Facts, Faith and Fear

I’d like to ask to share something today. I think its important. It might be disjointed, but its my best attempt to communicate my thoughts about the past weeks. Its been building for much longer than that, but the terrorist attacks in Paris and our national conversation this past week about Syrian refugees broke something open in me. I do not like to be hasty to speak or opine, although I fail and sometimes do it anyway. But this is really serious, and so I’ve prayerfully tried to consider how to present it. This will probably be the first of a few.

I want to start with some facts. I’ve found in listening to and watching the rhetoric battles on the news or on social media, that facts can get lost in the midst of emotion, fear, and ‘taking sides’. I’m not interested in making any political statement. I mean that. Politics get involved because its politicians who make decisions that affect people, but I don’t care what side of the aisle they are on. To speak plainly, I actually do believe the refugee issue is a moral issue. I’ll speak to that later, but I know how ‘moral’ language can sometimes only serve to heat up rhetoric. I do think this is about the soul of our country, which is in need of healing, like I’m in need of healing. But sometimes in medicine one has to look at some facts and figures, some data to help determine what the illness is.

I think facts are critical in the national discussion we are having. A spiraling cycle of side taking and sound byte quoting is bad for any discussion, but we are at a place where the stakes are really high. The world in undoubtedly increasingly in chaos, and facing complex challenges that require reasoned, serious responses. I made it a point in the midst of this past week to try to determine what the facts are when it comes to the refugee situation. I spoke with people who have worked with refugee resettlement for decades. I tried to find resources that contained facts and reflected experience. I want to start with a few facts about who comes to our country each year, the screening process, and the numbers associated with it.

An average of 20 million international travelers enter the US each year via the Visa Waiver program. While there is still a screening process it is much less thorough than that which a refugee must go through. Here’s an overview.

About 70 Million people traveled to the US last year from other countries, via the usual screening process for international travel. Also, much less strict criteria than what a refugee must meet.

Refugees face an extremely intense and thorough screening process. Some of the best explanations I’ve heard are from people who have worked with refugee resettlement for decades. Here are some links to their explanations, and a few more helpful stories/links concerning this:

Immigration Lawyer Scott Hicks Explanation

Refugee Council USA

An Article from Al Jazeera highlighting the stories of refugees who have gone through the process

Keep in mind that the number of Syrian refugees set to take part in this program are 10,000. Compare this to the 70 million who travel to the US through the usual process, and the 20 million who use the even less restricted Visa Waiver Program.

Those are the facts. This part is my opinion.

When considering all of this, and hearing the voices from people who actually work with refugee resettlement, I am convinced that the actions of 31 Governors (including my own) and the House do not connect with the claimed impetus – security concerns. The most difficult way for a terrorist to enter our country, at this point, is through the refugee program (btw, our screening process is much more intense than that of many European countries).

My only conclusion is that the actions are politically motivated, and this conclusion deeply concerns me as a citizen and a priest. I say priest, because, as I mentioned before, first and foremost I am convicted in my heart that this is a moral issue. I do not believe in heavy-handed religious rhetoric about political issues, in fact, I detest it, and I will not tell people from the pulpit to think, vote, or act a certain way, that is for each person to decide. I don’t want to control anyone. But I believe I would be denying something of my calling if I did not at least speak my heart, and in many ways, call people to consider the facts, and then examine what the heated responses I’ve seen, from politicians and on social media say about the condition of our souls. Its a question for each one of us personally, but also collectively as a nation, to ask, is this what we want to be? I can only answer for myself, and my own work of repentance (or lack thereof) in my heart, my own willingness (or unwillingness) to challenge my assumptions, my own willingness (or unwillingness) to consider my own wealth, my own comfort, my own privilege, in contrast to those whose voices, plights, and experience is very different from mine. That is all I can speak to.

When I consider the facts about the numbers of people actually entering our country through the normal, less intense process, which is not met with heated demands for ‘more security’ and place that next to the numbers of refugees slated to enter our country through a much tighter screening process, which has been met not only with demands but actual legislative and executive actions to block them, or make it even more difficult, I cannot but come to the conclusion that what is going on here is not, in a serious way, about security concerns.

So what is it about?

I think we’re afraid. I wonder if we can admit it and get serious about meeting that fear not with calls for kicking people out or creating religious or ethnically focused ‘databases’, not just because, in my opinion, that’s morally the wrong thing to do, but also because it doesn’t line up with reality, with facts, and, I would argue, it doesn’t represent who we actually are as Americans.

