Objections to Proposed U.S. Rule Changing Asylum Procedures

The U.S. Department of Justice’s Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) has proposed a rule that would significantly shorten the time for asylum seekers to file their paperwork for asylum and to amend that paperwork.[1] Given my experience as a pro bono attorney for such individuals, I filed with the EOIR a comment objecting to that proposed rule. Here is that comment followed by another objection by a Minnesota lawyer and friend, Steven Thal.

My Objection to the Proposed Rule[2]

“I am writing to oppose EOIR’s proposed rule to curtail human rights of asylum seekers by limiting timelines for applications and unlawfully restricting the type of evidence presented. The rule represents yet another attempt to restrict the right of people to obtain protection from persecution and torture—rights that the U.S. has agreed to meaningfully implement. By putting up nearly-insurmountable obstacles in that process, this proposed rule violates the rights of asylum seekers and, therefore, U.S. and international law. For the following reasons, I request that this rule be withdrawn in its entirety.”

I.“The 15-day filing deadline for asylum- and withholding-only removal proceedings will contravene our international and domestic laws.”

”The proposed rule will violate our obligations under the UN Refugee Convention and U.S. law by impinging on the ability for people in asylum- and withholding-only proceedings to adequately prepare their case. The rule proposes to require filing within 15 days of the person’s first hearing. For most in asylum- and withholding-only proceedings, this will be an impossible task as many are recently-arrived in the U.S., lack sufficient language skills to prepare a filing that must be in English, lack the resources to pay the now-required $50 fee, and are unlikely to secure reliable counsel on that timeline. Asylum seekers are entitled to present their case and be represented by counsel. This new rule infringes on those rights and must be withdrawn. Moreover, the rule will unduly impact attorneys and service providers—particularly nonprofit providers—who will be overburdened and unable to find pro bono counsel willing to complete applications on such a timeline”

II.“The proposed restrictions on evidence are a blatant attempt to deny asylum protections and improperly restrict due process.”

“The proposed changes to evidence are unlawful and blatantly targeted to discourage asylum applications. This violates our obligations under the UN Refugee Convention as well as U.S. law.”

“The proposed rule proposes to make all evidence other than U.S. government reports presumptively unreliable. Such change would allow immigration judges to discount local and international news sources, reports by both local and international nongovernmental organizations and even United Nations reports. The only evidence under the new rule that would be presumed credible would be reports prepared by the U.S. Government, i.e., opposing counsel in an asylum case.”

“This rule is unjustified and must be withdrawn as local and international sources provide nuanced and expert analysis that the U.S Government reports often lack due to capacity, know-how and diplomatic pressures. Moreover, because U.S. Government reports will be prepared by the same branch as the opposing counsel in asylum cases, the rule violates basic understandings of due process rights by presumptively finding one side credible. And, the rule allows immigration judges to introduce their own evidence into the record, further violating due process by eliminating their role as a neutral arbiter.”

III. “The proposed 30-day timeframe for correcting errors will deny asylum to those who need protection, thereby contravening international and domestic law on nonrefoulment.”

“The proposed rule further violates asylum seekers’ rights by restricting their ability to file an application. The proposed rule, though espousing efficient processing of applications, removes the requirement that EOIR return an application within 30 days of filing or presume it properly filed. Yet, it then gives the asylum seeker only 30 days to correct any deficiencies and will deem abandoned and deny any application not corrected in that time. This rule is a clear attempt to allow the Government to deny bona fide asylum claims under the guise of procedural efficiencies. Moreover, it will violate our international nonrefoulment obligations by denying asylum applications due to procedural defects rather than substance and, therefore, returning people to countries in which they will be persecuted or tortured.”

IV. “The proposed 180-day case completion timeline and restrictions on continuances improperly penalizes asylum applicants for the court’s inefficiencies.”

 “The proposed rule passes-on to the applicant the inefficiencies and failure of EOIR to provide sufficient resources—while eliminating case management techniques such as administrative closure—by requiring applications be adjudicated within 180 days absent a very limited set of exceptional circumstances. The rule will mean in practice that bona fide asylum applicants are denied and removed to countries in which they will face persecution or torture because they will be foreclosed from requesting continuances to sufficiently prepare their case. By essentially barring continuances and demanding immigration judges adjudicate cases on impossible timelines given backlog and complexity of asylum cases—as well as the myriad new restrictions and processing requirements created over the past four years— the proposed rule will result in improperly decided cases, increasing the rate of appeals and threatening to deny those who truly need our protection. Such a timeline will also present immense challenges to attorneys and pro bono service providers who will be challenged to represent clients to the best of their abilities without the ability to request time to prepare. This infringes on the due process rights of asylum clients and should be withdrawn.”

V. “My Personal Experience As a Pro Bono Asylum Lawyer Demonstrates the Utter Insanity of this Proposed Regulation.”

“In the mid-1980s I was a partner in a major Minneapolis law firm with 20 years of experience representing fee-paying clients in business litigation. I had not studied immigration law in law school or thereafter and had no knowledge of that field in general or refugee and asylum law in particular. But for various professional and personal reasons, I decided that I wanted to be a pro bono lawyer for an asylum seeker from Central America.”

“Fortunately for me and many other Minnesota lawyers, then and now, a Minnesota non-profit organization—[Minnesota] Advocates for Human Rights—provided a course in refugee and asylum law for lawyers like me and the support of experienced immigration lawyers that enabled me and others, then and now, to become pro bono asylum lawyers.”

“With that support from this system and my law firm, I thus embarked in the mid-1980’s on my first pro bono case for a Salvadoran asylum seeker and tried the case in the Immigration Court with the assistance of an experienced immigration attorney. We lost the case, but filed an appeal to the Board of Immigration Appeals, and under the laws at that time our client maintained his work permit and continued to live and work in the Twin Cities.”

“Thereafter with the assistance of [Minnesota] Advocates for Human Rights I was a pro bono attorney for another Salvadoran asylum seeker, whose case prompted me in April 1989 to go to that country, at my own expense, to do some investigations in his case and learn more about that country more generally. This trip was during the Salvadoran Civil War and on the day that I arrived her attorney general was assassinated with a car bomb. That subsequent week, therefore, was tense and dangerous, but to my surprise turned out to be the most important religious experience of my life as I started to learn about the courageous work of Archbishop (now Saint) Oscar Romero, the Jesuit priests at the University of Central America (six of whom were murdered by the Salvadoran military later that same year), Bishop Menardo Gomez of the Lutheran Church of El Salvador and many others. Afterwards my second Salvadoran client was granted protection by the Immigration and Naturalization Service.”

“In the 1990s I was a successful pro bono lawyer for an Afghan’s affirmative application for asylum and later for U.S. citizenship. Thereafter until my retirement in 2001 I also had success as a pro bono attorney for asylum seekers from Colombia, Somalia and Burma. All of this was made possible by the assistance of Advocates for Human Rights and experienced immigration lawyers and by the support of my law firm.”

“As a result of this experience, I can testify that asylum seekers in the U.S. desperately need the assistance and guidance of able pro bono attorneys since almost all such individuals do not have the financial resources to retain fee-based attorneys.”

“Moreover, I can testify to the time constraints associated with such pro bono representation.”

“First, organizations like Advocates have procedures to screen potential asylum applicants and identify those who appear to have credible claims and then seek to find an a competent attorney who is willing to represent, pro bono, such applicants. These organizations also have to develop and produce at least annual programs to educate potential pro bono attorneys about refugee and asylum law and develop other ways to recruit such lawyers to volunteer their services to asylum seekers. That takes time and effort and financial support by charitable contributions from the community. Advocates for Human Rights continues to be successful in these efforts.”

“Second, once an attorney agrees to take such a case, pro bono, he or she needs to fit that case into his or her caseload and obligations to existing clients, especially fee-paying clients. Once the attorney starts working on the pro bono asylum case, he or she may identify documents that need to be obtained from another place in the U.S. or foreign country and/or need to be translated from a foreign language into English. An interpreter may be needed for conferences with the client or other witnesses. Eventually the attorney must prepare documents for the asylum application and appear with the client in Immigration Court or at interviews on affirmative claims. In addition, the case may require the attorney to travel to another location. All of these actions by an attorney are necessary to provide competent advice and service to the pro bono client and all have their time requirements.”

“Third, these time pressures on the relevant non-profit organizations and pro bono asylum attorneys are even more intense now in the midst of the COVID-19 Pandemic disruptions and complications.”

“In short, it would be impossible under the proposed regulation for asylum seekers to obtain the competent pro bono representation they so desperately need. The proposed regulation is utter insanity.”

Steven Thal’s Objection to the Proposed Rule[3]

“I have been practicing immigration law since 1982 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. I also am a past Chair of the Immigration Section of the Minnesota State Bar Association. I have served as a past Chair of the Minnesota/Dakotas American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) Chapter and previously served as its Vice Chair and Secretary/Treasurer. I have served on the AILA Essential Workers Committee, AILA Immigration Works Committee. The law firm I established currently has three full-time associate attorneys involved in our practice. (www.thalvisa.com.)”

“First, I endorse the comments on this proposed rule made by my friend and fellow Minnesota attorney, Duane W. Krohnke (Comment Tracking Number: kgl-2g3o-0vel.) “

“Second, although my two associates and I along with other full-time Minnesota immigration attorneys represent some asylum seekers on a pro bono basis, the demand for such services exceeds our collective ability to do so. Therefore, we need the assistance of non-immigration attorneys to be pro bono lawyers for other asylum seekers after these lawyers have obained education about asylum law from Advocates for Human Rights. In short, the only way that asylum applicants in the Twin Cities and Minnesota can obtain a pro bono attorney is through organizations like Advocates.”

“Third, I would add that it would be nearly impossible to meet the proposed deadlines in this proposed rule given the difficulty in reaching clients who are in detention in remotely held jail facilities, especially since ICE can move these individuals without prior notification. Just getting a G-28 Notice of Appearance of Attorney signed is a logistical nightmare. Gathering evidence, locating witnesses, obtaining supporting evidence cannot be accomplished effectively within the short times in the proposed rule.”

Conclusion

For the foregoing reasons, we call on the Department to withdraw the proposed rule in its entirety.

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[1] Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR), Procedures for Asylum and Withholding of Removal (Sept. 23, 2020).

[2] Comment on FR Doc # 2020-2107, EOIR Procedures for Asylum and Withholding of Removal (by Duane Krohnke) (Oct. 22, 2020), Comment ID: EOIR-2020-0005-1113;Tracking Number kgl-2g3o-Ovel.

[3] Comment on FR Doc # 2020-2107, EOIR Procedures for Asylum and Withholding of Removal (by Steven Thal) (Oct. 22, 2020) Comment ID: EOIR-2020-0005-????; Tracking Number: 1K4-0jny-mh2v.

 

U.S. State Governments Celebrate Refugees’ Accomplishments

The now enjoined Trump executive order requiring state and local governments to consent to refugee resettlement has had what the President probably did not expect: many of the 42 states so consenting, all by their governors (both Republican and Democrat), also celebrated the many accomplishments of the previous refugees who have resettled in their states. These positive comments about refugees need to be remembered and continuously publicized, and so here they are. [1]

Alaska. Although the state has not officially submitted a consent letter to the federal government, its Governor in a press conference said, “the resettlement program has a longstanding history and is in line with U.S. and Alaska values.  I think America and Alaska get behind because, once again, it’s folks that are in situations where there’s war or some type of persecution and of course, when they apply to come here, the hope is that that’s put behind them and they can get on with their lives and be part of the state, if they choose to stay, and part of the country.”

Arizona. “Throughout our nation’s history, the United States has been a refuge for individuals fleeing religious and political persecution in their homeland, and Arizona has historically been one of the most welcoming states in terms of the number of refugees resettled here. Refugees arriving in the United States have been vetted and approved by the appropriate national security agencies and Department of State and have been granted legal entry to make a new home in the land of the free.”

