Where Will You Set the Bar?

Carla J. Bailey  February 5, 2017

Scripture Matthew 25:44

Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?”

There are so many issues to care about in the world—so many people who are hungry, thirsty, strangers, naked and in prison. Doesn’t it seem that just as you have your head around one crisis, another one surfaces? I’ve come to believe that none of these are really new issues. They didn’t begin on November 8th. Rather these are, most of them, the same old issues dressed up in different costumes. When I think this way, I am actually quite comforted, since that means that old wisdom and old teachings can still help us navigate our way through even the most complex and currently urgent matters. It all makes me turn back to the Scriptures to remember and regroup.

Let me give you an example. The Internet, which is a most amazing and powerful tool for communication, carries with it some powerful threats—particularly to vulnerable and undiscerning minds who don’t know how to look for verifying data. So this amazing tool can become a terrible weapon. The Bible is silent on Internet abuse—not one single reference anywhere to what God thinks about Facebook, Twitter, instant messaging or the Internet in general, not one reference to online courtesy and restraint ever uttered by Jesus. From that conspicuous absence, we could draw the following conclusions:

  • The Bible is useless—hopelessly out-of-date, and therefore irrelevant to everything modern, making a religion based on either Old or New Testament teachings a total waste of time; or
  • The Internet is a godless, evil human invention that must be avoided, since the Bible doesn’t mention it; by that same logic, truly religious people should avoid all modern inventions—like plumbing, for example.

Perhaps I might offer a more appropriate discernment, in spite of Scripture’s glaring omission:

  • Sacred texts and the religions that emerge from their stories can teach us how to think about human behavior and how to strengthen that singularly essential muscle—the human heart—to be more compassionate, wise, understanding and generous.

Okay then, let’s apply that third principle to the one verse I read from Matthew, which I’m sure put you all in mind of the entire parable itself. According to Matthew, Jesus told the parable to make a point about God’s judgment. It’s about separating sheep from goats on the last day of judgment, when we stand before the throne of the Almighty at the hour of our death. Wait, wait—that may be too imaginative an image. Maybe the story has something to say about how we treat others as we manage our day-to-day activities. It’s not about actual goats and sheep, whose behaviors are mysterious to all but a few of us. No, it’s a lesson about ignoring the plight of another human being, thereby missing the opportunity to serve Christ, who appears to us in an ever-new incarnation, like someone in prison or thirsty or hungry or naked or sick or a refugee from war.

Jesus’ words are at the very heart of our understanding of radical hospitality. When we welcome a stranger, we may be entertaining angels unaware—another colorful image. Certainly, we are told, when we welcome a stranger we are welcoming Christ, and when we welcome Christ we are welcoming God. It’s a pretty straightforward concept, really, and it’s all over Matthew’s story of Jesus’ life: Welcome these little ones, do not turn them away. When you did it for the least of these, you did it for me. You are welcome here. In tribal Israel, the hospitable welcome to strangers and sojourners was a critical necessity, and throughout the Hebrew Scriptures there are examples of either its unusual extension or the repercussions of its refusal. The infamous story of Sodom is all about hospitality and the dangers that befall a community that does not extend hospitality to strangers. It isn’t difficult, is it, to understand what Jesus, who was steeped in those very same Hebrew Scriptures, was talking about when he said, “When you did not do it for the least of these, you did not do it for me.” What do these words say to you—that the Bible is useless because both Jesus and Matthew were mired in first-century Mediterranean thinking and couldn’t imagine the global refugee crisis we currently face? Or do they say that since Matthew and Jesus did not mention Muslims in their description of caring for strangers, they have nothing to teach us about our responsibilities to care for those who are suffering?

The office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees was created in 1950, during the aftermath of the Second World War, to help millions of Europeans who had fled or lost their homes resettle into communities where they could rebuild their lives. It was to complete its work in three years and then disband. Today, 67 years later, the organization is still at work, protecting and assisting refugees around the world. An unprecedented 65.3 million people around the world have been forced from their homes. Let me help you get a fix on that number. Combine the total populations of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan, Indiana, Iowa, North Dakota, South Dakota, Kansas and Missouri, and you still haven’t reached that total. Among that 65.3 million, nearly 21.3 million are refugees, over half of whom are under the age of 18. There are also 10 million stateless people who have been denied a nationality and access to basic rights such as education, health care, employment and freedom of movement. In a world where nearly 34,000 people are forcibly displaced every day as a result of armed conflict or persecution, the work of the UNHCR is hardly completed.

For an eye-opening and illuminating assessment of the world’s refugee crisis, I encourage you to visit the UNHCR website (www.unhcr.org/en-us). For example, you will find listed there the internationally accepted categories for classifying persons as refugees, those who are currently very much in the 24/7 news cycle:

  • Legal and/or physical protection needs of the refugee in the country of refuge (this includes a threat of refoulement, the forcible return of refugees or asylum seekers to a country where they are liable to be subjected to persecution);
  • Survivors of torture and/or violence, in particular where repatriation or the conditions of asylum could result in further traumatization and/or heightened risk; or where appropriate treatment is not available;
  • Medical needs, in particular life-saving treatment that is unavailable in the country of refuge;
  • Women and girls at risk, who have protection problems particular to their gender;
  • Family reunification, when resettlement is the only means to reunite refugee family members who, owing to refugee flight or displacement, are separated by borders or entire continents;
  • Children and adolescents at risk, where a “best interests” determination supports resettlement; and
  • Lack of foreseeable alternative durable solutions, which generally is relevant only when other solutions are not feasible in the foreseeable future. (unhcr.org)

These are the circumstances we’re talking about when we engage, as we did in our Forum presented by the Minnesota Council of Churches just this morning, in commitment to refugees. These are the categories perhaps we could insert into Matthew’s parable. When did we see you tortured or in need of life-saving medical treatment and we did not care for you? When did we see you a child living 10 to a tent in a refuge camp and did not rescue you? When you did not do it for the Muslim from Somalia, the 4-year-old child stuck in Uganda or the research scientist from Syria, you did not do it for me.

