The Compelling Call of FBOs to Love Refugees

The Compelling Call of FBOs to Love Refugees

Chelsea Langston Bombino, March 17, 2017

The capacity to live out a divine calling on one’s life, as an individual or as an organization, is the very the essence of religious freedom.  Religious freedom certainly has legal and constitutional dimensions: we live in a democracy that considers religious freedom our First Freedom, ensconced in the First Amendment of our Constitution.  So naturally, when we discuss religious freedom, the conversation usually begins and ends with an argument that an individual or an organization’s religious freedom has been legally violated.

It is unfortunate that religious freedom is often identified only as a legal protection for acts that many perceive as negative. In truth, religious freedom is a foundational baseline necessary for persons and groups to live according to what they believe God requires of them. Religious freedom is not just a legal claim, but should have a larger place in our public discourse as an essential public good that provides normative guidance for the unfurling of culture in a pluralistic society. It is important to start having a broader, more honest, and intentionally educative discussion with people and institutions of different faiths regarding what they feel is required of them to fully live out what they believe God asks of them. This conversation about religious freedom must go beyond the legal dimensions and penetrate underlying cultural assumptions about what we value most. Although different religions will reach different answers about what their faith asks of them, some common themes will emerge.  In many major religions, there is not just a call to love our neighbors, but to love the strangers, especially the vulnerable foreigner who did not leave her homeland voluntarily.

On March 3-4, hundreds of faith-based leaders gathered at Princeton for a conference called: Seeking Refuge: Faith-Based Approaches to Forced Migration, sponsored by Princeton’s Office of Religious Life and the Communita di Sant Egidio.  During the opening session, Joel Charny of the Norwegian Refugee Council – USA explained that the Jewish call to care for refugees is “at the heart a creation story itself.” According to the Midrash, Charny explained, God created man from dust, but in doing so, “God took dust from the four corners of the earth. So no one can say to another, you are not my family.” Rabbi Rachel Grant Meyer of HIAS (the only Jewish organization that helps resettle refugees in the U.S), echoed Charny’s sentiments of the centrality of the God-given imperative to care for the refugee. Rabbi Grant Meyer explained, “As a rabbi, a Jewish person of faith in general, my Jewish faith doesn’t just inform my work with refugees, it demands it.  Welcome of the stranger is a core Jewish value.  It is fundamental.”

She continued to explain that the Torah is “unequivocal,” repeating 36 times this call to care for refugees, “more than anything else that is taught about in the sacred text.”  Rabbi Grant Meyer emphasized that the call goes beyond welcome of the stranger and implores the Jewish people to “love the stranger: want for the stranger what you want for yourself.” She elaborated that the sacred mission for Jewish people and organizations to care for refugees also has its origins in their collective understanding of themselves as people who consistently were displaced and forced to seek refuge in foreign lands. In fact, Rabbi Grant Meyer pointed out, the present marks the first time in history where the Jewish people are not predominantly refugees themselves.  Building on this theme, Rabbi Grant Meyer noted: “We used to advocate for welcoming refugees because they were Jewish.  Now, we welcome refugees because we are Jewish.”

Imman Shamsi Ali, an Indonesian Muslim with the Nusantara Foundation, likewise emphasized the centrality of care for the refugee in Islam.  Imman Ali stated: “Prophet Mohammed had to seek refuge three times. People don’t want to leave their homes.  Prophet Mohammed was forced to leave. He died in Medina, a refugee.”  Imman Ali then laid out several religious and moral grounds in Islam to welcome refugees. The first, Imman Ali discussed, is the principle of compassion: “God himself is called Merciful, but that must translate into human action.”  Another core principle, Imman Ali explained, is that in Islam, “human services are signs of our faith itself.”

Imman Ali noted Abraham as an exemplar of this principle: “Being generous to your guest [especially a foreigner seeking refuge] is part of your faith.” Imman Ali also explained what he called the principle of one body: “Any harm to one person, is a harm to all.  If any part of the body feels pain, the whole body will feel pain.” He also emphasized that in the Muslim faith: “If you are able to ease the difficulties of those around you in this world, God will ease your difficulties on the day of judgement.”

