Sometimes I wish the world had a pause button. Especially when debates flare up and there’s so much heat and so little light. What a gift it would be to have a few hours to think about what happened, to talk about it with your family or your best friends, to pray about what to say and do in response, before clicking play and letting the world flood in again.
Here we are on the Sunday between terror and thanksgiving, observing the last Sunday of the church year. We pause, for a moment at least, to let the light of Christ’s sovereign reign illumine our thoughts and imaginations, hoping that it might also illumine our words and actions in the days and weeks ahead. We pause to let ourselves be reminded that the world is God’s and that our calling in life is to serve God’s reign on earth.
Marilynne Robinson is a writer and one of America’s finest theologians. A few weeks ago I read one of her essays, titled Fear, and I read it again this past week, after 26 governors, including Governor Haslam, had sent a letter to the President, urging him to suspend all plans to resettle additional Syrian refugees. In the essay, Robinson writes,
America is a Christian country. This is true in a number of senses. Most people, if asked, will identify themselves as Christian, which may mean only that they aren’t something else. Non-Christians will say America is Christian, meaning that they feel somewhat apart from the majority culture. There are a large number of demographic Christians in North America because of our history of immigration from countries that are or were also Christian. We are identified in the world at large with this religion because some of us espouse it not only publicly but also vociferously. As a consequence, we carry a considerable responsibility for its good name in the world, though we seem not much inclined to consider the implications of this fact. If we did, some of us might think a little longer about associating the precious Lord with ignorance, intolerance, and belligerent nationalism. These few simple precautions would also make it more attractive to the growing numbers among our people who have begun to reject it as ignorant, intolerant, and belligerently nationalistic, as they might reasonably conclude that it is, if they hear only the loudest voices.
There is something I have felt the need to say, that I have spoken about in various settings, extemporaneously, because my thoughts on the subject have not been entirely formed, and because it is painful to me to have to express them. However, my thesis is always the same, and it is very simply stated, though it has two parts: first, contemporary America is full of fear. And second, fear is not a Christian habit of mind. As children we learn to say, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me.” We learn that, after his resurrection, Jesus told his disciples, “Lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.” Christ is a gracious, abiding presence in all reality, and in him history will finally be resolved. (…) we are taught that Christ “was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made….The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” The present tense here is to be noted. (…) There are always real dangers in the world, sufficient to their day. Fearfulness obscures the distinction between real threat on one hand and on the other the terrors that beset those who see threat everywhere. (…) Granting the perils of the world, it is potentially a very costly indulgence to fear indiscriminately, and to try to stimulate fear in others, just for the excitement of it, or because to do so channels anxiety or loneliness or prejudice or resentment into an emotion that can seem to those who indulge it like shrewdness or courage or patriotism. But no one seems to have an unkind word to say about fear these days, un-Christian as it surely is.
I’ve been worried this past week about the politics of fear. It worries me when governors, more than 30 now, I believe, in the aftermath of a series of horrifying terrorist attacks, identify as prime safety risks that need to be addressed immediately the refugee families from Syria who are fleeing that very terror. It worries me when a public leader like the Mayor of Roanoke talks about internment camps. I believe the Mayor’s and the Governors’ concern is to protect people from harm, and that they are not just trying to score political points by playing to our fears; but their words and actions shifted the debate in an ugly and dangerous direction.
Here we are on the Sunday between terror and thanksgiving, hoping that the light that shines in the darkness will not only illumine us but shine through us. Jesus said to the disciples, “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be loyal to the one and have contempt for the other. (…) Therefore, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear.” Jesus is addressing all of us who pray for the coming of God’s kingdom and for God’s will to be done on earth as it is heaven. “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat,” he says, “is not life more than food?” Yes, but life certainly is food. And water. And clothing. And shelter. And safety from harm. And medical care. And education. And college savings. And retirement plans. And student loans. And a good economy. And the madness in Syria and why can’t somebody please just stop it? And … You start with food and water, and before you know it, all you can do is try to stay afloat while waves of anxiety wash over you. It doesn’t take much to slip into worry mode, and in worry mode, fear is master. Jesus talks about well-fed birds and beautifully clothed lilies to remind us that God is caring for all living things and to encourage us to serve God rather than our fear.
The trouble with worries is that they take over our whole being: they shape how we perceive the world, they invade our thoughts, even our dreams, and determine our actions. The trouble with worries is that they create a whirlpool that has nothing but our needs at the center. The word translated worry in the passage from Matthew means to be anxious, to be divided, to be distracted – but it also means to care, to be concerned about something. That other flavor comes through when you shift the emphasis in the sentence just a little. First you hear, ‘Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink.’ Then you shift the emphasis by just a beat or two and you hear, ‘Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink. These are the things that occupy the minds of the nations, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. Set your mind on God’s kingdom and his righteousnes before everything else, and all the rest will come to you as well.’ Let God’s sovereign reign over heaven and earth shape your perception of the world, let the kingdom invade your thoughts and dreams, let it shape your words and actions.
We are to be concerned about life and food and drink, but in the particular way of the king who, in another teaching of Jesus, will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me” (Matthew 25:34-35).
Our governor will receive a letter tomorrow, signed by many Tennessee churches and congregations, including ours.
Dear Governor Haslam:
We, the undersigned organizations and individuals, urge you to rescind your request to the federal government to suspend the resettlement of Syrian refugees in Tennessee. In the wake of recent global tragedies, we are called to act with compassion and leadership, not fear and misplaced blame. We are committed to the values of our state and our nation and stand ready to work with your administration to ensure that all refugees are welcomed, supported, and fully integrated into our community.
After your request to suspend Syrian refugee resettlement, the rhetoric in our state took a vitriolic and troubling turn. We applaud your recent statement that “we must not lose ourselves,” nor “abandon our values” or “mistreat our neighbors who made it here after enduring unimaginable hardships.” We ask for your ongoing moral and courageous leadership as our state responds to the current political moment.
Tennessee and the United States have a critical and historic role to play in our current global refugee crisis, the largest displacement of people since World War II. Specifically, we must do our part to provide safe refuge to the 4 million Syrian refugees fleeing violence and terror. As the Department of State reminds us, “the U.S. refugee resettlement program reflects the United States’ highest values and aspirations to compassion, generosity and leadership.”
Historically, the U.S. has been a leader in resettlement, offering protection to refugees from across the world and Tennessee has benefitted from these previous waves of resettlement. The courageous men, women, and children who have been resettled in Tennessee over the years are now our neighbors and friends, small business owners, and pillars of our community. In this moment, it is more important than ever that we honor this commitment and tradition with courageous leadership and compassion. Our communities stand ready and willing to welcome more refugees—from Syria and across the world—because we know that through offering resettlement and protection we can save lives and strengthen our communities.
In the wake of the tragedies in Paris, Beirut, and Baghdad we will not allow fear to override our better instincts. We know that refugee resettlement will not make our communities any less safe. We know that refugees must wait months and often years to pass the rigorous screening process and are the most scrutinized of any migrants to the United States.
We believe it is morally reprehensible to turn our backs on Syrian refugees fleeing terror and violence. These men, women, and children are themselves victims of ISIS and must not be blamed for the very terror they are fleeing.
We urge you to immediately rescind your request to the federal government to suspend Syrian resettlement and to commit to working with the federal government to uphold our highest American values by continuing to provide protection to refugees and investing in a generous and robust refugee resettlement program.
We will gather this week around tables of bounty to give thanks for all that has been given to us. Let’s make sure there’s always room for one more guest at the table.
 Marilynne Robinson, The Givenness of Things: Essays (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015): 124-126.