the equivalent of a world religions curriculum that included studies in divination, esoteric wisdom, magical practices, dream interpretation, and the zodiac (astronomy and astrology for them a single discipline).

In the Bible they are first mentioned in Jeremiah 39:3, 13, where one of Nebuchadnezzar’s officers is called “Rabmag” (AV), or “chief of the Magi.” In the Book of Daniel, the Jewish young men Daniel and his three friends were put through an education in Babylon similar to that of the magi before they could enter their careers as the king’s counselors (Daniel, chapter one) . The Greek word in Matthew 2:1, often rendered “wise men,” is magoi (magi), and “Simon the magician” (Acts 8:5-25) is known traditionally as Simon Magus.

The magi of the Nativity, however, do not resort to astrology or to any other esoteric art or method to make the long trip to Bethlehem. Matthew’s Gospel indicates that these magi knew the Hebrew/Jewish scriptures and took their cues for the journey from that source. So, upon seeing the mysterious star in the East, they referenced it to Balaam’s prophecy in the Book of Numbers about the coming Messiah, which was prophesied hundreds of years before Christ’s birth: “I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near. A star will come out of Jacob; a scepter will rise out of Israel” (24:17). This verse was usually treated as one of Israel’s messianic prophecies about the divine Ruler to come. Taking their cue from Scripture, the magi head for Jerusalem, the heart of Israel’s religious life, to seek further instruction.

In Jerusalem, the magi’s determination to learn the whereabouts of this new king of the Jews raises havoc throughout the city and enrages King Herod, who interrogates the city’s rabbis. They crack the books and tell Herod that any fool knows where this ruler will he born: Bethlehem; and they show him a prophecy in Micah: “And you, O Bethlehem of Ephrath, least among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth to rule Israel for Me – one whose origin is from old, from ancient times” (5:1; The Jewish Study Bible). With murder in his heart, Herod secretly questions the magi and sends them off to Bethlehem, several miles south of Jerusalem. Again, the magi are following Scripture not astrology.

But on the outskirts of Bethlehem the magi get stuck. “Where do we go now?” I can hear them saying. “We’ve got the right town but now we need Jesus’ address.” Here, the otherness of the star may again be noticed. It “went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was.” Thrilled to bits with this personal guidance from the “star”, the magi, “on coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him’ (Matthew 2:9-11).

Finally it’s time for the arduous trek back to their own land. But earlier in Jerusalem, Herod had lied to the magi. He had told them to report back to him from Bethlehem so that he, too, could go and worship the child. But he wanted to know the address so that he could have Jesus murdered. The magi, unaware of Herod’s plot, are warned by God in a dream to return to their country by “another way.” Which they do.

This little phrase – “another way” – is for me a key to the revelatory nature and meaning of the Nativity. It speaks a phenomenon (the “star”) that cuts across the grain whatever esoteric knowledge and learning the magi may typically have relied on, whether for their personal guidance or their counsel to kings. In this sense, the Matthew narrative of the star carries a message for us that is, in fact, like that of the Genesis 1 narrative, where we learn of God’s creation of all things. In that narrative, God’s creation of the stars is mentioned but, as important as stars are, the text merely states that God “also made the stars.”

In the context of reading the entire detailed account of creation, this brief mention of stars appears almost as an afterthought. There is no mention that stars, or any other part of God’s creation, is to be used as a system of esoteric knowledge and learning. Yet that is precisely how neighboring cultures (of the ancient Hebrews) such as Babylon and Egypt used the stars (the sun and moon, too). And there is a consensus among Bible scholars that the afterthought mention of stars in Genesis 1 is an implicit warning to those ancient cultures, and to any today, not to employ the stars as a means of esoteric or occult knowledge, but to instead rely on God for guidance. Which brings us full circle back to the star of Bethlehem and the message of the magi.

To conclude, conjectures may be made, and many people have made them, about the nature of the astēr (the Greek word translated “star” in Matthew 2), but it is not possible to make a solid conclusion about its nature. If you were standing in my backyard on a clear night, I could point out to you any number of planets or stars by name. “There’s Venus, there’s Mars, there’s Vega, there’s Sirius.” No such solid conclusion can be made about the astēr of Bethlehem.

