Sunday, December 27, 2015

A Migration Story - Season's Greetings from the Unitarian Universalist Church

MS St. Louis
Citations from the Book of Concord have been taken from Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions: A Reader's Edition of the Book of Concord.
It’s that time of year again - time for the Christmas visit to Evansville, IN. It’s nice to get away from home and work for a while, and catch up with out-of-town family and friends. Of course it also means that I get to indulge in one of my other, more recent Christmas traditions; seeing what sort of nonsense the Unitarian Universalist Church is up to. Their church sign is usually good for a laugh, and some fodder for an article or two. This year has been no exception (though I don’t think anything will beat “Fire Communion” from 2013). 
Driving past the small white cinderblock building on Morgan Avenue, I saw that their sign advertised “A Migration Story.” I was immediately turned off, as this title conjured images of the whole, “Jesus was an unwelcome immigrant too!” chestnut, so often roasted by liberals when discussing the topic of illegal immigration. A little internet searching showed this Sunday’s service would indeed focus on immigration, but the message would be one that had been delivered on Thanksgiving at UU Rockford, IL by Rev. Dr. Matthew Johnson. This piqued my curiosity so I went looking for the text. Unfortunately for me I was unable to locate the printed text, but the people at UU Rockford did publish a podcast to iTunes, which I downloaded and listened to.
I won’t do a point-by-point critique of the Homily. In summary, the Rev. Dr. Johnson’s message was that, in the wake of terror and fear, some people seek to close the doors of immigration altogether. How dare you! God loves the stranger, and you were a stranger once to.
“If we want to be fair about it, that it is only those folks whose migration stories predate written history who were themselves overrun by the Europeans some 500 years ago who I think get a vote on which migrants we take in now,” he said (Johnson, 2015).
As I listened to the Rev. Dr. Johnson spout on and on about Americans should be completely open to accepting refugees and illegal aliens because of the 500 years of white European oppression of brown people I was struck by two things, one concerning the left-hand, the other concerning the right-hand kingdom.
First, the left-hand kingdom issue: The bulk of the approximately 20 minute homily focused on the telling of Rev. Dr. Johnson’s own migration story, and the tragic tale of the St. Louis. For those who don’t know, the St. Louis was a ship filled with asylum-seeking Jews which departed from Germany in 1939 bound for Cuba. The ship was turned away. They attempted to gain permission to land in America. The Nazi government, attempting to “help” the United States, warned that the people on board the St. Louis were Communists, criminals, and all manner of subversives. They were again rebuffed. The ship eventually made its way back to Europe. The Jews of the St. Louis found asylum in Great Britain and other countries on the continent. Half of them, however, would not survive the coming Second World War (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 2015).
Rev. Dr. Johnson explained how his family had come from Germany to America on that very same ship after the Great War. His people had been allowed to come into the country and live; these other poor wretches had been callously turned away and most of them had perished.
To those people who would turn away refugees Rev. Dr. Johnson explained that he’d like to sit down at the kitchen table with them and, “I’ll read it [the story of the St. Louis] again, and I’ll read it again, until their heart is opened and their conscience awakes” (Johnson, 2015).
There is something to be learned from the story of the MS St. Louis and we should apply that knowledge to our situation today.
The sad tale of the St. Louis is not, however analogous to the refugee situation which Europe and America is facing today with those coming out of Syria and Iraq. Whether we wanted to admit it to ourselves or not, sending the Jews on the St. Louis back to Germany was a death sentence. They had no safe place in Europe to which they could flee, at least for very long. We knew that the Nazis wanted to purge the Jews from their midst; Hitler had written of his intentions, and his hatred for the Jews in Mein Kampf over a decade previous.
There was no real danger that these Jews were a threat to the United States. There were no Jewish Nazis, and the Nazi propaganda regarding who the passengers aboard the St. Louis were was, most likely, designed to play on the anti-semitic feelings of those in power at the time. The reports from Germany that those Jews seeking asylum were Communists and subversives gave the excuse needed in order to turn the ship away.
Today, the tens of thousands of Muslims fleeing war-torn Syria and Iraq seeking refuge in Europe and America have a different story. They are fleeing the horrors of war, but they do not face genocide. Unlike the Jews of the St. Louis, they do have other Muslim countries to go to where they would not be forced to live under Islamic State.
Unlike the Jews of the St. Louis, the fear that terrorists could be hidden among the asylum-seekers is legitimate. While there were no Jewish Nazis, there are most certainly Arab Muslim terrorists. So, while it may take some time to check out the backgrounds of Syrian and Iraqi Muslims seeking entry to the United States, they have other safe places to wait in the interim.
