Review: You Welcomed Me

You Welcomed Me

You Welcomed MeKent Annan. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2018.

Summary: Describes the global refugee crisis, the opportunities that the church has to extend welcome, and the fears and misunderstandings that prevent us from doing so.

There are as many as 66 million refugees in the world today. Currently, the U.S. is slated to accept fewer that 22,000, the lowest number in decades while much smaller countries have accepted as many as 2.5 million. Kent Annan, who directs the humanitarian and disaster leadership program at Wheaton College was asked by his son whether we are for or against refugees. A good question indeed, considering these numbers.

Starting with the simple statement of Jesus in Matthew 25:35, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me,” Kent Annan explores why the church should be for refugees and how we can extend welcome. He does much of this by telling stories. He begins with the idea of how these people could be any of us, helping us through these stories to recognize the common humanity we share with refugees, reminding us that scripture tells us that it could be angels we entertain when we welcome these strangers.

Annan explores fears that we have about opening our doors more widely to immigrants. Through both stories and statistics, he shows that these fears are misplaced. We have a 1 in 364 billion chance of being murdered by a refugee in a terrorist attack, a 1 in 10.9 billion chance of being murdered in a terrorist attack by an illegal immigrant, while we have a 1 in 14,000 chance of being murdered by anyone, a 1 in 303 chance of dying in an auto accident, and 1 in 7 chance of dying of cancer. Immigrants and refugees in this country contributed $63 billion more than they cost this country over the last decade. Urban neighborhoods into which immigrants move often see a reduction in crime and revitalization.

Annan also helps us empathize by sharing stories of the refugee experience. The snapshots he relates involve departures from unsafe or politically insecure situations, often leaving careers and possessions behind. Often, their flight involves harrowing and life-endangering journeys. Many spend years in refugee camps awaiting resettlement while undergoing rigorous vetting.

He gets practical in terms of what can be done, including information about agencies assisting refugees in the U.S. (some whose existence is threatened by our country’s reduction in the number of refugees it will accept). He urges us to become part of a human chain of being good neighbors, committing to hope, to reconciliation, and to grace.

Finally, drawing from the name of a relief organization, Annan pleads that to be for refugees is to say “here is life.” To welcome refugees is to participate in God’s in-breaking kingdom where we were welcomed and have found life through the Life Giver. We exchange fear for hope, hate for love, scarcity for abundance.

In each chapter, Annan offers practices that can set us started on the road to welcoming refugees and immigrants, making the book useful for a church mission team or study group. An appendix provides descriptions and contact information for the major refugee organizations working in the U.S. The book admits but doesn’t try to solve public policy problems. It helps us empathize (as much as a book can do) with what it is like to be a refugee, and encourages us to find out personally. It focuses on what church people can do to learn and act. I suspect if  a growing movement came forward and said “we want the country to increase the amount of refugees we welcome and we are willing to do the hard work of helping them settle,” that could have public policy implications.

This is a short book that does not try to do to much. And perhaps there is wisdom in this. If we will not heed and wrestle with Jesus’s words, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me,” I’m not sure the need at this point is for more words.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Serving God in a Migrant Crisis

serving god in a migrant crisis

Serving God in a Migrant CrisisPatrick Johnstone with Dean Merrill (foreword by Stephen Bauman). Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2018.

Summary: Concisely sets forth the scope of our present-day global refugee crisis, how as Christians we might think about all this, and several levels of action steps we may take.

We are facing an unprecedented refugee crisis. Corrupt regimes. Violent gangs. Climate change driven migration. Religious persecution. Ethnic cleansing. All these causes and more are leading people to do something no one wants or easily chooses to do–leave home, sometimes paying large sums to shady figures, with no certainty of finding refuge on the other end.

Patrick Johnstone is well known to many as the author of successive editions of Operation World, a guide that has helped many of us pray, or even be led to go to parts of the world and people groups who have not heard the Christian message. His study of these people groups made him keenly aware of these unprecedented movements of people, and the possibility that the very people we hope to reach with the Christian message may be on our doorstep. The question is not, how will we reach them, but will we welcome them?

Johnstone begins by inviting us to connect with our own immigrant histories and by drawing our attention to the one who we follow, who was himself a refugee as a child. In the first part, he explores the unprecedented human tide of immigrants, one out of every 122 on the planet. He turns to fears real and imagined and separates fact from fiction. Then he looks at the factors driving the refugee and migrant crisis, arguing that there is no end in sight and that more developed nations will be dealing with this for some time to come.