I don’t doubt that there may have been a conjunction, or a comet, or even a supernova during the period of Jesus’ birth. I just don’t think that the astēr of Bethlehem refers to any of them. Instead, it seems meant to indicate a miraculous star. And the appearance of that, my friends, would certainly have gotten the profound attention of the magi, who were well-skilled in knowing what the appearance of the night sky should look like to them. This astēr was something other than that. And they knew it. This is why I say that it cut across the grain of their esotericism.

Any meaning of the Nativity that leaves the seeker of Christ boxed in by naturalism, philosophical materialism, or scientific rationalism ends up with a God whose greatest claim to glory is being able to time historic events, like the birth of Jesus, to coincide with natural phenomena. This may be Immanuel Velikovsky’s god, who cleverly times the Exodus to occur during an earthquake that parted the Red Sea. It may be Curt Vonnegut’s god, who presumes that there was a small but effective electric power-plant in the Ark of the Covenant to strike down any who touched it. Or it many be the god behind the anti-supernatural current affairs stories and magazine articles about the Nativity. But it is not the God of Creation, who by his mighty power can and does use all sorts of natural and supernatural means to reveal Christ the Savior to those who seek him. Just ask Matthew and Luke. Or the magi.

©2018 by Charles Strohmer

(A shorter version of this article appeared at Premier Christianity, 14 December 2018.)

Images: courtesy of Texas Monthly, National Geographic, Dave Morrow photography respectively

A note from Charles: For more of the perspectives that Waging Wisdom seeks to present, try following the blog for a while to see if you like it. You can always “unfollow” anytime. Just click here, find the “Follow” button in the right margin, enter your email address, and click “Follow.” You will receive a very short email notice when I post a new article. Thank you.

Prophetic Wisdom?

From 40 years ago:

“Without the self-restraint derived from a common moral ideal, a nation becomes ungovernable except by tyranny. Unless our nation has a spiritual awakening soon, we will probably have little freedom at all to debate Christian attitudes. The trouble is, there isn’t that much time. Revival doesn’t guarantee results that fulfil all its possibilities. An expanding church might still fuss about a few obvious moral problems in society but be unable to relate its faith to the basic problems. Indeed, it might not even be able to handle its own problems. If God’s people propagate a Christian faith without proliferating a Christian mind—a Christian philosophy of life, or way of looking at the world – then there may follow a vengeful reaction from a society deprived of truly Christian insight into its problems; a society driven by spiritual ignorance into despair, despotism, and persecution.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about those words lately. They are from the late John Peck, Christian theologian and philosopher, writing in 1978 about his country, England. Quoted in: Uncommon Sense; God’s Wisdom for Our Complex and Changing World, John Peck & Charles Strohmer; The Wise Press, 2000; SPCK, 2001; p 10.

The book was written to both English and American Christians. We included those words in Uncommon Sense because as we were writing the book (it took 4+ years) we felt their relevance also to America. The book is not a polemic. It actually offers a way ahead. Just saying.

©2018 by Charles Strohmer

A note from Charles: For more of the perspectives that Waging Wisdom seeks to present, try following the blog for a while. See if you like it. You can always “unfollow” anytime. Just click here, find the “Follow” button in the right margin, enter your email address, and then click “Follow.” You will receive a very short email notice when I post a new article. And, hey, if you like this stuff, tell a friend! Thank you.

The Fourth of July: Religion and Politics in America

In the autumn of 2004, I answered my office phone and for a few seconds thought someone was playing a joke on me. Until it dawned on me that I really was listening to someone with that unmistakable BBC radio accent. Long story short, a producer from the BBC wanted to know if I would write and present a 30-minute radio program for them that traced religion and politics in America from the nation’s founding fathers and the fourth of July to today.

It’s a strange sensation, I’ll tell you, beavering away on a writing project, hidden out in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains, and suddenly have the BBC World Service offer you a freelance job. “We got your name and number from one of your friends here in England,” the producer said. She laid out the idea, I plied her with many questions, and we reached an agreement. Over the next 2-3 weeks I wrote the script and we communicated frequently to polish a final draft. The program aired successfully on BBC radio, October 31, 2004.

I had occasion recently to read the text of that program, which I haven’t done for years. Today, fourteen years later, most of it strikes me as very relevant still (one bit in particular does not).

