Is Religous Liberty Biblical?

If you are a part of the Southern Baptist Convention or follow it closely you know that the past few months have been plagued with disunity and at times even hostility. While some of these issues have been resolved, there are still some questions that need to be answered. One of the most central and important questions that have been asked concerns Religious Liberty. 

The reason this topic is important is due to the controversy that surrounds it. While all religions officially have the right, is it fair for us as Christians to allow the courts to infringe upon this right against Muslims? Since we understand the Islamic faith to be contrary to the Gospel of Grace is it even right for Christians to protect their right? Ultimately, the question becomes is Religious Liberty Biblical?

There has been a debate as to whether Christians are obligated to either support the right of Muslims to build Mosque or whether Christians are called to oppose what we view as a false religious system. While both sides stand at opposite sides of this battle, we need to be reminded that there is no reason to destroy fellowship between a brother or sister over this issue. 

What we need to do is seek conversation and understanding between those who disagree with us. With this being said I would contend to you that it is not only our responsibility to advocate for religious liberty for all, but it is also a Biblical mandate.

There are three primary passages of scripture that justify the necessity for Religious Liberty and they are Mark 12:31, Romans 1:14-17, and Romans 13:1-10.  So that we fulfill the next passage for this stance, Romans 1:14-17 states “I am obligated both to Greeks and barbarians, both to the wise and the foolish.So I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome. For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, first to the Jew, and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith, just as it is written: The righteous will live by faith.” (CSB). 

We do not get to pick and choose people groups that deserve to hear the Gospel. We cannot hope to share the Gospel with someone that we are actively telling they are second-class citizens who do not deserve the same rights we enjoy and allow others to enjoy. Our obligation to share the Gospel with all people comes before our fear or bias towards Muslims.

Romans 13:1-10 tells us:

Let everyone submit to the governing authorities, since there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are instituted by God. So then, the one who resists the authority is opposing God’s command, and those who oppose it will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. 

“Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have its approval. For it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, because it does not carry the sword for no reason. For it is God’s servant, an avenger that brings wrath on the one who does wrong. Therefore, you must submit, not only because of wrath but also because of your conscience. And for this reason you pay taxes, since the authorities are God’s servants, continually attending to these tasks. 

“Pay your obligations to everyone: taxes to those you owe taxes, tolls to those you owe tolls, respect to those you owe respect, and honor to those you owe honor. Do not owe anyone anything, except to love one another, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.  

“The commandments, Do not commit adultery; do not murder; do not steal; do not covet; and any other commandment, are summed up by this commandment: Love your neighbor as yourself. Love does no wrong to a neighbor. Love, therefore, is the fulfillment of the law.” (CSB).

The first amendment our founding Fathers established states “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” 

If we truly desire Biblical Purity then we have to respect the first amendment and honor the law of the land which decrees that the government cannot oppose nor support any one religion. Paul ties in the command to love your neighbor because in it is the fulfillment of the Law and to follow the law is an example of loving our neighbor and thus fulfilling the law of Scripture. 

And Mark 12:31 states, “The second is, Love your neighbor as yourself.” (CSB). When we oppose the building of Mosque but have idly sat on the sidelines over the building of Jewish Synagogues, Hindu Temples, or even Kingdom Halls we are essentially telling Muslims that they are not as worthy of American rights as these other citizens. What Christians need to remember is that Muslims are not our enemy, we have one enemy. 

Muslims are not the predator, they are the prey to the true predator. Our enemy is “prowling like a roaring lion, looking for anyone he can devour.” (1 Peter 5:8 CSB). Muslims are just as blinded and ensnared by the enemy as we would be without the grace of God that saved us. We must not let our bias against the religion of Islam stop us from showing them the love we show all those who are of different religions.

Christians, we must understand that if we want to enjoy the religious liberty that we have enjoyed since the founding of this country then we must allow all religions to enjoy this freedom. It’s either Religious Liberty for All or Religious Liberty for none. If we are to be justified in our opposition of Religious Liberty for one Religious Group then we must be willing to lay our rights aside as well. However, if we truly want this liberty and desire to hold Biblical purity then we must not condone the beliefs of these religions, but we must support their right to build their places of Worship here in the United States.

