Favorited: Reflections on the Syrian Refugee Crisis

A sermon from Washington City Church of the Brethren on September 13, 2015

By: Nathan Hosler

James 2:1-17, Mark 7:24-37

The protests in Syria began while Jenn and I were doing peacebuilding work in Nigeria with the Church of the Brethren. Once a year we would come back to the United States so that Jenn’s permanent residency card stayed in good order. In June of 2011 we came home for the denominations Annual Conference but also attended a peacebuilding training. The courses are 10 day long intensives. These courses include people from all over the world who are engaged in peacebuilding related work. I remember very distinctly walking between buildings on day during lunch break. There was a guy, probably a little bit older than I was, walking and talking excitedly. He wasn’t in my class but I knew from introductions early in the week that he was Syrian. He was talking about the protests which I believe he was involved in. The government had just begun using violence against them but while urgent he also seemed optimistic. Probably 2 years later, and now working in the Office of Public Witness here in DC I saw him again–still moving about energetically but this time organizing a rally urging US military intervention. After years of ever expanding violence, atrocities, and millions displaced optimism feels long gone. Were the violence to end—completely—this weekend, the aftermath and destruction still feels nearly insurmountable.

On Thursday Jenn and I went to Calvary Baptist in Chinatown to hear Nadia Bolz-Weber speak. Nadia is known as a rather unexpected pastor with a higher than average tattoo count and an unlikely story of completely bottoming out before dramatically experiencing God’s grace. One thing she asserted was that Christians need to stop trying to make ourselves look like we have it together. We need to honestly face the violence of our world. This is what I am going to attempt.

Today we are going to read our scripture passages alongside the crisis of refugees coming out of Syria. When we live far away—and particularly if our job does is not related to international affairs—it is easy to forget that conflicts and disasters and the many years long consequences and recovery from these continue on. This week was one of those weeks when an ongoing war-caused humanitarian disaster broke through into the public space.  I won’t be remotely comprehensive. There are plenty of sources that are available and you have probably seen which can given more detailed analysis. What I’m going to attempt is a public theology or perhaps theological ethical take on our two scripture readings and this refugee crisis

Over the past two weeks the presence and intensity of the Syrian refugee crisis has increased—at least in the media. There were harrowing pictures of a drowned Syrian child on a beach, of parents desperately trying to get ashore off of leaking boats, of hundreds setting out on foot because they were not allowed to take a train. We witnessed policymakers make bold commitments (Merkel in Germany) and not so bold commitments from our own government. I heard of individual people bringing out food and water as people hiked rather than took a train while xenophobic and anti-Muslim rhetoric was vented.

The passage in James 2 begins, My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?”(NRSV)

The New International Versions translates it “My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism.”(NIV)

Favoritism is obviously being challenged by Jesus. The writer continues on, giving an example of what this might look like. He is speaking within the context of gathering of the church and says if a rich person comes in and a poor person comes in and you treat the rich better then you have “made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts.” Though this is only the second chapter of a book that is decidedly practical and ethical in nature, poverty and riches have already been noted at several points. Given our passage and other contextual clues this is a context of a relatively poor church. In such a context connecting with a wealthy benefactor would be not only a bonus but a key to survival. This is a reflection of the patronage system of the day. Yet despite this, James adamantly condemns showing favoritism.

Children—as it is reported—have a strong sense of fairness, that is, at least when it affects them. In this passage the challenge to favoritism comes not from a general account of fairness but from Jesus–In fact the question is posed, with your favoritism do you really believe in Jesus? This isn’t a general “as Christians we really shouldn’t …” but are you really a Christian? Do you really follow and believe in Jesus? This is a not a preference toward not acting with favoritism based on economics but serious enough bring into question one’s relationship to God. It is not, however, a calculus based on net worth, total assets or dollars but of valuing certain persons or categories of persons over others. Though James is primarily referring, in this passage, to personal encounters with those entering the church it would also apply to allowing systemic favoritism (or the inverse—systemic oppression) to go unchallenged.

  1. First observation of the text is that favoritism is a big deal and the challenge to favoritism, or valuing some over others, is based on Jesus (or perhaps a claim that one is following Jesus). We see that even when it is important for economic viability of a community to show favoritism toward those with power that this is no excuse.

So I am claiming that James is claiming that belief and following the way of Jesus is incompatible with favoritism. How then do we understand the passage we read in the Gospel of Mark? In this passage Jesus is approached by a woman who begs that he heal her daughter. Jesus response is not what we would expect.

25 but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. 26 Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. 27 He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 28 But she answered him, “Sir,  even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

How do we account for Jesus initial response to the woman?

If my assertion that in James favoritism is challenged by Jesus rather than a more general account of justice or fairness rang true to you, the passage in Mark likely caused you to pause–likely created some discomfort. Jesus is approached by a woman asking for help for her daughter and Jesus responds in a way that sounds blatantly racist–or at least bigoted against a different religion or region.

Interpreters may take several approaches which I will note. I note these to help understand this passage but also as a mini lesson on hermeneutics (and perhaps theological method).

