On the Monday after the Paris attacks, Oliver Willis (@owillis) of Media Matters for America tweeted, “if only we had a seasonally appropriate story about middle eastern people seeking refuge being turned away by the heartless.”1 Willis was retweeted more than twenty thousand times as advocates for Syrian refugee resettlement spoke against the past weeks’ rising tide of xenophobia. Jesus and snark are evidently a winning combination.
Willis’s social media barb brought to mind another situation involving Jesus, war, racism, religious difference, and refugees with Middle Eastern roots. Within months of Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, Jews could no longer sit for the bar, hold an editorship, or work in the civil service. Storm troopers stood outside Jewish businesses, terrorizing the owners and their patrons. The German population, especially in Pomerania and the eastern part of the country, overwhelmingly voted for the Nazis. As Advent began that year, the German theologian Karl Barth stood in the pulpit of University Church in Bonn and stunned the congregation by saying, “Christ belonged to the people of Israel. That people’s blood was, in his veins, the blood of the Son of God. That people’s character he has accepted by taking on being human.” His younger colleague Dietrich Bonhoeffer went further. In his book Ethics, Bonhoeffer wrote, “Driving out the Jews from the West must result in driving out Christ with them, for Jesus Christ was a Jew.”2
Reporters have already drawn parallels between the xenophobic fear-mongering of Nazi Germany and the current American political climate. Those reporting on the American presidential election have questioned Donald Trump on his support for a database containing all American Muslims and special Muslim identification cards, asking how such tracking would be different from Nazi anti-Jewish measures. Trump repeatedly answered: “You tell me.” While the Hitler card has been overplayed in American politics, such a response doesn’t inspire confidence. What’s more, both Republican and Democrat members of Congress and more than twenty-five governors reflected Trump’s views when they announced that they would not allow Syrian (predominately Muslim) refugees into their states. Individual states can’t make treaties or otherwise determine foreign policy matters, so the governors’ stand was mere political posturing. But the November 19th House vote to indefinitely halt the refugee flow from Syria and Iraq was not. Forty-seven Democrats joined the Republicans to pass the bill by a veto-proof majority.
In another parallel to Nazi Germany, many religious leaders have spoken out against the bill’s passage and its underlying ideologies. The National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) have both expressed dismay at the attempts to bar Syrians from entering the country. Bishop Eusebio Elizondo said recently that he was “disturbed” by the anti-refugee furor, and NAE President Leith Anderson pleaded, “Let’s not punish the victims of ISIS for the sins of ISIS.” And, of course, snarkier religious rejections of the bill played out on social media.3
The popularity of Donald Trump indicates that many American conservatives—those typically associated with “Christian values”—are at odds with their religious leaders on the issue of Syrian refugee resettlement. Not unlike the admonitions of Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, religious leaders’ calls to welcome the disenfranchised stranger often fall on deaf ears in their congregations. I can’t help but wonder what’s going on here. What has brought the American church to this place? Why are so many Christians going against their religious authorities on this particular issue?
The analogous context of 1930s Germany offers some initial insight for addressing this question. In the early months of 1933, Germans were understandably fearful. Extreme inflation rates and terrifying levels of unemployment had defined the mid-1920s. Members of the urban working class were often sympathetic to Marxism and the specter of Bolshevism was abroad. Political parties, including the Communists, had their own roving militias of young men who sometimes fought running battles in the streets, and many citizens worried that if their parliament, the Reichstag, came under the control of Communists, those lawmakers would take their cues from Communist International and Moscow rather than looking to the interests of Germany. Above all, the First World War had left Germans with a lot of debt, the Treaty of Versailles’s attribution of sole guilt for the war, and intense national shame. Meanwhile, Jews were a vulnerable scapegoat. People often thought they were in cahoots with the Communists—that they were also thought to be in cahoots with big business apparently didn’t strike people as contradictory. Hitler’s anti-Semitic and anti-Communist rhetoric found an audience in the rural lower and middle classes. They needed honesty, stability, and fearless leadership. Hitler seemed to provide that.
In view of all this, the Germans who cast their ballots for the National Socialists perceived real impending dangers: Communists really might have taken over the Reichstag. Another total collapse in the economy really might have ruined millions of people’s lives. Of course, the Jews were no threat, but because they were viewed as different, other, from the German Christian masses, one can appreciate the fear that rippled through national and local media. Because the question, “How are we going to protect our country and our culture?” was the controlling political question of the day, it’s understandable why many Germans answered “Hitler.” Simply put, they were afraid.