In the second part of the book, he focuses on what we need to know. First of all, he helps us understand why people leave their homes, often taking great financial and safety risks to do so. He reminds us that the biblical story is an immigrant story. God even causes some immigration. Our savior was an immigrant. Immigrants are not the “other,”  but rather are people who are “one of us.” Johnstone asks whether our immigration discussions ought to begin with policies and legalities, or with a concern for the humanity of the immigrant. Whatever we, and our nations do, it will have some kind of profound effect on the lives of real people, many of them among the most defenseless in the world. On the other hand, we often do not consider is that these people may turn out not as a problem to be solved, but a blessing. They provide needed workers in low-birthrate countries, some are fellow believers who rejuvenate the faith of complacent Christians, and some of our most respected scientists, political leaders, and business people have been immigrants.

So, what should we do? That is the concern of the final chapters in the third part of the book. He begins by suggesting five starting points:

  1. Appreciate the strategic opportunity. God is bringing the world to us!
  2. Recognize and admit our past mistakes.
  3. Become more sensitive to other cultures.
  4. Believe that God truly cares about migrants.
  5. Start praying.

This last point literally struck home. The author quotes a Ghanaian theologian who participated in African immigrant revivals, praying for the awakening of the West in Amsterdam, Hamburg, Columbus, Ohio, and Chicago. I live in Columbus and my church hosts a Ghanaian congregation. It made me wonder if some of those worshiping in our church building were among those the theologian was praying with. It makes me wonder if we are the ones being blessed by their presence and what they might teach us about prayer and spiritual warfare in the post-Christian West.

He then concludes with four action levels: the individual, the church, what Christian agencies can do and what the global body of Christ can do. This lasts challenges us both in speaking to ourselves about the need at hand, and speaking to our governments.

What was so refreshing about this book is that it stepped aside from media circus and the political fray and centered the discussion on the reality of the human crisis behind the policy debates and the biblical convictions and dispositions of the heart of people who follow Jesus the refugee. While not ignoring the important role Christians can have in challenging the government, it also focused on the critical role Christians can play in their home church communities by hosting refugees, welcoming immigrants into our homes, networking them into work opportunities, and sharing our faith with them.

This last phrase will be a problem for some. Certainly, we should do all that we can for the immigrant whether they believe or not. But Johnstone makes a telling observation that comes out of his years of work among many people groups: “Immigrants will think it odd if you don’t introduce your faith. They will wonder if you are ashamed of your beliefs for some reason.” This reminds me that the greatest tragedy of yielding to the fears and insecurities that feed political bases and media ratings; is that in so doing we miss the opportunity to love the alien and the stranger, see them become friends, and perhaps witness their turning to new life in Christ. What others see as a crisis and a problem, Johnstone recognizes as a great opportunity. Will we?


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Immigration and the Way of the Heart

Ellis Island Immigrants, Public Domain

Ellis Island Immigrants, Public Domain via Wikimedia

Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves “the circumcision” (which is done in the body by human hands)— remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ. –Ephesians 2:11-13, NIV

“This is what the Lord Almighty said: ‘Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor. Do not plot evil against each other.’” Zechariah 7:9-10

When you saw the word “immigration,” did your blood pressure go up? This is one of those issues it is not polite to discuss during social occasions at the risk of tempers flaring. In what follows I don’t want to get into policy or current controversies, and I hope you won’t try to debate them here. Likewise, I should warn that this is a bit of “inside baseball” primarily written for those who share my Christian commitments. I hope others will read to see how at least one Christian might think through such things.

The impetus for this post has been reflection over the last couple weeks on a sermon preached by one of our pastors on Zechariah 7, which includes the second biblical quote above. It made me think particularly about what our heart attitudes are toward the immigrant, and others on the margins of our society. These often are most vulnerable to oppression. They can be exploited, abused, feared, hated, excluded. Instead God commands justice, mercy, and compassion.

My thoughts went to the first passage and others like it, that give a very simple reason why. If in no other way, spiritually, we were once in the same place–strangers and aliens, fatherless, and hopeless; and through the cross of Christ, we have been adopted as God’s children, welcomed into God’s family, and included in God’s people–citizens of the kingdom rather than aliens.

It is hard for me to fathom as I reflect on God’s unfathomable love how our hearts can be gladdened and warmed and filled with joy because of the reality of God’s extravagant welcome; and hardened toward the immigrant and the refugee. It seems to me akin to being extravagantly forgiven and unwilling to forgive. Someone has observed about Jesus teaching about forgiveness that we need to choose which universe we will live in–a forgiveness universe or a judgment universe. I would suggest that likewise, we cannot live in a universe of extravagant welcome and simultaneously a universe of fear, resentment, hate, and exclusion. Choosing the latter in each case robs us of the joy and freedom of being God’s forgiven and included children.

None of this is to say what our immigration policies should be. Clearly they need to change, which is perhaps the only thing both political parties agree upon. What I want to raise is what orientation of the heart, what habits of the heart shape how we approach these discussions. Do we begin with fear or suspicion or even hatred of the other? Or do we begin with compassion, with welcome, and with justice. Many refugees are actually desperate. A number are actually fellow believers. In many cases they would face prison or death in returning to their country. Most people don’t leave home without good reason.

