For some time now, I have been fascinated with how we respond to the world around us; how something we read or watch can overpower us in an untamable wave of emotions. That one image of a boy’s noiseless cry of utter helplessness, as their ferry is turned away from the port at which they had hoped to get admittance as refugees, can leave a searing mark on one’s soul. Just as the image of a soldier in battle fatigues kicking a beaten soccer ball toward a sooty child in some desert outpost can plant a glowing smile on one’s face. Such is the spectrum of emotions that happenings around the world evoke in us.
At one level, our responses are rudimentary, elemental, reflexive and universal. And at another, they are coached, learned, tutored and particular. I have been more concerned, rather I have been thinking more, about the latter of these two responses. How people can look at the same thing and have two different responses. How some are moved to indignation and action while others to indignation and action of a different kind. I live in a time and place where such a contradictoriness of responses is rife.
The New York Times recounts the story of a 5-year-old who walked two weeks under the hot sun to arrive in the United States from Mexico with her mother several years ago. This very human story evokes two very different responses. One responds, ‘They broke the law; hence they need to be penalized,’ while another responds, ‘They were fleeing violence; hence we need to be compassionate.’ Another account is that of a gay couple in Colorado who were refused service by a baker. A human story evoking different responses.
Often, the elemental, rudimentary human response to human stories, I believe, gets obscured beneath the dust of forgetfulness – “The things which I have seen I now can see no more.” It is then usurped by a response that originates from a frame-work of reference that one acquires through an influence external to oneself.
These external influencers can be experiences – real and perceived. An experience of deprivation seeks a scapegoat. A sentiment reflected in the response, ‘Immigrants have taken my job.’ Conversely, an experience of welcome or hostility causes an expression of empathy and solidarity with those one perceives as being in a similar predicament.
These external influencers can be institutions and structures that one is or becomes a part of – families, schools, churches. Each providing directives – obvious and subtle. From these structures stem responses such as, ‘We cannot participate in the offense of another,’ and in some extreme form, ‘We need to rescue them from themselves,’ or responses such as, ‘Practice love and hospitality.’
Having established, albeit simplistically and partially, why two persons can look at the same human story and have two different responses, I want to speed us along to a subsequent conundrum. What does one do with two competing views in a public forum? For me, as a person of faith the conundrum is deepened by the fact that two practitioners of the same faith can have opposing views while they engage with the same human story.
If a democracy is truly secular then it should allow the voice of everyone. This includes the giving of voice to people of faith, people of no faith, people of the same faith with opposing views and the list goes on. If people wish to lend their voice to the shaping of policy based on their particular influencer, in a secular democracy, yes, they should be able to and they do.
Hence it is not uncommon for one to find individuals and groups belonging to different walks of life and possessing varied lines of thought make contributions to public discourse and eventual policy framing on any and all issues.
Consequently, we find people and particularly those identified as the religious right and religious left (pardon my accentuating of a division that is already quite deep) freely give voice to their reasons on issues that pertain to the shaping of public policy. And based on the particular influencers that shaped their worldview, they respond quite publicly and quite differently to the same human story.
Just as I was beginning to accept this reality – that if I wanted to engage in politics in order to advocate for my faith-formed views, I should be willing to share this space with those whose views are also framed by their faith (even if I find them diametrically opposed to my own) – the latest storm began with the unsavory remarks about certain countries in the world from where immigrants to America originate – El Salvador, Haiti, African countries et al.
One particular voice rang loud and clear and disabused me of the notion that all people of faith inhabit the public square – as policy makers, commentators, advisors – solely to advocate for their faith-formed views. This latest commentary was telling in that not everyone who claims to be a religious influencer of policies is governed by their faith formed views while in seats of power and privilege.
Dallas mega-church pastor and presidential adviser Robert Jeffress defended Donald Trump’s reportedly derogatory remark about some nations during a bipartisan meeting on immigration reform on Thursday, January 11, 2018 by saying that the president got the “sentiment” correct and that he was “right on target” in his questioning of US policy of permitting immigrants from certain countries.
Jeffress appeared to clearly make a distinction between exercising private faith and enacting public policy. Jeffress reportedly told the Christian Broadcasting Network that while individual Christians have a duty to “place the needs of others above our own,” Trump “has the constitutional responsibility to place the interests of our nation above the needs of other countries.”
Jeffress with his M.A. in Theology and D.Min and his experience as a pastor cannot be viewed by any stretch of the imagination as an expert on foreign policy or immigration. He clearly enjoys the status of advisor because of his religious credentials.
If that is the case, pray tell us, Mr. Jeffress, as a religious advisor what do you advise the President?
Jeffress is by no means a singular voice among those who clearly enjoy the status of religious advisors but who compartmentalize private faith and public policy. In a sweeping dismissal of the biblical mandate to extend hospitality to the stranger, Franklin Graham, the head of his father’s evangelistic organization, responded to Trump’s Muslim Travel Ban thus: “It’s not a biblical command for the country to let everyone in who wants to come”
As in the above examples, pastors and evangelists like to be movers and shakers; they like to hold seats of power and privilege and they rationalize and justify these titles of influence as a means of shaping public policy along the lines of their particular faith-formed views. This latest exhibition has only proven that some of them sanitize their bastard endeavors under the pretense of religion and faith.
The recent political climate and “Christian” responses like these have made me come to the rather sad conclusion that some who seek to influence public policy often allow the demons that plague their minds to masquerade as faith-formed views.
Esther J. Dharmaraj lives in Simi Valley, CA with her husband. They are parishioners of St. Francis Episcopal Church. A life-long Anglican/Episcopalian, Esther has a Master’s degree in English Literature from the University of Madras and taught high school English in India before emigrating to the United States of America some ten years ago. She has written for periodicals in India and Stateside. Esther’s interest in ‘faith in the public square’ is inherited from her parents and influenced by her growing up in India.