Similarly, given the United States’ recent economic instability, extreme political divisions, and seemingly endless participation in war, it’s understandable why the question of how to protect the United States and its culture preoccupies the national landscape. It’s also understandable why Americans, even American Christians, might look to Trump to appease our fears and protect the United States, just as the Nazis looked to Hitler. We don’t want another Paris, another Madrid, another London. We don’t want another 9/11. Certainly, a good percentage of Americans have seen through the false statistic that 75 percent of Syrian refugees to America are young “military-aged men,” realized that the Syrian refugees aren’t all Muslim (and that not all Muslims are violent extremists), and read that all refugees to the United States have to undergo a rigorous, invasive screening process. Yet there remains a waxing anxiety, a fear that something will go wrong in our national approach to the problem of ISIS and that life as we know it won’t be the same.
Why, then, are ecclesiastical authorities in this country—many of whom wave the flag as vigorously as anyone—shouting for the government to let the refugees in? Don’t they also fear terrorism? Aren’t they also familiar with the anxiety that constitutes the contemporary political climate? These Christian leaders position themselves against critics of refugee resettlement because they believe that God has commanded them to do so. Whatever they believe to be the risk, they find it to be their duty as Christians to help the poor and downtrodden, including Syrian refugees. Many have quoted from Leviticus: “The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God” (19:34 NIV). From the New Testament, Jesus’s central commands to “love your enemies” (Matt. 5:44) and “love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:30–31) have been quoted frequently. In Saint Paul’s writings, one thinks of his exuberant claims that Christ has “broken down the dividing wall” (Eph. 2:14) between Jews and all other nationalities and his command that Christians should embody Christ’s attitude of self-emptying service “even to the point of death” (Phil. 2:5–13). That includes accepting the risk in aiding the most vulnerable members of our world.
Many American Christians seem to overlook all this, and just as with their 1930s German counterparts, the cause may be a conflation of national identity and Christian identity. In Germany, people had come to think of being Christian and being German as more or less the same thing. Their country, they thought, had to be protected militarily and economically, and the German people needed Lebensraum (“living space”) to become great again. If their German identity was in danger, then in some sense so was their Christian identity. Similarly, many in the United States view American values and culture as Christian values and culture. And it’s entirely understandable why the two are conflated. Until the middle of the last century nearly everyone in America thought of themselves as being Christian. The Puritanism of early America was theocratic to the core, and even the great early-twentieth-century liberal theologian Walter Rauschenbusch sometimes spoke of working toward a theocracy in the United States, albeit a democratically elected one based on good will and consensus. As often as not, good things came out of this conflation.
This conflation has a name: supersessionism. Also called replacement theology, this view holds that God has replaced Israel as the people of God with the church. In his book The Christian Imagination, Willie Jennings shows that supersessionism has had insidious consequences in the West because the replacement of the Jewish people with the church did not only transfer God’s covenant from one religion to another; often, it was also seen as the transfer of God’s blessing from one race or nation to another.4 This partially explains the use of Christian missions in the subjugation of South America by Spain or in certain parts of Africa by Great Britain. According to replacement theology, if Europeans are God’s people, then other darker skinned people or people from other cultures are not. When such thinking wins out, it’s far easier to subjugate the other through exclusion or even violence. This has led Christians to cast out fear by casting out others—that is, those whom they blamed as the source of their fears. In supersessionism we see the theological roots of cultural imperialism, wherein one group of people replaces another, or at least eschews the other’s equal human dignity. Supersessionism justified the superiority of German Christians over the Jews, and today it prioritizes the safety of Americans over the dignity of refugees. It leads Americans to replace Christian charity with calls to pause our acceptance of refugees.
