Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Polarizing Fallout

via Wikipedia
Kyle Hinckley made a stir in the video-game world by successfully completing the hardest mode of Fallout 4 with zero kills. In this popular series of video games set in a post-apocalyptic United States, gamers make their way through a hostile landscape to achieve the goal of the story. Killing nonplayer characters is the usual way, but gamers like Hinckley make it their goal to complete the game with no kills.

That’s a challenge, because Fallout 4 doesn’t offer many nonviolent alternatives. In fact, as Mandy Myers at The Mary Sue points out, it seems rigged against nonviolent options.

This invites interesting comparisons to our culture at large, but I find a deeper cautionary tale embedded in this story.

Hinckley readily admits his version of virtual pacifism isn’t traditional. For example, when his character can’t get through a scenario without killing, he exploits the game’s mechanics by manipulating other nonplayer characters to commit the act.

In other words, Hinckley’s character technically doesn’t kill anyone but nonetheless leaves a wake of destruction.

“This is a ‘no-kill run’ according to the loosest possible definition of the term, but it’s definitely not a feel-good path,” observes Myers.

As I contemplated the contrast between Hinckley’s goal and his methods, I found myself think-ing about the conflict between our commitment as disciples of Jesus and our actions — particularly when we disagree — in a culture rigged toward polarization.

In this age of social media, most of us rub shoulders with people from a variety of backgrounds, ideologies and theologies. This can be enriching and enlightening, even when we differ on issues where we believe we’re right.

However, people are growing less willing to civilly engage and more hostile toward those with different viewpoints.

In a New York Times article, “Polarization Is Dividing American Society, Not Just Politics,” Nate Kohn reports on a 2014 Pew Research study that reveals how we’re becoming a self-segregated and “divided society where liberals and conservatives increasingly keep apart.” As a result, each party is “more ideologically homogeneous than ever before” and “partisan and ideological animosity is dividing American society.”

Believers are often deeply invested in ideological or theological beliefs because they are based on convictions rooted in Scripture, ministry or their relationships with God. 

Unfortunately, cultural polarity and animosity has infiltrated the way we approach each other when those convictions conflict. Too often, we manifest hostility and contempt for each other, tossing verbal grenades that destroy both personal relationships and public witness.

Even if we believe divine truth is on our side, we must be careful. “When God speaks to us, it does not prove that we are righteous or even right,” says Dallas Willard in Hearing God. “It does not even prove that we have correctly understood what he said. The infallibility of the messenger and the message does not guarantee the infallibility of our reception. Humility is always in order.”

Even if we are right, says Willard, we should remember “that God’s purposes are not merely to support us or make us look and feel secure in our roles or to make sure we are right.” Indeed, says Willard, few succeed in bearing up under being right gracefully. How we act must be grounded in an overall character of life, which includes humility, faith and, perhaps above all, “hopeful love.”

I’m not saying we mustn’t speak with passion, conviction and even righteous anger. But doing so without humility and love is destructive. While our culture leaves few alternatives to polarization, we are called to walk a different way.

The alternative is costly: We risk becoming Christians in the loosest possible definition, which is definitely not a feel-good path.

This post originally appeared as a column at MWR. 

Tuesday, December 08, 2015

Real or not real?

Peeta Mellark/Copyright Lionsgate via Rotten Tomatoes
Last month, Mockingjay: Part 2 concluded the film version of The Hunger Games series, a dystopian story in which children are forced to fight to the death in a televised Survivor-like arena. President Snow uses the Games as a way to control the population and stamp out the rebellion in the impoverished and oppressed Districts.

The Hunger Games books and films explore several significant themes but this final installment gets at one particularly relevant right now: how fear shapes the way we see the world and each other.

In the film, this plays out most affectingly in Peeta, a Games survivor who is suffering from the effects of torture. Snow used images combined with potent fear-inducing drugs to reshape Peeta’s memories, particularly of fellow Games survivor Katniss in order to make him fear and hate her.

After his rescue, Peeta struggles to discern which memories are real and which ones are not—and it’s hard. As one character explains in an earlier film, “fear is the most difficult to overcome” because “we are hardwired to remember it best.”