Of course we’re afraid. I’m afraid. As a reporter on a roundtable discussion on a radio show I listen to this morning said, “The civilized mind does not know what to do with the acts of barbarism we see from the likes of ISIS.” I agree. I hate what they do what they stand for. I hate the way they now dominate the conversation through their cowardly acts. They prey on our fear and they count on us reacting from our fear. They want to bring about the end of the world. The question is: Do we believe them? There is a difference,  I think,  between taking them seriously and believing them. Taking them seriously looks like understanding that, as a force, they must be stopped, the innocent must be protected, and their networks must be infiltrated and defeated, inasmuch as they exist as an organized entity that can be engaged in that way. To believe them is to begin to adopt their spirit, that the world is us against them, to suspect, to wish to control, to fear, and to stop looking at facts, to expect, and with our rhetoric, almost seem to wish for the end. If we believe them, they win, not matter if we do defeat the shape-shifting organized entity that represents their ideology.

By “believing them” I point to the fact that, in the wake of the terrorist attacks, I heard politicians calling for closing mosques, of rounding up Syrians and muslims, of creating databases to track “all muslims”. I heard this, not from radical fringe factions, but from front-running candidates. On social media I saw memes, some that had been shared tens of thousands of times with rhetoric referring to muslims as “inbred animals”. I saw articles from sites, sites that are often cited and frequented, based again, on their seeming popularity via “likes” and “shares” that had side bars with phrases such as “Spay and Neuter Muslims” and “End Islam”. I’m using the most extreme examples I saw for effect, and I know the vast majority of people don’t really think this way, and I believe would not actually do violence to a random muslim. However, this stuff is popular enough that it makes its way into my news feed somehow. Behind closed doors I know and have heard this kind of rhetoric, not as extreme, but certainly as suspicious of “all” this kind of person, or we have to “be ready to shut down mosques” in my own circles. Behind closed doors among people of my own faith tradition I’ve heard it said that the only place Christians and Muslims should meet is on the battlefield, that coexistence is impossible. I think this is fear based and not based in reality. Not to mention, and forgive me for being so blunt, but it kind of mirrors what groups like ISIS use in their rhetoric. I think its a symptom of believing them rather than taking the seriously. I think we risk adopting their spirit by believing them.

A bit of an aside. I thought a great deal in the midst of mourning the terrorist attacks in Paris. I thought about what the response would be and how we face such terrible acts. I thought about the rhetoric of the battle of civilizations. I thought about the conversations I hear even within my own religious community, about “Christian nation” and “societal evils”. I thought about that, it seems the attacks in Paris did not signify a war between the “Christian West” and the “Muslim East” as it sometimes gets painted. Rather, it signified a war between those who believe that we should strive as a society for equal rights and protections for all, for a pluralistic culture where people who are different can live next to each other, and those who wish to impose a religious authority, their religious authority over all other people in a society. In short, it was about people who believed they did the righteous thing by imposing their will, in a violent manner, on the “godless” people who were at a rock concert or football game. I’m with the people at the rock concert and football game, not for political reasons, but because my faith requires it of me. I do not serve a God that imposes Himself on anyone, certainly not by violence, but is found precisely among the suffering, the weak, the victimized in their moment of need, the ordinary. He does not need his honor ‘protected’ or His point proven. He is much bigger than that.

So getting back to the initial question of the Syrian refugees, I think it is the rhetoric of fear, not facts and concern for security, that drives some of the policies and, sadly, the national conversation we are seeing today. If we are serious we have to admit that our usual travel restrictions, and especially the Visa Waiver program provide a much easier way for people with bad intentions to enter our country. However, those avenues also bring a lot of business, a lot of money to our country. Do we shut this down? The refugees are a drop in the bucket compared to the number of travelers. What is the basis for trusting them less, especially considering the process they face to get here? Sadly it seems it is always the most victimized, the most in need, the ones who have no voice that lose in politically motivated policies.

I’ve wondered what it means for future generations of Syrians, who are told by groups with ideologies like ISIS that the west is the enemy, that it is a battle of civilizations, that they must radicalize to fight us, if they grow up hearing that in the moment of greatest need, in the midst of the greatest humanitarian refugee crisis since World War 2, the United States refused their people out of fear. I wonder if they will believe it.