Arkansas.  “Arkansans have a history of welcoming refugees. While we fully support control of our borders and oppose illegal immigration, we also value the contribution of immigrants and understand the importance of America continuing to be a welcoming nation for those truly seeking refuge and following the legal path to our land. Immigrants bring energy, a thirst for freedom, and a desire to pursue the American dream. This is America’s strength and part of our future.”

California “The State of California is proud to be a welcoming state, and is committed to the continued resettlement of refugees in partnership with local jurisdictions and community partners. California recognizes its resettlement programs and services are an indispensable lifeline to refugees who have been forcibly dispatched from their home countries and cannot rebuild their lives where they first fled.”

“The refugee resettlement program has a long history in California, spanning over 40 years and successfully resettling over 700,000 men, women and children. During these four decades, refugees continuously have contributed to the enrichment of our economy, culture, and society. California’s communities have flourished because of their diversity and ongoing ability to embrace refugees and immigrant families. . . . Refugees deserve our support and we will keep our doors open to these families and people to sustain  an inclusive California for all.”

 Colorado. “Colorado will continue to assist and resettle more refugees in our communities as long as people around the world are displaced from their home countries.”

“Since 1980, Colorado has welcomed individuals and families fleeing persecution, war, and violence from all over the world through the United States Refugee Admissions Program. Having a robust refugee program ensures that we are upholding our American values of humanitarianism, freedom, and opportunity. Not only is investing in refugees the compassionate and humane thing to do, refugees contribute to our economy in ways that benefit all Coloradans. For every dollar Colorado invests in refugees, we receive a $1.23 return on investment in tax revenue, and four new Colorado jobs are created for every refugee who is resettled in our State.”

Connecticut. “It is a bedrock principle of the United States of America that we welcome to our shores those fleeing tyranny, persecution and violence. As you well know, prior to being admitted to the United States, a refugee must undergo a rigorous vetting process. And we know from our own experience here in Connecticut that refugees enrich the communities that offer them shelter- socially, culturally, and economically. In addition, many people are resettled in our country as part of the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program, because they have put their lives and safety, and that of their families, at risk to help ensure the success and safety of our military service members in Afghanistan and Iraq. Connecticut is proud to do its part to honor our country’s commitment to them. The policy of the Trump Administration over several years to cut dramatically the number of refugees allowed to resettle in the United States is antithetical to our heritage and our values.”

Delaware. “Our country has historically been a refuge of safe harbor for those fleeing war-torn countries, violence, and political persecution. We should continue to stand as a beacon of hope and freedom for people around the world. In that spirit, as Delawareans, we are proud to do our part, and continue to accept the resettlement of refugees.”

Illinois. “Since 1975, the State of Illinois has welcomed and resettled more than 130,000 refugees from more than 86 countries. In recent years, 1,000 to 3,000 refugees, those seeking asylum, and victims of human trafficking arrived in Illinois annually. Refugees have successfully rebuilt their lives and made positive social and economic contributions to Illinois. They have helped revitalize neighborhoods and added to the cultural vitality of our state and communities. As survivors of persecution, refugees embody the importance of human rights, democracy, and freedom. Refugees’ resilience in the face of hardship inspires courage, hope, and perseverance. And refugees’ countless contributions undoubtedly make our states and nation stronger.”

Indiana. “Indiana is a destination of certainty, stability and opportunity. As a state, we are on course to become the absolute best place in America to grow as an individual, a family, a business and as a community. Our long tradition of welcoming and helping to resettle refugees with support from our federal partners, shows the world the compassion of Hoosiers and our willingness to give others the ability to grow and prosper in the great state of Indiana.”

“In just the last five years, state based non-profit agencies have resettled thousands of deserving, qualified individuals in the Hoosier state, who have been fully and carefully vetted by relevant federal government agencies. These are . . . individuals who have gone through all the proper channels, were persecuted for their religious or political beliefs in their homeland and have sought and been granted refugee status in our nation of immigrants.”

Kansas. “Kansas has a long and proud history of welcoming the world’s refugees to our state. Refugees are not simply looking for a better home, they are fleeing some of the most horrific violence, war, famine, religious and cultural persecution of our time. Our country and our state can provide the security they need for a safer place to call home. The citizens of Kansas have shown time and again a strong commitment to welcoming refugees into communities statewide.”  She also said, “Refugees come to our country and state looking for a better place to live. Our country and our state benefit as they also make positive contributions in significant ways. They contribute to our economy, workforce and the cultural fabric of our state and nation.”

Maine. “For more than forty years, and under the leadership of seven Democratic, Republican and Independent governors, Maine has participated in the federal refugee resettlement program. Over the course of those decades we have welcomed nearly 10,000 people from more than 30 countries – people who have resettled in Maine with the hope of finding peace, safety and work for themselves and their families.”

“Maine has a workforce shortage, projected to grow worse over the next decade, creating serious challenges for businesses seeking to hire qualified workers in every industry and in every sector of our economy. Our state welcomes refugees who have skills, education and ability, a proven work ethic and tremendous drive. It is the right thing to do, and it is critical to the strength of our economy and our future success as a state.”

Massachusetts. “Massachusetts is committed to continuing to serve as a source of hope and opportunity, welcoming those seeking refuge with open arms and ensuring that newcomers feel safe, valued and supported as they settle into a new country and integrate into new communities.”

“The United States has a proud and noble tradition of serving as a country of refuge for those most vulnerable in the world. The Commonwealth welcomed 516 refugees last year, from 30 countries, and has welcomed 14,282 refugees over the past decade, from 59 countries. Throughout history, many of the refugees our Country admitted became distinguished scientists, government leaders, entrepreneurs, cultural icons, and public servants. We have much to gain in providing refuge to those in need. Foreign born employees provide significant support to our economy and make up a critical part of the health and human services sector workforce.”

Michigan. “Michigan has a rich history of welcoming refugees and other immigrants to our state. I am committed to ensuring that we remain a leader in responding to the needs of globally displaced families and individuals. We recognize the value of being a welcoming state, and the contribution of refugees to the fabric of our communities. Refugees enhance our state socially, culturally, and economically.”

Minnesota. “Minnesota has a strong moral tradition of welcoming those who seek refuge. Our state has always stepped forward to help those who are fleeing desperate situations and need a safe place to call home. Refugees strengthen our communities. Bringing new cultures and fresh perspectives, they contribute to the social fabric of our state. Opening businesses and supporting existing ones, they are critical to the success of our economy. Refugees are doctors and bus drivers. They are entrepreneurs and police officers. They are students and teachers. They are our neighbors.”

“We will continue to work hard to ensure refugees become a thriving part of our communities, and I am confident this demonstration of compassion will mark the first step in these immigrants becoming  patriotic and productive fellow Americans.”

Missouri. “Missouri has a long and rich history of immigration, dating back to America’s earliest explorers, fur traders, and missionaries. Today, Missouri’s population includes thousands of former refugees who have become vital members of our communities. Since 2002, nearly 18,000 refugees from 45 countries have resettled in Missouri.”

“In Missouri, state organizations and faith-based groups work tirelessly to support refugee resettlement. Currently, there are five agencies that integrate refugees in St. Louis, Kansas City, Columbia, and Springfield, where they have helped strengthen local economies, especially through entrepreneurship. These groups do an excellent job of transitioning newly settled populations, ensuring they are educated, trained, and prepared to assimilate into their new community. In fact, St. Louis boasts one of the largest Bosnian populations outside that country itself. Community volunteers, especially faith-based partners, continue to be an integral part of such local resettlement efforts.”

Nevada. “Nevada is proud of our long-standing tradition of resettling refugees. Since the 1970s, Republican and Democratic Governors from Nevada have welcomed these individuals into our state with open arms. Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to meet with dozens of refugee children in the State Capitol. . . . While their unimaginable experiences of suffering and hardship may have originated in different areas around the globe, the personal stories they shared were defined by courage, hope and resilience. These stories embody the dignity and values of this country. Such is the story of Nevada Assemblyman Alexander Assefa. Mr. Assefa came to the U.S. as a refugee with similar hopes and dreams. After a lot of hard work, he became a pilot, a small business owner, and he now proudly serves in the Nevada State Legislature. Above all, he is a proud American.”

“We need not forget that refugees fled for their lives after enduring persecution, war and dire humanitarian conditions. Many waited several years in remote places, while undergoing extensive background checks and security clearances, for the opportunity to start a new life in the United States. Once here, refugees become productive, responsible and self-sufficient members of society and account for an important part of our workforce and that drives our economic engine.”

New Jersey. “New Jersey will continue to welcome refugees anxiously fleeing harm and seeking safety. It is not only the right response; it is the American response. We believe that America must remain a beacon of hope in the world, and we know that opening its doors to those facing danger and oppression is who we are as a nation. We are disheartened by recent attempts to undercut our commitment to freedom and opportunity by shrinking the numbers of who can seek comfort on our shores and by erecting new and significant barriers for refugees desperately reaching for safety. The announcement that your Administration will continue dramatically cutting the number of refugees allowed to resettle in the United States by reducing admission in the coming year to 18,000 from 30,000 -which was already a drastic decline from the 111,000 ceiling just two years ago – is devastating not only for those seeking refuge from harm but for the United States’ standing in the world.”

“New Jersey will continue to welcome refugees anxiously fleeing harm and seeking safety. It is not only the right response; it is the American response.”

“We believe that America must remain a beacon of hope in the world, and we know that opening its doors to those facing danger and oppression is who we are as a nation. We are disheartened by recent attempts to undercut our commitment to freedom and opportunity by shrinking the numbers of who can seek comfort on our shores and by erecting new and significant barriers for refugees desperately reaching for safety. The announcement that your Administration will continue dramatically cutting the number of refugees allowed to resettle in the United States by reducing admission in the coming year to 18,000 from 30,000 -which was already a drastic decline from the 111,000 cei ling just two years ago – is devastating not only for those seeking refuge from harm but for the United States’ standing in the world.”

“Over two million of our residents are immigrants, including refugees, representing nearly 23 percent of New Jersey’s population. There is no doubt that refugees have contributed to the strength of our state and have enriched our communities economically, culturally and socially. Refugees who have made New Jersey their home have helped our state thrive by growing our workforce, starting businesses, contributing to local economies, and becoming valued friends and neighbors.”

“We took these actions because we recognize that new Americans are integral to our State’s culture and our economy. Immigrants and refugees in New Jersey include over 120,000 entrepreneurs, employ more than 389,000 people and contribute over $24.2 billion in federal, State, and local taxes. In fact, 43 percent of the State’s science, technology, engineering, and math-focused workforce are new Americans who play a significant part in maintaining the State’s role as a leading innovator in the STEM field. Supporting immigrant and refugee integration is a smart strategy for our State and our country.”

“We know that a strong and vibrant democracy like ours requires that we live out our values through our deeds. To do so, we must continue to hold true to who we are as Americans by helping those who come seeking refuge from violence and persecution around the world. My Administration looks forward to continuing to work together with cities and towns across our great State to welcome immigrants and refugees.”

New Mexico. “New Mexico has always welcomed immigrants of all types, including more than 2,500 refugees from 28 countries who have resettled in New Mexico since 2002, adding to the rich multicultural mix of which New Mexicans are so rightly proud.”[2] She also said, “Unlike other immigrants, refugees have been forcibly displaced from their homes, whether by war, famine, religious and cultural persecution or violence. They leave their home countries fearing for their lives, and they come to our shores and our borders often with nothing more than the clothes on their backs, desperate — not for a handout but for a chance to start over.”

“While refugees arrive needing our help, they are often quick to pay back the country and communities that welcome them. They get jobs and pay taxes. They open businesses. They contribute their cuisines and cultures, bringing us new forms of entertainment and understanding.”

North Carolina. “North Carolina was one of the first states to welcome refugees to the United States after the United States Refugee Act was signed into law in 1980. Our state has a strong network of community and faith-based groups which aid in resettlement of refugees who seek safety from persecution.”