Before the program aired, two aspects of the editing process fascinated me. One was to see what bits of text the BBC omitted from my final draft in order to find time to include parts of well-known patriotic songs, readings, and interesting personal anecdotes from others, which I had no control over.

I wish I could reproduce those inclusions for you, here, but the program is no longer on the Web. Instead, I thought you might like to see the entire unedited text. I’ve noted the places the BBC omitted by placing brackets at the start and end of that material, and I added the song titles and other bits. Also, toward the end of the text I included some pretty bold statements, and I was pleasantly surprised that the BBC left those in the program.

START OF BBC RADIO TEXT

“God bless America.”

These three short words bring together religion and a nation – and all the controversy and paradox, and yes blessings, that the invocation reveals about America’s pluralistic experiment.

It’s not unusual to hear these three words on the lips of American politicians, especially during the closing remarks of important Presidential speeches.

Invoking God finds deep historical roots in America dating back to the nation’s Founding Fathers, and even before that to the Pilgrims and to the Puritans, who first settled in close knit Christian colonies along the New England coast in the early seventeenth century.

Even today millions of Americans genuinely believe that the nation should be blessed by God, and we’ll be hearing from some of them later. Many may even sing the famous Irving Berlin song God Bless America, written in 1938, at large sporting events.

Song – God Bless America

I never thought much about that song or its implications while growing up in Michigan in the more liberal North.

It was only after moving to the South, 15 years ago, where I settled into the beautiful rolling foothills of the Smoky Mountains, then I saw just how seriously
many people take the words “God bless America.” I had moved into the heart of what is called the Bible Belt, a large area of the country where Protestant fundamentalism is widely practiced.

Every Fourth of July, for instance–or Independence Day, as people call it–our nation celebrates one of its most cherished documents, the Declaration of Independence, written by Thomas Jefferson in June 1776.

Reading from – The Declaration of Independence

We, the Representatives of the United States of America … appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world … solemnly publish and declare that these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be, Free and Independent States [and] that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British crown …. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our Sacred Honour.

In the church that my wife and I attend, Sunday services every Fourth of July come alive with political fervor.

Inside the packed sanctuary you’ll see a large American flag with its bold red, white, and blue colors prominently displayed.

You’ll hear the pastor preaching a rousing sermon about why America is a Christian nation, a chosen nation.

[And the choir and congregation will ignore religious hymns that morning in order to sing patriotic songs like God Bless America or America the Beautiful.]

Song – America the Beautiful

There’s no doubt that religion and politics are in our bones here in the States.

[When the prominent French social philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville arrived America in the early 19th century to write his classic book, Democracy in America, he wrote that the first thing that struck him in the United States was its religious atmosphere. De Tocqueville marveled not only at the number of religious denominations but also their mutual toleration.]

pause
God permeates much of everyday American life today.

On Sundays we pass the plate and on Mondays we pass the buck. And in both transactions God slips through our fingers – the slogan “In God We Trust” engraved on our money.

[And speaking of money, America’s deep religious beliefs have made it a very giving nation, both philanthropically and charitably, at home and abroad.]

And whenever students stand in their classrooms, hand over heart, to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, God gets a mention even in our secular, state school system.

Reading – Pledge of Allegiance

I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

BBC added a comment from a Southern Baptist pastor from Dallas and a comment from a “humanist.

[It was in 1954 that Congress passed a law inserting the two words “under God” into the Pledge, and reasonable people have disagreed about that clause ever since.Two years ago, for instance, a self-professed California atheist got a Federal court to have the words “under God” removed from the Pledge. But just recently the U.S. Supreme Court overturned that verdict.]

pause
The religious conviction that America is “a chosen nation” dates back to the Pilgrims and the Puritans, who were fleeing religious and political persecution in England and Europe.

Many of their early documents reveal their deep faith in God, such as the 1620 Mayflower Compact, named after a ship in which many Pilgrims had sailed from Plymouth England to the New World.

Reading from – The Mayflower Compact

Having undertaken for the Glory of God, and Advancement of the Christian Faith, and the Honour of our King and Country, a voyage to plant the first colony in the northern parts of Virginia; do by these presents, solemnly and mutually in the presence of God and one another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil Body Politic.

