America First. On January 20, 2017, Donald Trump’s campaign slogan worked its way into his inaugural address and became his administration’s pledge.
Five days into his tenure, President Trump moved quickly to do just that, starting with the issue of immigration. He ordered a border wall with Mexico and announced plans to deport unauthorized immigrants, cut back on legal immigration, and implement stricter measures for allowing foreigners entry to the United States.
Central to this America-First strategy, and true to his election promises, was Executive Order 13769, a presidential directive barring refugees from entering the United States and suspending entry for migrants from seven Muslim-majority nations. All of this was done in the name of “protecting the nation from foreign terrorist entry into the United States.” Trump’s fledgling executive branch, however, has found sloganeering easier than governing, as the travel-ban provision of the order is currently under a stay that was upheld last week by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.
While the fate of this particular order is up in the air, the administration’s strident approach to immigration and the ethnocentric bent of its policies expose political polarization deeply embedded in American society. The issue surely carries complexities that sway people to various sides of the spectrum, but these recent events have strengthened some previously unexamined positions. As a result, convictions on immigration reform are deepening in the culture. And in the church.
On one side of the divide is Franklin Graham (a Trump supporter) who described heaven as “immigration” with “extreme vetting.” Two days after Graham made this statement, hundreds of conservative leaders, including Tim Keller and Max Lucado, publicly opposed the president’s travel ban. The polarization of evangelical perspectives is widening and, for some conservatives, becoming more costly.
A recent article in The Atlantic reports: “Donald Trump has divided conservative Christian communities. . . . Some who have spoken out against his presidency or his policies . . . have encountered backlash. . . . They’ve faced pressure from their employers [or] seen funds withdrawn from their mission work . . . because of their political beliefs.” At the denominational, church, and organizational level, irreconcilable differences of opinion on Trump are becoming the grounds for separation—a sad witness to our evangelistic mission.
If a Christian organization dismisses an otherwise orthodox brother and sister for critiquing Trump’s nationalism, is there an equal disregard of those who feel endangered by the President’s jingoistic rhetoric and policies? Many believe so.
Speaking of Trump’s white evangelical voters, Thabiti Anyabwile writes: “the [evangelical] movement has abandoned public solidarity with groups who considered Mr. Trump an existential threat to them. I’m speaking here of the many groups who expressed reservation regarding Mr. Trump’s racism, religious bigotry, misogyny, isolationism, and nativism.”
Christians are exiles who, if nothing else, ought to understand what it feels like to be far from home, and to sympathize with and support those whose physical circumstance embodies our own spiritual condition.It seems the current political climate may be drawing some theological conservatives away from the very people they have been called to consider—those on the margins, the endangered and the disempowered.
If partisanship entanglements have made Christians indifferent to the cause of human life and liberty, we have much cause for regret.
Many will remember Meryl Streep’s recent speech at the Golden Globes. Accepting a lifetime achievement award, Streep stood for six minutes to condemn the President’s demagoguery. She expressed concern for foreigners and conjured up empathy for outsiders by painting Hollywood as a diverse cross-section of the American society.
In this address, Streep defined the actor’s job as entering “the lives of people who are different from [her in order to] . . . let [us] feel what that feels like.” For that reason, she urged artists, by virtue of their identity and purpose, to see the plight of those affected by Trump’s regulations as their own.
We can appreciate Streep’s effort here. Yet when it comes to “the stranger,” Christians shouldn’t need a celebrity (or other cultural figures) to guide our empathy. We too are sojourners. We too know what it means to be displaced.
Christians are exiles who, if nothing else, ought to understand what it feels like to be far from home, and to sympathize with and support those whose physical circumstance embodies our own spiritual condition. Believers might debate the right balance between compassion for displaced image bearers and sound national security, but in so doing, we must hold firmly in mind our own status as strangers. America, it turns out, is not where we belong either.
Of course Christians are not strangers in the exact same way immigrants are. Believers in Christ are sojourners because the Bible defines us as such. Hence regardless of nationality, Christians everywhere are exiles—people whose hopes are set on the One who died and resurrected for our salvation. The world as we know it, with its sin and curse, will pass away, but the glorious kingdom of Christ is eternal. So “here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come.” Christians are awaiting residence in a “better country” not natively our own. And it’s this anticipation for a homeland that moves us to recognize something of ourselves in the daily realities of our foreign neighbors.
Johnny Zellers, Andrew Trumbull, and Doug Walton have done just that. They are three Christian men who share a home with Mohammed Refaai, a Syrian Refugee whom they call “brother.” Refaai is the only member of his family to enter the U.S. and has been separated from his parents and siblings (who are detained in Jordan) for nearly two years. As is the case of many, his hopes of a reunion have faded in the last month. Nonetheless, Zellers, Trumbull, and Walton are committed to assisting Refaai. Walton said this to NPR: “I don’t know what’s going to be asked of me as his brother, but I guess I’m just more aware that he may have more need for support than . . . he does now.”
The three provide Refaai shelter and friendship. But the exchange is not only one way. Mohammed gives them the gift of a brother whose homesickness metaphorically embodies their own.
Indeed, if political allegiances are distancing religious conservatives from the culture they’ve been called to reach, the loss is not just to the culture but also to the church. We forget our own spiritual displacement when we grasp too hard at this world, when we make our “Americanness” the hallmark of our identity.
There is a blessing in being exiles involved in the muck and mire of the world. Our own hunger and thirst for home deepens as we pray and mourn over sin and rejoice in any foretaste of the full restoration to come. Christians are not cynical isolationists but expectant laborers in our communities. We’re involved in the world, yet we hold the world loosely, lest we fix our eyes on another “home,” a counterfeit one that will inevitably disappoint. To this Russell Moore writes:
Some, in the contemporary context, are speaking of “exile” as though this is a result of a narrative of cultural decline about contemporary America. . . . Christians are “exiles” in “post-Christian America.” . . . This sort of exile narrative puts the church’s home in the wrong place—in a “Christian America” or at least a “moral America” that used to exist somewhere back there. . . . This sort of exile identity just continues the triumphalist rhetoric of the last generation, about “reclaiming America for Christ,” but with the addition of a gloomy “Those Were the Days” nostalgia. That’s not the sort of exile we’ve been called to be.
I am both a Christian exile and an African immigrant to the United States. I came as a nine-year-old girl, full of excitement and nerves. I had been told in my homeland of Ghana that America was a land with gold-paved streets. I still remember the disillusionment in landing to find familiar earth under my feet. Then again, most immigrants hoping for gold also find more dust than glitter.
I love America. I’m grateful to be a naturalized citizen of this country, not natively my own. But I long for the day when my feet will touch the street of a city made of pure gold. Until then, I’ll walk roads, American or otherwise, that remind me that I’m not home yet. And may I remember in that experience, may all Christian sojourners remember, that Christ took strangers and made them citizens and members of His own household.