Dr. Daniel O’Neill of the Christian Journal for Global Health echoed sentiments already discussed and said that that in the Old Testament there is “an unequivocal, unambiguous call to serve the stranger.” O’Neill also pointed out that one of God’s purposes for Sabbath was to “refresh the foreigner living among you.” Further, he emphasized the centrality of God’s message that the land is owned by God and we “reside here as foreigners.”  O’Neill also explained how, in God’s calling for the establishment of six cities of refuge in the Old Testament, each of these cities’ names had deep significance for how we are to love and care for the refugees among us.  The names of the six cities of refuge meant, respectively: set apart, shoulder (carry the burden), collaborate, protect, lift up, and enclose with joy.

These speakers, from Jewish, Muslim and Christian faiths respectively, show us the clear imperative of how each interpret their religious missions to care for the foreigner forced to seek refuge in a strange land.  Rabbi Grant Meyer’s emphasis on love of stranger as not an optional activity, but a command of her faith, demonstrates that limiting the ability to love the stranger does, in a very real sense, limit her organization’s freedom to embody the core tenants of its faith.

This is not to say that religious organizations resettling refugees have a winable legal claim that the federal government must let in all refugees without discernment of other factors.  Of course, faith-based organizations serving refugees do not have the same legal authority as the President to determine the exact number of refugees that enter the country every year. Religious organizations whose very raison d’etre is to serve refugees as a response to a sacred calling are limited in their capacity to live out their faith, though, even if it is not a winning religious freedom claim on a legal level.

Yet, just because the religious freedom of faith-based refugee serving organizations to freely exercise their faith to the fullest is not a particularly strong legal claim does not mean there are not other First Amendment claims to be made with respect to the President’s latest Executive Order. Although the President can sign an Executive Order limiting or eliminating the refugee program, or placing targets on certain Muslim majority countries, the judicial branch can likewise evaluate the legality and constituionality of the President’s EO, acting as a proper check on his power.  For example, on Wednesday, March 15th, a federal judge issued a temporary injunction against the second iteration of Trump Executive Order on the grounds it likely violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Judge Watson stated that although the text of the EO is not discriminatory on its face, there is evidence that the underlying intent of the Executive Order was to target Muslims: “It includes significant and unrebutted evidence of religious animus driving the promulgation of the Executive Order and its related predecessor.”

What the testimony from the conference reminds us is that religion often motivates great acts of generosity; it shows us that the primary significance of religious freedom is to protect the ability of people and organizations to express the sacred callings they believe God has placed on their individual or communal lives. Even when there are legal bounds to religious freedom based on other important interests, that does not change the nature of the challenge to an individual or organization whose religious freedom has been compromised.

Framing this as a religious freedom conversation is important, perhaps critical, to how we, as people and institutions of diverse faiths, create cultural meaning.  Religious freedom is not just a “legal right,” but also a guiding norm that helps us structure our lives toward human flourishing in all of its dimensions. These speakers and their organizations demonstrate the positive, tangible social good of a religious freedom that gives individuals and groups the ability to love the other — the displaced foreigner — as they love themselves.  Religious freedom transcends even legal definitions, and we should care about making the connections between our faith and the activities that our faith calls us to engage in.  As these speakers demonstrate, their faith also calls them to engage in hope, innovation and creativity.  Rabbi Grant Meyer paints a compelling picture of the sacred beauty and distinctive character of religious freedom embodied in public life: “Jewish tradition added a real depth to our rally for refugees,” she explained. “We were able to gather ten, a quorum, to engage in the Jewish ritual of kriah: mourning. We transformed this ritual from something normally reserved for immediate family members to apply to refugees, symbolically bringing about their family status.”

This religious ritual, pregnant with sacred, transformative meaning, is the direct result of a foundation of religious freedom.  We can bring our faith into the public square, in our acts of service and our acts of advocacy.  When our individual or organizational sacred missions are limited for any reason, even one that we cannot change through legal mechanisms, we still need to tell those stories, and tell them in light of the inseverable connection between religious freedom as consonant prerequisite for the embodiment of the sacred, in all of its diverse expressions.