An orthodox Christian vision of human relations, however, should not conflate religion and state. Saint Augustine, for example, set up City of God by distinguishing the city of God, that is, the Christian church, from the “earthly city,” that is, those cultures that followed stories other than the Christian story. Church and society were assumed to be different, sometimes even working at cross purposes.5 There’s no reason for the earthly city to care for most foreigners. Often refugees have nothing to offer the wider society, and they may or may not be a threat to a culture’s way of life. Foreigners can compromise the state’s cultural and political stability, as many anthropologists and sociologists will tell us. Even the melting pot of American society can only tolerate those who put the state first, those who, when the rubber meets the road, will do what’s best for our Western technocratic society, even if it violates their religious commitments. Just consider the case of someone who felt it was their religious duty to engage in animal sacrifice. Or closer to home, consider the debates in San Francisco and other cities in recent years about outlawing circumcision.
This is why on the first page of City of God Augustine calls the earthly city “that city which, when it seeks mastery, is itself mastered by the lust for mastery even though all the nations serve it.” As a manifestation of the earthly city, the nation-state seeks absolute sovereignty within its borders. In much the same spirit, Terry Eagleton wrote in Culture and the Death of God that “modern societies . . . are faithless by their very nature.”6
In Christian thinking, the city of God—the church—must not be controlled by its need for security, success, or domination. It must, to channel the first-century Jewish zealots, have “no king but God,” and for that reason it must care for the foreigner, the poor, and the oppressed—not because doing so is good for society but because God commands it.7 With this confidence in God, Christians in ancient Rome took care of plague victims after most everyone else had fled, and Christians in France, Germany, and the Low Countries hid Jews by the tens of thousands, even when storm troopers and the Gestapo were at their door. With this faith, members of the Confessing Church publicly contradicted the national narrative propagated by the Nazis, sacrificing their careers and even their lives, as was the case with Bonhoeffer.
Augustine’s work shouldn’t be applied contemporarily with total disregard for the threat of terrorism in our world. There is no indication that the USCCB, the NAE, or any other American Christian group wants to roll over and give ISIS our nuclear launch codes. Instead, they want to do the hard thing of following Christ on the road of life, loving their neighbor as themselves, even when the cross of Christ waits at the end of the path. If non-Christians prefer to build Trump’s wall or to worry that one bad apple among the Syrian refugees will commit a terrorist attack, that’s entirely understandable. It’s understandable that a non-Christian would put America first and say that we just can’t risk it. Christians, however, owe their allegiance to a higher power, and risk management looks a bit different under such an authority.
As Christians, our fears ought not be the driving force in our lives. We shouldn’t ultimately answer to ourselves. Yet instead of listening to the Scriptures and discerning God’s will together, we are often preoccupied by efforts to appease our worries and protect our finitude. Meanwhile, Catholic and evangelical leaders are begging their congregants and coreligionists to obey the Word of God and leave the rest in the hands of the God of Jesus Christ. They remind us that the command to love the foreigner as ourselves should guide our lives, not fear. Nevertheless, like the German church Barth addressed after the disaster of the First World War, American Christians have spent much time attending to their fears by looking for someone to blame. Still today, fear deafens many Christians to the prophetic words of their leaders.
This fear, I think, largely explains the rush to close the borders after the Paris attacks and, in part, the increasing popularity of Donald Trump. It remains to be seen whether we will let this fear dictate our lives as Americans. Will this fear continue to drive out the foreigners in our midst and along our borders? Or will we listen to our leaders to harness the gift of “perfect love,” the love that “casts out fear” and welcomes the stranger (1 John 4:18)?
- Willis, Twitter post, November 6, 2015, 12:03 p.m., https://twitter.com/owillis/status/666345924013252609?lang=en.
- Barth quoted in John Michael Owen, “Karl Barth’s Advent Sermon, 1933: An Appreciation,” Colloquium 36, no. 2 (2004): 191; and Bonhoeffer, Berlin: 1932–1933, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, English Edition, vol. 12, ed. Larry L. Rasmussen, trans. Isabel Best and David Higgins (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2009), 372.
- Elizondo and Anderson quoted in Daniel Burke, “Don’t ‘Scapegoat’ Syrian Refugees, Catholic Bishops and Evangelicals Say,” CNN, November 8, 2015, http://www.cnn.com/2015/11/17/politics/catholics-evangelicals-refugees/.
- Jennings, The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011).
- Augustine, City of God Against the Pagans, ed. and trans. R. W. Dyson (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 3.
- Augustine, City of God Against the Pagans, ed. and trans. R. W. Dyson (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 3; and Eagleton, Culture and the Death of God (New Haven, CT: Yale, 2014), 7.
- See N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1992).