When I think of Muslims, this is who comes to mind.

The most frequent command in Christian scripture is, “Do not be afraid.” The New Testament even presents fear being the opposite of love, stating bluntly that “perfect love casts out fear.” At first glance, this may seem a surprising idea, but on closer inspection it makes perfect sense. Fear propels us to act first and ask questions later; to reason carelessly; to prioritize self-preservation over compassion. Fear can make us irrational, destructive, violent. When we experience terror, we are often willing to scapegoat or accuse or punish anyone if we believe that doing so will bring our unbearable terror to an end. We become obsessed with restoring our sense of safety and comfort as quickly as possible, and all other concerns can easily take a backseat to that one, compelling priority.

Two nights ago, I dreamt that I was back in the slum in India, hanging out with some of the women and girls I know there. Frequently over the past year, I’ve had realistic dreams about visiting my friends’ homes, eating and talking with them, but this time it was different—the next morning, my former teammate (who is still there) emailed to say that he had visited our old neighborhood and that many of the people there had asked about Andy and me and passed along their greetings to us. He had likely been talking with them at the same time that I was dreaming about them.

In the wake of the Paris attacks, my friends in India are on my mind a lot. Every time someone makes an ignorant generalization accusing all Muslims of being terrorists, I think of the generous and hospitable families in the slum who welcomed me into their lives. I think of the children suffering malnutrition and forced into tedious labor instead at a young age instead of being able to attend school. I think of their parents’ struggles with illiteracy, unemployment, and prejudice from the majority of society. I think about how they could do without any more obstacles placed in the way of living dignified, healthy lives, and I worry about the ways that negatives stereotypes and hatred toward Muslims will affect their lives.

I learned so much from my Muslim neighbors about compassion, loyalty, hope—and, yes, faith. They accepted me into their community despite the fact that we came from different races, different cultures, and different religions. When I remember the risk they took in choosing to get to know me as a person instead of allowing stereotypes to keep me at arm’s length, I can’t help but feel anger at the injustice of others in the West allowing stereotypes of Muslims to erase the humanity of my friends and neighbors in India.

But these are not the only people on my mind. I also think of my refugee friends here in Vancouver. One of them is a young woman from Afghanistan who was forced to flee her country with two young children to keep them all alive. Her daughter, little more than a year old, is nearly the same age as two of my beloved nieces/goddaughters in the United States.

If her case were being handled the way that refugee claims are in my home state of Texas, then she and her children would not be accessing counseling, supportive community, and legal aid to help them cope with the crisis they are in—instead, they would have already been sitting in prison for several months without access to a lawyer, and they would now be looking forward to indefinite detention with no one to help them.

If some of my friends on Facebook had their way, then this vulnerable family would not have even been allowed into North America because they are Muslim. Possibly, they would already be dead.

I think about all of these dear friends every time I hear or read about Muslims being cast as a single, monolithic group characterized by violence. I think about the real people that so many of us are eager to condemn, but whose faces we have never seen, whose stories we have never heard, and whose lives we are willing to hastily cast aside in pursuit of the idol of our own “security.”

The young men playing love songs on their cell phones and flying kites on the roof in my neighborhood in India, my friends’ babies learning to walk and talk, giggly teenage girls walking to school, grief-stricken parents who will risk anything–even a dangerous voyage across an ocean in an inflatable raft–to save their children’s lives: these are all Muslims. Perhaps if we could recognize our own hopes and fears in them instead of directing our fear against them, we would be able to see them for who they really are.

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photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/37890481@N04/6174828711″>Bangladesh, Ramadan 2011.</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a> <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/”>(license)</a>

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Choosing Love Over Fear When It Comes to the Refugee Crisis

Palestinian refugees in Damascus at Yarmouk camp, 2014

Yesterday I wrote a blog for the Huffington Post about what it means to respond as Christians to the plight of Syrian refugees.