Many would say there are good reasons to be fearful or suspicious because some immigrants, documented or not, have committed crimes in our country.  Sure, but if we were to exclude every class of people in which some member has committed a crime, who of us would be left? Certainly prudence is called for by those who guard our borders. But this doesn’t need to conflict with a generous, welcoming spirit on the part of our people. The real question is what will be our fundamental posture, at least among those of us who say we follow Christ, toward the immigrant and the refugee? Will it be fear and suspicion, or will it be one of generous welcome that flows from how Christ has welcomed us? Might we experience in new ways the joy of welcoming Jesus in welcoming these people, the Jesus who began his earthly life as a refugee, along with Joseph and Mary?

Review: Just Immigration

Just Immigration

Just ImmigrationMark R. Amstutz. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2017.

Summary: A carefully researched work on American immigration policy, various Christian responses and why they generally fall short and the necessity of nuanced advocacy that recognizes the competing values of compassion, the rule of law, and the requirements of justice.

Immigration is perhaps one of the most contentious public policy issues facing the United States (and other nations today). While some want to “build the wall” others are announcing that they are “sanctuary cities” or at least “sanctuary churches.” Immigration policy is incredibly complicated as the competing demands of immigration for business, for study, for reuniting families, for representing diverse populations, for providing asylum and accommodating refugees, and dealing with the unauthorized entry of people, some for nefarious reasons, and others simply to work.

The popular perception is that our immigration system is “broken” and needs radical attention. Yet in terms of sheer numbers, the United States in recent years has admitted more immigrants than any other country (although some other countries have higher per capita immigration rates). Because of our oceans, we have been less involved in recent refugee resettlements than many European countries. All of this moves many Christians to insist we need a more just and compassionate immigration policy, one that is much more consistent with a biblical commitment to “welcome the stranger.”

Mark R. Amstutz takes a much more careful look at American immigration than most have, and challenges American Christians in this work that they need to do likewise. He begins by a careful and extensive description of how the American immigration system works and the various agencies involved with immigration. From this, Amstutz summarizes the strengths and shortfalls of the current system. For strengths, he sees a system that is relatively generous in admissions, that prioritizes family ties, that seeks to be inclusive in its use of diversity visas, is committed to due process protections, and shows special concerns for the persecuted and abused. At the same time, we provide inadequate numbers of work visas for our work force requirements, chain migration concentrates immigration numbers on family-based visas, while at the same times delaying family reunifications, sometimes up to twenty years, we have inadequate employment verification processes, inadequate tracking procedures for nonimmigrant visitors, weak border security and problems in our judicial processes. The biggest challenge is how we deal with unauthorized (or illegal) immigration, which is where concerns for compassion bump up with real questions about the undermining of the rule of law when laws are not enforced, while many unauthorized immigrants (11 million or so) “live in the shadows.”

Amstutz sees two competing theories concerning immigration that undergird the differences people have. One is a cosmopolitan approach that sees us all as one people sharing the planet and minimizes the nation-state. The other is the communitarian that recognizes the world as a series of nation-states with the right to regulate borders. This ultimately leads to conflicting priorities that acknowledge that any person should have the right to emigrate at will, but that no one has a right to be admitted to another country.

After overviewing the theoretical constructs brought to this discussion outside the church, he turns to the thinking of Christians in the Roman Catholic Church, with evangelical, and mainline Protestant bodies. In general, what Amstutz found was some biblical theology around immigration, and then public policy advocacy that did not particularly connect to their biblical convictions. In general, very few statements provided any extended moral analysis of American immigration policy, and that while most came down heavily to advocate compassion for immigrants and refugees, and amnesty for unauthorized immigrants and their children. Few dealt with the issues around law enforcement and the rule of law in anything more than passing references. Furthermore, most were directed to the political process, and in many cases little attention was given to congregational education. Amstutz acknowledges that there is often a wide divide between leaders and their congregational base.

Amstutz holds up as a model of the kind of statement that can be effective, he points to the U. S. Conference of Catholic Bishops statement on nuclear arms during the 1980’s. This statement took several years to draft, involved careful biblical and theological work, and careful moral analysis based on extensive research on the nuclear arms and strategy. An eye was given both to catechesis in the church and public advocacy and because of this careful work, the document did shape public discourse on nuclear arms and may have contributed to nuclear disarmament.

This is the best book I’ve found on this topic for several reasons. One is that it provides good, detailed information on how our immigration system works, in its strengths and weaknesses. Also, this is a good book for those who want to take a hard look at what the Bible says about this issue who have concerns both about compassion and about justice, including the rule of law. It is valuable in assessing the various statements that have been made by church bodies about immigration.  Amstutz is thoughtful about what can realistically be accomplished, in talking about “proximate justice.” It is a book that can equally challenge those on the compassion side and those on the law and order side of the discussion, and may provide a meeting place for those who want to work toward proximate solutions that recognize both concerns.