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Finding Jesus in a Psych Ward

The particulars of exactly how and why I was hospitalized for psychiatric complications are both too difficult to put into words and also are one of the best blessings God has given me in my 21 years of life. On December 1, my husband brought me to the local emergency room and the next morning I rode in the back of a police car to a larger facility. As I rode in the car the officer was kind and tried to get me to talk about my situation but all I could do was cry. I had been emotionally stunted for months and finally it was all flowing freely.

As my vitals were being taken a kind older woman approached me as my quiet sobs continued. At the time I didn’t know it, but she was also a patient and was going home that day. She took my hand and said, “I know you’re scared honey. But God will be with you here; these are good people. God is here. I just wanted to tell you that.” I think I murmured a thank you before finally being taken to my room to get some rest.

I spent the first day sleeping and observing. I was shocked at the kindness and vulnerability that was evident in every interaction that we had with one another: patients, techs, nurses, therapists, psychiatrists, and even the man with dementia who was in the next ward over and kept trying to enter our ward. My friend, who was my roommate during my stay, is a particularly special person. When I arrived the only things I had were the clothes on my back and my stuffed tiger, Limo. When I walked in our bedroom the first thing I saw was her penguin slippers and I knew she was a kindred spirit. She taught me the ropes the first day and we built a friendship that we’ve maintained beyond the hospital.

There was a deep irony in that almost every person on the ward was suffering with some level of depression and anxiety (some of it social). However, one of the ways that we showed we were ready to go home was interacting with each other. I was so scared that I would never get to go home because I was not willing to approach anyone. But I didn’t have to. During my first day, every single patient introduced themselves to me and gave me a piece of encouragement. “Don’t worry, the first day is always the hardest.” “Don’t skip snack time because they serve ice cream and Oreos.” “You have a great psychiatrist.” “I struggle with the same thing.” “Here’s how to work the phones.” On and on until I felt overwhelmed with how much love I was receiving.

Every single one of us there struggled with self-love. We were there because our self-hate had manifested itself in some way that required us to be under constant care. And yet- the words that we gave one another were words of love. “You are so much stronger than what happened to you.” “You are beautiful.” “You have overcome so much.” “You have a great smile.” “The world would be worse without your humor, your story, your smile, your life.” Words that we could not bring ourselves to say to our own bodies and minds and souls we poured into one another.

By the grace of God, I got to spend 6 days with these people. I learned more about community than anything else. For the first time, I was in community with people who as broken as I, and we all knew it. There were no masks, no pretention, no “I’m fine”. Nobody pretended they were fine; we were all openly broken. There was only love and support and encouragement and kindness. We were there to learn to love ourselves, but we learned that by loving one another.

I met Jesus there. I had met Him before and I knew Him, but I didn’t know that He was living inside of a psych ward. But His grace was evident everywhere. It was evident in that I had a support system that came to visit me (including my husband who never missed a minute of visitation). It was evident in the care that the nurses who worked with me showed toward me. It was evident in the dignity that each person was treated with. His grace was evident in the lives of the women I met there, many of whom had been victims of assault, trafficking, abuse, neglect, disease. And by His grace alone we all survived to live through our adversities and meet each other that weekend.

I will never forget the friends I made in the facility. One of my last interactions was with my roommate. We were lying in the dark the night before we got to go home and she opened up to me about her story for the first time. And as we both lay there in the dark crying, she said to me, “I knew that you were a special person the moment I saw you. I felt the Holy Spirit tell me that you had experienced deep pain and that we were both going to be okay.”

Friends, that was church. That was God’s people living together and sharing their deepest pains and their greatest joys with one another without any reserve. When I walk into a church I don’t want to have to hide my mental illness and what I have survived. I want my brothers and sisters in Christ to cry with me and listen to me and encourage me, and I want to do the same for them. The church should be a place of true community, of the kind of love and sacrifice that I experienced on the Adult Behavioral Ward.

“Those who are in need
and are not afraid to beg
give to those not in need
the occasion to do good
for goodness’s sake.”
Dorothy Day

The Reality of Refugee Resettlement

refugee-mobile-pantry-2016

Church volunteers and local refugee non-profits come together once a month to provide free produce to recently arrived refugees living in Fort Worth.

no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark
you only run for the border
when you see the whole city running as well.

– “Home” by Warsan Shire

I have to remind myself that they just don’t know.

When people ask if there are communities in the city that abide by sharia law, when they ask how much of their taxes are going towards giving refugees free stuff, or when they shout that we don’t know who we’re letting into the country – “We’re just an open door to extremists!” – I have to remind myself that they just don’t know.