Winthrop ship The ArabellaIn a famous 1630 speech, Massachusetts governor John Winthrop stood on the deck of the gun-ship, the Arabella, in which he had sailed from England, and invoked blessings on the new colonies that were straight from chapter 30 of the book of Deuteronomy.

As Winthrop articulated his Christian vision for the New World, he declared that the colonies should be “a city upon a hill” — a direct reference to Jesus’ statement in St. Matthew’s Gospel that you are the light of the world, and that a city set upon a hill cannot be hid.

Reading from – John Winthrop’s 1630 speech

The Lord will be our God and delight to dwell among us as his own people and will command a blessing upon us in all our ways, [so that we shall see much more of his wisdom, power, goodness, and truth then formerly we have been acquainted with]…. The God of Israel … shall make us a praise and a glory, that men shall say of succeeding plantations: the Lord make it like that of New England: for we must Consider that we shall be as a City upon a Hill, the eyes of all people are upon us.

Many of our politicians today, such as the late President Ronald Reagan, have appealed to Winthrop’s ideas.

At least twice in his speeches, Reagan included Winthrop’s phrase about “a city set on a hill” – once during his campaign for a second term; and later during his farewell address to the nation.

Did this mean that every early Christian leader believed that they were founding God’s chosen nation? Not at all.

Puritan leaders like Roger Williams warned that no nation since the coming of Christ has been uniquely God’s chosen nation. And this is a position that continues to be held by many prominent Christians today.

Nevertheless, not long after the nation had formed, the religious conviction that America was divinely chosen gave rise to Manifest Destiny, the powerful 19th century political doctrine that the United States had the right and the duty to explore and to expand itself throughout North America.

And in those more militant times, as today, Americans could be inspired by the song The Battle Hymn of the Republic, a rather frightening song about God wielding his swift sword against his enemies.

Song – The Battle Hymn of the Republic

In quite a different spirit today, the U.S. Congress acknowledged God’s special relationship with America shortly after the attacks on 9/11. On October 23, 2001, Congress passed a Resolution that permits a national day of reconciliation to occur every year.

The Resolution states that “the two Houses of Congress shall assemble [once a year] . . . to humbly seek the blessing of Providence for forgiveness, reconciliation, and charity for all people of the United States.”

This tradition dates far back in U.S. history, such as to President Abraham Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Day address in 1863. In a very moving appeal during the nation’s tragic Civil War, which was being fought between the North and the South, Lincoln declared bluntly that the nation had “forgotten God.”

The nation, said Lincoln, who had been made gaunt by the War, had become “intoxicated with unbroken success.” It had “become too self-sufficient.” And therefore we ought to “humble ourselves,” and “confess our national sins,” and “pray for clemency and forgiveness.”

Times haven’t always been pretty when it comes to religion in America. The Civil War was being fought chiefly over the slavery issue, and religious faith dictated two opposing views. Christians in the industrial North opposed slavery. In the agricultural South, with its huge plantations, Christians wanted to see slavery extended.

The suffering slaves themselves drew from powerful redemptive Christian imagery forged upon the sorrow of their chains.

Dozens of so-called Negro spirituals arose out of the slave’s pain and oppression, including songs like There Is a Balm in Gilead, and the soulful Swing Low Sweet Chariot, which was taken from Psalm 68:17: “The Chariots of God are tens of thousands.”

Song – Swing Low Sweet Chariot

BBC added a “testimony” from an Assembly of God church member and from a Catholic woman.

The relationship of religion to government in America has sustained one of the nation’s longest-standing and most heated controversies: the meaning of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Ratified in 1791, the First Amendment states that “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion or the free exercise thereof.”

[The great controversy has always been about how to interpret that. Since 1802, it has been known as the “separation of church and state,” a principle that has been derived from a letter written to the Danbury Baptist Association by Thomas Jefferson, our third President. In that letter, President Jefferson — a religious man who was not a Christian but a Deist — wrote that the First Amendment built “a wall of separation between church and state.”]

To many Americans today, this means that religion and politics should have absolutely nothing to do with each other. But to many other Americans, that is going way too far.

Battles over the meaning are played out regularly in our courts, where, for instance, rulings have been handed down to remove Christmas nativity scenes from government buildings.