Perhaps the most challenging message of this book is that we often have responded in public discussions on this issue out of poorly formed biblical frameworks and moral sentiments–that we have not done the hard intellectual work to make a constructive contribution at a policy level, or to provide teaching that doesn’t simply feel like the propaganda of the left or the right. We often simply have wanted to do something, to advocate for something, to resist something. Might it be that our “ready, fire, aim” approach to these things accounts for the counterproductive character of the conversation? Could it be that the careful work of study, moral analysis, and then thoughtful advocacy and service is what’s called for?


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: America’s Original Sin


America’s Original SinJim Wallis. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2016.

Summary: Explores our nation’s deeply ingrained history of racism and particularly the challenges facing white Christians in bridging these racial divides.

“The United States of America was established as a white society, founded upon the near genocide of another race and then the enslavement of yet another.”

The author of this book contends that this sentence, in a 1987 issue of Sojourners, was the most controversial sentence he ever wrote. The controversy behind that statement supports the thesis of this book, that racism is America’s “original sin,” a part of our beginnings as a nation that we have wrestled with throughout our national existence, but never truly repented of.

Wallis begins with his own story of growing up in Detroit and working with Butch, a black man who opened his eyes to two very different Detroits and two different realities–for example “the talk” that all black parents have with their children when they learn to drive that white parents do not have with theirs. This concerns how to act if stopped by the police, where to put one’s hands and so forth. He considers Ferguson, and Baltimore, two cities riven with turmoil after police-involved shootings of black men as parables revealing the racial fault lines in the American story. He then reviews our past history and current demographics and events to show that our attitudes around race are indeed our national “original sin” that only profound repentance can heal.

The next chapters explore the nature of true, rather than superficial, repentance, and that this means for the white community to which he writes a “dying” to our whiteness as we recognize the “white privilege” we have enjoyed. I suspect that for many this may be some of the most controversial material. I find this language uncomfortable. I grew up in a working class neighborhood and didn’t feel terribly “privileged” compared to more affluent people in the suburbs ringing my city. It was not until later years that I understood blacks had been red-lined out of our area of the city and I had the benefit of attending one of the best city schools with over 95 percent of the students being white. I began to realize the privilege that I had enjoyed in a racialized society. It also separated me from blacks in my city, made them an “other” who were treated differently in retail establishments, by the police and more. Real repentance means, even though I didn’t choose this “privilege,” to acknowledge that I have benefited from a sinful division of people, to not hold onto or idolize “whiteness” and to begin to intentionally seek a very different future.

The place, Wallis contends, where we begin, is the church, still a highly segregated entity. It means listening to different ethnic voices, and submitting to leadership from ethnicity other than one’s own. Another important place to begin is in the policing of our communities, where police move from being warriors to guardians and where police become integral part of the communities they protect and serve so that both they and their communities affirm both that black lives matter and that blue lives matter. It begins with advocating for restorative justice rather than a new form of Jim Crow justice with differential incarceration rates for the same crimes depending on one’s race.

Dealing with the sin of race extends to our immigration policies. Until our recent election cycle, there was a growing conversation in the evangelical community supporting immigration reform. Reading this post-election seemed like reading from a different world. Even the chapter title, “Welcoming the Stranger” seems foreign. Wallis then concludes the book talking about “crossing the bridge to a new America.” One of the most compelling passages for me was the interaction Wallis had with a group of fifth graders in a Washington, DC public school, who asked Wallis why Congress seemed afraid to change the immigration system. He writes:

     “I paused to consider their honest question and looked around the room–the classroom of a public school fifth-grade class in Washington DC. I looked at their quizzical and concerned faces, a group of African American, Latino, Asian American, Native American, and European American children. Then it hit me.

     ‘They are afraid of you,’ I replied

     ‘Why would they be afraid of us?’ the shocked students asked, totally perplexed. I had to tell them.

     ‘They are afraid you are the future of America. They’re afraid their country will someday look like this class–that you represent what our nation is becoming.'”

Re-reading this passage, I think of a Sunday School song I grew up with, admittedly one that indulged in some stereotypes about skin color for which I apologize, and yet that represented the underlying gospel values of my white evangelical congregation:

“Jesus loves the little children; all the children of the world.

Red and yellow, black and white, all are precious in his sight.  

Jesus loves the little children of the world.”

Wallis’s quote challenged me with the reality of whether we will love all the children of the world that God is gathering in our country, or fear them. Will we see that fifth-grade classroom as the realization of our deep gospel values, and strive for churches that reflect this in our love and our life. Or will we remain racially separate, hiding behind walls of fear, saying that it is OK for Jesus to love these children as long as they are somewhere else in the world.

Wallis contends we stand at the approach to a bridge between the racist America of the past and a different America that values “all the children of the world” in our midst. His book is an invitation for white evangelical America to walk the way of repentance and cross that bridge rather than walk away from it. I’m reminded that God does not forbear forever. If we miss this chance, dare we presume there will be another?