I watched Mockingjay only a week after the terrorist attacks in Paris, and I couldn’t help but think how Peeta’s struggle reflects our own in a culture where we are constantly bombarded by images laced with fear.

In Psychology Today, Deborah Serani points out that the prevalence of fear-based news coverage is connected to our false belief that crime rates are rising (they are actually falling, according to FBI statistics) and leads us to see the world as a hostile place and overestimate our odds of becoming a victim.

This not only affects the way we see each other—i.e. dehumanizing each other as potential threats—but it also changes the way we act.

In “Overreaction to Fearsome Risks,” Harvard scholars Cass Sunstein and Richard Zeckhauser explore how we overact in terms of public policy to low probability risks which are vividly and widely publicized, like terrorism. When terrible outcomes are vivid and easy to visualize (think 24-hour cable news), we become insensitive to the reality of low statistical risks—even when the risks are dramatically lower than those associated with ordinary activities.

The Washington Post reports we have a one in 20 million chance of dying from a terrorist attack; we’re twice as likely to be killed by lightning. Yet immediately after the Paris terrorist attacks there were public demands to block Syrian refugees from entering the U.S.—even though statistically, if I’m doing my math right, the chance of a refugee committing an act of terror is less than one percent.

Our perception of reality has been hijacked. We can’t tell what’s real. But, like Peeta, we can find our way back.

To distinguish between the real memories and the ones that were manipulated, Peeta begins asking his friends which memories are “real or not real.” I deeply resonate with this because, as Christians in a growing culture of fear, we need each other to remind us what’s real—and even more so, remind each other who we are.

Yes, we live in a broken world where evil exists. But we are followers of Jesus, children of the Most High God. We were given not a spirit of fear but of power, love and sound mind. As his people, we are a beacon for the lost, broken and marginalized. We are a compassionate, risk-taking people with our eyes fixed on Jesus and not the waves around us. 

We walk on water, move mountains, stop to care for the beaten traveler, seek the lost sheep, overcome evil with good, take up our crosses and lay down our lives. We swim in a love that casts out fear. We love with that love—and that changes everything.

Real or not real? Brothers and sisters, that’s real.

This is a slightly longer version of a column that first appeared on MWR

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Five things to consider about Syrian refugees

Syrian refugee children in a tent settlement in Lebanon (forsuchatimeisnow.org)
A few days after the news about the ISIS terror attacks in Beirut and the day after the Paris attacks, I was a judge at a high school debate tournament where the Public Forum topic was to resolve this statement: In response to the current crisis, a government should prioritize the humanitarian needs of refugees over its national interests.

Timely, right?

As I listened to my daughter and her team members go over their affirmative and negative arguments in preparation for the tournament (they have to argue both), I was mesmerized. I’d forgotten what it was like to hear a conversation where both sides of such a relevant and hotly contested issue were being discussed so calmly. It’s not that my daughter and her teammates didn’t care about the topic; in fact, they each voiced their own opinions about it. But they did so in a way that was informed and respectful.

I’ve tried to keep that in mind as I’ve read through op-eds, news articles and my Facebook feed this week.

At times, it was a struggle. I traveled to Lebanon in January to collect stories from Syrian and Iraqi refugees to help raise awareness about this humanitarian crisis, which is the greatest of our era. I care a great deal about this issue.

But, as my daughter and her teammates reminded me, some of the best conversations about even the toughest of situations are informed and respectful.

As I’ve read through the news and posts, I’ve seen several themes and trends, including misinformation on both sides of the issue about the refugees, the refugee process, terrorism and the role of the church. Below is my attempt, in an informed and respectful manner, to address those.

