jasonbwatson

February 15, 2017

Why I Am Not Standing

Last Wednesday World Relief ran an ad in The Washington Post–a full-page ad, I believe–calling President Trump and Vice President Pence to support refugees. The ad featured a five paragraph letter over the names of Tim Breene, World Relief CEO, and Scott Arbeiter, World Relief President, and is being called the Still We Stand Petition. The ad also included the names of “top evangelical leaders from all fifty states” expressing their support for the need to reconsider Trump’s executive order limiting individuals from several majority-Muslim nations from entering the United States. The ad did include the names of several well-known evangelical leaders, including Tim Keller, Bill Hybels, Max Lucado, Ed Stetzer, Ann Voskamp, Leith Anderson and Stuart Briscoe. There were dozens of others whose names I did not recognize. (And with all due respect to Voskamp, she is Canadian, and lives in Canada, so the inclusion of her name on the letter was a bit illogical). The ad also featured, prominently, a web address where anyone who wants to do so can add their name to the letter. As of early afternoon on February 15, one week after the ad ran, the site was boasting just over 6,000 signatories. I am not one of them, nor will I be. Here is why.

Trump’s executive order suspends the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) for 120 days. Furthermore, the order states that during the suspension,

[T]he Secretary of State, in conjunction with the Secretary of Homeland Security and in consultation with the Director of National Intelligence, shall review the USRAP application and adjudication process to determine what additional procedures should be taken to ensure that those approved for refugee admission do not pose a threat to the security and welfare of the United States, and shall implement such additional procedures.

This is not a reckless or inappropriate action on the part of the President. I say this not as a Trump supporter–I would definitely not be comfortable classifying myself as such–but as a supporter of the Constitution and a Christian. The very purpose of the United States Constitution is, in large part, “to insure domestic tranquility, to provide for the common defense…and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity” (see Preamble to the Constitution). Furthermore, the presidential oath of office includes stating that he “will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” Therefore, calling a four-month timeout on refugee resettlement to the U.S. in order to make sure that the admission of refugees “does not pose a threat to the security and welfare of the United States” is both constitutional and appropriate (regardless of what a court said).

The World Relief letter states that Christians are taught to love their neighbor and that Jesus said that neighbor “includes the stranger and anyone fleeing persecution and violence, regardless of their faith or country.” The letter goes on to express support for the government’s need to set guidelines for the admission of refugees, but says that “compassion and security can coexist.” I agree with that–and I suspect Trump, Pence and others does as well. The very point of the timeout is to ensure that that can indeed happen.

The letter goes on to state, “Since the inception of the refugee resettlement program, thousands of local churches throughout the country have played a role in welcoming refugees of all religious backgrounds. Ministries to newly arrived refugees are ready, and desire to receive many thousands more people than would be allowed under the new executive order.” That is surely true. Churches and para-church ministries have indeed played a vital role in helping to provide for refugees and will no doubt continue to do so in the future. At the same time, it is not the responsibility of the United States government to accommodate the desire of churches to receive refugees. It is the responsibility of the United States to provide for the defense and security of the country.

The further reality is that churches, para-church organizations even individual Christians can still be involved in supporting and helping refugees even if those refugees cannot enter the United States. There are plenty of organizations providing much-needed assistance to refugees around the world and they would no doubt welcome the help the thousands of people signing this letter seem poised to offer.

Mindy Belz of WORLD is one of the most articulate and outspoken voices on the refugee crisis in the Middle East I think, certainly among Christians, and she has written that she does not think that Trump’s executive order will help Christians. It may not. Again, however, helping Christians in the Middle East is not the foremost priority for Donald Trump or any U.S. president. Nor should it be.

By the way, I am not staking unique ground in supporting the order. WORLD magazine has reported that “evangelist Franklin Graham, Liberty University president Jerry Falwell Jr., Southern Baptist pastor Ronnie Floyd, and Family Research Council president Tony Perkins are just a few of the evangelical leaders defending Trump’s order.”

