Peace on Earth, Goodwill to Men?

#ChristmasinAleppo

image of Nativity Story movie poster
https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8241723

I wanted to write this post last Sunday, December 11, third Sunday of Advent. During this season, “Peace on earth, goodwill to men,” is practically my mantra. Last Sunday, I came out of church and checked the time on my cell phone. There were three headlines from my newsfeed about bombs around the world: One was certainly in Aleppo, another in Egypt, and another I think was in Turkey but I don’t remember for sure. I felt like shouting to all of them, “Don’t you know this is Advent? Don’t we all want peace and goodwill?”

There is so much going on in the world now that makes you wonder about Advent, which is supposed to be a time of hope and preparation for Christmas. Christmas is supposed to be when we remember the birth of the Christ child, whose birth was announced with angels declaring “Peace on earth, goodwill to men.” And I don’t care what religion you are, you cannot tell me that is not the desire of every human heart.

Syria has been on my mind for a while. The situation there has been called the worst humanitarian crisis in history. And now what is happening in Aleppo is appalling. You see one report on 60 Minutes, and the enormity of suffering is overwhelming. They have been living like this for months, even years. A city thousands of years old, part of the Assyrian, Babylonian, Seleucid, and Roman empires, so very much a part of Biblical history, that in 2011 had a population of two million, now seeing destruction of Biblical proportions. Constant bombardment and temporary cease fires just so they can draw people out of hiding and shoot them down.

What got to me most was seeing mothers desperate to find a safe place for their children, and there is none to be found. In the choir, we were practicing “Breath of Heaven.” Most people call it a Christmas song, but it’s really an Advent song. The music and words together really capture what I can only imagine Mary must have felt in the first days of her pregnancy as she is running away from her hometown to stay with her kinswoman, Elizabeth (Luke 1:36-45). And as I read, heard, and sang the words, I kept thinking of these mothers in Aleppo. Where is peace on earth and goodwill for them? Do I even have a right to enjoy Christmas when there is so much suffering over there?

Religion In a Time of Despair

I know it’s not the only place of suffering in the world. They aren’t the only mothers as desperate as a girl of about twelve or thirteen, pregnant before marriage, who knows no one is going to believe her when she says God is the father of the baby, and wondering how she will care for him in a world that welcomes neither her nor her baby and might stone her to death for impurity and/or blasphemy. But this situation was fresh in my mind. I saw the connection. I felt it. I’m not going to say I understand what they are going through, because there is no way you can know something that horrific if you haven’t actually lived through it.

This is what I think religion can do for us if our hearts are open for it: To see and feel the connection each of us has with all of humanity, even those who are ten thousand miles or whatever away. If I say I want to honor Christ in all I do, what does that mean for them? It means seeing that the story of every mother crying out for the health and safety of her children is Mary’s story. It means seeing the baby Jesus in every baby whose home, family, and life are threatened by powers that view them as a means to an end.

The True Meaning of Christmas

There are two songs specific to the season that drive this home for me. One I’ve already talked about is Amy Grant’s Breath of Heaven. The other is an older, traditional song but with a new twist: I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day by Casting Crowns. The words by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow already told well the struggle between wanting to believe in “Peace on earth, goodwill to men” that Christmas promises and living in a world that seems so bent on violence and hate. The music, however, was boring. Casting Crowns redid the music and adjusted the words just a little so that the mood of both match perfectly. The combination is arguably the most beautifully heartbreaking and hopeful song of the season.

Spiritual Exercise: If you really want to experience the meaning of Christmas,

  1. Stop getting bent out of shape when someone says “Happy Holidays.” With all that’s going on in the world, do you really think Jesus wants you wasting your outrage on that?
  2. Read the scripture in Luke 1:26-40; 2:8-14
  3. Let the words “peace on earth, goodwill to men” sink in
  4. Watch a news story on the plight of the civilians in Aleppo
  5. Then either watch the videos or listen to these two songs.

Amy Grant, “Breath of Heaven,”

Casting Crowns, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”, with lyrics

Below: the original artist, no lyrics

WARNING: BE SURE YOU HAVE TISSUES NEARBY.

But What Can I Do?

Hopefully now you feel some of the compassion Jesus felt when he saw the people were like sheep without a shepherd. What can you do? You can pray, of course. I would recommend making that a part of whatever you do. But if you want to back up your prayer with more substantive action, click here for a link to an excellent article. Here’s a summary.