1. No, 75 percent of Syrian refugees are not single men. Instead, most are women and children.

This figure has been floating around for several months. But, the reality is only a little over one-fifth of Syrian refugees are men between 18 and 59. As FactCheck.org points out:
UNHCR’s data show that 50.5 percent of refugees are women. Females age 18 to 59 make up 23.9 percent of the refugees, while males in that age group make up 21.8 percent. Even younger males — age 12 to 17 — represent 6.5 percent of refugees, while females that age are 6.1 percent. The majority of refugees — 51.1 percent — are under age 17, including 38.5 percent who are younger than 12 years old. These numbers were as of Sept. 6.
The 75 percent figure is related to the European Union migrant and refugee population coming by way of the Mediterranean Sea. Again, FactCheck.org:
There have been more than 400,000 such “sea arrivals” in 2015, and 51 percent are Syrian. The rest have come mainly from nine other countries. Most of these refugees and migrants have been men — 72 percent — but these are not figures on Syrian refugees or even solely the 200,000-some Syrians who have been willing to take some type of boat to reach Europe by sea.
But now even that figure of 72 percent, as it relates to the larger migrant and refugee population in Europe, is out of date. In early September, according to UNICEF, a third of the refugees and migrants passing through the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia seeking refuge in Europe were women and children—triple the number in the previous three months and up from 10 per cent in June.

And keep in mind, the vast majority of refugee and asylum requests from Syrians wishing to settle in the U.S. are not going to come from the Syrians among the European migrant and refugee population. They will come from those displaced in Syria or living in Jordan, Turkey or Lebanon—a populations that mirror the UNHCR data above.

2. The refugee vetting process for EU and the U.S. are very different.

Because of the sheer numbers of refugees and migrants coming into Europe, governments are able to do little more than register passports and file the bare minimum of paperwork. The EU crisis is a little like the U.S. situation with the unaccompanied minors arriving from Central America—except multiplied many fold.

For Syrian or Iraqi refugees coming to the United States, the process is completely different. First, according to the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, only refugees who have been referred by the UNHCR or by a U.S. embassy are eligible for the U.S. Resettlement Program. They must meet certain criteria to be eligible; if they are, they’re then interviewed by UNCIS officer overseas and go through the process of preparing resettlement application forms. If they are accepted, they must go through a process to be matched with a resettlement agency, pass a medical clearance, undergo a security clearance check—all of which can take anywhere from 18 months up to two years to complete.

So, how rigorous is the vetting process? According to Deputy State Department Spokesman Mark Toner, it is "the most stringent security process for anyone entering the United States." As I have seen more than one person put it, there are easier ways to get into the U.S. if you are a terrorist.

Could an ISIS terrorist slip through? Yes. Has a refugee ever been arrested for committing a terrorist act on U.S. soil? No. Has a former refugee ever been arrested on terrorism charges in the U.S.? It could be argued, yes. The Daily Mail and WND recently reported that upwards of 70 immigrants and a few former refugees were charged with terrorism.

But let’s put this in perspective. First, The Washington Times and New York Times both report that in the 14 years since 9/11, nearly twice as many people have been killed in the U.S. by white supremacists and anti-government radicals than by Muslim extremists (which is what concerns the a large portion of those opposed to allowing Syrian refugees to settle in the U.S.).

Second, let’s put the number of immigrants and former refugees arrested in perspective. In the last seven years, the U.S. has resettled over 490,000 refugees and 784,000 since September 11, 2001. Of the 70,000 settled in 2015, 35.1 percent were from Near East/South Asia, which includes countries like Iraqi, Syria, Iran and Afghanistan. That means (if I did my math right) that immigrants and former refugees who were arrested on terrorism charges or for acts as terrorism represent something like .00009 percent of the general refugee population and--if all of them were from Near East/South Asian countries, which they weren't--.0002 percent of the Near East/South Asia population. That is low. Really, really, really low.

3. The risk of being killed in a terrorist act is also low. Really, really, really low.

The population of U.S. is almost 319 million. According to the CDC, two million people died in 2012. Out of that, about 16,000 were homicides, 128,000** accidental deaths and 40,000 suicide.

The total killed by domestic terrorism from 2001 to 2013? 3380  in 15 attacks.

In the U.S., your odds of dying from an act of terrorism are lower than just about anything else, 1 in 20 million. You are more likely to die from hypothermia (1 in 500,000), be killed by lightning (1 in 10.5 million) or mauled to death by a dog (1 in 11 million).