North Dakota. “North Dakota has had success at integrating refugees who have become responsible citizens and productive members of the workforce.”

Oregon. “Oregon opposed the President’s recent Executive Order on “refugee resettlement, and ask that you return this year’s refugee admission number to previous annual levels. The values reflected in this Executive Order are not the values on which our country was built.”

“It is a sad day for a nation founded on the principle of welcoming ‘poor, tired, and huddled masses.’ Nobody chooses to be a refugee. Refugees are just like us. They have jobs and families. They are parents and friends, teachers and doctors, farmers and fishermen. Since 1975, Oregon has resettled 67,743 refugees. Refugees contribute every day to the strength of our economy, our communities, and our culture. About 70 percent of refugees find employment within the first few months of resettlement. They pay taxes, buy homes, and open businesses. Their search for freedom and a better future for themselves and their children embodies what it means to be an American.”

Pennsylvania. “Pennsylvania has a rich history of opening its doors to those facing persecution and danger. William Penn founded our commonwealth on the principle of religious freedom, seeking to allow those in Europe to escape persecution.”

“It is vital that America retain its moral authority throughout the world. And that means that when vulnerable and displaced individuals seek refuge from violence and oppression elsewhere, we welcome them to find that refuge in America. This maintains our image as a beacon of hope and freedom, and shows the world that America is the antithesis of the places these individuals are fleeing.”

“For decades, refugees have made our communities better, and I am committed to continuing that tradition to the fullest extent of my ability. In communities from Allentown to Lancaster to Erie, and elsewhere, refugees are resettling, making a home, finding employment, starting businesses, paying taxes, and enriching their communities. Church World Service, based in Lancaster, has gained national attention for how it has brought refugees and communities together to find mutual understanding and build strong relationships despite differences. That, to me, is the best of America.”

“During past conflicts, America has accepted hundreds of thousands of refugees who were fleeing violence and persecution. [For example,] Jewish refugees came to Pennsylvania from Germany and other European countries to escape the Nazi occupation and religious persecution. . . . As millions of people in Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Asia, Latin America and Africa face violence, persecution, and death, we should continue to help those we can while taking care to protect our commonwealth and our country, just as we have done for hundreds of years. To reject refugees outright emboldens the message of those who seek to inspire hatred by saying that we, as Americans, do not have compassion or care for specific groups of people in the world facing persecution or worse.”

Tennessee. “Resettlement will be facilitated by the Trump Administration and non-profit organizations with extensive experience in this area. The refugee population in Tennessee is small, and . . .our consent to cooperate and consult with the Trump Administration to provide a safe harbor for those who are fleeing religious persecution and violent conflict is the right decision. The United States and Tennessee have always been, since the very founding of our nation, a shining beacon of freedom and opportunity for the persecuted and oppressed, and particularly those suffering religious persecution.”

Utah. “Utah has “historically accepted and resettled more than 1,000 refugees each year from a variety of troubled regions of the world. . . . Utah’s unique history informs our approach to refugees. Our state was founded by religious refugees fleeing persecution in the Eastern United States. Those experiences and hardships of our pioneer ancestors 170 years ago are still fresh in the minds of many Utahans. As a result we empathize deeply with individuals and groups who have been forced from their homes and we love giving them a new home and a new life. And it turns out we do it quite well. Those refugees who resettle in Utah become integrated and accepted into our communities. They become productive employees and responsible citizens. They become contributors in our schools, churches and other civic institutions, even helping serve more recent refugees and thus generating a beautiful cycle of charity. This marvelous compassion is simply embedded into our state’ s culture.”

Vermont. “Since 1989, Vermont has welcomed almost 8,000 refugees, primarily from Bhutan, Burma, Bosnia, Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq, Somalia, Sudan and Vietnam. Prior to 2017, Vermont was resettling an average of approximately 325 refugees per year. Through this consent process, I hope to increase current resettlement to the level of 325-350 individuals annually. Vermont has never conditioned and will never condition refugee resettlement on a refugee’s race, ethnicity, religion or national origin.”

“Vermont’s refugee communities have made countless contributions to our state. Refugees help ensure a healthy sized and diverse student population. They help employers fill open positions, contributing to the community and local economy, and pay federal, state and local taxes. In recent years, refugees have entered employment in critical economic sectors including construction, health care, hospitality and hotels, manufacturing, customer service, education, environmental services, food service, maintenance, meat processing, office/accounting, packing, retail, transportation, and warehouse. Vermont has more open jobs than people to fill them; refugee communities are vital to Vermont’s economic health.”

“I am also heartened by the fact that an average of 90-94% of these new Americans are economically self-sufficient within eight months of arrival in Vermont. In fact, the rate for fiscal year 2029 is 100%.”

Virginia. “Virginia has welcomed refugees who are fleeing war, persecution, or other dire circumstances. We know that no one chooses to abandon their home until conditions become so difficult that the unknown is preferable.”

“The United States has long presented itself as a haven, a place of stability and economic prosperity. We promote the ideals upon which this country was founded, of liberty and freedom. But lo uphold those ideals abroad, we must allow access to them here at home. We must practice what we preach.”

“Virginia helps refugees settle into new homes only in those localities that participate in the Virginia Community Capacity Initiative, which ensures that a community’ s elected officials, faith leaders, schools, and other stakeholders are committed to helping refugees build new homes and lives. We work with resettlement agencies that have deep ties to these communities. We have always been clear that successful resettlement only happens with community involvement.”

“Because of our proximity to Washington, D.C., we are a preferred location for many Special Immigrant Visa holders: Iraqi and Afghanistan refugees who provided services to the U.S. military in those countries, and whose lives and families are in danger because of that service.”

“In recent years, as the federal government has lowered the number of refugees accepted into the United States, Virginia’s refugee number has dropped. We have the capacity to accept and help more refugees than we currently have.”

“These are people who no longer have a home. History shows us that this could happen to any of us. We must all imagine ourselves in their shoes, and treat them as we would wish to be treated. If I were ever in such a position, I hope a friendly country would take me in and let me rebuild my life in peace and safety. I believe people of decency would share that hope. Virginia’s lights are on and our doors are open, and we welcome new Virginians to make their homes here.”

Washington. “[The] State of Washington wholeheartedly consents to welcoming and resettling refugees into our communities—a long and proud tradition that we intend to continue.”

“As the state that resettled the second highest number of refugees last year, we are honored to remain a place of safety and security for those fleeing persecution and violence. Since 1975, Washington has bought in nearly 150,000 refugees from 70 different countries, including Vietnam, Ukraine and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Refugees contribute to all sectors of our economy—as teachers, service members, doctors, and more—while adding to our rich cultural landscape. They are an integral part of Washington’s past, present, and future.”

“Just last week, we celebrated the success of Dr. Anisa Ibrahim, a Washingtonian who resettled in our state after fleeing war-torn Somalia more than two decades ago. Only six years old when her family first arrived in the United States, Dr. Ibrahim later graduated from the University of Washington Medical School and now leads a pediatric clinic in Seattle—the same clinic that treated her when she and her siblings were children.”

“Her story is not unique. Throughout our state, children and families speak of similar circumstances, of having sacrificed everything to seek refuge in America from violence, starvation, and other horrors most of us will thankfully never experience. Many of these children are now leaders in our communities, bringing with them their unique perspectives on tragedy, perseverance, and triumph. Washington State is stronger and our communities are richer because of their important contributions.”

“Given all of the benefits of a robust resettlement program, we should not cast aside our founding principles as a nation. Enshrined in the Statue of Liberty, the ‘Mother of Exiles,’ is our country’s commitment as a safe place for humanity’s most vulnerable. Lest we forget that, of the 26,000,000 refugees worldwide, more than half are children.”

West Virginia.  “West Virginia has had great success with our refugee resettlement agency, which has been in operation since 1978. Refugees who have resettled here have become productive citizens and are welcomed into our West Virginia family.”

Wisconsin. “Our state has a rich history of opening its doors to people of all backgrounds, experiences, and walks of life. Through the years, while the people seeking resettlement opportunity in Wisconsin have changed, their circumstances have not: they are people seeking a new life, they embrace American ideals, and they bring with them valuable skills and experience which benefit all of us.” He also said, “Following the end of World War II, Wisconsin welcomed its first refugees as defined by the United Nations 1951 Refugee Convention. Our state has since continued to offer opportunities for safety and a new life to those from around the world who are granted resettlement. Over the past two decades, Wisconsin has welcomed more than 16,000 refugees from countries around the world, including Laos, Vietnam, the former Yugoslavia, Somalia, and Iraq. Most recently, our state has welcomed people from Burma and the Democratic Republic of Congo.”

“Refugees and immigrants are essential to Wisconsin’s economy, from manufacturing to education, and public service to agriculture and healthcare. At a time when we are seeing labor shortages across our state, it is irresponsible for the administration to place obstacles in the path of talented and hard-working folks seeking refuge and a better life.” Moreover, “our refugees are a critically important part of our families, our communities, and our culture—they are part of the fabric of our state. Wisconsin’s refugee population is resilient and determined—they want to help themselves and their family, they want to continue working toward their dreams of living safely and freely, and they are eager to give back to the communities who welcome them. These contributions and our diversity and our differences make us and our state stronger, not weaker.”

Conclusion

It also is noteworthy that at last 19 of the 42 consents came from Republican governors and at least 22 from Democratic governors. Seven other states have not been heard from on the consent issue and thereby impliedly did not consent before a federal court enjoined this program: six with Republican governors (Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina and Wyoming) and one with a Democratic governor (Hawaii). The only state that explicitly did not consent was Texas with a Republican governor.

More importantly these statements and the lives they depict are incarnations of Pope Francis’ advice to us all: Welcome. Protect. Promote. Integrate refugees and immigrants![2]

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[1] Almost all of these celebratory comments were quoted in previous posts to this blog: Latest U.S. Struggle Over Refugees (Dec. 11, 2019); Minnesota and Minneapolis Say “Yes” to Refugees (Dec. 14, 2019); Update on U.S.’ Consents to Refugee Resettlement (Dec. 16, 2019); Tennessee Consents to Refugees Resettlement (Dec. 20, 2019); Another Update on States’ Consents to Refugees Resettlement (Dec. 30, 2019); U.S. State and Local Governments’ Justifications for Consenting to Resettlement of Refugees (Dec. 31, 2019) Five More States Have Consented to Refugee Resettlement (Jan. 7, 2020); Alaska Says “Yes” to Refugee Resettlement (Jan. 8, 2020). See also Letter, Utah Gov. Herbert to Pres. Trump (Oct. 14, 2018); Letter, New Mexico Governor Grisham to Lutheran Family Services Rocky Mountain (Oct. 7, 2019); Letter, Vermont Governor Phil Scott to President Trump and Secretary Pompeo (Jan. 6, 2020). These opinions about the importance of refugees are consistent with the opinion of a Wall Street Journal columnist. (Immigrants Come to America to work, dwkcommentaries.com (Jan. 31, 2020).

[2]  Pope Francis Reminds Us To Welcome, Protect, Promote and Integrate Refugees and Other Migrants, dwkcommentaries.com (Jan. 1, 2020).

 

President Trump’s Skepticism About John Bolton’s Advice

According to journalists at the Washington Post, President Donald Trump is questioning his Administration’s recent aggressive strategy about Venezuela and about his National Security Advisor, John Bolton, one of the main advocates of such a strategy. [1]

As discussed in an earlier post, last week’s failure of an attempt to takeover the Venezuelan government by Juan Guaidó has prompted Trump to complain about having been misled about how easy it would be for such an attempt. Moreover, these journalists say, Trump’s “dissatisfaction has crystallized around . . . Bolton and . . .i [his] interventionist stance at odds with . . . [Trump’s] view that the United States should stay out of foreign quagmires.”

