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.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

From One Know-Nothing to Another

The Know-Nothing Party Flag

Dennis Gorecki of Orland Park, IL wrote a letter which was published in the Christmas Eve edition of the Daily Southtown newspaper (a Chicago Tribune publication). In his letter, which lists the collective sin of American racism like a litany – or an indictment – Mr. Gorecki’s calls for his “Christian brothers and sisters who support the xenophobic views of the Republican party,” to read Matthew 25:35-46. Those verses read as follows:

“For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’ Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life” (Matthew 25:35-46).

He calls the Republican Party the new Know-nothings which, in many respects, is an accurate statement. The average American’s concern for the security of their country and its borders, however, does not automatically equate with xenophobia, as many leftists believe and proclaim. By citing St. Matthew’s Gospel, this implication is made all the more insulting, as Christians are painted to look like hypocritical racists. This view of Christians may fit well with the Left’s worldview, but it has little to do with reality for the majority of the faithful. Furthermore, Mr. Gorecki’s invocation of Matthew 25:35-46 as his coup de grâce betrays his ignorance of Biblical interpretation.

Christ, telling this parable of the sheep and the goats to his disciples, says, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40). Who are Jesus’ brothers? His disciples! We learn this in Matthew 12:

“While he was still speaking to the people, behold, his mother and his brothers stood outside, asking to speak to him. But he replied to the man who told him, ‘Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?’ And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother’ (Matthew 12:46-50).

Again, who are those, according to Jesus, who do the will of His Father in heaven? Those who believe in him, or…His disciples! We learn this in John 6:

“Then they said to him, ‘What must we do, to be doing the works of God?’ Jesus answered them, ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent’” (John 6:28-29).

So, who is Jesus calling us to feed, give drink, clothe, and visit in prison in this parable? His brothers, those who believe in him…our fellow Christians. To say that this parable mandates that Christians welcome everyone who calls themselves a refugee into their country without a second thought or question, is to profoundly misinterpret Jesus’ words here.

Certainly this is not the only sense in which the phrase “my brothers” should be understood. Since we have been adopted into God’s family, we Christians are children of God the Father, brothers and sisters of Christ, and co-heirs with Him of His Kingdom. 

This is not to say that Christians are allowed to treat those outside the family of faith badly. To the contrary, Christians are called to love their enemies, a feature of the Christian religion not universally shared by the world’s religions. We are called to pray for those who persecute us, and to live in peace with everyone, insofar as it depends on us.

Christians expressing concern about the effects and dangers of unchecked illegal immigration does not equate with the “No Irish Need Apply” attitude of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. Supporting tighter control of the way visas are issued, or not wanting to allow tens of thousands of Muslim refugees into the country without a proper vetting when Islamic terrorists are threatening kill Americans on American soil does not equate with the exclusion of Chinese immigrants, or with any of the other incidents of racism and xenophobia which Mr. Gorecki cites. And, while there are certainly a large number of people in America who are the type of bigot Mr. Gorecki describes, this in no way negates the founding principles of our country, or the picture of America as the land of opportunity for oppressed immigrants around the world. 

Things like racism exist because human beings are sinful. Our natures are corrupt. In our natural state, we are God’s enemy. Our focus is bent inward toward ourselves. As a result, we don’t love God with our whole hearts, and we don’t love our neighbors as ourselves. For this we need to repent. We need to hear God’s forgiveness this Christmas – and every day of the year – that, despite our sinfulness we do not need to fear; that unto us is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. This Savior is Immanuel, God with us, who came to bear our sin on the cross while we were still his enemies. Repentance and the forgiveness of sins through Christ’s blood, shed on the cross, is the only thing which will cause us to act according to the Spirit rather than according to our sinful flesh.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Whip Nae Nae in Heavenly Peace

 For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God (1 Corinthians 1:18).

The war on Christmas is heating up, and “Christians” are “outraged” at the latest skirmishes, which involved a beloved television Christmas special, and a nonsensical rap song.

This past Thursday Glenn Beck talked about a Kentucky elementary school that was presenting A Charlie Brown Christmas as their Christmas program. Everyone on the show was shocked and outraged because, at the climax of the program, Linus’ speech explaining the true meaning of Christmas (which was really just a passage from the Gospel of St. Luke), had been cut. In another school, the speech was removed and Silent Night was replaced with the popular, and highly annoying, “Whip Nae Nae” by Silentó 

“I would get together with parents and I would — if I knew this was coming — take the script of what Linus actually says and I would stand up as a block of parents and just stop the show and just all of us at that point, ‘Doesn’t anybody know what Christmas is all about?’ And all of the parents stand up and just start saying it, even as the play is going on,” Beck said.

I love Christmas. I love the Peanuts. I love A Charlie Brown Christmas. I love St. Luke’s Gospel. Silent Night is arguably the greatest Christmas song ever written (in the original German, of course). So, what I’m about to say will probably confuse some of my friends: I don’t care that these people changed the Christmas show to remove the Bible passage. In fact, I wouldn’t have expected them to do anything different. I would have been surprised to see them leave the speech intact and sing Silent Night at a secular public school.

“There is no violation of the so-called ‘separation of church and state’ by allowing children to learn about theater and the origins of Christmas through participating in a stage version of this beloved program that contains the same religious elements as the television version,” said ADF Senior Legal Counsel Jeremy Tedesco, as quoted from a Fox opinion article.

I agree that there is no violation of the First Amendment. However, if my children are attending a public school, I want them to learn reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic. I’ll take care of the religious education, thank you very much. That is, of course, why they don’t attend public school.

Making secular public school students do religious things is not an effective evangelism tool; it only causes strife in the community. I certainly wouldn’t want my children to participate in some school-wide Ramadan pageant. I understand that pagans don’t want their children to sing Silent Night. We shouldn’t expect those who are of the pagan secular world to think and act like Christendom. After all, the sinful mind is hostile to God, and cannot submit to God (Romans 8:6-8); The message of the cross is, after all, foolishness to those who are perishing. To the unbelieving secular world, the story of the birth of Jesus Christ from the Gospel of St. Luke makes less sense than, “Watch me whip…watch me nae nae.”

For the world, the federal holiday of Christmas is about presents, and trees, and lights, and days off from work. For Christendom it is about God taking on human flesh so that he could, before we did anything to merit his loving-kindness, keep the Law for us, bear our sin, and be our savior. I’m glad that Charles Schultz included the true meaning of Christmas in his show, but we can’t force pagans to act like Christians. Consequently, we shouldn't be outraged when they act according to their nature and reject and ridicule God’s Word. Instead of trying to glue a veneer of Christianity over the top of secular culture, the way to reach pagans is to lovingly deliver Law and Gospel to those around us according to our vocation, encouraging them to repent of their sin and gather around Word and Sacrament – and trust that the Lord’s Word will not return to him void.