This week, I’ve continued to read news stories about the refugee crisis–a crisis which had been unfolding for quite sometime before the Syrian civil war produced enough refugees and enough shocking images at one time to awaken our collective conscience. I attended a town hall meeting here in Vancouver last Tuesday where I learned that despite that bloody civil war and the expanding empire of ISIL, the vast majority of the world’s refugees still come from Africa rather than the  Middle East. At Kinbrace, I’ve also spent time talking with refugees and refugee claimants from Ethiopia, Nepal, Iran, Afghanistan, and other countries, and their stories remind me that even in places that don’t make the headlines, millions of people fear for their lives every day because of oppressive government regimes and armed conflict.

These stories fill me with sadness, but also with frustration and anger over the way that many of us in the West have allowed fear to prevent us from extending compassion to those who are in urgent need of our help. Hungary has now closed its borders to Syrians fleeing the conflict, and the government is arresting those who deem an illegal crossing their best bet for survival. Refugees continue to drown in the Mediterranean as “Fortress Europe” deliberately refuses to help as a matter of official policy, in order to deter further immigration. But those who are desperate enough to risk the lives of themselves and their children on the rag-tag dinghies of human smugglers will not be deterred from making these deadly voyages, because they clearly have no choice. These journeys are their last hope: either they risk losing their lives, or lose them for sure by staying where they are.

Many in Europe are afraid that the influx of Muslims will threaten the “Christian identity” of Europe, but as Giles Fraser so starkly pointed out in an article for the Guardian newspaper on September 4, the Christian identity of Europe is threatened not by Muslims, but by Christian politicians who refuse to live out the Biblical mandate to welcome the stranger and care for the oppressed.

And what about North America? Canada welcomed 19,233 government assisted refugees in 1980, but that number has plummeted to just 6,900 in 2015. Furthermore, despite the government’s promise to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees over 3 years, Canada has settled just over 1,000 Syrians so far. Meanwhile, the United States has taken in fewer than 1,000. So far, we North Americans haven’t shown ourselves to be any more hospitable than Europe.

Another security concern that has been raised is the possibility of terrorists slipping in amongst the flood of legitimate refugees seeking asylum. Security experts have already addressed the unlikelihood of this happening. Yet few people have talked about the way that welcoming refugees from Muslim countries actually offers our nations an opportunity to address the root causes of terrorism: poverty, lack of opportunity, traumatization and loss of loved ones in conflict zones, and hatred of the West due to foreign policy and military interventions which negatively impact Muslim civilians in the Middle East. This is a chance to show genuine love and concern to our Muslim neighbors, and to provide a secure future for exactly the kind of children who might otherwise be at risk for radicalization by opportunistic terrorist organizations who prey upon those who are impoverished and discontented.

As citizens of a world increasingly interconnected by economic ties, military involvement, and technology, the refugee crisis is not some distant issue from which we can pretend to be entirely separate. The current situation forces us to confront our political and military contribution to the crisis, and challenges those of us who follow Jesus to live out some of the core tenets of our faith.

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Encountering the Enemy

encountering the enemy

illustration by Seth T. Hayne for CAPC Magazine

I wrote this piece awhile back, but today my feature article for Christ and Pop Culture Magazine–on nurturing peace in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through film–has been made available  for free.

At a moment in history where more people around the world have been displaced by violent conflict than ever before, now is the time to ask ourselves hard questions about our role in cultivating conflict or peace. Now is the time to question the narratives we tell ourselves about war, vengeance, “redemptive” violence, and enemies. The same ignorance and fear that generates war in the Middle East and Africa and pushes refugees to the shores of Europe and North America also plays out in our own society as alienation between people of different races or faiths, and as destructive relationships between individual people. Forgiveness of others’ sin, and repentance for our own, are both central to the Christian faith. So for those of us who seek to be shaped by the life of Jesus, enemy love and reconciliation should be central to our understanding of our role in the world.

As a Jew, Reena Lazar has worked towards reconciliation in Israel/Palestine by finding creative ways to bring Israeli and Palestinian youth face-to-face with “the enemy” (each other). Yet the wisdom she has accumulated in the process is applicable far beyond the scope of this particular geopolitical conflict.  Her work has much to teach us about building bridges instead of walls, regardless of the role or the part of the world in which we find ourselves. Head on over to Christ and Pop Culture to read the article.

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