They talk of extremists crossing borders and I look around, wondering where they are. Last year, eighty-five thousand refugees were resettled in the United States and not one attack occurred. In fact, three million refugees have been resettled in the United States since 1980, and not one terrorist attack has been perpetrated by a refugee. They say we don’t vet refugees, and I try and figure out why it took my coworker six years to get a visa into the country. They say that refugees don’t pay taxes and I am confused why the resettlement agency I work for refers clients to workshops on filing taxes every year. They say that refugees are draining welfare programs, but I see almost all of our clients working within three months of arriving in the country.

I have to remind myself that they have not seen the faces of a Congolese family stepping off a plane after days of travel, leaving so much behind – only a pillowcase of belongings on hand – and yet feeling safe for the first time in years. They have not been hugged by a Syrian woman, letting go of her one suitcase and the hand of her child, fresh off the plane and not knowing what difficulties continue to lie ahead, saying thank you. They have not heard the stories of Sudanese families waiting fifteen years in a refugee camp without access to education or employment, or of children lost to bombs or drowning. They have not met Iraqi women who lost fathers, husbands, and brothers because they refused to fight on behalf of extremism. They have not met the Somali women, pregnant or with only half of their children, alone in this new place because their husbands and their other children are still in a refugee camp. They have not seen the Syrian father limping from a permanent disability because he shielded his youngest daughter from a bomb that was dropped on their home.

If you have felt doubt about the legitimacy of the refugee resettlement process, I want to reassure you. I want to let you know that I think it’s not fair that you have not been told how the system works, that you have not had leaders able to step-up and reassure you because it is easier to scare you.

So what I’d like to do is lay out the process for you. It will get a bit in-the-weeds, but if you have come this far then I think you are willing to go the distance. Situations can vary depending on the region that a person has fled from and fled to, but the security screenings done by the United States do not vary. Due to the thoroughness of the process, families can be split – if a woman has a child three years into the screening process, her child will not be included on her case unless she is willing to start the process all over again – and Iraqis who served the US Army have been killed while waiting to be approved.

This is not a vetting process based on compassion. It is a strict, slow, and detailed process. The smallest change to a refugee’s story or family information is cause for a re-do of security steps already taken. The smallest doubt will disqualify you.

When a person flees their country (because of violence or threat of violence) into another country, they seek out the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) or a nearby embassy to apply for refugee status. They have to prove to the UNHCR that they are a refugee as defined by international law. This involves interviews that will require detailing their experience and reasons for fleeing, which can mean a reliving of trauma. They have to prove that they have experienced violence or were threatened while waiting on background checks to be run by agencies within the United Nations. Typically, in the meantime, the prospective refugee will remain in a camp where they are dependent upon donated food and makeshift shelters.

There are 65 million people that have been displaced by violence and out of that, 21 million are registered as refugees.

If given refugee status, the UNHCR will determine if the case is eligible for resettlement in another country or for integration into the client’s country of asylum (this is the country the refugee fled to). The UNHCR would then refer that person to another government agency depending on what country the United Nations decides to send the refugee to. This is an important thing to note. People believe that refugees are flocking to the United States with extremists hiding among them. This is simply not true. When a refugee applies for resettlement they do not get to request the country. They must go wherever the UN decides to send them, and since only 0.5% of refugees are approved for resettlement, you are MUCH more likely to be left in a camp than given a chance at resettlement.

The eligibility for resettlement in the United States prioritizes women, children, and families. They also allow for refugees with disabilities or severe (but non-contagious) health issues to be referred to the United States Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP). Victims of anti-LGBTQ violence or human trafficking are also prioritized.

However, if you are lucky enough to be considered for resettlement you must begin a whole new process of security checks. For the United States, the State Department – via the Bureau of Populations, Refugees, and Migration (PRM) – and the Department of Homeland Security oversee this process. They run background checks through databases of at least five different United States security agencies, including fingerprint-based databases. Interviewers are trained for five weeks on the questions to ask and “red flags” to look for based on what region they are conducting interviews in. If an interviewer will be working with Syrian clients, they go through additional training. If there is ever ANY level of doubt about a person, they are simply denied the visa. If approved after the interviewing and security clearances, the refugee will undergo a health screening. The typical timeline for all of this vetting is about a 18-24 month process, on average. I know of many people who waited much longer.