I am not saying there aren’t risks. And I’m definitely not saying that I don’t mourn and long for justice for victims of terrorism. I do, believe me.* But I am suggesting (like the Brookings Institute, the top rated think tank in the world) the risks of dying from a terrorist attack by a refugee are really low. Really, really, really low.

Even if we closed our borders and eliminated all domestic terrorist threats, that lowers our risk of death by murder or assault only a fraction—the risk of which was really low to begin with.

4. Being compassionate is who the people of God are called and enabled to be.

You don’t have to be a Christian to be compassionate; in fact, some of the most compassionate people I know aren’t. But if you are a follower of Jesus, a child of God and one of his people, this is who you are.

The same weekend I was a judge at my daughter’s debate tournament, I also went to church. Preaching that weekend was Camille Melki of Heart for Lebanon, a Lebanese faith-based organization that provides relief services to Syrian and Iraqi refugees in that country—and the FBO that hosted me during my time there in January. His topic? What is the role of the church in the midst of the refugee crisis.

Timely, right?

The answer, says Melki, is in our citizenship in the kingdom of God. He read from Matthew’s gospel, when Jesus said:
Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ 
Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?
The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
“This is who we are in Christ and why we do what we do,” says Melki. “It is defines our DNA as citizens of heaven.”

We have no choice but to be the hands and feet of Jesus, says Melki. It is who we are to love and care for the marginalized and rejected, the homeless and poor, the sick and broken—just like Jesus.

5. It is not enough to care. We must invest.

Heart for Lebanon is not simply about providing physical relief to the refugees. “We must address poverty on all levels,” Melki says—physical, emotional and spiritual. Physical relief is only the first step on a long journey, he says. “If we leave it there,” he says, “the family simply becomes a number and the aid a product.”

Instead, Melki longs for Jesus to win their hearts. So  he and his staff live like Jesus. They invest long hours in building relationships and trust, listen to their stories, sip tea and coffee with them, celebrate their births, attend their weddings, mourn at their funerals. They do this because they love them.

“We consider each one as one of ours,” he says.

That is what it looks like to love your neighbor.

Recently, I met with a local refugee resettlement agency, and they underlined how important it is for refugees to be embraced by their communities. Churches, non-profits and social service agencies need to work together to help them settle, get back on their feet and build a new life.

My church and others in the Northern Virginia area are supporting organizations like Heart for Lebanon and working with local refugee settlement agencies to co-sponsor refugee families. We are in it for the long haul. My hope is that you will consider that, too.

*Note: I know people--people whom I love--who have lost family to or whose lives have been dramatically altered by acts of terrorism. My intention is most definitely not to diminish their pain or loss; I mourn with them. My intention is to correct misinformation and counter the fear culture that affects the way we see and live in the world. (Added 11/19/2015)

**Number changed from 137,000; addition error.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Tired of weeping

Oh, I am very weary,
Though tears no longer flow;
My eyes are tired of weeping,
My heart is sick of woe.
~Anne Bronte

Iraqi refugee family I met in Beirut forsuchatimeisnow.org

Syrian refugee children I met in a tent settlement in Lebanon  forsuchatimeisnow.org

Syrian refugee children I met in a tent settlement in Lebanon  forsuchatimeisnow.org

A Syrian refugee child I met in a tent settlement in Lebanon  forsuchatimeisnow.org

A refugee tent settlement in Lebanon  forsuchatimeisnow.org

A Syrian refugee child I met in a tent settlement in Lebanon  forsuchatimeisnow.org

Syrian refugee children I met in a tent settlement in Lebanon  forsuchatimeisnow.org

Syrian refugee women in a tent settlement in Lebanaon   forsuchatimeisnow.org

A Syrian refugee widow living in a tent settlement in Lebanon   forsuchatimeisnow.org

A Syrian refugee child living in a tent settlement in Lebanon  forsuchatimeisnow.org

A Syrian refugee boy living in a tent settlement in Lebanon  forsuchatimeisnow.org

Iraqi refugee children at a Heart for Lebanon distribution center in Lebanon  forsuchatimeisnow.org

Iraqi refugee family at a Heart for Lebanon distribution center in Lebanon  forsuchatimeisnow.org

An Iraqi refugee family. The couple's youngest son was killed by an ISIS bomb   forsuchatimeisnow.org

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

The Martian and our divine instinct to help

Last spring, I read Andy Weir’s sci-fi novel, The Martian, in less than 24 hours. It doesn’t disappoint—and neither does the recent film adaption.

