Earlier this week I posted on the importance of stories for shaping the way we live. As an exercise in conscious storytelling, I’m sharing stories influencing my views on immigration, refugees and discipleship.
Essentially this post explores three questions:
- How do I understand myself as an American?
- How do I see refugees?
- What are the expectations of a disciple of Jesus?
As we explore together, my point is not converting you to my perspective, but the process of open and conscious storytelling. These stories frame the way I approach the world, and rather than having you agree or think I’m neat-o, I hope the stories encourage you to consider your own life, reactions, and core values.
Agreement is not required, but respect is.
What does it mean to be American?
At the ripe young age of seven years old, as a result of a 2nd grade project, I learned stories that built my assumptions about the U.S.
Teacher friends, if you ever wondered whether the work you do will impact your students long term, the answer is emphatically yes! But, who knows which assignment is going to be the one thing that sticks?
My teacher gave the class an assignment for Social Studies: call your grandparents and find out about your family heritage. Then, present a report to the class.
My dad’s parents groaned at the question, they were eager to pass the phone to the other party and end the conversation. Details were fuzzy, and no one cared to dig into the details of the past. Their childhoods were difficult, and for my grandma in particular, looking back on her Dust Bowl Depression childhood and her parents brought up trauma instead of nostalgia.
Grandpa pointed to some Scotch-Irish ancestry, which explained our last name. My Grandma guessed some English and French relatives, but nobody really knew for certain.
On my mom’s side, there was excitement about the question. Family stories were passed on, and I learned for all my European mutt heritage — Danish ancestry makes up the biggest percentage of the gene pool, even if my last name hinted at Scotch-Irish influence.
More important than my family heritage, I learned something about my peers and about the U.S. as my classmates came back with their family stories. Each one of us was a product of ancestors who came here from someplace else.
We were Americans, yes. And yet every single one of us identified our families’ heritage as something other than American. Our families thought of themselves in terms of the places where our families came from, instead of thinking of themselves as primarily Americans.
English. French. Mexican. Irish. Italian. Nigerian. German. Chinese. Lebanese. Kenyan. Greek. Polish.
As we talked about where we came from, we relayed reasons why our ancestors came.
Some had ancestors trafficked here in the slave trade.
Some fled religious or political persecution.
Some migrated to escape war and violence.
Some came to escape the cycle of poverty and to start again. They came looking for work and in dogged pursuit of hope for themselves and their children.
Students talked about the hardships their grandparents and great-grandparents encountered when they came. Each generation has a group of immigrants they despise; once, the Irish or the Italians or the Japanese. The stories of hate shocked me, and they stuck with me as I continued my history studies.
Unless someone’s ancestry is Native American, he or she came from somewhere else. Essentially, the vast majority of us in the U.S. are products of immigration. And we’re largely descendants of people who came here hoping for a better life and a better future.
Those of us in the U.S. live on lands literally stolen from native communities. Our ancestors pushed others out of the way to build their farms and cities; they forced native peoples into smaller and smaller spaces, while also attempting to eradicate native cultures.
As a result, I find it hypocritical to be narrow-minded about who is welcome here. Folks made room for my ancestors. How can I not do the same? The more, the merrier.
But, that’s my story. It may not be yours.
What is your family’s story? How did you come to be where you are? Is there pride about your ethnic heritage? Has your family forgotten or stopped telling the older generation’s stories? How does your family story or understanding of history impact the way you see immigrants and refugees?
Refugees and Discipleship
As I watched people respond to Trump’s ban on immigration and indefinite ban on Syrian refugees, I found myself struck by the “me first” language in comments supporting the ban.
This is a story and question worth exploring. How do we see refugees? What are the expectations Jesus has for his disciples? How do these stories fit together?
How do I see refugees?
I find myself haunted by the images of Syrian children washed up on a beach, dead. I see the pictures of crumbled buildings with people fleeing in the streets with a handful of items in a rucksack over their shoulder. Shell-shocked kiddos missing parents and siblings.
