Are We Safer Now? Security and Mercy in God’s Law

Are We Safer Now? Security and Mercy in God’s Law Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18

By Johnny Ramirez-Johnson , Feb 19, 2017
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Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany

How would you feel today if you learned that your neighbor is a refugee from Syria? The concerns about security (i.e. the measurements we take to arrive at a place of safety) have become central to our daily life; we (all Americans) have banned Syrian refugees from entering the USA. The Statue of Liberty has nothing for them, they are a threat to our security. Are we safer now? True safety comes from abiding in God not in banning our neighbors in need; do we believe this?  The fourth psalm bears witness to safety in God: “I will both lie down and sleep in peace; for you alone, O Lord, make me lie down in safety.” (4:8, NRSV).

Focusing on security as a step-wise-approach to safety makes for an easy model to follow. It is enticingly simple to build a formula of exclusion—the fact is the 9/11 attackers of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon came from two countries that are still open to visa granting open travel into the USA: Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Why did President Trump not close those two countries out? Are we safer by avoiding refugees from Syria who are seeking asylum from extremist despite evidence that the attackers of 9/11 were rich Saudis and Egyptians who were in the USA with visas?

It is impossible to build a wall or keep away all threats to American safety! The quest for holiness and security laid out in Leviticus 19:1-2 is central to our dialogue about safety. Safety means a state of being, a place were we inhabit in peace. It is the same area of habitation we seek when we pursue to be holy—a place where God is, to be acceptable to God and not offend God.

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying:  Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel

and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.

Leviticus 19:1-2, NRSV

 

While notions of holiness motivate many church members to distance themselves from those whom they perceive as impure and sinful, notions of mercy motivate others to seek greater involvement with them. A similar tension pulls some to distance themselves from those who are conceptualized as a threat (Syrian refugees) in order to assure our security-seeking safety (closed borders) while it pushes others to respond with calls to oppose executive orders, sponsor a newly arrived family, or explore becoming a Sanctuary church.

These conflicting views are manifested in our response to governmental policies like President’s Trump decree.   They also appear in church doctrine through the concern of promoting holiness by rejecting impurity. Though internal in nature, the church’s ideology and doctrine influences the way religious groups reconcile the two concepts. This debate has clear implications for government policy and the way faith-based organizations interact with civil society.

Should we applaud President’s Trump governing by decree to ban Syrian refugees or should we seek mercy and open opportunities for those seeking asylum?

The view of holiness with its influence on the church’s posture towards social policy regarding refugees is not solely a doctrinal and esoteric concern of theologians.  How we answer the question of security based in might or in mercy constitutes a direct response to social policy makers and politicians. This is the situation at the beginning of a presidency that promises to take the United States down a path of “security seeking behaviors.”

The religious right and the liberal-minded social forces of civil society are at opposite ends of the continuum of Syrian refugees and security-seeking decrees as response possibilities.

In an article for the Associated Press on January 30, 2017, Rachel Zoll covered the array of responses from Christian leaders and pastors in their various pulpits: The Rev. Robert Jeffress, the leader of First Baptist Dallas and a vocal supporter of Trump, told "Fox & Friends" television show that Trump was "fulfilling his God-given responsibility to protect this country." A few protesters gathered outside his church during services, with one carrying a sign that read, "Love Thy Neighbor."  The head of World Relief, Scott Arbeiter, said "We believe in security. We believe in careful vetting.”  His organization is the humanitarian arm of the National Association of Evangelicals, which resettles large numbers of refugees.

The conflicting views here presented are about holiness/security versus mercy/refugee-options a conflict that comes straight from Christian traditions and doctrinal stances. This view of security must be understood in the context of the ethics of dominant Christian groups. Such ethics include a concern for opportunities for refugees when seen as neighbor.

Beliefs, values, and attitudes associated with a conceptualization of holiness attained by separating from the other gives a sense of security to those who pursue this behavior. These ideas about holiness stem from the notion that God, understood to be holy, demands holiness from his followers.

Not all Christian leaders and church officials share the same conservative holiness security ideology. The other approach of the Christian church grounds itself in the biblical culture of mercy and defines safety as more than security steps to separate us from perceived threats. An ideology that values mercy says that when you focus on mercy you achieve true safety. Safety in this belief system is a principle rather than a set of rules and enforced measures for security.

The church, manifested in bodily works of mercy toward those despised by society, is solidly established upon scripture. Jesus’s teachings focus on loving your neighbor.  In Matthew 12:31, Jesus quotes Leviticus 19:18 to this end, and in Luke 10:25-37, Jesus goes out of his way to include strangers and enemies to us in our circle of care.  While social norms of propriety and security demanded that all travelers keep away from risk on the road between Jerusalem and Samaria, Jesus highlights the risks taken by the Samaritan who sought to help a Jew even when their association would be considered a contamination and a jeopardy to their holiness before God. This countercultural approach between “enemy” groups has continued to inspire the church to help strangers and refugees throughout the ages.

The idea that the church should serve the outcasts of society is as old as the church itself.  It’s an equally strong ideology to the holiness one. These two teachings are in tension. How church members and church leaders promote a set of beliefs conducive to engagement with the Syrian Refugees via protesting the presidential order, advocating for refugees, and hosting refugees themselves has become a crucial element in understanding American civil society’s role in responding to this human rights crises.

 

            You shall not render an unjust judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to

the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbor. You shall not go around as a

slanderer among your people, and you shall not profit by the blood of your neighbor: I am the Lord.

You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or   you will incur guilt yourself. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.

Leviticus 19:15-18, NRSV

 

Safety in love comes from trusting the Lord, not from our actions of security. There is no safety outside of God in this world. The USA or any Western nation wrapping themselves in loving their neighbor will grant them the safety we seek. There is more safety in having the eyes and ears of all Muslims living in the USA or anywhere in the world than banning people from coming in to our nations.

Safety is defined in the nineteenth chapter of Leviticus as abiding in God’s sense of justice—“not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbor.” Justice is love and love is behaving out of fairness to all --even those we see as a risk. We cannot expect to be in safety unless we treat others as we wish them to treat us.

Two models of responding to the Syrian refugee crisis are available to the church. One dependent on others (mainly the government and its agents) and the other involving more traditional ways of the church with a focus on outreach and on the ministry of the spoken-word as a tool for change. What would it mean to preach a justice that loves and to encourage the love that acts?

Bible Study Questions:

1. What are the logical relations between security—safety Vs. holiness—mercy?

2. How would you act if you were president and you had the duty to keep all America safe?

3. What is your responsibility and that of the church with the Syrian Refugees?

 

For Further Reading:

Terror in the Mind of God. The Global Rise of Religious Violence, Completely Revised by Mark Juergensmeyer.

MESSAGE OF HIS HOLINESS POPE FRANCIS FOR THE WORLD DAY OF MIGRANTS AND REFUGEES 2016

 

 

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ON Scripture - The Bible is made possible by generous grants from the Lilly Endowment and the Henry Luce Foundation

 

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