A small group of Presbyterian leaders reached a tipping point after Republican frontrunner Donald Trump proposed a temporary ban on all Muslims entering the United States.
They had been concerned for a while about the political discourse regarding refugees and immigrants — rhetoric they considered to be a direct challenge to Christianity’s most fundamental convictions.
So Erskine Clarke, a professor emeritus of American Religious History at Columbia Theological Seminary in Georgia, reached out to fellow seminary professors and pastors in early December in search of a way to counter the words of candidates who were invoking the Christian faith as rationale for their words and actions. Some in the Triangle were on the receiving end of his inquiry.
What resulted was a seven-paragraph statement, “An Appeal to Christians in the United States,” that was posted online at the Journal for Preachers website and has gotten more than 2,100 signatures.
“We the undersigned are deeply concerned that in the current political climate many politicians and many in the media are calling on Christian voters to abandon our commitment to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and to turn from His call to discipleship,” it states. “We appeal to all of us who are seeking to be faithful followers of Jesus to reject such calls, to reaffirm our Christian commitments, and to seek to be agents of God’s justice and reconciliation in the world.”
The statement discusses their worries about surrendering to a “pervasive fear” and “overweening pride” that they say have become part of the public discourse.
“Because of fear we too easily caricature or condemn those who are different from us,” the appeal states. “Politicians and too many in the media stereotype African Americans, Asian Americans, people from Hispanic background and followers of Islam. If we follow their lead, we slander our neighbors and blaspheme against the one God of all peoples. We resist such stereotypes and pledge to work for laws and practices that honor the dignity of all people.”
David Bartlett, a New Testament scholar with stints at Yale Divinity School and Columbia Theological, wrote the appeal with suggested edits from the initial group of clergy and seminary professors shortly after the mass shootings in San Bernardino, Calif.
Jerry Falwell Jr., president of Liberty University and son of the late religious right leader, had just urged students at the Virginia school to get concealed weapon permits with the following words: “I’ve always thought that if more good people had concealed-carry permits, then we could end those Muslims before they walked in ...and killed them.”
The online appeal questions calls to further arm the public and urges Christians not to follow candidates who the writers contend are “demonizing the refugee and immigrant.”
“If we follow them we will turn from following Jesus who was once a refugee in a foreign land, and we will ignore the rich biblical injunctions to welcome the stranger.”
The appeal eschews calls for building a “wall of geographical security” and pleads for pledges to “work for systems of security that guard human dignity and protect the vulnerable as well as the strong.”
Within a few days of its posting, more than 1,300 signatures were attached to the appeal.
By early evening Thursday, 2,161 names were posted below the appeal. The list includes prominent seminary presidents and scholars, small-town and big-city clergy — some of whom are from Triangle churches. The letter, which has been circulated mostly in religion publications, also has been signed by lay leaders and others from a number of different religious organizations and denominations.
William Willimon, a theologian, professor at Duke Divinity School and bishop in the United Methodist Church, described his reasons for signing the letter in a post at ministrymatters.com.
“Like many other United Methodists, I have been concerned by the barrage of political rhetoric we have been subjected to in the past few weeks,” Willimon wrote on Dec. 11. “I’ve received some great sermons from pastors attempting to help their congregations think like Christians about matters of terrorism, immigration and our responsibility to our sisters and brothers in other faiths. Of particular concern is that some candidates are invoking, in utterly inappropriate ways, the Christian faith as a rationale for their words and deeds.”
Bob Dunham, pastor of University Presbyterian Church in Chapel Hill, also has signed the appeal, as have many other Triangle Presbyterian leaders.
Dunham was in on the initial e-mail exchange with Clarke, who first circulated an appeal for action.
“My issue is I don’t think as Christians in this country, we can let other people speak for the Christian church without challenging their assumptions,” Dunham said.
Excerpts from the appeal
“Because of fear we have armed ourselves beyond all reason and beyond reasonable restrictions. Politicians and too many in the media rush to stigmatize mentally disturbed people as if they were the source of all violence, promoting the illusion that more assault weapons in our homes and in our public places will make us safe. If we follow their lead and believe their illusions, we will not only live in the midst of growing violence but will also abandon our commitment to the Prince of Peace.”
“Because of fear our politicians and too many in the media try to win our votes for themselves or their candidates by demonizing the refugee and immigrant. If we follow them we will turn from following Jesus who was once a refugee in a foreign land, and we will ignore the rich biblical injunctions to welcome the stranger. We resist such enticements and pledge to be advocates for laws that regulate in a just and orderly manner the flow of refugees and immigrants.”
“As Christians we call ourselves and our Christian brothers and sisters in the U. S. to reject these temptations that are being promoted among us. There is too much at stake for easy blasphemy. Let us resist publicly all politicians and leaders who exploit fear and pride. Let us help shape the character of our much loved land not by an abandonment of our most cherished Christian convictions but by following the counsel of the Prophet Micah--to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with our God.”