The life they once had, gone in an instant. Their families and livelihoods broken in a struggle between powerful people. The things they’ve seen I cannot even comprehend. They carry traumas I don’t even know how I would handle.
They are people who are just trying to survive. One second by one minute by one hour by one day.
Many camp inside barbed wire fences, dwelling in impromptu shelters filled with people and little privacy.
Knowing their need, I don’t see them as a threat to be feared. I see them as people wounded by governments who were supposed to protect them.
Is it possible that some harbor grudges or are extremists? Sure.
Given Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, I assume refugees are concerned with the basics of survival, instead of plotting to destroy others. I would rather not turn victims into villains.
I recognize my position may not be a popular one, and you are not required to agree. These are merely the stories and images driving my gut reactions to the news I read.
My point is not to make you see the world the same way I do, but for me to explore the stories driving my choices.
In return, I ask you to consider what stories you tell about refugees and immigrants, and where your stories originated? What are your experiences and influencers?
What are the expectations of a disciple of Jesus?
I find myself haunted by Jesus’ words from Luke 14:26-27.
“If you want to be my disciple, you must, by comparison, hate everyone else—your father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even your own life. Otherwise, you cannot be my disciple. And if you do not carry your own cross and follow me, you cannot be my disciple.”
I have struggled with these verses all my life, and watching the support for Trump’s immigration ban, I’m beginning to realize what Jesus meant.
As long as we place anything over Jesus, we choose fear and self-protection. Even if the risk of a terrorist is small, the fear says when it even just hypothetically comes down to a choice between my family and yours: my family and my interests comes first. In my fear, I will sell you out instead of looking for the win-win situation.
Me. Me. Me.
Mine. Mine. Mine.
I’m sorry, but my family is more important than yours. Your people are not my people.
Even if you’re fleeing bombs, even if you’re a child and desperate for a chance at life, me and mine over you and yours. Even if you’ve been living in desolate refugee camps and have already been vetted thoroughly for 18-24 months by the U.S. government, I can’t risk the hypothetical threat to my family.
But that’s not what Jesus calls his followers to do.
Jesus says, “If you want to be my disciple, choose me over all those things that everyone else naturally places highest. Choose love over fear.”
Jesus did. Choosing love over fear leads to the cross. Jesus commands those who would follow him to do the same as he did.
Choosing fear over love is choosing death over life.
Choosing love over fear might feel like dying, but in doing it, we find the abundant life Jesus has for us. Perhaps that’s why Jesus says whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses her life for Jesus’ sake will find it.
I believe love is ultimately stronger than hate.
Plus, as a follower of Jesus, I’m bound by his teaching. Jesus says this, “But to you who are willing to listen, I say, love your enemies! Do good to those who hate you. Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who hate you (Luke 6:27-28).”
Jesus ups the ante on discipleship. Sure, love the people who love you. But, don’t pat yourself on the back for that, because everybody does that. Instead, do better. Love those who might hate you. Do good to those who may think of you as the enemy.
In short, Jesus flips the world on end. While others may consider you an enemy, Jesus tells his followers not to reciprocate that line of thinking. If I love my enemy, what happens? I stop categorizing and labeling them as enemy.
Does it change the other person? Maybe not.
But, this definitely changes me.
Love wildly, like Jesus does, such that you no longer hold grudges or love only those who benefit you. Lend to those who could hurt you. Love those who might not reciprocate or give you a coolness boost. Don’t return evil with evil. Instead, return evil with good.
Basically, live and love like Jesus. Wildly. Radically. Sacrificially.
And for those of us with differing views on politics, this radical love and extreme hospitality still counts, too.
Is it hard?
Oh my gosh, yes.
But, it is still the call, and it is the only road to hope and healing.
Here again, these are the Jesus stories which shape me and my worldview. These are convictions that I believe all Christians have to grapple with — though we may differ on the way we apply them.
What are the convictions that you can’t shake? Which Jesus stories mold your perspective on the world? What gives you heartburn?