[One of the most far-reaching decisions occurred in 1962, when the U.S. Supreme Court prohibited the saying of prayers in our state schools.]

But the battles are also played out between friends and neighbors. I used to have quite animated conversations about religion and politics across the fence line with my neighbor, Don, a silver-haired, straight-talking man who had retired to the Smoky Mountains from Florida.

Whenever I happened catch him cutting his lawn, Don would stop and wave me over to the fence line, where, as neighbors do, we would catch up on things.

Knowing I was a public Christian, within minutes Don would be baiting me about America’s religious right and its national political arms, the Moral Majority, and later, the Christian Coalition.

“What business do they have, always sticking their nose into politics?” Don would say.

Well, I took his point. But it must be said that government needs some sort of moral base, otherwise there’s going to be chaos or anarchy. The Pilgrims and Puritans understood this, but I don’t think that many non-religious Americans today think much about it.

But both liberal and conservative Christians today think about it. Big time. Both sides of the religious divide spend huge amounts of time, money, and effort trying to implement their version of Puritan moralism in American public life. [They also believe that it’s essential to elect Christian politicians to key offices, whether locally, regionally, or nationally.] Their efforts, however, may not be producing the intended moral effect on the nation.

After all, we’ve had almost 30 straight years of Presidents claiming to be “born again” Christians, ever since Jimmy Carter, a Democrat, popularized that phrase in 1976.

And polling research indicates that close to fifty percent of the population now attend church on Sundays.

The great irony is that after three decades of Christian Presidents and widespread church attendance, America still continues its slow general trend into materialism and moral decline.

I think there are many reasons for this.

Many churchgoers still cling to a 19th century pietism – a private faith that has little public relevance. [And many Christian politicians often fail to put forward viable policies that make sense to the nonbelievers in their constituencies.] Also, Christian activism often finds itself opposed by parts of society, whether rightly or wrongly.

[In their book The Search for Christian America, scholars Mark Noll, Nathan Hatch, and George Marsden write that when Christianity is closely linked to a society, it can transform aspects of that society; but “on any large scale or in the long run such a transformation will be severely limited by other forces at the base of a society…, [especially] anti-Christian forces.”]

Clearly not everyone would “Amen” the sentiments of Walt Whitman, one of American’s great 19th century poets, when he wrote a poem called “Prayer of Columbus.”

Reading from – Walt Whitman’s Prayer of Columbus

All my emprises have been filled with Thee,
My speculations, plans, begun and carried on in thoughts of Thee,
Sailing the deep or journeying the land for Thee;
Intentions, purports, aspirations mine, leaving results to Thee.

O I am sure they really came from Thee,
The urge, the ardor, the unconquerable will,
The potent, felt, interior command, stronger than words,
A message from the Heavens whispering to me even in sleep,
These sped me on.

Song – America, America

BBC added a Catholic man’s “testimony,” a doctor from Dallas who was a former rock musician.

Many Americans like religion as a touchstone, but they resist having it enforced politically.

Nowhere has public resistance to religious activism been more successful than in the case of abortion, which was legalized by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1973. Even after more than 30 years of tireless widespread religious activism, the abortion decision has never been overturned.

[Christians have had much better success when working one-on-one with Americans on this emotional issue.]

pause
With all the Christian influence in the nation, however, do people of other faiths, such as Jews and Muslims, and even those who claim not to be religious, get a fair shake?

I think that most of the time they do.

A very tangible blessing of America’s pluralistic experiment lies not only in the U.S.
Constitution but also in the Declaration of Independence, which states clearly that “all men are created equal,” and “that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.”

This means that “equal rights” for all takes precedent over any one faith. Rights, therefore, come first. And every American citizen has them. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from. Should people’s rights be violated, as U.S. history reveals, the courts are brought in to settle the abuses.

pause
I’m sure that to people looking in from the outside, it must seem like the whole nation is one big religious hothouse, a society where religion is continually shoved in your face.

I think that would be an inaccurate picture of America.

For me, even as a Christian, I think that one of the great things about the American experiment is you can live here quite happily without being accosted by religion.