An unnamed U.S. official who is familiar with U.S.-Venezuela policy says “Trump [privately] has expressed concern that Bolton has boxed him into a corner and gone beyond where he is comfortable.” Nevertheless, two senior administration officials said Bolton’s job was “safe.”

Various current and former officials and outside advisers have said that the failure of last week’s takeover attempt has “effectively shelved serious discussion of a heavy U.S. military response.” One sign of this development was Vice President’s recent speech, as discussed in a prior post, announcing new U.S. measures regarding Venezuela that did not include any use or threat of military force other than the frequent comment that “all options are on the table.”

Trump has himself to blame too. His “approach to foreign intervention is largely ad hoc and idiosyncratic — driven less by ideology than by his hunger for foreign policy victories and confidence in his own deal-making skills.” This “lack of ideological coherence has played to the advantage of “ Bolton and Secretary Pompeo.

Another expert, Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, said, ““There is a fundamental conflict between the administration’s desire for regime change and what it is willing to do to bring it about. That is the contradiction of Mr. Trump’s foreign policy.”

John D. Feeley, a former U.S. ambassador and Univision political analyst, said that military intervention in Venezuela is unlikely because it “runs counter to Donald Trump’s 2020 reelection narrative. At a time when you’re pulling people back from Syria, back from Iraq, back from Afghanistan, how do you say we’re going to commit 50-, 100-, 150,000 of our blood and treasure to a country where you can’t tell the bad guys from the good guys?”

Conclusion

This news of Trump’s questioning the wisdom of advice from John Bolton is a welcome surprise. As noted in a prior post, this blogger and others more deeply involved in analyzing national security issues seriously question the wisdom of Bolton’s long-held belief in the use of U.S. military force.

Now is the time for Bolton to leave the government!

====================================

[1] Gearan, Dawsey, Hudson & Kim, A frustrated Trump questions his administration’s Venezuela strategy, Wash. Post (May 8, 2019); Landler, With Mix of Threats and Blandishments, Trump Bandies Policy of Regime Change, N.Y. Times (May 8, 2019).

 

Critique of John Bolton’s Consistent Advocacy of Using Aggressive Force

On April 17, as criticized in a prior post, U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton announced in Miami additional U.S. sanctions against Cuba on the anniversary of the 1961 failed U.S. invasion of Cuba’s Bay of Pigs (Playa Girõn).[1]

 

Now Dexter Filkins, an award-winning journalist, reminds us that Bolton has a deserved reputation as the  “Republican Party’s most militant foreign-policy thinker—an advocate of aggressive force who ridicules anyone who disagrees.”  Bolton also is a consistent opponent of multilateral institutions and treaties.

For example, In the George W. Bush Administration Bolton was Under-Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Affairs and a strong advocate for the 2001 U.S. invasion of Iraq. He re-endorsed that opinion in 2015 when he said, “I still think the decision to overthrow Saddam was correct.”

In May 2002, still as Under-Secretary, in a speech at the Heritage Foundation he said the Cuban government was developing an ambitious biological weapons program and collaborating with Libya and Iran, all contrary to the opinion of  the State Department’s internal intelligence bureau.

Today he presumably would admit that Venezuela poses no immediate threat to the U.S., but believes it is dangerous because it was allowing Russia to gain a foothold in the region and because it has the largest proven oil reserves in the world. On the other hand, presumably he would not concede that U.S. hostile policies towards that country and Cuba were providing Russia with the opportunity to expand its influence in the region.

The Monroe Doctrine, Bolton recently admitted, is a prohibition against outside powers interceding in Latin America that does not include U.S. use of armed forces in the region. But the Roosevelt Corollary, he added, provides for that use of force, and Bolton says, “I haven’t invoked that—yet.”[2]

Given the Trump Administration’s currently not having a permanent Secretary of Defense and no Secretary of Homeland Security and Ambassador to the U.N., “Bolton would have extraordinary latitude in a crisis., and as long as Trump’s  base is applauding, then Bolton can do whatever he wants.”

Dexter Filkins, the author of this New Yorker article, has been called “the premier combat journalist of his generation” for his reporting from Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, for which he won a Pulitzer Prize in 2009 and a National Book Critics Award for his “The Forever War.”[3]

==================================

[1] Filkins, John Bolton On the Warpath, New Yorker (May 6, 2019). See also, John Bolton’s New threat Against Cuba, dwkcommentaries.com (April 2, 2019); U.S. National Security Advisor Announces New U.S. Hostility Towards Cuba, dwkcommentaries.com (Nov. 3, 2018); Zakaria, Does a Trump doctrine on foreign policy exist? Ask John Bolton, Wash. Post (May 2, 2019) (Bolton has “a dark view of humankind” which requires the U.S. to be “aggressive, unilateral and militant;” and a “longtime fan of regime change”).

[2] State Dep’t, Office of the Historian, Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine, 1904.

[3] Dexter Filkins, The New Yorker; Dexter Filkins, Wikipedia.

 

My Call Stories

Here are my call stories in response to Rev. Tim Hart-Andersen’s  sermon,“What Is Your Call Story?,” which was the subject of a prior post.  

The sermon drew from the Bible’s account of Isaiah receiving a direct call from God and Zacchae’us having one from Jesus. I never had such a direct call and doubt that I ever will. Instead, as will be discussed, I have responded to various requests by friends and colleagues to do something that upon reflection were calls to service. Such requests often can lead to personal reflection and conversations with pastors and friends to discern whether there has been a call and what your response should be.

The title of the sermon suggests that each of us only has one call story. Yet I have had multiple calls to service and believe that is or should be a common experience. After all the sermon mentions the pastor’s father, Rev. Dr. Henry William Andersen, who had a strong calling to Presbyterian ministry, but upon his retirement from that ministry was perplexed for a while before he discovered a calling to retire and be a friend and counselor to other retired people.

In other words, vocation “implies a dedication to a certain kind of work or service over a period of time. A one-time effort probably does not count. On the other hand, . . . vocation does not necessarily require a lifetime commitment to doing a certain thing. Indeed, an individual’s circumstances change over time and what was a vocation for one period of life may not be appropriate for other period. Thus, an individual may have several vocations over time, some of which might be simultaneous.” [1]

Before I joined Westminster in 1981 I had no religious calls to service.

My Calls to Service

Church Leadership [2]

Shortly after I joined the church, I was asked to be an elder of the church. At the time I was surprised that the church wanted someone to serve in that capacity with such limited experience in the church, but I said “Yes” and now regard that as a call to service. This led to service on various church committees—Spiritual Growth, Evangelism and Global Partnerships, the last of which I chaired for ten years. In the process I learned a lot about these different programs and helped shape their missions.

This call was expanded by an invitation I accepted to join the Board of Trustees of United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities, an ecumenical Protestant institution, which I served, 1988-1998.

The Sanctuary Movement Lawsuit [3]

While serving as a church leader, I struggled with how I could integrate my new religious faith with an active legal practice as a corporate litigator.

The answer to that struggle emerged in 1985, when the senior partner at my law firm asked me to provide legal advice to a firm client and his church, the American Lutheran  Church (ALC), which was headquartered in Minneapolis and since merged into the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). The problem was to help ALC decide what it should do in response to the U.S. Government’s disclosure in a criminal case in Arizona that the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS and now the (Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE)) had sent undercover agents into worship services and Bible study meetings in ALC and Presbyterian churches in Arizona that were involved in the Sanctuary Movement.

The result was the ALC joined my denomination—Presbyterian Church U.S.A.—in suing the U.S. Government in federal court in Arizona over what we called “spies in the churches.” In preparation for that case, I had a trip to Phoenix to meet religious leaders involved in the Movement, including Rev. John Fife of Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson, who in 1986 was convicted of harboring and transporting illegal aliens and served five years probation before being elected Moderator (the national leader) of my denomination. 

The courtroom work in this case was handed by two excellent lawyers—Peter Baird and Janet Napolitano of the Phoenix firm of Lewis and Roca (n/k/a Lewis Roca Rothgerber Christie)—and after a Ninth Circuit reversal of a judgment for the Government, the court in Arizona granted a declaratory judgment that the U.S. Constitution’s “freedom of religion” Claus of the First Amendment protected churches from unreasonable investigations. (Napolitano, of course, later became U.S. Attorney for the District of Arizona, the state’s Attorney General and Governor and Secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and now is the President of the University of California.)

Thus, I came to understand that my senior partner’s asking me to provide legal services to the ALC was a call to religious service.

Becoming a Pro Bono Asylum Lawyer [4]

Moreover, at the start of the Sanctuary Movement case, I knew very little about the Sanctuary Movement or refugee and asylum law or what had been going on in Central America. This led to my leaning about this area of the law through a refugee and asylum training program from Minnesota Advocates for Human rights (n/k/a Advocates for Human Rights) and then volunteering to be a pro bono (no fee) attorney for an asylum applicant from El Salvador. Simultaneously I engaged in research about the Sanctuary Movement and about what had been happening in that country. I then tried the case with an experienced immigration attorney in the Immigration Court in Minneapolis. As was typical at the time, we lost the case, but immediately filed an appeal to the Board of Immigration Appeals in Washington, D.C., which enabled our client to remain in the U.S. with a work permit.

My Pilgrimage to El Salvador [5]

In 1988 I volunteered to handle another Salvadoran asylum case, which was more complicated. As a result, I decided to go to that country in April 1989 with a group from the Washington, D.C. Synod of the ALC through the auspices of the Center for Global Education of Augsburg University of Minneapolis. My purpose was to conduct investigations for this new case and learn more about the country and those objectives were accomplished.

The day we arrived, the Salvadoran Attorney General was assassinated with a car bomb. This produced an intensely tense and dangerous time in the country with her security forces with their automatic rifles stationed throughout the capitol.

Unexpectedly this trip turned out to be the most intense religious experience of my life and a major call to faith and service.

I started to learn more about Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was assassinated while saying mass on March 24, 1980, because of his outspoken criticism of his government’s human rights violations. My group visited the beautiful, modern chapel on the grounds of a cancer hospital where he was killed. Across the street was his small apartment. No fancy archbishop’s palace for him. Another stop was at the capitol city’s Cathedral, which was still unfinished due to Romero’s refusal to spend money on the building while so many Salvadorans were being killed and persecuted. His tomb then in one of the transepts was very plain and covered with photographs of people and their written prayers. There were scraps of linoleum on the floor and plain wooden benches for worshippers. On the outdoor steps to the Cathedral women from COMADRES (Committee of Mothers of the Disappeared and Assassinated) with bullhorns were screaming protests against the latest round of repression by the government. Tears filled my eyes as the words of the Holy Communion or Eucharist echoed in my mind: “My body broken for you.” As a result, Romero became a self-appointed saint for this Protestant believer and I was overjoyed in October 2018 when the Roman Catholic Church canonized Romero as Saint Romero. [6]

Of the many other searing events of my week in El Salvador, another stands out. At the small Lutheran Church of El Salvador, we met an attorney, Salvador Ibarra, who was the one-person human rights office of the church. He spoke of his joy in his work even though such service put his own life at risk and thereby was calling me to continued work as a pro bono asylum lawyer.

Additional Pro Bono Asylum Work [7]

I accepted that call upon my return to the security and comforts of my office in a large law firm in downtown Minneapolis. I helped my second Salvadoran client to obtain asylum.

Thereafter until my retirement from the law firm in 2001, I was such an attorney for other Salvadorans, a young man from Afghanistan, two Somali men, a Burmese man, a young woman from Colombia and a Colombian family, all of whom obtained asylum and at least some of whom are now U.S. citizens.

Teaching International Human Rights Law [8]

In the Fall of 2001, after retiring from the practice of law, I audited the international human rights law course at the University of Minnesota Law School, which was taught by friends, Professors David Weissbrodt and Barbara Frey and by Professor Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, who became another friend. Thereafter David extended a surprise invitation to me to help them teach the course in the future. I accepted that invitation or call, and from 2002 through 2010 I was an Adjunct Professor at the UM where I taught the chapters on refugee and asylum law and U.S. federal court litigation over foreign human rights violations. Along the way I also learned a lot more about other aspects of this large area of law. I am grateful for this call.