The real analogy to the Jews aboard the St. Louis would be to the Syrian and Iraqi Christians, the people whom our government has largely been ignoring (Shea, 2015). These people have been targeted by the Islamic State for death. They face persecution and genocide. There is no safe haven for these Christians in the Middle East. Despite their desperate situation the U.S. has refused to allow the Syrian and Iraqi Christians entry in favor of Muslim refugees, so as not to appear Islamophobic. And, like their Jewish refugee counterparts from 70 years ago, there are no Christian members of the Islamic State. It would be much simpler to investigate the backgrounds of these people than it is proving to do with the Muslim refugees, and their situation is far more urgent.
Instead, for political reasons, we choose the latter over the former.
We should absolutely learn the lesson of the “Voyage of the Damned” - but we are repeating this sad episode all over again, this time with Arab Christians paying the price.
God cares for men spiritually through the church; He cares for them temporally through family and government, all of which have been established by him. Part of the job of the government (what we Lutherans refer to as the “left-hand” kingdom) is to protect its citizens and administer justice.
“Civil rulers,” it is explained in the Augsburg Confession, “do not defend minds, but bodies and bodily things against obvious injuries. They restrain people with the sword and physical punishment in order to preserve civil justice and peace” (AC XXVIII 11).
It isn’t wrong for the government to protect its citizens by being careful when admitting refugees, immigrants, and asylum-seekers into the country. To the contrary, a ruler thus engaged is serving his citizens faithfully according to his vocation.
This brings me to the right-hand kingdom issue. During the course of this homily “god” was mentioned only a handful of times. Jesus was totally absent. Holy Scripture was not read at all. What a curious way for a “church” to celebrate the First Sunday of Christmas. Of course, I am well aware that the Unitarian Universalist Church is not Christian, and it does not surprise me. This is what they have to say of themselves:
“In Unitarian Universalism, you can bring your whole self: your full identity, your questioning mind, your expansive heart. Together, we create a force more powerful than one person or one belief system. As Unitarian Universalists, we do not have to check our personal background and beliefs at the door: we join together on a journey that honors everywhere we’ve been before. Our beliefs are diverse and inclusive. We have no shared creed. Our shared covenant (our seven Principles) supports “the free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” Though Unitarianism and Universalism were both liberal Christian traditions, this responsible search has led us to embrace diverse teachings from Eastern and Western religions and philosophies…We are united in our broad and inclusive outlook, and in our values, as expressed in our seven Principles. We are united in shared experience: our open and stirring worship services, religious education, and rites of passage; our work for social justice; our quest to include the marginalized; our expressions of love” (Unitarian Universalist Association, 2015).
War, bigotry, lawlessness, racism, and all the other things commonly referred to as “ills of society,” are the consequences of sin. Sin originated from our first father Adam who, by his disobedience in the Garden, made all men subject to sin and death.
“This hereditary sin,” Luther writes in the Smalcald Articles, “is such a deep corruption of nature that no reason can understand it. Rather it must be believed from the revelation of Scripture” (SA III I 3).
The Rev. Dr. Johnson said near the beginning of his message that he would sit down at the table with someone who was opposed to immigration, and read the account of the St. Louis to them over and over until their consciences awoke. When I heard those words I was saddened to think that this man would trade the God-breathed words we have been given in Holy Scripture, which are useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness - the means of God’s grace, his living and active Word - for the words of men which have no power.
Wouldn’t it have been nice for the people listening to the Rev. Dr. Johnson to hear about their sin? No doctor can cure a disease which hasn’t been properly diagnosed, and the Rev. Dr. Johnson is no exception. He is attempting to cure the ills of society by applying a social gospel, which is really no gospel at all. These people, as do we all, need to hear how wicked they are. They, as do we, need to be called to repent of their sins. They, as do we, need to hear the good news that this sin of theirs has been paid for by the babe born in Bethlehem, Jesus, who was God in human flesh; that Jesus died on the cross in our place, and that he rose from the dead, and the gates of life eternal are opened to us by the grace of God through faith in him.
“Home.” Unitarian Universalist Church of Evansville. Accessed December 27, 2015.
Johnson, Rev. Dr. Matthew. “A Migration Story.” the UU Church-Rockford, IL. November 22, 2015. Accessed December 26, 2015.
McCain, Paul T, ed. Et. Al. Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions: A Reader’s Edition of the Book of Concord. 2nd ed. St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2006.
Shea, Nina. “The State Department Turns Its Back on Syrian Christians and Other Non-Muslim Refugees.” National Review Online. November 2, 2015. Accessed December 27, 2015.
“The Voyage of the St. Louis.” United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. August 18, 2015. Accessed December 27, 2015.
“What We Believe.” Unitarian Universalist Association. February 9, 2015. Accessed December 27, 2015.