Review: The Weight of Shadows

The Weight of Shadows

The Weight of ShadowsJosé Orduña. Boston: Beacon Press, 2016.

Summary: In this personal memoir, the author documents his own experience of naturalization, and the shadow existence of both documented and undocumented immigrants in the United States.

Citizenship. If you were born in the USA, you’ve never thought much about this except when applying for a passport, or as I was doing today, TSA Precheck. I never think twice about my presence in this country, and celebrate the rights affirmed in our constitution. What this book reminded me of is that these are citizen rights. For immigrants on visas, and even those with the coveted “green card” who have Lawful Permanent Resident status, they are in a shadow land of being permitted without belonging. For those without such papers, life is even more in the shadows, fearing a trip to the hospital or a traffic stop or a raid on one’s workplace (where one often is paying taxes, working at low wages doing work Americans don’t want).

José Orduña, Mexican by birth, grew up in Chicago, obtained a green card, and while a graduate student at the University of Iowa, became a naturalized citizen. The first half of this book describes his own “shadow” existence and that of his friend, “Octavio” who has no papers. One senses the efforts to escape the weight of this shadow life as they binge drink together. Orduña weaves their stories with those of others who live with the constant fears of arrest, deportation, and separation from family. He helps us begin to see the contradictions in our local and national economies that depend upon the undocumented and yet punish them, and how that shadow of this fear is troubling even to those legally in the country. This part culminates with his application to become a citizen, the interviews, the biometrics, and finally, the citizenship ceremony. He describes the moment, when he is welcomed via a video of the President to U.S. citizenship:

“How strange to be welcomed now, since I’ve lived my life here from before I can remember. My cultural references are decidedly eighties and nineties United States–Urkel, Alex B. Keaton, Tom & Jerry, Biggie–and despite my best efforts I sometimes slip into a Chicago accent, cutting my A’s short. When I did visit Veracruz as a middle-schooler, the kids I played pickup games of soccer with would immediately detect that something about me was off. I had my first kiss in a bathroom in Bucktown in Chicago in grammar school, and I lost my virginity less than a block away in a church parking lot.”

The second half of the book shifts from his own experience of becoming a citizen to his time working with No More Deaths, an organization providing water and basic supplies in drops for those attempting to cross deserts to enter the country, and other organizations that try to advocate for those arrested in the attempt, often without receiving needed medical aid nor legal advice. We learn that our border walls and patrols channel people into the most inhospitable parts of the American Southwest, where death is a constant danger, where over 6,000 deaths have been documented (how many more that are not?) and where deportees often are returned to areas where they are most likely to be killed by Mexican drug lords. The question that cuts through all the ambiguities of our immigration policies is the question of basic human rights and the priority obligations of protecting human life. While their shadow existence has become weighty and dangerous, their real dignity is often stripped by lack of due process and abuse, rape of women on both sides of the border, and a contempt for life.

Toward the end of the book he describes this shadow existence by comparing it to Fenómeno, a painting by Remedios Varo:

“The painting is of a man and his shadow, except the shadow walks upright filling the three-dimensional space of the man while he is confined to the flat parameters of the shadow world.”

He goes on to say that the painting captures what was happening to many of his people, either in Mexico, or the desert, the murdering or “disappearing”.

Immigration policy is certainly contested ground. This book won’t resolve it but it will help us hear “other” voices besides the ones most dominating our media. Neither the author, nor other immigrants are presented to us as saints, but rather simply as human beings who work and strive for the same things many of us were born into. It challenges us to not reduce immigrants to shadows and stereotypes while facing the contradictions between our articulated values and the lived reality of the American “dream”.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher via a LibraryThing giveaway. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”



Thinking Politically

In this season of presidential primaries where the news is saturated with politics (and you haven’t seen it until you’ve lived in a swing state like Ohio!) it is easy to go to one extreme or the other. Either we become rabid partisans or we disengage. As someone committed to what I call Third Way thinking, I actually think it is worth thinking about how our first principles shape how we look at the political order and how we engage with politics.

So I thought I would share some of the books that I’ve read in recent years that may be helpful. Most are written by those who I would describe as thoughtful Christians. There are some who read this who might consider that an oxymoron. I hope if you peruse a few of these books, or even my reviews, you might think otherwise. And if you are a Christian, I hope you will consider taking the opportunity of this political season to re-examine your thinking about these matters. Is your mind shaped by media or by Christ?

Christian Political WitnessChristian Political Witness, George Kalantzis and Gregory W. Lee, eds. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014. A collection of essays from a theology conference looking at ways the church has related to the political order. My review.