Blogging About Law, Politics, Religion and History [9]

One of the reasons I had another retirement (this from teaching) was to research and write about law, politics, religion and history and stumbled onto blogging as a way to do just that. As a result, in April 2011 I started this blog.

My writing about religion has concentrated on the life and witness of Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church. I have been enriched by reading the Biblical texts and sermons and then thinking and writing about them. I have come to see this as my way of doing evangelism by demonstrating how an intelligent person can have a religious, spiritual life, something I did not believe possible during my 24 years of religious and spiritual nothingness before I joined Westminster in 1981.

Another major subject of my blog is promoting U.S.-Cuba reconciliation, which grew out of my work on Westminster’s partnership with a Presbyterian-Reformed congregation in the City of Matanzas, Cuba, making three mission trips to the island and welcoming Cuban visitors to my church and city.

Thus, I have come to see blogging as another call that I have accepted.

Conclusion

I concur with Rev. Hart-Andersen when he said in his sermon, “ Christian vocation is less about a particular job and more about how we approach that job, less with what career we choose and more about the underlying purpose we sense in our lives and how that purpose manifests itself in whatever we do. . . . Being called to follow Jesus is a way of life, a pilgrimage on which we embark together.”

Or as noted Presbyterian pastor and author, Frederick Buechner said, a calling is “work I need most to do and what the world needs most to have done. The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” [10]

I am eternally grateful to have received, and accepted, these calls to service. My life has been enriched!

==========================

[1] My General Thoughts on Vocation, dwkcommentaries.com (Feb. 6, 2014). 

[2] Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church, dwkcommentaries.com (April 6, 2011); My Vocations, dwkcommentaries.com (Feb. 23, 2014), 

[3] The Sanctuary Movement Case, dwkcommentaries.com (May 22, 2011) 

[4] Becoming a Pro Bono Asylum Lawyer, dwkcommentareis.com (May 24, 2011).

[5] My Pilgrimage to El Salvador, April 1989, dwkcommentariess.com  (May 25, 2011); Inspiration of a Christian Lawyer by the Martyred Jesuit Priests of El Salvador, dwkcommentaries.com (Dec. 14, 2014); posts listed in the “Archbishop Oscar Romero “ section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—-Topical: RELIGION.

[6] The Canonization of Oscar Romero, dwkcommentaries.com (Oct. 15, 2018). 

[7] See n. 4.

[8] Auditing the International Human Rights Law Course, dwkcommentaries.com (June 30, 2011); Teaching the International Human Rights Law Course, dwkcommentareis.com (July 1, 2011). 

[9] The Joy of Blogging, dwkcommentaries.com; List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: RELIGION

[10] My General Thoughts on Vocation, dwkcommentaries.com (Feb. 6, 2014). 

“Whose People Will Be Our People?”

This was the title of the November 18 sermon by Senior Pastor, Rev. Tim Hart-Andersen, at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church.[1]

Preparing for the Word

The Prelude for the service was Franz Joseph Haydn’s Trumpet Concerto (Movements I and II) that was performed by Douglas Carlsen, trumpet (Minnesota Orchestra) and Melanie Ohnstad, organ.

Associate Pastor, Rev.  Alanna Simone Tyler, then led the congregation in the following unison Prayer of Confession:

  • “O Holy One, we gather today aware that we fall short of your hopes for us. We are a people divided. We do not trust one another. We forget we belong to the whole human family, not merely to our little circle. We do not accept the stranger as if it were you, O Christ. Forgive us, and make us one again, with you and with those from whom we are estranged.”

Listening for the Word

The Scriptures: Ruth 1: 1-18 (NRSV):

“In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land, and a certain man of Bethlehem in Judah went to live in the country of Moab, he and his wife and two sons. The name of the man was Elimelech and the name of his wife Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion; they were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah. They went into the country of Moab and remained there. But Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons. These took Moabite wives; the name of the one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth. When they had lived there about ten years, both Mahlon and Chilion also died, so that the woman was left without her two sons and her husband.”

“Then she started to return with her daughters-in-law from the country of Moab, for she had heard in the country of Moab that the Lord had considered his people and given them food. So she set out from the place where she had been living, she and her two daughters-in-law, and they went on their way to go back to the land of Judah. But Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, ‘Go back each of you to your mother’s house. May the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me. The Lord grant that you may find security, each of you in the house of your husband.’ Then she kissed them, and they wept aloud. They said to her, ‘No, we will return with you to your people.’ But Naomi said, ‘Turn back, my daughters, why will you go with me? Do I still have sons in my womb that they may become your husbands? Turn back, my daughters, go your way, for I am too old to have a husband. Even if I thought there was hope for me, even if I should have a husband tonight and bear sons, would you then wait until they were grown? Would you then refrain from marrying? No, my daughters, it has been far more bitter for me than for you, because the hand of the Lord has turned against me.’ Then they wept aloud again. Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her.”

“So she said, ‘See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.’”

“But Ruth said, ‘Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die—there will I be buried. May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!’”

“When Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more to her.”

The Sermon:

“Few stories in Hebrew Scripture are as central to our Christian narrative, and are as reflective of what God is up to in Jesus, as the account of Naomi and Ruth.”

In many ways it’s a thoroughly modern story, a tale of love and survival, of refugees and immigrants, of loyalty and generosity, of family legacy and the quiet strength of women.” (Emphasis added.)

“Naomi, an Israelite, marries a man from Bethlehem. They flee famine in Israel and travel as refugees to the land of Moab to the east, beyond the river Jordan, where they settle as a family.”

“But after a time Naomi’s husband dies, and with no one to provide for her and being a refugee from a foreign land, she faces serious hardship. Fortunately, her sons have grown up. They marry women of Moab, Orpah and Ruth, and can now care for their mother.”

“We often view the story of Ruth as the tale of individuals and the decisions they make. But their lives, and this story, are lived in a much broader context. Naomi, from Israel, and Ruth, from Moab, represent two nations historically in conflict. Their people are enemies.” (Emphasis added.)

“To get a feel for the unsettling power of this narrative, imagine it set in the modern Middle East. If we replace Moab with Palestinian Gaza, and Bethlehem with Israeli Tel Aviv, we begin to get a sense of the larger, treacherous, complicated implications of this story.” (Emphasis added.)

“For a time all is well for Naomi in her new life in Moab, but then tragedy strikes again. Both sons die, leaving her vulnerable once more. The only hope for Naomi is to return to Bethlehem where she has relatives on whom she might be able to depend. She learns the famine that caused them to leave in the first place is over, and she decides to go home.”

“When Naomi sets off for Bethlehem, her two daughters-in-law decide to go with her, but Naomi stops them. She tells them to go home to their own people, where they have a chance of surviving, of marrying again and starting new families, and being among their own people. Orpah chooses to return home, but Ruth’s love and loyalty compel her to go with her mother-in-law, who tries again to dissuade her. I imagine them standing on the banks of the Jordan, the border between Moab and Judah, the southern kingdom of Israel, Naomi urging her to return home one last time. But Ruth stands her ground.”

“’Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you!’ she says to Naomi.”

  • Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die—there will I be buried.’ (Ruth 1:17-18)” (Emphasis added.)

“It’s a stunning soliloquy, with far-reaching consequences. With her words, Ruth reframes and redefines existing norms and realigns historic assumptions. She chooses to ignore the accepted boundaries between people and nations. She sets self aside and declares her intention to use love as the measure by which she will live.” (Emphasis added.)

The story of Ruth points to the dangers of exaggerated nationalism and the risks of restrictive boundaries within the human family. The story upends old rules about identity, and proposes new ways of thinking about relationships. It shows that grace and generous love can disrupt historic patterns of exclusivity.” (Emphasis added.)

“After Ruth’s words, Naomi really has no choice, so the two of them set off together for Bethlehem, climbing up into the hills of Judah from the Jordan Valley. Once they get there, they have no means of sustaining themselves. In order to provide food for the two of them, Ruth goes to glean in the fields with other poor, hungry people, picking up leftovers after the harvest. She happens to do this, to glean, in the field of Boaz, a kinsman of her dead husband’s family.”

“Boaz sees her and is attracted to her, and asks about her and, eventually, with a little encouragement from Ruth, falls in love with her. They have a son named Obed, whose wife has a son named Jesse. Remember the prophetic prediction that ‘a shoot will come out of the stump of Jesse?’ That shoot would be David, son of Jesse, great-grandson of Ruth – David, who would become king of Israel, and from whose line the Messiah would one day come, as the prophets of old had foretold.” (Emphasis added.)

“In other words, without the courage and strength of Naomi and the perseverance and love of Ruth, the story would end. There would have been no Obed, no Jesse, no David – and, eventually, no Jesus. The entire biblical story for Christians rests on this one foreign enemy woman, a young widow who leaves her own people, with great risk, goes with her mother-in-law, to support her, because it was the right and just thing to do. As the Shaker poem the choir sang earlier says, ‘Love will do the thing that’s right.’”

“’Where you go I will go, ‘Ruth says. ‘Where you lodge I will lodge. Your people will be my people, and your God my God.’”

The prophet Micah asks, ‘What does the Lord require of us’ Ruth, a foreigner not under the law of the Hebrews, instinctively knows the answer: ‘To do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God.’” (Emphasis added.)

The story of Ruth is a parable for our time. It may not be Moab and Israel, but in America today we live as if we were enemies of one another. There’s no longer a common understanding of what unites us as a people. We think the worst of those with whom we disagree. Everything has a zero-sum quality to it. Either you’re with me or you’re against me.” (Emphases added.)

“Your people cannot possibly be my people.”

“American individualism has always been in creative and generative tension with the call to live as one community. These days, however, that tension has largely been displaced by rampant sectarianism. Very few now try even to talk across the divide anymore. Rigid partisanship precludes the possibility of building a shared purpose as a people. We cannot see beyond our own firm boundaries.”

“Presidential historian Michael Beschloss spoke at the Westminster Town Hall Forum last Tuesday. More than 1700 people were here. The sanctuary and Westminster Hall were filled to overflowing.” [2]

“We were surprised by the crowd. Why did so many people come? The midterm elections were over and the relentless campaigning was behind us , and I think people wanted to take a longer view of where things stand in America. We had just marked the 100th anniversary of the Armistice ending the First World War. And our national Day of Thanksgiving is nearly upon us, always a time to pause and reflect on the road we as a people have trod, and on the journey ahead. People came that day to find hope for the future of our nation.”

“The questions asked of Beschloss at the Town Hall Forum focused less on any particular president, current or historic, and more on the present contentiousness in our land. People wrote question expressing serious anxiety about the health of our democracy. They wanted to hear from a professional historian whether things are as bad as they seem. They are, in his view.“

“Beschloss is deeply concerned about the nation and its future. In his study of history, he said, he knew of few times in our country’s life as fraught with division and discord, and the potential for worse, as ours. Even as he expressed hope about the enduring strength of American democracy, he warned about the risk of conflict escalating into violence.”

“This is not only a Republican-Democrat problem, or a conservative-progressive matter. It’s not even solely a political problem, nor merely a lack of civility. It’s something far more than that.”

“It’s the same question Ruth faced, a question of identity and belonging: whose people will be my people? Our people?”

“It shows up in the rural-urban divide. It can be seen in the widening gulf between those with a high level of economic comfort and those who have been left behind – and in the policies aimed at keeping things like that. We see it in unresolved racial disparities among us. It’s there in the backlash against immigrants. There’s a growing education gap and a perception of elitism among us.”

“We’re all caught up in it. We’re all caught up in the cultural dividing lines that cut across the nation. And naturally we think the “other side” is at fault; but none of us is innocent.”