Many people live here for a long time and are not fussed about religion at all, even as I lived during one 10-year stretch of my life, when I was a New Age neopagan. Then in July, 1976, coincidentally during the month that America was wildly celebrating its two-hundredth anniversary, I was living alone like a hermit in California. That month I had a dramatic and unexpected encounter with the risen Jesus, which has always reminded me of Paul the apostle’s startling experience when he was knocked off his horse on the road to Damascus.

The experience immediately changed the direction of my life completely. I suppose you could say that I now find what C. S. Lewis called “mere Christianity” to be both personally essential and a public good.

Of course, nonbelievers won’t see it like that, but neither will they feel awkward seeing so many of their neighbors driving off to church on Sundays, although they might joke about seeing religious stickers on their neighbors cars, stickers that may say “Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven,” or, “I’m too blessed to be depressed.”

I think that Americans of any faith, and people of no faith, have all learned to live here with grace toward each other – as we spend everyday in each other’s company, whether at work, at play, or across the fence line.

It’s certainly not perfect. We’ve got a long ways to go. But for the most part, we get along — even during a heated political season like the current campaign for President.

And that, it seems to me, is part of God’s grace blessing America.

Song – Amazing Grace
END

©2018 by Charles Strohmer

Images courtesy Creative Commons.

A note from Charles: For more of the perspectives that Waging Wisdom seeks to present, try following the blog for a while to see if you like it. You can always “unfollow” anytime. Just click here, find the “Follow” button in the right margin, enter your email address, and click “Follow.” You will receive a very short email notice when I post a new article. And, hey, if you like this stuff, tell a friend! Thank you.

Bullying of a different sort

There are bullies, and then there are bullies. I was reminded of two kinds in as many days. Today I was working out in our local gym, which had its three televisions running, each in different sections of the gym. A sports program was on at the far end and FOX News was running in another section. The program on the television near me was naff, so after determining that the middle-aged woman exercising nearby was not watching it, I found the remote and started surfing. When I landed on CNN News, I left it there and followed along using the “closed caption” option after I got back to my workout.

That was going along well until the middle-aged lady’s husband walked over from the other end of the gym. Nearly finished with his workout, he wanted to know when she would be done. They sorted that out, and he walked off to finish his workout, but not before he had made a rude remark about CNN. I hadn’t paid any attention to this man until the rude remark, which was impossible for me to miss. So I looked more closely and remembered him from the only conversation I ever had with him, in the gym a couple months ago. To each his own, but during that brief chat the guy really put me off with his Mr. Macho personality and hyper-aggressive patriotism. I was glad when he returned to the other end of the gym today. We did not speak this time, and I don’t know if he recognized me.

I kept watching CNN and working out. His wife moved to another nearby machine. Out of the corner of my eye a few minutes later I noticed the husband coming to talk to his wife again. He was done working out. I’ll be done soon, she explained. I got the feeling he was frustrated to wait. He looks up at the monitor, makes more rude remarks about CNN, and then plops himself down on the nearby couch and takes the remote and starts watching the History channel. He knows I’m watching CNN but he doesn’t consult me. Doesn’t even look at me.

Having had that previous distasteful encounter with him I decide to keep my mouth shut. Almost immediately the wife stops working out, walks past the couch, says, “Let’s go,” and heads for the door. This scene takes place about ten feet from me. It’s impossible not to notice some issues there, and I turn and look elsewhere. I’m not completely clear on what then occurred, but apparently the husband jumped off couch and took a few steps toward the door, but then stopped, retrieved the remote and changed the monitor back to CNN. He then spoke to me. “That’s what you were watching wasn’t it?” I look up and nod. He makes more rude remarks, complete with hand gestures, and then exits the building.

It’s annoying, that kind of soft bullying, and it is easily dismissed. Not so the hard-nosed bullying that yesterday strong-armed not only an adversary but also allies with its misguided foreign policy decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear agreement. When a child bullies, parents can step in. Who can step into this?

©2018 by Charles Strohmer

Image: by dhruvgpatel via Creative Commons.

A note from Charles: For more of the perspectives that Waging Wisdom seeks to present, try following the blog for a while to see if you like it. You can always “unfollow” anytime. Just click here, find the “Follow” button in the right margin, enter your email address, and click “Follow.” You will receive a very short email notice when I post a new article. And, hey, if you like this stuff, tell a friend! Thank you.