If a refugee has won this lottery chance to be resettled – as one of the 0.5% – they (and receiving non-profits in the United States) are alerted to their resettlement about two weeks before departure. In that period of time, they go through a brief English class and Cultural Orientation and are placed on a plane – usually for the first time – and are told someone will be at the airport to greet them.

In the United States, there are nine national resettlement non-profits that meet on a weekly basis to decide which approved refugees to accept and where to send them. Last year, during the 2016 fiscal year, the United States resettled almost 85,000 refugees of the 21 million registered around the world. They came primarily from Burma/Myanmar, Bhutan, The Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, and Syria. Refugees come from many other places as well, but the larger numbers tend to be from these countries.

Upon arrival, refugees are given a caseworker for their first four to six months to assist with integration. They are placed in English classes, given a small amount of cash assistance for the first four to six months, and are given support to find employment. They are restarting their lives completely. Once employed, they will start paying back the cost of their flights to the United States that were given to them on a loan. Then after a year they will apply for residency and receive their green card. After five years, they are eligible for citizenship.

So, what does that mean with the potential executive order that is apparently in the works? As of my writing this, a draft of the order has been released. The main points are: freeze resettlement for 120 days while they determine the strength of vetting and make adjustments, reject applicants from Muslim majority countries (Yemen, Libya, Iraq, Iran, Somalia, Syria, and Sudan), add an additional interview session that is focused on refugees’ ideologies in order to pick out and resettle Christians, set the ceiling at 50,000 refugees for the fiscal year of 2017, and refuse visas to Syrians indefinitely.

For many years the United States has been the leader in resettlement, accepting the most refugee cases. With this cut and these restrictions we will no longer be the country to look to as an example. Other countries will, and have already, rise above and exceed us in humanitarian response.

With the freeze, that means any refugees who were accepted for resettlement in the coming months will obviously be delayed, but could also be sent back to the UNHCR to restart the process. Families who have been waiting years for approval may have been told last week that they would be going to America at the beginning of February, but now must be approached and told that they will no longer be going and may need to start over with the UNHCR again – a process that likely already took them three to seven years to get through.

I won’t tell you how to feel about this. I imagine at times my personal emotions and personal policy leanings flared up, but I ultimately wanted to equip you with the reality of this work and the effects that the rumored executive order could have. People displaced by violence are such a vulnerable community and it’s wrong for us to step back in fear. Where is your backbone, America?

Perfect love casts out fear. Perfect love doesn’t settle for easy answers, it pursues justice no matter how messy or scary it may be. Perfect love is not satisfied with shallow policies – it does the hard work. It goes uncelebrated and often appears as foolishness to the world. It is not impressed by passionate political speeches founded on lies and generalities. It looks closer and acts on wisdom. It looks at the reality and fights, even though the powerful voices continue to push back. We must be careful that we don’t hold our hands too tightly around our concern for security, when we do so without looking close at what we fear. You are not keeping out the extremists or the oppressors. You are keeping out the people who are running away from the extremists and oppressors. You are taking away what little hope there is for people whose lives have been destroyed before their very eyes because you have not dared to look at the destruction or the complexity of darkness in this world. This is not an issue of political leanings. It’s not even an issue of being compassionate. This is an issue of millions of people who are being victimized, neglected, and exploited on all sides, and simply because of where they were born while our country shies away from looking closely at what it fears, refusing to do the hard work of listening, understanding, and responding wisely. Be courageous. Do not be deceived.

So now I will challenge you.

I will challenge you, if you live in a city of resettlement, to assist with an airport pick-up of a newly arriving family. When the children, perhaps from Central Africa, Southeast Asia, or the Middle East, approach you wide-eyed and confused and their parents shake your hands and kiss your cheeks vigorously while saying “thank you” – or perhaps they’ll just sleepily follow you to your car, clearly exhausted – tell me that we’re wrong to allow refugees a second chance at a normal, safe life. When you watch the children cling to and cry over a teddy bear you have given them as a welcome gift, tell me how your tax money is wasted. When a father arrives, falling to his knees and singing with joy because after four years of separation he is finally able to be with his wife and child – a child that was born in the United States while he had been left in an African refugee camp – tell me that our vetting isn’t strong enough.

Because now you know.