Ironically, The Washington Post featured an article on February 10 taking Franklin Graham to task about what the Bible says. (Just ponder that statement for a minute, by the way…). The article, written by Joel Baden, who is a professor of Hebrew Bible at Yale Divinity School, says that Graham “could not be more wrong” when he said that immigration is not a biblical issue. But Baden fails to make his point. He provides ample examples of refugees and exiles being treated kindly and respectfully throughout Scripture. He writes, “Across the books of both testaments, in narrative, law, prophecy, poetry and parable, the Bible consistently spells out that it is the responsibility of the citizen to ensure that the immigrant, the stranger, the refugee, is respected, welcomed and cared for.” Further, Baden cites both the Old Testament–“When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Lev. 19:33-34)–and the New Testament–“Love your neighbor as yourself” (which Baden calls the Golden Rule, but it isn’t)–to support his conclusion.

Mathew Schmalz, an Associate Professor of Religion at College of the Holy Cross, made the same arguments in Newsweek. Raymond Chang, a pastor, does as well for The Huffington Post.  He focuses on the biblical instruction to treat sojourners as those who are native born and Jesus’s statement that we will be judged according to how we treat “the least of these.” The problem is, none of these passages–or any other passages–instruct any country to throw open its doors to immigrants, refugees or exiles. All of these passages instruct that once strangers are in the land, the people who live there are to treat them with fairness, respect and compassion. I agree with that and I suspect Trump, Pence and others do too. None of them tell a country or a people to welcome absolutely anyone into their borders or to exercise no discretion in protecting their own borders. And again, it is entirely possible–especially in the day and age in which we live–to love and care for refugees even without letting them into our country.

Back in 2014 Wes Walker wrote on ClashDaily.com, “To suggest…that Israel would ever have willingly thrown open the borders to a swarm of culturally hostile foreigners, grant them asylum, and become financially responsible for their care is ridiculous. That would have been seen as an invasion force, and would have been treated as such.” The articles above, and others, that attempt to use the Bible as justification for letting any and all refugees into the United States, or for promoting refugee settlement here at the possible expense of national security, are missing the mark–and the intent of Scripture.

By the way, I am sure I am not the only one who sees the irony in The Washington Post, Newsweek and The Huffington Post attempting to use the Bible to support certain policy positions and government actions. I would love to see them make an effort to support a biblical position on things like abortion, marriage, homosexuality and gender issues among many others. That would be something I would take a stand for!

April 7, 2014

Speaking Out

Back in January WORLD Magazine published its annual issue focused on right to life issues. One of the articles in that issue was titled “Still-silent shepherds.” The article, by Joe Maxwell and Stephen Hall, begins with this editor’s note: “In 1994, WORLD published “Silence of the shepherds,” an article addressing the reticence of many evangelical pastors to preach on abortion. Two decades later, a WORLD survey shows that many are still silent.”

Just that caveat by itself should be enough to spark outrage among anyone who believes that the Bible is absolutely clear on the subject of the sanctity of life. The article begins by explaining that John Piper did not preach on the subject of abortion until the late 1980s. A change came over him then, though: “It was a combination of seeing other people taking it seriously and then beginning to check my own soul, and God just mercifully taking away some blind spots, showing me in the Scriptures all kinds of reasons for standing up and defending these little ones,” Piper said. Since that time Piper has preached more than twenty sermons on the subject of abortion and has become so active in defending life that he was arrested in a sit-in. “I don’t regret it,” he said. The article goes on to quote Piper saying that pastors need to take abortion seriously and they need to address it biblically, including from the pulpit.

Shortly thereafter, however, the article provides a perspective from the other side. Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church, does not address abortion from the pulpit and that is by design. The article quotes an article Keller wrote for Leadership Journal in 1999: “Pushing moral behaviors before we lift up Christ is religion. …Jesus himself warned us to be wary of it, and not to mistake a call for virtue for the good news of God’s salvation.” The WORLD article includes the story of a woman who was approached several years ago by a woman who thanked him for not addressing abortion from his pulpit, saying, “If I had seen any literature or reference to the ‘pro-life’ movement, I would not have stayed through the first service.” Later she accepted Christ and asked Keller if he thought abortion was wrong. He said yes, and the woman–who has had three abortions–said that she was coming to see that perhaps it is wrong.

