A Presbyterian Call to Welcome Refugees

“Our Call to Support Refugees from Syria and the World”

NOTE: Views from the Edge has added colored highlights to the text.

Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) congregations have supported refugee resettlement since the refugee crisis created by World War II. The 160th General Assembly (1948) of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America stated, “The United States should pass legislation to bring in at least four hundred thousand displaced persons during the next four years. … As they arrive, our church people should stand ready to open their homes and provide work for these unfortunate victims of war” (Minutes, PCUSA, 1948, Part I, p. 204). The people from the pews who approved that policy did so because they knew that scripture calls us to shelter the homeless (Isaiah 58:6–12) and welcome the stranger (Matthew 25:31–46).

The call is no less necessary today. Nearly 60 million people are displaced by war and persecution; 30 million of those displaced are children (UNHCR).  The crisis in Syria alone has displaced 11 million (UNHCR). Families are risking their lives and fleeing their homes to seek safety. They are spending months journeying, sleeping outside, paying smugglers for safe passage, and praying for a future for their families in a place that is safe from conflict.

They fear and flee many of the organizations that we also fear: ISIS, Boko Haram, Mara 18, Los Zetas. Right now governors are attempting to block the resettlement of Syrian refugees into their states because members of ISIS are sometimes Syrian. Ask yourself, should a victim’s shared nationality with perpetrators of violence exclude them from protection in this country?

Entering the U.S. as a refugee is not a quick or easy process. Refugees are the single-most scrutinized migrant group to enter the U.S. They undergo rigorous screening by multiple security agencies at multiple times during their pre-arrival processing (U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants). This process can take more than two years. Once they arrive in the United States, they continue to be screened every time they leave and reenter the country and when they apply for employment cards, green cards, or naturalization.

The risk is low and the humanitarian need is great. While, technically, governors cannot dictate where the federal government resettles refugees, the State Department only resettles refugees in areas where they know communities will thrive (USA Today). Governors are saying for their states, “No room at this inn.” Now is the time for the faith community to speak up on behalf of refugees, from all countries. Do not let the noise of a fearful few drown out compassion, facts, and logic. Answer the call to act prayerfully and recommit as an individual, congregation, or mid council through co-sponsorship, volunteer hours, and donations through your local resettlement agencies. Then send or personally deliver a letter, like the one at pcusa.org/immigration, to your governor about the kind of society we should be. If you personally deliver your letter, please take photos and post on Facebook and Twitter using the hashtags #ChooseWelcome and #RefugeesWelcome. …. Thank you!


  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, Nov. 29, 2015.

Muslim Clerics declare “ISIS is un-Islamic”

Before Beirut and Paris, 1,ooo+ Muslim clerics in India issued a Fatwa against ISIS  declaring, “The acts of the Islamic State are inhuman and un-Islamic.” The Associated Press report was published September 9, 2015. Click the link above to read the story.

Also in September, NPR aired Prominent Muslim Sheikh Issues Fatwa Against ISIS Violence, re-aired yesterday. Posts like these deserve wider attention.

Meanwhile, a very small Christian church in the little town of Philo, Illinois, drew attention in the local paper for its consideration of hosting Muslim Syrian refugees.

News on Philo Presbyterian Church and Muslim Syrian refugees

News on Philo Presbyterian Church and Muslim Syrian refugees

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, November 18, 2015.


Their Blood Runs in Mine

Our friend Dennis Aubrey posted “The Destruction of History” today on Via Lucis, lamenting the latest in the sordid history of religion destroying history and art.

Dennis Aubrey and P.J. McKey love beauty, history, and the religious architecture of Gothic and Romanesque churches they photograph in Europe. Sometimes, like today, they express a profound despair over the destruction done in the name of religion.

“Now we have word that ISIS has defaced and destroyed artifacts in Mosul, including Assyrian statues of winged bulls from the Mesopotamian cities of Ninevah and Nimrud. Video released by the newest barbarians to assault the cultural history of humanity shows a man using a power drill to deface the works.

“As so often throughout history, the excuse was religion. ‘The Prophet ordered us to get rid of statues and relics, and his companions did the same when they conquered countries after him.’  How many times in our work at Via Lucis have we read variations of these words from Catholics, Huguenots, Calvinists, revolutionaries, counter-revolutionaries, and military leaders?”

Years ago during a sabbatical in St. Andrews, Scotland, the destruction wrought there by my Scottish reformation forebear John Knox and his followers chilled my soul. The people who bred and raised me – Presbyterians of Scottish descent and religious sentiment – did this. They took the commandment to have no other gods as license to destroy, maim, and burn church art and heretics. Their blood runs in mine. Their DNA is mine. And, if confession has any meaning or merit whatsoever, the children of such crimes must say we’re sorry. Really sorry. Repentant. No more destruction. No more following the orders of bully prophets, no matter whose name they claim to honor.

Thank you, Dennis, for your post. On behalf of my ancestors and in the spirit of spirituality of beauty, love, and peace on the other side of destruction, thank you for your artist’s eyes. Thank you for your courage. Thank you for the hope in something better in a barbaric time.

– Rev. Gordon C. Stewart, Presbyterian minister Honorably Retired, Chaska, MN, March 4, 2015.

9/11 Anniversary Reflection

“I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” [Bhagavad Gita XI.32]

We live under the reign of death – under the threat of death, the fact of death, the fear of death, the practice of death, the way of death. We are reminded of it on the 13th anniversary of 9/11, the day after President Obama’s speech about ISIS.

One might suppose J. Robert Oppenheimer, the scientific director of the Manhattan Project, the United States’ World War II program to develop the first nuclear weapons, thought he and his colleagues were taking humanity higher up the ladder of human progress. Whatever he may have thought at the beginning, he sensed a fall into the arms of the destroyer of worlds while watching the first nuclear explosion in 1945.

