Of Masses Yearning to Breathe Free
By Raj Attiken
The first time I stood at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin I could not help but be awed at the spirit of freedom that it represented, and the pain that it symbolized of a whole continent once split by barbed wire and walls. The first time I visited the Nazi concentration camp at Dachau—established only a few weeks after Hitler was appointed Reich Chancellor, and where over 40,000 people are said to have been executed—I was horrified at the cold, stark witness to what happened at that camp. Despite the words “Never Again” inscribed in five languages on the wall of the International Monument I left there less certain about our human proclivity to be just and humane.
As an immigrant and naturalized citizen of the United States, I am among millions who made a choice to come here. I am among millions who are grateful to the people of the United States who extended the privilege to me of becoming a citizen. In the decades that I have lived here, I have taken pride in what America stands for. I have attempted to make a contribution to church and society. I have had high moments and low moments professionally, personally, and in relation to my church and adopted country. Never, however, have I felt as dispirited about our nation as I did on Friday, January 27, the National Holocaust Remembrance Day. On that day the president of the United States signed an executive order that sent shock waves around the country and around the world. It had to do with who would be permitted to enter the United States and on what basis.
The political and legal implications of this executive order will probably be discussed and debated for quite a while. My interest in that debate, however, is not merely political. I get it that governments have to be cautious about immigration, as a protective measure. I get that there are people who intend to inflict harm to our society and unleash terror and destruction. I get that people have to be vetted before they are admitted into the country—a process that already takes from a year to three years to complete. Anyone who has entered the United States as a student, a visitor, or immigrant well understands how rigorous the vetting process is. It is not wrong to be wise and cautious about this. It is the human dimension of this executive order, and what it means to us as people who are learning to live under the same roof as a global society that should concern us. This should particularly be so to people of faith who claim that we are bound together in our humanity as image-bearers of the creator God.
These are moments of immense opportunity for Christians—and Adventist Christians—to bear witness to our values and our convictions. These are moments when our voice should be heard in every possible way. Heaven has come down to earth in what we know as the “kingdom of God” or “kingdom of heaven” that Jesus ushered in 2,000 years ago. We are citizens of that kingdom and bear witness to its values and principles. When there is a challenge to most forms of decency and to the integrity of that kingdom—a kingdom that should be visible in how the church lives, speaks, and acts—we must speak to the core of what the kingdom represents. This is our responsibility—in fact, it is a venerable vocation—that stands independent of our political persuasions. To speak out for human rights, for human dignity, to protect values and liberties, is not purely political. It is human.
When there have been national tragedies, and innocent people have been killed by the acts of individuals or by natural disasters, the church has often issued statements of condolence, solidarity, or of condemnation of violence. It has been several days since the executive order was issued and I have not seen any official statement released by the Adventist Church about the matter. Perhaps some among us feel as does a nationally prominent Evangelical leader who dismissed the matter by saying “Immigration is not a biblical issue.” I disagree.
The commitment to care for the wanderer, the vulnerable, the abused, and the marginalized is a biblical issue. The defense of the voiceless, the displaced, and those fleeing terror, is a biblical issue.
It is not enough for Adventists to look within this situation for signs of prophetic fulfillments of an approaching apocalypse, as we typically seem to do. It is not enough for our evangelists to add this to their lists of reasons why people should quickly join the Adventist church. These are moments when our voice should be heard in the public square and public discourse denouncing the separation of people based on race, religion, or ethnicity.
We are a church that is deeply committed to the notion of religious liberty, not just for Adventists or Christians, but for people of all faith communities. But our walk has not always matched our talk. Many among us have raised our voices to point out this contradiction within the church. Now our nation is dealing with attempts at discrimination and exclusion. We can remain silent or raise our voices to speak truth to power, and love to hatred and prejudice. As the public discourse deteriorates to a new and dangerous place, we can demonstrate that we deal with the currency of hope, goodness and decency. We have opportunity to think creatively and realistically about what Christian political witness will look like.
I wish my church would let its voice be heard in such times. For some among us this could be in the form of political involvement and activism. Religious people can participate authentically in political discourse. We need not amputate our morality and beliefs in order to enter public space. We need not hesitate to point out that a morality that requires immoral actions by a nation, even in extreme circumstances, cannot be called a morality at all.
For most of us, however, engagement will likely be in other ways. We can take the time to better inform ourselves about the issues at stake. We can reach out to friends and neighbors who may have reason to feel insecure and uncertain, and assure them of our love and care. We can help students in our classrooms who are from immigrant communities to feel a degree of safety and security during these very unsettling times for them. We can volunteer to help in local organizations that focus on refugees and immigrant communities. We can find scores of ways to be “salt and light” in our communities.
We can do nothing better for ourselves, for our society, and for the Body of Christ than to pursue relentlessly that which is true, just, and moral. This is Christian hope, and it is the antidote for political despair. That’s my take!
Dr. Raj Attiken is a student of the interconnections between faith, culture, gospel, and church. He is an adjunct college professor of religion and a mentor of church-shapers and innovators. He is a member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Worthington, Ohio.