Like the novel, the film centers on the crew of the Hermes during a mission on Mars, where astronaut Mark Watney is stranded after the rest of the crew evacuate and leave him behind believing he died during a storm. Using his humor, ingenuity and skills as a scientist, he strives to survive.

Critics and scientists alike praise The Martian’s depiction of science. A powerful tool, science not only continually reveals the secrets of our amazing universe but also helps us survive in and improve the world around us. Indeed, one of the best parts of The Martian is watching Watney science his way through one challenge after another.

But ultimately, science isn’t what saves Watney.

We get so caught up in Watney’s clever resourcefulness that we almost forget the toll of his struggle to survive. Near the end of the film, we get a glimpse of his body—bruised, marred and painfully thin. And as he journeys across Mars towards an assent vehicle that his crewmates will control remotely to rendezvous with the Hermes, his face and posture reflect the weariness wrought by starvation and constant threat.

When he reaches the assent vehicle, he strips it down to make it light enough to boost him higher into orbit to intercept the Hermes. When he finally lies back in the vehicle’s sole remaining launch chair, he is literally at the end of what he can do. Like the assent vehicle, he’s been stripped bare.

At that moment he hears a crewmate’s voice from the Hermes—the first human voice besides his own in over a year—and his eyes fill with tears.

And so do mine.

Science kept Watney alive but it is his crewmates—at immense risk to their own lives—who save him.

In one of the film’s trailers, Watney gives voice to a key passage at the end of the novel where he reflects on why people risked so much to save him:
“… they did it because every human being has a basic instinct to help each other out. It might not seem that way sometimes, but it’s true. If a hiker gets lost in the mountains, people will coordinate a search. ... If an earthquake levels a city, people all over the world will send emergency supplies. This is so fundamentally human that it's found in every culture without exception. Yes, there are [people] who just don't care, but they're massively outnumbered by the people who do.” 
This is the heart of The Martian—and it deeply resonates with the way I understand reality as a Christian.

In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis examines this attribute of our nature. When someone is in danger, Lewis says, you likely experience two equally important impulses: to help (herd instinct) or keep out of danger (self-preservation). Yet there is a third thing that judges between those impulses and tells you the right thing to do is help and the wrong thing would be to run away—a “Law of Human Nature” that “tells you to do the straight thing, and it does not seem to care how painful, or dangerous, or difficult it is to do.”

Human beings all over the earth exhibit this, says Lewis.

That this thing judges between instincts indicates it is not one itself, says Lewis, and that leads us to contemplate whether “there is something above and beyond the ordinary facts of men’s behavior” and “a Something which is directing the universe, and which appears in me as a law urging me to do right."

I loved The Martian for many reasons, but mostly because it resonates with the truth of the extraordinary reality that infuses and embraces our ordinary one—and me. And that brings God-talk into these open spaces.

This post is a slightly longer version of my column that originally appeared at MWR.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Our 'Tomorrowland' today

Imagine experiencing a future of such beauty and possibility that it transforms the way you think about reality and the choices you make in the present. That’s what happens to Casey Newton—an optimistic teenage girl who aspires to be an astronaut in a diminishing-NASA era—whenever she touches a lapel pin with the letter ‘T’ on it in the Disney film, Tomorrowland.

Casey is one of many dreamers, artists and inventors who have been given a glimpse of Tomorrowland in hopes of shaping a better future for humanity. That vision sends her on a remarkable and risky journey that changes the way she sees the world—and the fate of a humanity on the brink of self-destruction.

I resonate with Tomorrowland’s theme that our vision of the future can transform the way we live now. Early church believers fixed their vision on a future that helped free them to live risky, transformed lives that changed the world.