“Beschloss said that when American presidents have found themselves leading in a time of war they always become more religious. He described Lincoln coming to Washington as an agnostic, and maybe even an atheist,, but as he sent men off to fight and die on the battlefield he turned to the Bible and to prayer for wisdom and strength and succor. We can hear it in his speeches; he quoted scripture all the time. He needed something beyond his own resources to bear the terrible burden and to help resolve the national crisis.”

“We need something, as well, beyond our own limited resources. What we’re facing, I think, can be described as a spiritual problem. We’re too mired in mundane, daily outrage to see things from a higher point of view.” (Emphasis added.)

“In contrast, Ruth refuses to let the prevailing perception of reality – that Moab and Israel are enemies – define her own point of view. She chooses to live according to a different reality. She seeks a deeper, broader, more generous perspective on the human family. She lifts her vision above the discord and looks beyond it. She wants to see things more as God intends them to be, not as the world sees them.”

“We’re in a moment where our nation lacks that kind of moral vision, a vision that looks beyond the immediacies of our divided house, a vision summoning us to conceive anew the possibilities the American experiment was meant to offer. We cannot keep living like this; there’s simply too much at stake not to try to reclaim the values at the heart of our democracy – values never perfectly implemented, but that have served as aspirational measures of our life together.”

This is a Naomi and Ruth moment, and the question facing us is: whose people will be our people?” (Emphasis added.)

As Christians, we believe that Jesus embodies God’s response to that question.” (Emphasis added.)

“In the coming season we will we speak of this one who is born in Bethlehem, the descendant of David. We will speak of him as Emmanuel, God with us.”

Jesus does with all humanity what Ruth does with Naomi. He lives for others and loves them unconditionally, even at the risk of losing his own life.” (Emphasis added.)

In Jesus, and in Ruth, we have the blueprint for human community: a generosity of spirit that starts by saying, “Your people will be our people.” (Emphasis added.)

“Thanks be to God.”

Reflections

This sermon provided historical and contemporary contexts that made the story of Ruth and Naomi more powerful.

Naomi and Ruth were from countries, Israel and Moab respectively, that were enemies. Yet Ruth “reframes and redefines existing norms and realigns historic assumptions.” She “chooses to ignore the accepted boundaries between people and nations” and thereby “shows that grace and generous love can disrupt historic patterns of exclusivity.”

“Jesus does with all humanity what Ruth does with Naomi. He lives for others and loves them unconditionally.”

It is easiest for nearly everyone to first experience love in a family and define yourself as a member of that family. Then as we grow up we enlarge the family group to include friends and neighbors, eventually people from a geographical area and then a nation. All of these groups are logical and hopefully enriching.

The challenge then is to understand and treasure all human beings who are outside these groups. We are offered opportunities to do so by reading about people in other cultures and lands, by seeking to engage with nearby neighbors with different cultures and traditions, by welcoming newcomers of all faiths and traditions to our cities and towns and by traveling to other lands.

I have been blessed in this quest by a superb education; by living and studying for two years in the United Kingdom; by traveling to many other countries in Europe, North America and Latin America and a few countries in the Middle East, Asia and Africa; by being a pro bono asylum lawyer for Salvadorans, Somalis, Colombians and men from Afghanistan and Burma; by learning and teaching international human rights law; by researching and writing blog posts about Cuba, Cameroon and other countries and issues; and by getting to know their peoples and by getting to know people in Minnesota from many other countries.

Especially meaningful for me has been involvement in Westminster’s Global Partnerships in Cuba, Cameroon and Palestine and learning more about these countries’ histories, traditions and problems and establishing friendships with individuals in these countries. For example, this past May, individuals from these three counties visited Westminster in Minneapolis and we all shared our joys and challenges. Especially enriching were three worship services focused on each of our partnerships.

For example, our May 20, 2018, service on Pentecost Sunday featured our Palestinian brothers and sisters from our partner congregation, Christmas Lutheran Church in Bethlehem.[3]

We had Palestinian music from the Georges Lammam Ensemble (San Francisco, California). Rev. Munther Isaac, the Senior Pastor of our partner congregation, provided the Pastoral Prayer and led the unison Lord’s Prayer. My new friend, Adel Nasser from Bethlehem, chanted the Twenty-third Psalm in Arabic.

Then Rev. Mitri Raheb, the President of Dar-Al-Kalima University in Bethlehem, had an illuminating conversational sermon with Rev. Hart-Andersen that was centered on the Biblical text (Acts 2: 1-12). This passage talks about a gathering in Jerusalem of  people “from every nation under heaven,” each speaking “in the native language of each” and yet hearing, “each of us, in our own native language” and thus understanding one another. Here are some of the highlights of that conversation:

  • Hart-Andersen said the text emphasized that all of these people were in one place together, affirming the vast display of God’s creative goodness in the human family when no one has to surrender his or her own identity and thereby affirms the identity of every human being.
  • This is what God wants in the human family, Hart-Andersen continued. Make space for people who are different. The miracle of Pentecost is the existence of bridges over these differences and the destruction of walls that we tend to build around our own little groups.
  • Hart-Andersen also pointed out that Minnesota today is like that earlier gathering at Pentecost with over 100 different language groups in the State.
  • Raheb agreed, saying that Palestine is also very diverse and God wants diversity in the human family. As a result, there is a need to build bridges between different groups, and the Covenant Agreement between Westminster and Christmas Lutheran Church expressly calls for building bridges between the U.S. and Palestine. He also treasures the gathering this month of Cubans and Cameroonians with the Palestinians and Americans because it helped to build bridges among all four of these groups. We were experiencing Pentecost in Minneapolis.
  • Raheb also mentioned that the original Pentecost featured the miracle of understanding among the people speaking different languages. The Holy Spirit provided the software enabling this understanding.
  • Hart-Andersen said the diversity of the human family compels us to build bridges. The mission of the church is to resist walls that keep us apart.
  • Raheb emphasized that Acts 2:1-12 is a foundational text for Arabic Christianity as it mentions Arabs as being present on Pentecost.
  • He also contrasted Pentecost with the Genesis account (Chapter 11) of “the whole earth [having] one language and the same words” and the resulting arrogance to attempt to build a tower to the heavens. God responded by confusing their language” so that they would not understand one another and stop building the tower of Babel. This is emblematic of empires throughout history that have attempted to impose one language on all parts of the empire.

Yes, we all are brothers and sisters in Christ!

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[1]  The text of the sermon is available on the church’s website.

[2] See Beschloss Discusses “Presidents of War” at Westminster Town Hall Forum, dwkcomentaries.com (Nov. 15, 2018).

[3] The bulletin and an audio recording for this May 20 service are available on the Westminster website.

 

“What Is the Highest Law?”

This was the title of the November 11 sermon by Rev. Tim  Hart-Andersen, Senior Pastor at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church.[1]

Preparing for the Word

Stewardship Moment for Justice was presented by Rev. Dr. Jimmie Hawkins, Director of the Presbyterian Office of Public Witness in Washington, D.C. He discussed the activities of the Office, including its  actions to help change the cash-bail system in the U.S. while also combating  the silo effect of interacting only with like-minded people.

Prayer of Confession. Associate Pastor Rev. David Shinn led the congregation in the following unison Prayer of Confession:

  • “Gracious God, by day and by night we lift our prayers to you, crying out for justice, yearning for what is right, longing for your peace. Replenish our strength and stir up our hope, as we look for signs of your coming reign. Keep us working and praying for the day when your justice will roll down like waters, and your righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. And fill us with the peace that passes all understanding—the deep peace of Jesus Christ, our Savior, in whose holy name we pray. Amen.”

 Listening for the Word

Holy Scripture:  Matthew 22:34-40 (NRSV):

“When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. ‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’  [Jesus]  said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’”

Sermon:

“This morning’s gospel passage is set in the midst of a debate between Jewish leaders, the Sadducees and Pharisees. In first century Israel they were powerful competing elites connected to the Temple in Jerusalem. They often disagreed on the meaning of the Hebrew Scriptures.”

“Matthew presents us with a window into their debate as it draws in Jesus. They ask him about paying taxes to Rome, because they disagree on what they should do. They ask Jesus about resurrection because they disagree about life after death. They’re at odds over interpretation of the law.”

“So when the lawyer asks Jesus a question it’s not merely to trap him, as we Christians often read the text. It’s more likely a local debate in which they want Jesus’ opinion. The lawyer genuinely wants Jesus to weigh in: does he support the Sadducees or the Pharisees?”

“The scene is not that different from what plays out among groups of Christians today. We debate the meaning of scripture, and we want Jesus on our side.”

“’Teacher,’ the lawyer asks, ‘Which commandment in the law is the greatest?’”

“It’s a good question. Among the 613 laws in the Hebrew Scriptures, he wants to know which is most important. It’s a bottom-line question, and we should listen carefully to the answer Jesus gives. He’s speaking not merely to that Pharisee or to others eager to hear his response. He’s speaking to us [too].”.

“’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind,’  Jesus says, reaching back to Deuteronomy [6:5]. ‘This is the greatest and first commandment.’”

“But he doesn’t stop there.”

“’And a second is like it,’ Jesus says, this time going back to Leviticus [19:18]. ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’’”

“But he’s not done. Jesus wants to clarify his response and aim it at the interpretation of all the ancient texts, so he throws in a bonus answer: ‘On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’ (Matthew 22:38-40)”

“The fundamental rule of interpreting scripture, Jesus is explaining here, is the law of love. If the interpretation of a text points in the direction of God’s love, if it amplifies God’s desire that we love one another, if it shines light on the unconditional love of God, then we have understood the Bible in the way Jesus wants us to read it.”

“I wonder if the response of Jesus settles anything. Did the Sadducees and Pharisees walk away saying to one another, ‘We’ve been going about this all wrong. Our faith wants us to start not with law, not with the rules, not with the doctrine, not with the strict definition of what’s right and wrong, but with love.”’

“That’s the takeaway from this text for us, as followers of Jesus. The starting point and the end point in our encounter with the world, with our neighbors, with those with whom we disagree, even with those we consider enemies, the starting point and the end point is always, always, always, the love of God.”

“To love in the way of Jesus we cannot keep putting ourselves at the center.”

“When Jesus says that all scripture ‘hangs’ on the love of God and love of neighbor, the image of a clothesline comes to mind – a long line representing the love of God and the love of neighbor, stretching across all of scripture. Each biblical story, the psalms and the prophets, the formative narratives of the Hebrew people – we see them all hanging there, on that one line.”

“Then we notice that the line is longer, and stretches even further. We see the parables of Jesus, the healings, the cross and resurrection, hanging on that line of love. And the line keeps stretching. The letters to the first Christian communities are hanging there, and the words of the early councils of the church.

“And that clothesline of love keeps stretching, through the spread of Christian faith around the world, through many generations of faithful followers. Nothing stops it. The line keeps going – the commandment to love God and to love neighbor, as we love ourselves – it keeps going right into the life of this congregation…and what is hanging there on that clothesline in our life together?”

“We see our worship every Sunday for more than 161 years. We see our welcome of Chinese newcomers in the 19th century, when they were scorned by others. We see the schools we started among immigrant children living on the flats along the river in the late 1800’s. We see our ownership of Abbott Hospital and our role in offering medical care and training to thousands in the middle years of the 20th century, We see our support of mission in other lands that evolved into our global partnerships today.”

“It’s all hanging on that long line of love stretching through our life.”

“We see the 16 churches Westminster has helped launch over the years, including Kwanzaa, now Liberty Church, the state’s only African-American Presbyterian congregation. We see that partner church there, together with us on the long line of the love of Jesus.”

“We see our church calling and installing [today] an Associate Pastor for Justice and Mission, Alanna Simone Tyler, nurtured by our partner congregation in north Minneapolis.”

“It’s all there.”

“We see Westminster’s willingness to work for marriage equality and to stand up for justice by advocating for an end to racism, for sensible gun safety, and for more affordable housing. We see Westminster using our new facility to welcome people coming in off the streets.”