Refugees are a particular class of immigrants, granted life-saving protections from the nation states willing to receive them. But they are not the only category of immigrants to have been recently and repeatedly threatened under this new federal administration. In fact, the refugee crisis is only part of the entire immigration concern. I have needed to find a framework for thinking about it—some way of evaluating my own actions and the actions I ask from others so that we are not protesting without purpose or acting without awareness of the risk. So I’ve developed this scale, from low to high bar, to help me choose my faith-mandated actions. There are four:

Some weeks ago the downtown churches’ senior ministers met with Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges. Our conversation was not as far-reaching or illuminating as I had hoped, but she is, after all, running again for mayor. We did ask her about Minneapolis’s status as a “sanctuary city.” What does that mean to her? How far will she go to protect it? I wrote a bit about the subject in this month’s Flame newsletter. In essence, in Minneapolis’s case, being a sanctuary city means that Minneapolis law enforcement personnel will not cooperate with federal law enforcement efforts to identify and detain immigrants who reside in Minneapolis without legal documentation. The rationale behind the city ordinance is to encourage immigrant residents in Minneapolis to participate with local law enforcement in criminal investigations without fear of discovery. There are a number of so-called sanctuary cities across the country. Many of them have come to light under the threat of the loss of federal funds. The ordinances and statutes have not yet been court-tested, but they will be. Like many of you, I will watch the court decisions with interest, and I will watch for courageous acts of city mayors and law enforcement when the threat of losing federal aid becomes more than bluster and bombast.

The commitment to being a sanctuary city is not nothing, but, in my estimation, it is a fairly low bar—at least inasmuch as it signals non-compliance. Non-compliance is not protection. It remains to be seen whether the concept of providing sanctuary becomes something greater than non-compliance.

So, let’s go up a rung—let’s set the bar a little higher, if you will. This is the sphere of active participation but with little to no personal cost or risk. For many of us, it is more than we’ve done before and so it is a good step toward genuinely caring about the plight of immigrants—refugee or undocumented. Many of us have participated in protest marches, large gatherings of people who demonstrate, simply by our presence in numbers, that we are noticing the closing down of the hospitality for which our nation is known. If we have done some reading on the immigration issue, if we read the executive order itself and the legal decisions that have stayed it, we may have made phone calls, written letters, asked more about what it would mean for Plymouth to become a sanctuary church. We’ve raised the bar from non-cooperation, the non-compliance represented in the ordinances of the City of Minneapolis, to actual engagement with the issue.

So, what would the next higher bar be—the next rung up? This bar requires more, of course. As we learned this morning in the Forum, it is the work of resettling refugees, which requires patience, persistence and generosity. It’s learning about a family and, through an organization like the Minnesota Council of Churches, actually actively assisting in resettling them some place in Minneapolis—everything from accompanying them to health care visits, finding and equipping an apartment, assisting in enrolling the children in school, teaching English, helping to navigate the public transportation system and a hundred other things. It’s stepping up to love refugees as your intellectual equals who have exceeded you in courage, will, resiliency and facing down unimaginable dangers. It’s immersing yourself consistently and for a long time in the lives of complete strangers.

This level of engagement would not be complete if I didn’t mention the lawyers who essentially moved into fast food establishments at airports across the country the very night the executive order was signed. I love lawyers, especially generous, activist lawyers. Lawyers are now the front line, and I will do everything I can to support them, feed them, research for them and donate to their work. I’m also dusting off the little I learned about immigration law in law school and volunteering some hours at the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota. For me, what little I can do to help lawyers is actually kind of a low bar, but I honor those at this higher bar level who have jumped with both feet into the turbulent waters of helping immigrants, even in opposition to the executive order.

There is a higher bar yet. It’s the one we may not need—yet.

While I was at The Church of Christ at Dartmouth College, I had a close colleague in the rabbi of the Jewish Community and Dartmouth Hillel. We preached to one another’s congregations. We co-led a group of students to Belarus to restore a Jewish cemetery that had been neglected since the Holocaust. We planned interfaith worship, taught a few classes together and had lunch frequently in a funny little deli on the north side of town. We were friends—at least by my definition of friendship. Once, at one of our long lunches, we talked about interfaith marriages. He told me he would never co-lead an interfaith wedding. Even with me, I asked, thinking surely he had come to trust that I would not overpower the ceremony with heavy Christianity? It’s not about who officiates, he said. It’s about the couple—which comment led us to a deeper conversation about interfaith love, friendship, commitment. For this rabbi, the critical question for any interfaith relationship—including friendship—is this: Would you hide me? When he said that I was stunned. Now, it’s probable that not all Jews come to this question ultimately. It’s probable that this rabbi, who was steeped in Holocaust studies and traveled to eastern Europe at least twice every year to work on Jewish cemetery restoration, approached every interaction with a non-Jew through the lens of the Holocaust. But I’ll tell you something, I will never in my entire life forget that moment. I went home and looked around our house with new eyes. Where would I hide my friend and his family? How would I keep them safe? Would I risk my own safety and the safety of my own family for him and his family?

Well, I offer this framework to you today for this reason. It is my life’s goal as your senior minister to get you all to think about your lives, individually and collectively, through the eyes of faith. What does your faith instruct you to do? How does your faith guide your decisions, the way you talk, the care you take, your generosity, your ability and eagerness to forgive, your stamina in the struggle for justice and peace? When you look at a stranger, whom do you see? Where will you set your bar? Amen.