Twenty years later, during a visit to Japan, Oppenheimer reflected on his immediate reaction watching the Trinity explosion at Alamogordo that unleashed the genie of atomic power on the world, knowing it could never be put back in the bottle.

“We knew the world would not be the same,” he said. His eyes were sullen, like someone who was remembering a great horror, his voice quiet, his speech slow, pensive, sorrowful. Maybe even penitential. The way some people talk who suffer post traumatic stress syndrome.

“A few people laughed, a few people cried . . . most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita; Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty and, to impress him, takes on his multi-armed form and says, ‘Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.’ I suppose we all thought that, one way or another.”

Oppenheimer is long gone. So is Edward R. Murrow, the courageous journalist who stood up to the right wing’s insidious attacks on J. Robert Oppenheimer and others using the verbal weaponry to which we have become accustomed: innuendo, guilt by association, sentences taken out of context, and the imputation of scurrilous motives, character assassinations the destroy the reputations of thoughtful people deemed by the dutiful to be less than dutiful patriots.

Today, the 13th Anniversary of the horror of 9/11, we pause to remember. We do so in the post-nuclear world of mass destruction first observed by Oppenheimer at Alamogordo where Death has become the destroyer of worlds, where ISIL beheads journalists and President Obama commits to destroying ISIL from the face of the earth. We all hold our breath at the sight of the multi-armed, ever-changing form of the power of Death and its summons to duty.

In America the arms industry stands alone as exempt from consumer protection laws, beyond congressional review. The guns at the gun shows, the military vehicles that patrolled the streets of Ferguson, the arms and other military equipment our government supplies to regimes around the world, the bombs dropped from drones, and the drones themselves constitute an unaccountable cabal of money and power like no other in the American economy. Ours has become a war economy, an economy that profits from death.

“A few people laughed,” said Oppenheimer with deep sadness. “Most people were silent.”

Once the destroyer of worlds is loosed, the genie can never be put back in the bottle. But those who have witnessed the explosions, or heard of them, here at home in Ferguson, and abroad in Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel, Palestine, or Syria have a responsibility to honor the likes of J. Robert Oppenheimer and other brave men and women who refused to remain silent about the tragic climb up the ladder toward divine power that always leads to the fall into a hell of our own making.

Losing Our Heads

Lewis Carroll knew nothing about ISIS when he wrote Alice in Wonderland, but he knew about the insanity of power in the high places of his own culture.

In the screenplay of Alice, the Queen of Hearts asks “Who’s been painting my roses red? WHO’S BEEN PAINTING MY ROSES RED? /Who dares to taint / With vulgar paint / The royal flower bed? / For painting my roses red / Someone will lose his head.”

The Card Painter responds “Oh no, Your Majesty, please! It’s all ‘his’ fault!” The Ace blames the Deuce. The Deuce blames the three. The Queen explodes.

“That’s enough! Off with their heads! I warn you, child… if I lose my temper, you lose your head! Understand?”

The very thought of beheadings chills us to the bone. It would be hard to imagine a more horrifying spectacle than what we have recently seen of American journalists losing their heads in the Middle East. The fact that British and American citizens have joined ISIS is nearly as chilling as the killings themselves; we ask why one of us would dare “to taint with vulgar paint the royal flower bed.”

There is no excuse for a beheading. It makes no difference if it’s at the hands of ISIS or David, as in the beheading of Goliath the giant Philistine, or those who sought to demonstrate their zealous support for David, sneaking into the bedroom of Ish-bosheth, the son of Saul, beheading Ish-bosheth and presenting his head to David at Hebron. (Second Samuel 4:9-13)

To their great surprise, David, who had beheaded Goliath, is not pleased. “‘[W]hen wicked men have killed a righteous man in his own house on his bed, shall I not now require his blood at your hand and destroy you from the earth?’ And David commanded his young men, and they killed them and cut off their hands and feet and hanged them beside the pool at Hebron. But they took the head of Ish-bosheth and buried it in the tomb of Abner at Hebron.” (II Samuel 4: 5-12).

We don’t hear reading like this in church. But you will hear such Scriptures read daily in a Benedictine abbey, as I did while visiting Saint John’s Abbey to get my own head and heart straight in anticipation of the death of my stepdaughter. The reading I’m remembering was just as ghastly as the beheadings of Goliath and Ish-bosheth and of David’s response cutting off the killers’ hands and feet on the public square for all to see.

“Why,” I asked my Benedictine spiritual guide, “do you read those readings? They’re horrible!”

The answer, he said, would take too long really explain, but, in essence, such stories are lifted up in the Benedictine daily worship because that sordid history – that capacity for violence and brutality is a part of us still. We must never forget.

The pictures and stories of the ISIS beheadings are meant to terrorize ISIS’s opposition in places like Iraq and Syria, and here at home in the U.S.A. But there is evidence that they also produce a widespread determination to stop ISIS before it’s too late.

“That’s enough! Off with their heads! I warn you, ISIS… if I lose my temper, you lose your head! Understand?”

Moral outrage is in order. Yet a friend asked a question I didn’t want to hear and could not answer “As grizzly as the beheadings are,” he asked, “what’s the difference between that and blowing people’s heads off – enemies and children who are ‘collateral damage’ – with bombs dropped by a drone?”

President Obama has his hands full on this one. Some argue that he’s been too cautious. But before we go much farther down the road of exercising American power in ways that have produced hatred in the past and that will undercut whatever consensus of moral outrage is developing toward ISIS, we do well to remember the brutal response of David, whose cruelty at Hebron equalled and exceeded the wrongful beheading of Ish-bosheth.

Like the Benedictine brother said, we must not forget our history. Otherwise we paint the roses red and we all lose our heads.