Can we be a shining light?

Published February 3, 2017

There is no disagreement that the executive order for the Protection of the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States, signed on January 27th, has caused much disagreement! There are points of agreement, though, and we start with them: The President has taken an oath of office to defend the Constitution and promote the general welfare of all Americans. Rigorous vetting of all immigrant and refugee applications is both wise and essential. Respected legal scholars and state attorneys general are making cases both for and against the legality and constitutionality of the executive order. Refugees run towards places of hope because the places in which they live are likely to kill them. All who live in, and virtually all who wish to live in these United States wish to live in peace and safety. Every administration has the right to review policies and procedures that affect the common defense and the common good of our country. On these points, we think all would agree.

Obviously, there are many sources and points of disagreement about this executive action. The source of disagreement about which we wish to comment involves this simple question: Is this executive action good?

Some would say yes, because it seeks our safety. Some would say no, because it is an inversion of the golden rule: instead of “do unto others as you would have others do unto you,” this executive action says that we need to “do unto others before they do unto us.” If proactively protecting our safety is the good in this case, we have to ask: why is it good to privilege our safety over the safety of refugees’ lives that are far more fragile than ours? Is such a calculus of “safety first above all else” good? Or is it merely cold and callous? Peoples of the three Abrahamic faiths, and people of good will and faith for eons have sought to seek out and welcome the stranger, even at risk to themselves, because it is a good thing to do.

Is this executive action good? Some would say yes, because it provides or buys some time to re-examine our current immigration and refugee policies and procedures. Some would say no, because buying such time is selling out religious freedom. To restrict access to our shores for people of Muslim majority nations, even if only seven of them, is to essentially grant favor to non-Muslims: how is favoring other religions over and above Islam good?

When we ask if this action is good we are asking if it promotes the general welfare of all people. We’re asking if it meets the challenge of loving our Neighbor well and unselfishly. We’re asking if it lives up to the best of our national aspirations captured in Lady Liberty’s words, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teaming shore.”

Years ago, one of those huddled masses was a fifteen-year-old girl. She never was able to make it to our shores, nor were millions of her people. Some, indeed, were literally turned away at the threshold of our shores. She wrote: “I see the world being slowly transformed into a wilderness, I hear the approaching thunder that, one day, will destroy us, too. I feel the suffering of millions. And yet, when I look up at the sky, I somehow feel that everything will change for the better, that this cruelty shall end, that peace and tranquility will return once more.”

Anne Frank died seven months later.

It is worth our telling that the current context has an addendum to that story: on Friday, January 27th the White House also released an International Holocaust Remembrance Day statement, a statement which intentionally excluded any mention of the Jewish people who died in the Holocaust. To which we ask again, where is the good in that?

While we honor the particular tragic impact of the Holocaust on the Jewish people as “uniquely unique,” we still take universal lessons from its horror. As Holocaust survivor and Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel has offered, “When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men or women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the center of the universe.”

Would that borders were now less the point. Would that we were instead fulfilling the Torah’s admonition to “[enact] justice for orphans and widows, and he loves immigrants, giving them food and clothing. That means you must also love immigrants because you were immigrants in Egypt” (Deuteronomy 10:18-19). Would that we were “doing unto the least of these brothers of sisters” as if we were doing it as unto Jesus himself (Matthew 25:40).

But, it doesn’t feel like we are.

So, we ask, how might we here in Hagerstown and Washington County walk such a path towards peace and tranquility together? And do so in a way that we might shine a light for others to follow?

First, let us seek to disagree without demeaning. One year ago, the Hagerstown Area Religious Council (HARC) and the Interfaith Coalition of Washington County proposed a “Statement of Peace” that includes these phrases: we will cease forwarding any words, actions, and religious declarations that degrade and demonize another religion; we will halt all religious rhetoric that attacks another’s beliefs and/or faith practices; and we will seek to understand and love one another.” The whole Statement is available on HARC’s website, Please read it, download it, sign it, and mail it back into HARC as an expression of your determination to participate in this kind of good in our community.

Second, let us seek to get to know our Muslim neighbors face to face. Opportunities to support our Muslim and other minority neighbors will be available in the near future.

Last, let us together seek the best possible solutions to meet the human needs of, and relieve suffering for, all people. We have the luxury of choosing to protect our own safety and freedom, but is it good, right, just, and loving to do so? What small risk could each of us take today that would help our city, county and country onto a path towards peace and tranquility for all? That would help our city and county be a shining light showing others the way forward? Let us participate, together, in growing this kind of good in our community, in shining this kind of light. Amen? Amen.

Members of the Hagerstown Area Religious Council (HARC) Executive Committee:

Rev. Gregg Meserole, Christ’s Reformed UCC and HARC President
Kathy Powderly, HARC Executive Director
Rabbi Ari Plost, Congregation B’Nai Abraham and HARC Vice President
Richard Willson, John Wesley United Methodist Church
Jack Castle, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
Rev. Audrey Hollenberg-Duffey, Hagerstown Church of the Brethren
Rev. Jake Caldwell, First Christian Church
Rev. Elizabeth Jackson, Otterbein United Methodist Church
Rev. Ed Poling, Retired Pastor, Interfaith Coalition Coordinator
Bill Pike, Unitarian Universalist Church of Hagerstown
Barbara Hamilton, Otterbein United Methodist Church

Affiliation of congregations of the Executive Team of HARC is for identification purposes only and does not necessarily represent the viewpoints held by their congregations, or all faith communities affiliated with HARC.

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