[Guest Post] When Silence is Deafening

saint_paul_rembrandt_van_rijn_and_workshop-_c-_1657

Paul the Apostle, by Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn c. 1657

I’ve asked Ryan to publish this anonymously on my behalf for a series of reasons: one, I do not feel as if I can say what I intend to say without the cover of anonymity (partially from each shame, guilt, and fear); two, there are parts where it can come across as having ulterior motives (e.g. bragging about “superior” faith) which I wish to mitigate; and three, while this is deeply personal, it’s not unique… while I do not claim to speak on behalf of all Christians who suffer from some form of psychiatric illness, I hope to reflect a collective experience that transcends myself.

The bible defines faith as “…the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Heb. 11:1 NRSV).  If this is true (which, like all Christians concerned with doctrinal orthodoxy, I affirm), then it seems two categories of actions testify and affirm a vibrant faith more than any other—dying for faith, and living for it. The former category, those who die for their faith, have been applauded for their faith from the origin of the Church; martyrs have, justly, been admired for their steadfastness and strength. Alternatively; the latter category, those who live for faith, have been more or less ignored by the Church. This category specifically refers to the untold amount of Christians who, like myself, suffer from psychiatric illnesses. This post is intended to explain why living for faith (not by faith…an immensely important distinction) can be as significant a demonstration of faith as dying for it and to deplore the Church’s silence on the issue.

The majority of the time the Church’s response is a deafening silence… a silence which carries weight and power. Often times, the loudest thing one can hear is silence—for silence isolates and stigmatizes. To the untold many Christians with psychiatric illnesses who attend church faithfully (never mind those who are not Christians who go to a church looking for something), it does not go unnoticed that there is no mention of, or attention to, mental health. We attend a community, one meant to share each other’s burdens and to suffer alongside one another; and yet, we suffer alone and in silence… either put off from the silence, thinking such problems are abnormal or otherwise unworthy of mention, or from fear of the shame that comes with the only answer ever offered—“you just need to have faith”. You just need to have faith…the hypocritically unhelpful and condescending ignorance of such a statement is simply unfathomable; never would someone tell, or imply, a person with diabetes that they lack faith. Yet, because our illness is psychiatric in nature, resultant from neurochemical imbalances or neuro-physical defects, it is attributed to weak faith (yet, did St. Paul have weak faith when he suffered from some affliction that the Lord would not remove despite prayer (2 Corinthians 12:6-10)?). The supreme irony of that statement is just how much faith we have. For many us, each day is lived purely for the faith that we hold; when we passively desire death or, more extremely, actively experience suicidal ideation, it is often purely for the faith we have that we continue to go on.  The Lord has said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15 NRSV).[1] It is a duty (in the Kantian sense of the word) to continue striving forth for the commandments necessitate life. It is the love for the Lord that allows us to endure the anxiety, endure the despair, the apathy, and any and all other psychiatric problems we possess. To illustrate this, allow me to walk you through my life—a Christian who has both clinical depression and anxiety problems.

I live each day knowing that I would rather not; I wake up disappointed that I did not pass away during the night. Actively contemplating suicide is rare, although not unheard of, the act of living is an act inundated with despair. I will sit amongst a crowd of people and yet feel completely alone. I want to do things… but I lack any energy to do so; I am apathetic and lethargic and no matter how much I want to want to do something I simply cannot do so. I walk into a church building and see everyone smiling and happy, singing emotional songs about how Jesus loves us… and I am alone. The place where I should feel more at home than anywhere else, is the place I feel most isolated and alone. Where then may I turn?

While those with psychiatric illnesses are not unique in this, they are a group that the Church has, inexcusably, failed. Ignored or brushed aside, we are made to feel isolated from the body of Christ, doubtful of our faith, and ashamed of our illnesses. Modern worship has been diluted to nothing more than emotional manipulation and faith is now measured by emotive response… in such a church, what place is there for those of us who possess psychiatric inhibitions for the emotive outbursts now identified as the Christian response to worship? Faith cannot be reduced to how you feel… how you act, who (and what) you are, what you do—these are the measures of faith found in the New Testament: “[Jesus] is the vine, [we] are the branches. Those who abide in [Him] and [He] in them will bear much fruit, because apart from [Him] [we] can do nothing” (John 15:5 NRSV).[2]

[1] It is worth noting that other ancient manuscripts lack “you will”—reading instead, “if you love me, keep my commandments”. While the textual variant does not significantly alter the reading of the text, the emphasis shifts: the former can be articulated as a sign of the love one has; if you truly love Jesus then you will display that love by keeping His commandments. The latter can be articulated as a condition; in order to love Christ, you must keep His commandments.

[2] Cf. Matthew 7:15-20