  1. Educate yourself and stay informed. Add Syria and Aleppo reports to your news feed.
  2. Donate to charities doing the work we can’t. Charity Navigator offers a list of vetted charities actually doing what they say, so you can avoid the scammers.
  3. Show your support and outrage. Write letters to the editor. Attend or organize protests at the embassies of Syria and Russia. Write directly to the governments of Syria, Russia, and Iran through Amnesty International.
  4. Tell your Senators you want them to support the Caesar Bill. It has already passed the House.
  5. Talk and/or post about it
  6. If you have special skills, for example, translator, doctor, lawyer, volunteer with agencies that need those skills
  7. If you’re feeling really bold, welcome a refugee into your home

Grace and Peace to you this Christmas season.

DAA

P.S. If you like this, you might also like…

Previous posts about Syria

Previous posts about Christmas

 

 

Bonus Post: Sorry for Brussels

I woke up this morning trying to begin developing habits of mindfulness. I took a moment to breathe and be grateful. As my current self-help book (Emergence, by Derek Rydall) suggested, instead of saying, “Good God, it’s morning,” say, “Good morning, God.” It actually helped. I got out of bed with feelings of gratitude for the gift of life and breath God has given me.

Then I turned on CNN, like I do most mornings, and… well you probably know by now. Europe, once again, is the victim of terrorist attacks by ISIS. Two explosions at the airport in Brussels. Another at the Metro station. Reports at the time said Twenty-six dead. Twenty-six people who will never again have the opportunity to thank God for life and breath as I had done just a few minutes before. I wanted to write about other things, particularly continuing my series on Pontius Pilate.

A few months ago, I posted a comment on Deuteronomy 26 related to the Syrian refugee crisis. We have some of our presidential candidates calling for a ban on all Muslims entering the country and saying we can’t take any of these refugees in. I argued instead we need to make every effort to let them in. From a practical perspective, we need friends in the Muslim world. People like this:

A few years from now, he might make a good spy for us. And he’s not alone.

We are not fighting a nation with armies lining up together that we can bomb or send tanks against. We are fighting an enemy that is hiding in plain sight – until they decide to carry out their planned attacks.

Here is an example:

June 22, 2015, Hickory, North Carolina: A nineteen-year-old man was planning to carry out an ISIS inspired attack. His plan was thwarted when his father reported him in to authorities. This particular boy wasn’t even Muslim or Arab, so don’t think if we keep Muslims out we’re safe.

The main point is he was stopped because someone close to him found out what he was up to and reported him. The more friends we have, the more eyes we have to root out these moles. If the ISIS recruiters are reaching out mainly to Muslims, Muslim friends are our best defense against them.

Then there is the Christian perspective. Love your neighbor. Love the stranger and the alien. Love your enemies. What does that mean in the face of terrorism? I don’t have the answer, but I’m pretty sure it does not include banning, hating and denigrating entire groups of people because of race, religion, ethnicity, or nationality. Not a good way to make the friends we need either.

But let’s remember what they really want: Not so much to kill us but to terrorize us. We are going to need to heighten our security, but we need to be smart about it too. Be watchful, but don’t give in to panic and terror. And on this point, I offer one of the best examples of this I have come across.

A friend was planning the baptism of her newborn. She requested specifically September 11 as the date. The pastor was like, “9-11? Why would you want that date?”

She said, “Because that’s the date my husband and I met.”

That’s how you don’t let the terrorists win. Don’t let them take the joy out of your life.

Grace and Peace to you.

P.S. If you’re having trouble believing there are still good Muslims in America and around the world who want to help us, take a look at this: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Muslims-Against-ISIS/1444672609121662.

P.P.S. A lot of good things happening in Estonia. Hear what the Prime Minister says about the Refugee crisis.

“>Starts at 5:00 if you’re in a hurry

.

Compassion and caution

David Anderson

If you read my last post, you might be thinking some of these refugees might really be terrorists, the proverbial wolves in sheep’s clothing. And I would say we all should know the vast majority of these people are legitimately in dire straits. We’ve seen the images of the children washed up dead on the shores. How desperate do you have to be to undertake a journey you and your children might not survive? They are running from ISIS. They are victims of terrorism themselves. Still, I am as concerned as any American about keeping terrorists out. So I understand we need more than just, “Love each other, and it will all work out.”

Current policy inadequate

We talk to them. If any part of their story can’t be verified, we don’t let them in. That’s the current policy. A Republican state house representative I happened to meet at a cocktail party said we “dodged a bullet” on the refugee issue when the governor said we won’t accept Syrian refugees. “We don’t know who these people are,” he said. “They live in the stone age. How are we going to verify they are who they say they are?”

I’m not sure “stone age” is accurate. But he actually showed why this policy is inadequate for meeting this need. When people are running for their lives or coming from refugee camps, do they think about collecting their documents? How are we going to be able to confirm every detail they tell about the circumstances that led them here?