17293092 (1)Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power, Andy Crouch. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2013. This a broader question than politics, that of power and whether it is possible to use power redemptively. My review.

public squareThe Global Public SquareOs Guinness. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2013. Guinness explores the commitments necessary to preserve freedom of conscience in a diverse public square. My review.

good of politicsThe Good of PoliticsJames W. Skillen. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2014. He argues that our political life is rooted in creation rather than the fall and how this might shape our engagement in politics, with lots of examples from contemporary issues. My review.

to change the worldTo Change the WorldJames Davison Hunter. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. Hunter argues that we often work from inadequate assumptions about the nature of change and place too great a stock in the political order as an agent of change. My review.

A Public FaithA Public Faith, Miroslav Volf. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2011. Volf also uses “third way” language in laying our four propositions for how Christians might work in a diverse public square. My review.

AllahAllah: A Christian Response, Miroslav Volf. New York: Harper Collins, 2010. Not so much about politics but one of the contentious issues of this election–how we relate to Islam. Volf contends Christians and Muslims worship the same God, albeit with different understandings. Whether you agree with this contention or not, a thought-provoking read. My review.

The Religion of DemocracyThe Religion of Democracy, Amy Kittelstrom. New York: Penguin Press, 2015. This book traces the “American Reformation” of Christianity through the lives of seven key figures spanning the late eighteenth to early twentieth century, in which adherence to creed shifted to the dictates of personal judgment and the focus shifted from eternal salvation to ethical conduct reflecting a quest for moral perfection and social benefit. Good for understanding our American civil religion. My review.

ImmigrationImmigration: Tough Questions, Direct AnswersDale Hanson Bourke. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014. Third in “The Skeptics Guide Series” and like others in the series provides a concise overview of basic facts about immigration and discusses the challenges of immigration policy in the United States. My review.

Politics of JesusThe Politics of Jesus, John Howard Yoder. Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, rev. ed. 1994. This is perhaps a classic Anabaptist statement that argues that the church, rather than becoming engaged with the political order, is one. A caveat comes with this book. Yoder, who died in 1997, was the object of numerous charges of sexual abuse of women both at Goshen Biblical Seminary, and later at Notre Dame. Yet, and probably before these allegations came to light, Christianity Today named it in the Top Ten Books of the Twentieth Century.

This is hardly an exhaustive list of good books out there. Nor does it reckon with classic works like Augustine’s City of God, Aristotle’s Politics, and Plato’s Republic just to name a few. What strikes me as I review this list, is that it emphasizes both the importance of and yet limited function of the political order. Politics matters, but it is not everything. That itself may be an important perspective in these upcoming months.

I’d love it if you would add your recommendations in the comments! I always love to hear of books I haven’t read, and I suspect other readers would enjoy that as well!



The Month in Reviews: April 2015

April’s book reviews covered both a significant span of time and geography as well as genre. I reviewed an academic debate on free will from the sixteenth century and a conversation about Christology published last year. There was a decided international flavor to these books, whether it concerned a historical novel of the British campaign in Flanders during World War II, a discussion of immigration, narratives of nonviolent action around the world in the last fifty years, or the last fifty years of African history. I reviewed genres as diverse as Walter Wangerin’s fantasy taking place in a barnyard of animals to Max Planck’s scientific autobiography and essays. I explored both the formation of the inner virtues of faith, hope, and love, and the interesting idea that the complexity and beauty of the world is a profound apologetic for the Christian faith.

As always, the links on this page are to my full reviews. Many of the reviews have links to the book publisher. So, without further ado, here’s the list:

True Paradox8th Champion1. True Paradox: How Christianity Makes Sense of our Complex World by David Skeel. David Skeel argues that far from being a problem for Christians, the complexity of the world is in fact something best explained by the Christian faith.

2. The Eighth Champion of Christendom by Edith Pargeter. A historical novel set at the beginning of World War Two exploring the growing realization of the horror of war that “heroic warriors” face. The plot centers around Jim Bennison, an English soldier and Miriam Lozelle, a Jewish refuge farm holder in Boissy whose husband is away at war.

Jesus without BordersEducating for Shalom3. Educating for Shalom by Nicholas Wolterstorff. This collection of essays and talks written or given over a 30 year period traces Nicholas Wolterstorff’s journey of thinking about Christian higher education, the integration of faith and learning, and his growing concern that education result in the pursuit of justice and shalom.

4. Jesus without Borders ed. by Gene L. Green, Stephen T. Pardue, K.K. Yeo. Eight theologians from different parts of the world came together for a theological dialogue on Christology, engaging the Chalcedonian definition of Christology and reflecting on the unique perspective they bring on Christology from their part of the world.

ImmigrationPlanck5. Immigration: Tough Questions, Direct Answers by Dale Hanson Bourke. Third in “The Skeptics Guide Series” and like others in the series it provides a concise overview of basic facts about immigration and discusses the challenges of immigration policy in the United States.

6. Scientific Autobiography and Other Papers by Max Planck. This is a re-issue in e-book form of Planck’s Scientific Autobiography and other papers on some of the “big” issues of science including causality, the limits of science and the relationship of science and religion.

