Monday, October 15, 2012

God and Government Pt. 8 : A Nation of Immigrants by Chris White

 The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God.  –Lev. 19:34
Nor shall you glean your vineyard, nor shall you gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the needy and for the stranger. I am the Lord your God. –Lev. 19:10

"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"
Emma Lazarus, 1883

These words have been posted on the foundation of the Statue of Liberty for more than a century.  They speak to the millions who came to America through Ellis Island as immigrants to the new world, but they are also part of a slightly larger poem entitled The New Colossus.  The old Colossus was a gigantic statue of Helios (the personification of the sun) holding a torch which at night doubled as a lighthouse.  His feet stood on both sides of the harbor entrance on the Greek island of Rhodes.  So big was this ancient statue that ships would easily sail under his legs.  The statue was a great source of pride and showed the engineering genius and political strength of the Greeks.  The New Colossus of America greets the ships with pride, but it is a pride not in power or genius, but rather in offering the people of the world a chance for freedom on our shores.  America has always been a nation of immigrants and though there have been times we have not done it well, it is what makes our nation and economy quite dynamic.  In terms of legal immigration, America allows more new people to move here in a single year than the rest of the world.  So this is not just a tale of our storied past, it is our present reality; we are a nation of immigrants.
There is a dark side to our history when it comes to immigration.  We have not always done it well.  But despite our past failures and present concerns,  I believe one area where America is especially remarkable is how we welcome the stranger to our land.  God’s word has much to say about the subject of the immigrant (in the Bible they are called sojourners or strangers) that we   should take to heart.  For it is the Creator’s heart and wisdom that should be guiding our thinking even when it comes to issues that seem far removed from religion like this one (which, in light of the great commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves, would actually make this more of a spiritual than a societal issue).
The first thought (see Leviticus 19:34 above) sounds simple but is actually quite profound: treat the sojourner as you yourself would want to be treated.  Fairness and equal justice comes to mind as does the assumption of good intentions unless proven otherwise.  I would suggest another implication would be that of sympathy.  I understand there are many people who have come here illegally or have overstayed their visa.  But if the roles were reversed, would you want to live in dead end poverty when you might have a chance to improve?  I’m not advocating that we should honor illegal activities with full citizenship, but at least have sympathy for the plight of the poor and not a closed heart.  The Lord told the Israelites to remember that they were sojourners in Egypt once and had experienced the misery of mistreatment and slavery.  They were not to perpetuate injustice, but remember their roots and deal justly with those who would normally be quite vulnerable and easy to take advantage of in their land.
Another thought is found in God’s “social safety net” for Israel.  In their new homeland, God’s law required that the corners of their fields not be harvested nor their vineyards and orchards be picked clean.  These were to be left for the poor and the immigrant to live on.  It is interesting to me that God promised great prosperity if they were a righteous people (which would have been great agricultural abundance) and that part of the prosperity is a reserve for the poor and vulnerable among them.  It also seems clear to me that such welfare is not a ‘hand-out’ because those who benefit must actually show the initiative of doing some work if they are to eat.  I don’t know how this can be practically worked out in our society and will leave this for the people in charge, but it does seem that we are quite wealthy as a nation and if God is the cause of our wealth (even though He commands us to work and therefore we are the instrumentality of it), then it does follow that part of our wealth is a reserve for the poor.  Perhaps the key to the problems of an overburdened social welfare system is not rewarding those who come for a direct hand-out, but offer a means of help that requires initiative and effort.  The point is God cares for the poor of this world and the test of our hearts is whether or not we will care too. 
Bringing this full circle, the might and wealth of any nation is not determined by their GDP or military, but in the character and concerns of its citizens.  This can be proven by the many great empires that are today on the scrap heap of history who collapsed under the weight of caring only for themselves.  I pray our nation will always keep its open heart and open hand to those who seek refuge and freedom on our shores.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

God and Government Pt. 7: On Justice and Capital Punishment by Chris White

“Whoever sheds human blood,
    by humans shall their blood be shed;
for in the image of God
    has God made mankind.” -- Genesis 9:6

“ Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God.  Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves.  For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good and you will have praise from the same;  for it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil.  Therefore it is necessary to be in subjection, not only because of wrath, but also for conscience’ sake.  For because of this you also pay taxes, for rulers are servants of God, devoting themselves to this very thing.   Render to all what is due them: tax to whom tax is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor.”     --Romans 13: 1-7
  One area that many Christians and non-Christians wrestle with is the issue of the death penalty.  For some it seems incongruous that the disciples of Him who said ‘turn the other cheek’ to desire that murder be avenged.  For others, it seems the God of the Bible is blood-thirsty, ruthlessly demanding the death penalty for homosexuals and people who practice the magical arts.  What we need to understand in this matter is who is responsible to carry out the punishment for capital crimes and to whom does this law apply?
  First of all it is an over application of scripture to extend the prescription of the death penalty to all the groups named in Leviticus (ie. Homosexuals, zoophilics, wizards) because this law was specific to the Jews alone and their role as a ‘holy nation’ in the world.  Capital punishment is implied in Genesis 4 (when Cain murdered Abel) and is quite explicit in the Noahic covenant of Genesis 9.  While the Mosaic covenant is between God and the Jews, the Noahic covenant is between God and all the descendants of Noah which, at last count, includes every human on the planet today.
  In further answering the to whom question we must see that God directly applies this to one kind of crime and one kind of criminal: the one who for purposes of evil takes the life of another human being who is made in the image of God.  This excludes any taking of life that is accidental or unintentional or related to an act of war declared by the state.  Thus, the standard for capital punishment is murder.  This could easily be extended those who commit war atrocities which is using war as a cloak for murder and acts of terrorism which is mass-murder under the guise of religious-political action.
The second part of understanding the mind of God in this matter is the question of who is to carry out the task of avenging murder?  The answer is the civil government rather than the individual.  Implied with this is that there will be an apparatus of justice such as a court system and a system to investigate and confirm the guilt of a person before executing them.  It is not inconsistent for a disciple of Jesus to support the death penalty because they are not supporting revenge taking or vigilante action, but the execution of justice as directed by the Creator.  Christians who are the survivors of such crimes must forgive the horrible wrong that has been done to them (to the degree that is possible) but that does not require them to not have a desire that justice would be done.  Having a civil government tasked with this responsibility mostly ensures the neutrality needed to do justice (something actually taught in Leviticus 19!) and prevents the entire world from breaking out into a blood feud between families.
  Last of all there are the questions and concerns we all have about giving the state the power to take life in this way.  From concerns about the cruel and unusual forms of death devised for capital punishment to what seems to be an uneven application of this law between rich and poor, whites and blacks, to the prospect of wrongly putting an innocent person to death.  I see all sorts of places where tyranny, human error, and the sin nature can come to bear on justice.  As a Christian whose historic memory has not failed him, there have been many times when the governments of this world (sometimes led by Christians!) made your faith or lack of it a capital crime.  In some parts of the world today being a Christian is a capital crime.  Thus, I am not all that enthused or confident that governments should have a power that they could arbitrarily bring to bear on me.  But that said, the alternatives of doing nothing or letting private citizens carry out justice seems a greater injustice in the name of justice.  Therefore, concerns aside, as a Christian I favor the carrying out of justice even if it is done imperfectly because this is a God-given responsibility.  I can only pray that the wheels of justice will always turn slow enough that mercy and truth will prevail wherever necessary.