“Human life and consciousness requires, by its very nature, a projected future,” says Dallas Willard in The Divine Conspiracy.

Unlike our present culture, which fixes its visions of humanity’s future on a closed-system of materialism, Jesus presents us with the reality of an unrestrained kingdom and “a future as good and as large as God himself,” says Willard.

Scripture tells us we will reign with God, and we shall be as the resurrected Jesus (1 John 3:1-2, Phil 3:20), who was not restrained by space, time and the physical limitations of our bodies. The mortal part of us, says Willard, will be “swallowed up by life” in a world restored, “a kingdom come in its utter fullness.”

It will be a life brimming over with beauty and possibility beyond our imagination—but our embracing of and belief in the reality of that future is imperative to our life now.

In order live in the kingdom, says Willard, “we need to have firmly fixed in our minds what our future is to be like… It must be something we can now plan or make decisions in terms of... In this way our future can be incorporated into our life now and our life can be incorporated into our future.”

In Tomorrowland, the present world is broken like our own. And like our world, too many do nothing.

“In every moment there's a possibility of a better future, but you people won't believe it—and because you won't believe it you won't do what is necessary to make it a reality,” one character tells Casey. “People don’t care about a better future because it doesn’t cost them anything today.”

Like Casey, the journey to our glorious future requires a risk-taking kind of life—a “lay down your life, pick up your cross” kind of life. But the result is the experience of that future breaking into our world. We experience the fullness of that future Kingdom now. And the experiences we have in this life, says Willard, “fill us with anticipation of a future so full of beauty and goodness we can hardly imagine.”

Our own experiences of that future—be it from Scripture, a breath of the Spirit, a moment in the Kingdom of God’s family—remind us that not only what is come but also here and now is overflowing with possibility, beauty and restoration.

And as we transform and live out together that reality, others can see it too. We become like Tomorrowland’s lapel pins, giving others a glimpse of a glorious world and future breaking into this one today.

This post originally appeared as a column at MWR.

Sunday, October 11, 2015


Regina, an Iraqi refugee © Carmen Andres
I met ReGina on a cold January morning in Beirut after a women's Bible study for Iraqi refugees hosted by Heart for Lebanon. We stood next to a portable heater, warming our hands and feet. ReGina wore black, knitted gloves. Two fingers were missing from her right hand.
Then she told her story.
She and her family were from Mosul, a city of over a million people in northern Iraq. They were part of the Christian community there, which has ancient roots in the region. The Christians of Iraq are considered one of the oldest continuous Christian communities in the world, dating back to the first century AD, hundreds of years before Constantine and the formation of the Catholic Church.
One day, as she and her daughter were leaving church, a car bomb exploded. Regina lost those two fingers in the explosion. Her daughter has scars all over her body from the shrapnel, some of which is still embedded.
She fled Mosul and now lives in a rented apartment with her daughter and extended family members. Like many other Iraqi refugees, they are struggling to survive while they wait for the U.N. to approve their relocation to another country. Like most refugees, work is difficult if not impossible to find. Most refugees flee their homes with little or nothing, and what savings they have are used up quickly.
According to the UNHCR, ReGina and other Iraq Christians like her represented less than five percent of the total Iraqi population but made up 40 percent of Iraqi refugees living in nearby countries in 2007. That number increased after ISIS attacks in the past year and a half.
Lebanon is host to over 1.2  million Syrian and Iraqi refugees, and the crisis is testing the limits of that country's infrastructure. Donations to organizations like Heart for LebanonWorld Vision and the World Food Program will help meet desperate needs of refugees like ReGina and her family. You can make a differenceHelp now.

This is a repost of a blog post made at For Such a Time is Nowa website I developed to raise awareness of the Syrian and Iraqi refugee crisis, where you can find out more about the crisis and how you can help.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

The Tale of the Fortune Hunters

"The Tale of the Fortune Hunters"

A spoken word video about the Syrian refugee crisis. 

Filmed by Maarten Smeenk and Directed by David Bonsink