Our life as a Christian community hangs on a clothesline of love that stretches all the way back to Jesus and on into the future.” (Emphasis added.)

“And we’ve learned that to love in the way of Jesus, the other must always be at the heart of our concern, especially when the other is vulnerable, always at the center of our concern.”

“’No one has greater love than this,’ Jesus says, than ‘to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.’ (John 15:13)

“One hundred years ago today, at 11AM on November 11, 1918, the Armistice ending the Great War was signed. Inscribed on the bronze plaque in the Cloister Hall are the names of 191 men and women of this church who served in what was to have been the war to make the world safe for democracy. They were prepared to lay down their lives for others – and seven of them did.”

“During the war the women of the church formed the Westminster unit of the Red Cross. They ran one of the largest volunteer medical supply programs in the country, preparing bandages, garments, and other materials for our soldiers, orphans, and refugees. The women of Westminster produced and sent abroad more than 366,000 articles.”

“When troops came through town on their way to being deployed, Westminster families saw them in worship and invited them home to Sunday dinner after church. Westminster’s pastor at the time, [Rev.] John Bushnell, whose own son’s name is on that plaque as having served in the Navy during the war, describes hosting three soldiers at one such Sunday afternoon meal:

  • ‘The talk centered about their home lives and it was found that one was a Catholic, one a Methodist, and one a Mormon, all three feeling entirely at home with a Presbyterian minister’s family. It was a local example of the leveling or elevating process of common great cause, eliminating all distinctions and creating the common denominator of an elemental human emergency.’”

“As we mark Veterans Day tomorrow we acknowledge that U.S. soldiers continue to fight in Afghanistan and other lands, without a sense of ‘elemental human emergency’ and no perception of a ‘common great cause.’ But, still, they serve on behalf of the nation and we must not forget them.”

“During World War I, as we bade farewell to those going to serve, prayers were lifted each Sunday. Large American flags draped the front of the organ, as well as a banner with stars representing every man from the church serving overseas. Flags of our allies were placed in front of the pulpit. A ‘Westminster War Letter’ helped people keep track of our soldiers.”

“The congregation wept with the families of those whose sons were killed. The first to die was Edward Phinney, a deacon of the church. To love in the way of Jesus means to be willing to give up privilege and power – even life itself – so that others might live. Fred Wagner, a candidate for the ministry, was later killed in battle in France.”

“Nine-and-a-half million soldiers on all sides died in the Great War, the war that was to end all wars. Another 10 million civilians perished. More than 21 million were injured.”

“Westminster did not romanticize or glorify the war. Referring to the great loss of life, the Rev. Bushnell wrote, ‘It made us understand and hate war as never before.’”

“Following the Armistice of 1918, the Rev. Bushnell described war as ‘an affront to Deity, to (hu)mankind, and all the elements that constitute a moral universe.’”

“Speaking 20 years later, in 1938, as Europe was moving toward war again, he wrote, using words that may sound applicable to us in our time:

  • ‘There is at present far more fear harassing the human family, more despair of the (unity of humankind), more bitter strife and hatred between nations, more greed, more lust than before.’ (All quotes and other information from John E. Bushnell, The History of Westminster Presbyterian Church, 1907-1937 [Minneapolis, Lund Press; 1938], pp.21-31)”

“The response to the bitterness, hatred, and fear that enveloped the human family then and the response to the bitterness, hatred, and fear that envelops us now is not more war and more weaponry and more violence, but, rather, that which Jesus says to the Pharisee long ago, when asked which was the highest of all the laws: ‘The first and greatest commandment,’ Jesus says,

  • ‘Is to love the Lord your God, with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind, and the second is like it, to love neighbor as yourself. On those two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’”

“And, we might add, the ministry of this congregation, and of Liberty church and other communities of faith and people of goodwill everywhere, and the life of this nation, and the future of humankind. The commandment to love. To love God and neighbor.”

“As we hear the bell toll here in our sanctuary with others across the land marking the Armistice 100 years ago, as we remember and give thanks for those who served and those who died in the Great War, let us also redouble our commitment to strive for the justice and peace that comes from those who follow the highest law: to love God and love neighbor.”.

“Thanks be to God.”

Reflections

This sermon was especially powerful for  me.

As I wrote in my eighth blog post in April 2011, “”The first foundation of my Christian faith is Jesus’ encounter with a clever lawyer in Luke 10:25-37. The lawyer asked Jesus a trick question as to what the lawyer had to do to inherit eternal life. The lawyer did not really want to know the answer; instead, the lawyer wanted Jesus to give an answer that could be twisted to incriminate him. Jesus ducked the question and instead responded with another question: ‘What is written in the law? How do you read it?’ The lawyer replied, ‘Love God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind and your neighbor as yourself.’ Jesus then said the lawyer had answered correctly and that he would live if he did exactly that.”[2]

“The lawyer, however, would not let it end there. He then asked what he thought was another trick question of Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Again, the lawyer did not really want to know the answer; instead he wanted Jesus to provide an answer that could also be twisted against him. Again, however, Jesus did not answer directly, but instead told the Parable of the Good Samaritan without the punch line identifying the good neighbor. Once again Jesus asked the lawyer to fill in the blank, this time to identify the good neighbor in the story. The lawyer did just that by saying, ‘The one who had mercy on [the man by the side of the road].’  Jesus then said, ‘Go and do likewise.’ (Luke 10: 29-37)” This Parable is the second foundation of my Christian faith.

Apparently the lawyer in this account in the Gospel of Luke was drawing upon two passages of the Old Testament. In Deuteronomy 6:5 Moses is reminding a new generation of his people of the laws he had received from God on Mt. Sinai when Moses says, ‘You shall  love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.’ The other passage is Leviticus 19:18, where Moses in summarizing what God had delivered to him on Mt. Sinai says, ‘you shall love your neighbor as yourself.’

Today, this precept—”Love God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind and your neighbor as yourself.”—is still the first foundation of my Christian faith.

Therefore, I was pleased to hear the same message in this passage of Matthew with the reversal of the roles of Jesus and the lawyer from Luke. Now, the lawyer is posing the question, and Jesus is providing the same answer.

I also was pleased and surprised to hear Rev. Hart-Andersen’s add the metaphor of the clothesline when Matthew in the New Revised Standard Version says, “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Emphasis added.) This integrative device made sense to me.

Although I was not a Westminster member during the events in its history that were recounted in the sermon, hearing about them, especially as tied to the Bible with the clothesline metaphor brought tears to my eyes.

Returning to the Parable of the Good Samaritan, one of the lessons of this story for me is that your neighbor whom you should love as yourself is anyone and everyone and that they can appear when you least expect them. That sets forth a daunting assignment. I have never met this challenge and never can.

That leads to the third foundation of my Christian faith. God knows that we fail and yet forgives us. The most powerful statement of God’s forgiveness comes in another story by Jesus, The Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15: 11-31), . As an only son and as a father of two sons, I see myself in this story as the older, resentful son as well as the younger, lost son and more recently as the father.

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[1] The text of the sermon and the bulletin for the service are available on the church’s website. This service also included the installation of Rev. Alanna Simone Tyler as Associate Pastor for Justice and Mission, which will be covered in a separate post.

[2]  My Christian Faith, dwkcommentaries.com (April 6, 2011).

Cuba Religious Freedom in the Eyes of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom   

On April 25, 2018, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom released its annual report on the subject for 28 countries in the world. Of these the Commission concluded that Cuba and 11 other countries had engaged in or tolerated religious freedom violations during 2017 that were serious and “systematic,  or ongoing, or egregious.”[1]

Commission’s Key Findings About Cuba[2]

According to this report, “religious freedom conditions in Cuba remained poor” with the following Key Findings:

  • “The Cuban government engaged in harassment campaigns that included detentions and repeated interrogations targeting religious leaders and activists who advocate for religious freedom.”
  • “Officials threatened to confiscate numerous churches and interrogated religious leaders countrywide about the legal status of their religious properties.”
  • “The government continues to interfere in religious groups’ internal affairs and actively limits, controls, and monitors their religious practice, access to information, and communications through a restrictive system of laws and policies, surveillance, and harassment.”
  • “While the Cuban constitution guarantees freedom of religion or belief, this protection is limited by other constitutional and legal provisions. At the end of the reporting period, 55 religious communities were registered; only registered religious communities are legally permitted to receive foreign visitors, import religious materials, meet in approved houses of worship, and apply to travel abroad for religious purposes.”
  • “The Cuban Communist Party Office of Religious Affairs (ORA) answers only to the Party and so it has broad, largely unchecked power to control religious activity, including approving some religious ceremonies other than worship services, repair or construction of houses of worship, and importation of religious materials.”
  • “Authorities prevent human rights and pro-democracy activists from participating in religious activities, sometimes using force. Almost every Sunday in 2017, the government prevented members of Ladies in White from attending Mass.”
  • “In a positive development, officials verbally promised the Assemblies of God that the government would not confiscate 1,400 of their churches as it threatened to do in 2015 and 2016.”

Commission’s Recommendations About Cuba to U.S. Government[3]

The Commission also made the following recommendations about Cuba to the U.S. Government:

  1. “Publicly denounce violations of religious freedom and related human rights in Cuba.”
  2. “Press the Cuban government to:
  • “Stop harassment of religious leaders;
  • End the practice of violently preventing democracy and human rights activists from attending religious services;
  • End destruction of, threats to destroy, and threats to expropriate houses of worship;
  • Lift restrictions on religious communities buying property, building or repairing houses of worship, holding religious processions, importing religious materials, and admitting religious leaders;
  • Allow unregistered religious groups to operate freely and legally, and repeal government policies that restrict religious services in homes or other personal property;
  • Allow registered and unregistered religious groups to conduct religious education;
  • Cease interference with religious activities and religious communities’ internal affairs; and
  • Hold accountable police and other security personnel for actions that violate the human rights of religious practitioners, including the religious freedom of political prisoners.”
  1. “Increase opportunities for Cuban religious leaders from both registered and unregistered religious communities to travel to, exchange aid and materials with, and interact with coreligionists in the United States.”
  2. “Apply the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, Executive Order 13818, or other relevant targeted tools, to deny U.S. visas to and block the U.S. assets of specific officials and agencies identified as responsible for violations of the right to freedom of religion or belief, including considering responsible officials from the ORA for such measures.”
  3. “Use appropriated funds to advance internet freedom and widespread access to mass media, and protect Cuban activists by supporting the development and accessibility of new technologies and programs to counter censorship and to facilitate the free flow of information in and out of Cuba, as informed by the findings and recommendations of the Cuba Internet Task Force created pursuant to the National Security Presidential Memorandum, ‘Strengthening the Policy of the United States Toward Cuba.’”
  4. “Encourage international partners, including key Latin American and European countries and regional blocs, to ensure violations of freedom of religion or belief and related human rights are part of all formal and informal multilateral or bilateral discussions with Cuba.”

Conclusion

On May 29, the State Department will release its annual report on religious freedom in every other. country in the world.[4] Thereafter we will examine its comments on Cuba and then analyze and evaluate the two reports’ discussion of Cuba.

=================================

[1] U.S. Comm’n Intl Religious Freedom, USCIRF Releases 2018 Annual Report, Recommends 16 Countries be Designated “Countries of Particular Concern,” (April 25, 2018). The other 11 countries in this category (Tier 2) were Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Bahrain,  Egypt India, Indonesia, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Laos, Malaysia and Turkey. The Commission also recommended that the State Department designate the following 16 countries as “Countries of Particular Concern” (countries whose government engage in or tolerates particularly severe (or systematic, ongoing, and egregious) religious freedom violations: Burma, Central African Republic, China, Eritrea, Iran, Nigeria, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Vietnam. The Commission is an unusual quasi-governmental body. See U.S. Commission on International Freedom: Structure and Composition, dwkcommentaries.com (May 29, 2013).