Luther Erasmusnonviolent action7. Nonviolent Action by Ron Sider. Ron Sider argues from a number of instances over the past seventy-five years that nonviolent action can work and bring about political change.

8. Erasmus and Luther: The Battle over Free Will edited by Clarence H. Miller, translated by Clarence H. Miller and Peter Macardle. This work is a compilation of the argument between Erasmus and Luther over the place of free will and grace in salvation, excluding most of the supporting exegesis but giving the gist of the argument.

Christ Shaped CharacterDun Cow9. Christ-Shaped Character by Helen Cepero. Cepero, through personal narrative and formational teaching and practices, traces a path of growing to be more who we truly are as reflections of Christ through the embrace of love, faith and hope.

10. The Book of the Dun Cow by Walter Wangerin, Jr. This modern animal fable portrays a conflict between the beasts of the Earth and Wyrm of the underworld and his evil surrogates, and the heroism of a rooster, a dog, and the other beasts.

Fate of Africa11. The Fate of Africa by Martin Meredith. Meredith, a foreign correspondent who has made a lifelong study of Africa, chronicles the last 50 years of African history from the hopes of independence from colonial rule and promising beginnings through the heartbreaking instances of corruption, economic pillaging, and various slaughters and genocides including that of AIDS.

Best of the Month: This is a tough pick this month, but on the basis of the “I will read it again” test, I have to go with The Book of the Dun Cow. This apparently simple fable has layers of meaning and depths of insight into the struggle of good and evil, and the qualities of character and grace needed to meet that struggle.

Best quote of the Month: I would choose this quote from Max Planck’s essay on science and religion. While I did not agree with all he wrote, I think he gets the balance right here:

“Religion and natural science are fighting a joint battle in an incessant, never relaxing crusade against scepticism and against dogmatism, against disbelief and against superstition, and the rallying cry in this crusade has always been, and always will be: ‘On to God!’ “

I so appreciate all of you who read and comment on my reviews! I appreciated the comment I received today on Facebook from one reader: “I like your habit of reading books with view of reviewing for the benefit of community @large (I am a beneficiary of it).. I am trying to make it a discipline .. Thanx 4 da work.. Keep doing Bob…”

One of the delights of blogging and the internet is to find oneself part of a global community. I really do hope these reviews are a benefit, whether in finding your next “good read” or in becoming familiar with writers and writing of whose work it is helpful to know more.

All “The Month in Reviews” post may be accessed from “The Month in Reviews” link on the menu bar of my blog. And if you don’t want to wait a month to see my reviews, consider following the blog for reviews as well as thoughts on reading, the world of books, and life.

Review: Immigration: Tough Questions, Direct Answers

ImmigrationImmigration: Tough Questions, Direct AnswersDale Hanson Bourke. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014

Summary: Third in “The Skeptics Guide Series” and like others in the series provides a concise overview of basic facts about immigration and discusses the challenges of immigration policy in the United States.

The United States is a land of immigrants. Most of us can trace our roots back to forebears who came to the United States either to escape persecution or simply to find a better life. And yet immigration is highly contentious, between those who appeal for others pursuing a dream of a better life, and those concerned to protect our borders and restrict the numbers of people who may enter. Immigration has always both enriched our life and economy as a nation, and posed challenges for how we relate to new cultures and ethnicities.

Dale Hanson Bourke’s guide is not written to advocate but to inform. She begins with defining terms including “immigrant”, “undocumented”, “out of status”, “refugee” and more. One helpful distinction she makes is that there are no “illegal” immigrants. Under our system of law, it is not illegal to be a person and all enjoy equal protection under the law. Persons may commit illegal acts. For those who either have entered the country illegally, they are “undocumented” or “out of status” if they have overstayed their visa. She then turns in Chapter 2 to larger issues beginning with citizenship. One of the interesting facts in this section is that unlike most European countries and many others in the world, the U.S. grants “birthright citizenship” or recognizes citizenship on the basis of jus solis (“right of the soil”) as well as jus sanguinis (“right of blood”). This provides a strong incentive to have a baby on American soil. In this chapter, she also looks at larger issues of immigration around the world including refugee issues, xenophobia, the use of national identity cards and other issues.

Chapter 3 considers how we are indeed a nation of immigrants, how immigrants enter, different kinds of visas, “green cards” or Legal Permanent Residency, naturalization including our citizenship oath (quite interesting!) and even some of the vagaries of what defines a U.S. citizen–a question that has come up in presidential elections since the U.S. president must be a natural born U.S. citizen–the question being what constitutes “natural born”. Chapter 4 looks at the current issues surrounding immigration, particularly the numbers living here illegally (approximately 11.7 million in September of 2013) the problems of crime and drugs–most undocumented immigrants actually avoid crimes because this is cause for immediate deportation. I found out that U.S citizens are under no obligation to report those in the country illegally and that doing so might place one in legal jeopardy in certain circumstances. One of the challenges is how long the “line” is to enter the country legally–20 years for people in some countries.