I think that’s a great story and a good example of the transformation that occurs when someone accepts Christ — the “renewing of the mind.” However, it is not, in my opinion, a justification for not addressing the issue of abortion in church and from the pulpit. Abortion is, plain and simple, the murder of a human being, albeit one that has not yet been born. Would any pastor argue that churches should avoid speaking out against murder? Of course not. Why, then, allow the culture’s pervasive efforts to define abortion as something other than murder to influence our willingness to stand firmly on the Scripture and state unequivocally that abortion is wrong? Billy Graham apparently once told Larry King, “I don’t get into these things like abortion,” suggesting that doing so might interfere with his main message of salvation. Of course salvation is the main message, and of course salvation will, hopefully, bring the renewing of the mind that caused the woman in Keller’s story to reexamine her previous beliefs about abortion, but that does not mean that we keep mum on the subject until after salvation. Franklin Roosevelt was unwilling to take a stand on civil rights issues during his presidency because he feared it would undermine the support he needed for his economic policies. Was that a reasonable justification for keeping silent on the discrimination that African Americans were facing? I think not.

WORLD‘s article reports that it conducted a random survey of forty pastors from seven different denominations within the National Association of Evangelicals. Interestingly, all forty said that life begins at conception and that pastors should preach against abortion. Despite that unanimous response, eighteen of the forty pastors had not preached on abortion in the past year and five more had never done so! Many of the pastors surveyed indicated that their churches work with or fund crisis pregnancy centers, provide pro-life information within their churches, participate in Right to Life marches or even–in 10% of the churches–picket abortion providers. That is all well and good but it is no substitute for addressing abortion from the pulpit.

One reason suggested within the WORLD article for the reluctance of pastors to address abortion is the impact it may have on giving within their churches. Another reason is the possibility of offending influential church members. Might I respectfully point out that the Bible itself is offensive? R.C. Sproul recounts creating materials to help pastors and churches address abortion several years ago. The response Sproul received was overwhelmingly consistent, he says. “It was like a broken record. Pastors said, ‘I can’t use this material. It will split our church.'”

Interestingly, those pastors who refuse to address abortion from their pulpits are ignoring a subject that an overwhelming number of Americans already believe is immoral. According to an August 2013 Pew study 85% of Americans believe that abortion is immoral. So why would pastors shy away from addressing it? The reasons WORLD received could be divided into four categories according to the article: (1) it might make some church members uncomfortable or “hurt women in congregations who’ve had abortions”; (2) addressing abortion should not be handled in an issue-specific manner, especially if expository preaching is the church’s focus; (3) addressing abortion might politicize the pastor or the pulpit and could scare off seekers; and (4) speaking out on abortion might be “uncool or anti-intellectual.”

If I may, I’d like to state in no uncertain terms that I find those four reasons ridiculous. There are very few subjects in the Bible that will not make someone in the church uncomfortable. When churches refuse to address those topics they cease to become biblical churches and instead become feel-good gatherings and support groups. There is no reason that abortion can not be addressed in a way that also extends forgiveness, love and support to women who have experienced abortions. Given that abortion is explicitly addressed in the Bible I disagree that it could politicize the pastor or the church. If it did, though, I would consider that a cost worth paying for taking a stand. If any pastor fears being uncool he better get out of the ministry now, because the Bible was never intended to be cool. In this increasingly hostile world there will never be a time when preaching the truth of God’s Word will be “cool.” The only one of the four reasons that even comes close to being legitimate in my mind is the second one, but even that is a stretch and is, in my opinion, a flimsy excuse for ducking the issue.

Mike Huckabee, a former Southern Baptist pastor and Republican presidential candidate, provides some of the best comments on the issue of abortion being addressed in the church that I have seen. As to the possibility of addressing abortion being divisive, Huckabee asks, “How can you claim to proclaim a gospel that turns its back on the slaughter of innocent babies?” He accurately addresses the concern about hurting women who have had abortions, too: “We need to be careful and offer grace to people who’ve made bad decisions and give the gospel to them, while at the same time drawing a line in the sand and saying, ‘This is not something that can be acceptable.’ It’s forgivable, but not morally acceptable.”

To that I say simply, “Amen.” If your pastor speaks out against abortion from the pulpit, thank him. If he does not, ask him why, and challenge him to step up and defend life. There is simply no excuse to not do so.

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