Wolves among the sheep?

That’s the worry that’s making people push back against doing more to help. I wish I could dismiss it as right-wing paranoia, but a report on CNN said that one of the attackers in Paris did in fact enter the country by posing as a refugee. So it appears ISIS has figured how to infiltrate groups of refugees. What can we do then with so many people in need, the vast majority of whom are refugees but may have a few terrorists sprinkled in? For what it’s worth, I have an idea….

Vet them, and monitor them

Vet them as much as we can, with the understanding because of circumstances, verifying each and every detail may not be possible.  If I were as desperate as the Syrian refugees, I would not mind it at all if that’s what it takes for you to let me into your country. Go ahead, put an ankle bracelet monitor on me, put a tap on all my phones and computers, put a GPS chip under my skin, assign me a probation officer  – whatever it takes for you to feel safe enough to let me in. If I go back to my country, I’m dead. Just give me a place where I can live like a human being. That’s all I want.

Recruiting Opportunity

In my last post, I appealed to Deuteronomy 10:19 – You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. That may make me sound altruistic and naïve. Full disclosure, I have selfish motives as well for letting in more refugees.

I’ve said for years if we are going to defeat terrorists who call themselves Muslim, we need friends in the Muslim world. If we rescue them when they have nowhere else to turn, how likely are they to be recruited by people who call us the Great Satan? “The Great Satan” saved my life and my family’s lives, Dumbass!

Those who we let in and are found to be trustworthy through vetting and monitoring, why not recruit some of them to help gather intelligence on ISIS, Al-Qaeda, or any other Muslim extremist group that threatens us? They already look like they belong there. They speak the language – and without an American accent. Perfect spy material.

But what do I know? I’m just a Bible scholar.

 

Strangers in the Land

David Anderson

Most of us have read or heard the story of the Pharisee who asked Jesus what the most important commandment in scripture is. He responded that the greatest command was two-fold: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your strength, and all your mind. And also, love your neighbor as yourself. How important are they?

On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. (Matthew 22:40 KJV)

The neighbor, though, is not the only person we are commanded to love.

You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. (Deuteronomy 10:19 NRS)

Would it surprise you to know that the command to love your neighbor appears only once in the Old Testament, but the command to love the stranger appears 34 times? Is that because it is 34 times as important to love the stranger as it is to love the neighbor? Is it because we should love the stranger 34 times as much as the neighbor? I don’t think so. I think the constant repetition of this command indicates how much harder it is to love the stranger – different race, different nationality, different language, different ethnicity, different culture, different religion – than people we know and who are like us.

Coupled with the command is the reason: because you were strangers in the land of Egypt. The reason is expanded in this command regarding the offering of first-fruits to the LORD.

4 When the priest takes the basket from your hand and sets it down before the altar of the LORD your God, you shall make this response before the LORD your God: “A wandering Aramean was my [father]; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous.

 6 When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the LORD, the God of our ancestors; the LORD heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression.

 8 The LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.

 10 So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O LORD, have given me.” You shall set it down before the LORD your God and bow down before the LORD your God. (Deuteronomy 26:4-10 NRS)

So every time they brought first-fruit offerings, they reminded themselves,

  1. Their ancestors wandered with no land to call their own
  2. They settled in a foreign nation and prospered there, despite being aliens
  3. The Egyptians treated them harshly and oppressed them
  4. They cried out to the LORD, and the LORD heard them
  5. God delivered them out of bondage in Egypt and gave them a land flowing with milk and honey
  6. Now that they are settled and established in the land, they offer to God the first-fruits of what the land produced for them.

The Syrian refugee crisis is on a scale we have seldom seen in human history. The command of the LORD is clear: Love the stranger, for you were once strangers in a foreign land. Isn’t that the American experience as well? Unless you’re Native American, your ancestors came here as strangers. Why is it so hard now to obey God’s commandment?

There has been so much fear of immigrants in the last several years, mainly since 9-11. If those immigrants are Muslim, forget it. We don’t want them. Fear of the stranger coupled with fear of terrorism. While that is understandable, I don’t think it excuses us from taking in refugees.

Look at the scriptures above again. The Israelites recited these words repeatedly. They made sure to pass them on to each generation, so they would remember it. We were oppressed in Egypt. The LORD delivered us out of bondage and brought us into this blessed land. Notice, in each generation, they don’t say, “Our ancestors were oppressed…” They say, “We were oppressed…and the LORD delivered us.”

Hear the word of the LORD. Love the stranger and welcome him or her. You were strangers once in this land. I am the LORD who blessed you and gave you a home here. Don’t EVER forget that.