While immigrants, including concentrations of undocumented immigrants in some states, do place added burdens on the system, they contribute immensely as well. One interesting fact in Chapter 5 was that 40 percent of the Fortune 500 companies were started by an immigrant or child of an immigrant. Google, eBay, Yahoo, Sun Microsystems, and Intel are a few examples. Equally, remittances from immigrants equal global foreign aid and so play a huge role in assisting the economies of the countries from which immigrants come. Many of those in the U.S. illegally are paying taxes and contributing to Social Security and Medicare without the opportunity to benefit from these programs.

Chapter 6 focuses on who the immigrants are and how many come into the U.S. under different categories and in what states the most immigrants are living (California, New York, Texas and Florida are the top 4 and account for over 55 percent of the immigrant population). Chapter 7 concludes the book considering the need for immigration reform. Fundamentally, our immigration system is a highly confusing system of sometimes self-contradictory laws that require an immigration attorney to sort through–something many immigrants cannot easily afford. It is a system that does not necessarily protect our borders from those who would do harm, and often fails to show mercy to separated family members. Furthermore, it makes it very hard to retain highly trained talent from other countries who would be willing to work for American companies and universities.

The value of this book is that it replaces misinformation with good information. It may not tell us the polices for which we should advocate, but it helps us cut through the misinformation we are fed in our public discourse, sometimes from those who are charged with making that policy. And it does this in a book of under 150 pages, written clearly and attractively with illustrations, charts, and images.

Citizenship Rites

"Albert Einstein citizenship NYWTS" by New York World-Telegram and the Sun staff photographer: Al Aumuller - Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Albert Einstein citizenship NYWTS” by New York World-Telegram and the Sun staff photographer: Al Aumuller – Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

A number of years ago we were visiting friends in New England and drove into Boston for a day. After lunch at Durgin Park, a place we’d visited many years earlier, we wandered over to Faneuil Hall and found ourselves on the edges of a Naturalization Ceremony. A number of people were becoming American citizens and you would have thought you were at a wedding! They were all dressed up and afterwards came outside. There were lots of family pictures with everyone holding up citizenship certificates. It was a stirring sight to witness how excited these men and women were to have obtained something I’d always taken for granted.

It is not easy to become a citizen. First, you have to obtain “lawful permanent resident” status (not easy to obtain) and then be a resident for 3 or 5 years depending on your status (those who enter military service can be “fast-tracked”). There is a citizenship test that many of us might be hard-pressed to pass.

I came across all this today in a book I’m reading. One of the things it included was the U.S. Oath of Citizenship naturalized citizens swear. It is as follows:

“I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty, of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen; that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I will bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform noncombatant service in the Armed Forces of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform work of national importance under civilian direction when required by the law; and that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; so help me God.”

I wonder if most who are citizens of the United States by birth are aware of this oath. Do we think of ourselves as citizens and that our allegiance to the United States implies these same obligations? These three phrases were particularly striking:

  • that I will bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by the law;
  • that I will perform noncombatant service in the Armed Forces of the United States when required by the law;
  • that I will perform work of national importance under civilian direction when required by the law;

Most men between 18 and 25 (I suspect women will someday do this as well) are required to register for Selective Service. It has been over 40 years since this led to compulsory service but registration reminds us that it can be required.  What is more interesting is that our country can call us to “work of national importance under civilian direction.” Most of us think that citizenship simply requires paying my taxes, obeying the laws and hoping the government will leave me alone (except when I want its benefits like Social Security or health insurance). Jury duty is an inkling that we can be called upon for the social good.

I discovered that our citizenship oath is far more extensive in its undertakings than other countries. Canadians swear (or affirm):

I swear (or affirm) that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second, Queen of Canada, Her Heirs and Successors, and that I will faithfully observe the laws of Canada and fulfill my duties as a Canadian citizen.

Germans swear:

I solemnly declare that I will respect and observe the Basic Law and the laws of the Federal Republic of Germany, and that I will refrain from any activity which might cause it harm. (English translation)

I wonder why we make so much of a bigger deal about the national defense and not simply allegiance and obedience to the laws of the land. It is interesting that this language has only been in effect since 2008. But perhaps this is fitting in a country where our budget for national defense is the largest in the world and more than about the next nine countries combined. Perhaps it is good to put new citizens on notice of this from the start.

Jack Parr once said that “immigration is the sincerest form of flattery.” The joy of those who become naturalized citizens ought to remind us of what a good place this is–something we take for granted far too much and invest in far too little. But the oath they take also makes me pause to consider the “cost” of American greatness, a cost to which we have implicitly or explicitly committed ourselves–a cost to which we are lawfully obligated.

Are we down for that?