We could say that this is simply a case of cultural, religious, and racial biases of Jesus’ community shining through. In another Gospel, we read of Jesus as a boy and that he “grew in wisdom”. This is an assertion that though Jesus is the Messiah, Immanuel—God with us—that there was still some sort of natural progression. Since of course Jesus was from a community with a culture and history, part of this growth would include the assumptions of this community. Since, as all of us who have gotten older at any point can attest, we continue to grow and learn throughout our lives this rather offensive comment from Jesus is simply a case of his continued bias showing through but then his being challenged and changing.

It may be the case that Jesus was corrected in this simple exchange but it seems unlikely to me given the verses immediately before this event. In the first portion of this chapter Jesus explicitly challenges the assumptions and practices of the religious leaders around what is considered clean and unclean. When the religious leaders criticized his disciples for eating with hands that were not ritually clean Jesus said, “’Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,

‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching human precepts as doctrines.’

You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”

Then he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition!”

 So, though Jesus’ response to the woman is surprising from him, it is a continuation of his challenging policies and beliefs of exclusion—and in James of favoritism.

If I have managed to convince you that that favoritism is a big deal and the challenge to favoritism, or valuing some over others, is based on Jesus the question still remains—How does this relate concretely to Syrian refugees? Well, an obvious and abstract answer is that we should not treat Syrian refugees any differently that we would want to be treated if we needed to flee during a civil war that dragged Canada and Mexico into the chaos. The second answer is that we should push our government to enact policies that adequately support refugees which would include more than the scant 10,000 Obama just promised to accept. Or by supporting the Shoulder to Shoulder Campaign that works against anti-Muslim rhetoric aimed at Syrian refugees. This is of course critical and should be done. This is also is the sort of thing my office works on. This is important but, honestly, doesn’t take a whole lot of personal sacrifice.

In 2010 we went to the CoB’s National Youth Conference. While in line to register behind the General Secretary Stan Noffsinger I mistook Jarrod McKenna (who has long dread locks) for Shaine Claiborne (who also had long dread locks at the time). I don’t know what I said—I think it was some sort of joke or semi-snarky comment (which may have been a little dangerous for someone I didn’t know)—but we ended up talking with Jarrod and then spending a good part of the next few days with him. Jarrod is from Australia and became very active in direct action protests against the asylum seekers policy of Australia. While involved in these protests he and his wife Teresa felt that they needed to directly support refugees in getting into the hard to enter rental market of Perth. Long story short, they raised or borrowed enough money to buy and renovate an abandoned Pentecostal church turned meth-lab. This became known as the First Home Project. Now Teresa, Jarrod, and their son Tyson live in a building which has expanded to several buildings and houses and rents to refugee families who otherwise would struggle to get into the rental market. While this may sound kind of glamorous Jarrod notes that this isn’t really the case. He says, “Homework lessons change lives. Driving lessons change lives. Helping somebody with their CV changes lives. Having a cup of tea with someone changes lives. And it’s not sexy, and it’s not spectacular, and it’s not going to make a Facebook update, but it’s real.”

(http://rotundamedia.com.au/2015/06/17/midland-couple-welcome-refugees-into-their-home-the-first-home-project/)

As second critical piece of James is, that faith and works are inseparable. Belief and action must be joined.

14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters,[e] if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? 15 If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? 17 So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.

18 But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith.19 You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder. 20 Do you want to be shown, you senseless person, that faith apart from works is barren? 21 Was not our ancestor Abraham justified by works when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was brought to completion by the works. 23 Thus the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” and he was called the friend of God. 24 You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. 25 Likewise, was not Rahab the prostitute also justified by works when she welcomed the messengers and sent them out by another road? 26 For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead.

At her talk this Thursday Nadia Bolz-Weber claimed of her congregation–“We are religious but not spiritual.” By this she sought to challenge the tendency to separate the spiritual from the bodily. Indeed the idea that faith and works (or actions) can be separated is even challenged. In the case of Abraham the act was the faith. In this passage the writer is challenging a tendency to isolate faith from works so that it is understood to be authentically from grace rather than earned. For many Brethren I wonder if the tendency is from the other side. That is, we know that we are supposed care about justice and service but occasionally we think that is it. Now, don’t get me wrong, all things being equal I would much prefer that someone be committed to justice and service rather than not, but, we do this because we follow Jesus. Not only are we to reject favoritism—or a prioritizing of on group over another—but we are to get around to doing something. Watching the news and feeling angry and sad and empathy is important but if we simply stop there we have come up short. I must admit that at first the prospect of writing a sermon amidst work and my studies was not quite what I wanted to be doing—however, when I realized that this could be a tiny part of addressing the actual suffering of actual people my perspective started to bend. When we come to church to here the Gospel we do not do this as some sort of obligation or strange entertainment but as part of our being molded as a people into radical Christ followers. Just a verse before James challenges favoritism we read “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress.”

May our lives be so formed that we, in the way of Jesus, abandon favoritism living out our faith for the glory of God and for our neighbors good. Amen.

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