[2]  2018 Annual Report at 148-53.

[3]  Id.

[4]  U.S. State Dep’t, Secretary Pompeo To Release the 2017 International Religious Freedom Report (May 25, 2018).

 

President Obama’s Lack of Comments About Cuba During His Reelection Campaign of 2012

 

In light of President Barack Obama’s historic December 17, 2014, announcement of rapprochement with Cuba, it is interesting to examine Obama’s earlier statements about Cuba. Prior posts examined his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2007-2008; his campaign for the presidency as the Democratic Party’s nominee in 2008; and his first presidential term, 2009-2013. Now we examine his presidential reelection campaign of 2012.[1] A subsequent post will examine his second presidential term (up to the December 17, 2014, announcement), 2013-2014.

On April 4, 2011, Obama had an unusual way of formally announcing he would be running for reelection in 2012. He did so with an understated two-minute Internet video titled “It Begins With Us,” which features his supporters talking about the need to re-elect him and in which he does not appear. No mention of Cuba was made.

As the incumbent president, Obama secured the Democratic nomination with no serious opposition at its national convention in Charlotte, North Carolina. On September 5, 2012, he was re-nominated, and the following night he accepted the nomination. In his acceptance speech he said the election “will be a choice between two different paths for America, a choice between two fundamentally different visions for the future. Ours is a fight to restore the values that built the largest middle class and the strongest economy the world has ever known.”

Obama in his acceptance speech asked all citizens “to rally around a set of goals for your country, goals in manufacturing, energy, education, national security and the deficit, real, achievable plans that will lead to new jobs, more opportunity and rebuild this economy on a stronger foundation. That’s what we can do in the next four years, and that is why I am running for a second term as president of the United State.” Obama also talked about various problems around the world, but made no mention of Cuba.

His Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, previously had been nominated at its national convention on August 28 with his acceptance on August 30.

The campaigns focused heavily on domestic issues: debate centered largely around sound responses to the Great Recession in terms of economic recovery and job creation. Other issues included long-term federal budget issues, the future of social insurance programs, and the Affordable Care ActForeign policy was also discussed including the phase-out of the Iraq War, the size of and spending on the military, preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, and appropriate counteractions to terrorism.

The two main presidential candidates held three debates, all in October (3rd, 16th and 22nd).

In the first debate on October 3 the candidates “quarreled aggressively over tax policy, the budget deficit and the role of government, with each man accusing the other of being evasive and misleading voters.” Romney, for example, accused Obama of failing to lead the country out of the deepest economic downturn since the Great Depression of the 1930’s while Obama implored Americans to be patient. On a basic level it was a clash of two ideologies, the president’s Democratic vision of government playing a supporting role in spurring economic growth, and Mr. Romney’s Republican vision that government should get out of the way of businesses that know best how to create jobs.” There was practically no mention of foreign issues, and not a word about Cuba.

The second debate on October 16 again dealt primarily with domestic affairs, including taxes, unemployment, job creation, the national debt, energy and energy independence, women’s rights and immigration. But this debate also touched on foreign policy, especially the then recent attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya. Again, no mention of Cuba.

The last debate on October 22 was to be devoted to foreign policy, and it did have discussions about the attack on Benghazi, Iran’s nuclear program, the Arab Spring, the Syrian civil war, relations with Israel and Pakistan, the War on Terror, the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, the size and scope of the U.S. military, and relations and trade with China. There also were further comments about domestic policy issues, such as job creation, the federal deficit and education. Again, there was no mention of Cuba.

On November 6, 2012, Obama was re-elected for his second term as President of the United States. He won 65,916,000 popular votes (51.1%) and 332 electoral votes to Romney/Ryan’s 60,934,000 (47.2%) and 206 electoral votes. Nationally the Democratic ticket overwhelmingly won the Hispanic vote, 71% to 27% for the Republicans. Obama and Biden also won the key state of Florida, 50.0% versus 49.1% for Romney and Ryan, with nearly 50% of the state’s Cuban-Americans going for the Obama ticket.

In his victory speech in Chicago, President Obama proclaimed, “Tonight, in this election, you, the American people, reminded us that while our road has been hard, while our journey has been long, we have picked ourselves up, we have fought our way back, and we know in our hearts that for the United States of America, the best is yet to come.”

Conclusion

 Unless it was due to my limited research, there was no mention of U.S. policy regarding Cuba during this presidential election. This is not too surprising in light of the primacy of domestic economic issues in 2012, the problems in the Middle East and the Administration’s apparent lack of attention to Cuba since Cuba’s arrest of Alan Gross in December 2009 and its subsequent conviction and imprisonment of Gross.

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[1] This post and the subsequent posts about Obama’s prior statements about Cuba are not based upon comprehensive research. The primary research tool was online searching of the New York Times for articles mentioning “Obama and Cuba” for the relevant time period. Therefore, this blogger especially welcomes comments with corrections and additions. Ultimately after public release of many Obama Administration documents after the completion of his presidency, scholars will undertake a detailed examination of those documents and provide their assessments of his record regarding Cuba. This post is based upon the following: Shear, Obama Begins re-Election Facing New Political Challenges, N.Y. Times (April 4, 2011) President Obama’s Full Remarks From the Democratic National Convention, N.Y. Times (Sept. 6, 2012); Zeleny & Rutenberg, Obama and Rommey, in First Debate, Spar Over Fixing the Economy, N.Y. Times (Oct. 3, 2012); Baker, A Clash of Philosophies, N.Y. Times (Oct. 4, 2012); Transcript of the Last Debate, N.Y. Times (Oct. 22, 2012); Baker & Cooper, Sparring Over Foreign Policy, Obama Goes on the Offensive, N.Y. Times (Oct. 22, 2012); President Obama’s Election Night Speech, N.Y. Times (Nov. 7, 2012); Wikipedia, 2012 Democratic National Convention; Wikipedia, Barack Obama presidential campaign, 2012; Wikipedia, 2012 Republican National Convention; Wikipedia, United States presidential election debates, 2012; Wikipedia, United States presidential election, 2012; Jonathan Alter, The Center Holds: Obama and His Enemies (Simon & Schuster; New York; 2013); Daniel Belz, Collision 2012: Obama vs. Romney and the future of elections in America (Viking; New York; 2013).

Cuba Still “State Sponsor of Terrorism” in State Department Report for 2014

Terrorism reportOn June 19, 2015, the U.S. Department of State released its “Country Reports on Terrorism 2014.” Such annual reports are required by federal statute to cover the prior calendar year.[1]

Tina S. Kaidanow, U.S.Ambassador-at-Large and Coordinator for Counterterrorism, gave a special briefing on this report. She pointed out that “the number of terrorist attacks [worldwide] in 2014 increased 35 percent, and total fatalities increased 81 percent compared to 2013, largely due to activity in Iraq, Afghanistan and Nigeria. More than 60 percent of all attacks took place in five countries: Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, and Nigeria. And 78 percent of all fatalities due to terrorist attacks also took place in five countries: Iraq, Nigeria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Syria. The increase in total fatalities was in part a result of certain attacks that were exceptionally lethal.”

The Ambassador then provided broader context by discussing the terrorism committed in 2014 by al-Qaida, ISIL, Boko Haram and the civil war in Syria and of the need for the U.S. to have partners “to disrupt terrorist plots and degrade terrorist capabilities . . . [and to] help counter the spread of violent extremist recruitment and address the conditions that make communities susceptible to violent extremism. We must do more to address the cycle of violent extremism and transform the very environment from which these terrorist movements emerge.”

The U.S. last year, the Ambassador emphasized, provided “ counterterrorism assistance . . . in the fields of rule of law and countering recruitment, . . . a wide array of expertise and programmatic support for our partners to help them identify and disrupt the financing of terrorism, strengthen aviation and border security, and sharpen their law enforcement and crisis response tools to respond to the terrorist threat.” In addition, the U.S. engaged “in robust diplomacy, expanding our partnerships, building bilateral and regional capabilities, and promoting holistic and rule-of-law based approaches to counter terrorism and violent extremism.”

The report’s chapter on “State Sponsors of Terrorism” noted that such a state has been determined by the Secretary of State “to have . . . [a] government [that] has repeatedly provided support for acts of international terrorism. Once a country is designated, it remains a State Sponsor of Terrorism until the designation is rescinded in accordance with statutory criteria.” For 2014 there were four such states: Cuba, Iran, Sudan and Syria. Here is what was said about Cuba for 2014:

  • “Cuba was designated as a State Sponsor of Terrorism in 1982. Though not within the timeframe covered by this report, on April 14, 2015, President Obama submitted to Congress the statutorily required report and certifications indicating the Administration’s intent to rescind Cuba’s State Sponsor of Terrorism designation, including the certification that Cuba has not provided any support for international terrorism during the previous six-months; and that Cuba has provided assurances that it will not support acts of international terrorism in the future. The required 45-day Congressional pre-notification period expired, and the Secretary of State made the final decision to rescind Cuba’s designation as a State Sponsor of Terrorism, effective on May 29, 2015.” [2]
  • “In recent years, Cuba has taken a number of steps to fully distance itself from international terrorism and has taken steps to strengthen its counterterrorism laws. In 2013, Cuba made a commitment to work with the Financial Action Task Force to address its anti-money laundering/counterterrorism finance (AML/CFT) deficiencies. Since that time, Cuba has made significant progress in establishing the framework necessary to meet international AML/CFT standards by, for example, adequately criminalizing money laundering and terrorist finance and establishing procedures to identify and freeze terrorist assets, among other legal and regulatory actions.”
  • “Throughout 2014, Cuba supported and hosted internationally recognized negotiations between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and Government of Colombia aimed at garnering a peace agreement. Safe passage of FARC members provided in the context of these talks has been coordinated with representative of the governments of Colombia, Venezuela, Chile, and Norway, as well as the International Committee of the Red Cross. There is no credible evidence that the Government of Cuba has provided specific material support, services, or resources, to members of the FARC, or the National Liberation Army (ELN), outside of facilitating the internationally recognized peace process between those organizations and the Government of Colombia.”
  • “The Government of Cuba does continue to allow approximately two dozen members of the Basque Fatherland and Liberty Organization (ETA) to remain in the country. The Cuban government provided assurances that it would never permit the ETA members living in Cuba to use Cuban territory for that organization’s activities against Spain or any other country. There is no available information that the Government of Cuba allowed any of these ETA members to plan, finance, lead, or commit acts of international terrorism while residing in Cuba.”
  • “The Government of Cuba does continue to harbor fugitives wanted to stand trial or to serve sentences in the [U.S.] for committing serious violations of U.S. criminal laws, and provides some of these individuals limited support such as housing, food ration books, and medical care. Although Cuba continues to refuse to return certain individuals that fled to Cuba in the past, it has been more cooperative with the [U.S.] in recent years. In 2014, the Government of Cuba engaged in talks with U.S. officials in reference to some of these fugitives still residing in Cuba.”

Conclusion

There is nothing surprising in the Report’s discussion of Cuba. The report is statutorily required to cover the prior calendar year, and Cuba’s designation of state sponsorship was not rescinded until May 29, 2015. Therefore, it had to be included in this report as such a sponsor, and the discussion is fully consistent with that subsequent rescission.

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[1] This post is based upon the following: U.S. State Dep’t, Country Reports on Terrorism 2014 (June 19, 2015); U.S. State Dep’t, Briefing at the Release of Country Reports on Terrorism 2014 (June 19, 2015); Gordon & Schmitt, Iran Still Aids Terrorism and Bolsters Syria’s President, State Department Finds, N.Y. Times (June 19, 2015).

[2] A prior post discussed the April 14, 2015, presidential notification of such rescission to the Congress and another post, the May 29, 2015, official rescission of Cuba as such a sponsor. Earlier posts covered the legal and political issues regarding such rescission and the U.S. already having conceded many reasons why Cuba had provided assurances that it will not support future acts of international terrorism.