For the July 14 edition of RJR's weekly news review show - That's a Rap - host Earl Moxam interviewed Reverend Astor Carlyle, Pastor of Webster Memorial United Church, about the treatment of would-be immigrants and refugees in the United States, and the related roles of some Christian leaders. Below is the full text of the interview. You may also access the audio via the icon above.
EM: Reverend Carlyle, what does the Bible say and what of your own understanding of the will of God in respect of the treatment of vulnerable persons such as refugees fleeing persecution and hunger and starvation in another country?
AC: Brother Earl, the Bible which guides the belief and the behaviour systems of the Church contains numerous passages that speak very clearly to the care that must be offered to the poor, immigrants and refugees. Hebrew texts such as Leviticus 19 which outline the ordering of society, if you look at Leviticus 19:33-34 it says “when a foreigner resides among you in your land don’t mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native born. Love them as yourself for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.” God’s preferential option for the dispossessed and poor is outlined through the prophet Isaiah: “The spirit of the Lord is upon me”; that Isaiah 61 passage “because the Lord hath anointed me to preach good tidings unto the meek. He has sent me to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, the opening of prison to those who are bound, to declare the acceptable year of our Lord.”
And interestingly, these were the words that Jesus drew on to frame his manifesto. I dare say that these are the words that ought to guide the mission of the Church. And how could we not yield to Jesus’ injunction in St. Matthew 25: “where those who are considered worthy of aligning themselves with this great god of justice are those who give the hungry something to eat, the thirsty something to drink. Those who invite the stranger in, clothe the naked, cared for the sick and the imprisoned.” And Jesus himself, who according to Matthew, had the experience of being a refugee, fleeing to Egypt, lived, died and rose again for the sake of the dispossessed, the marginalized. So we who say we serve God have no alternative but to walk in the steps of the master.
EM: I know this might be a steep hill for you to climb, but I wonder, how then could it be that self-proclaimed “Christian leaders” could be yielding to the words and directives, it almost seems, of a man who has a very limited acquaintance with the scriptures - and that has been demonstrably proven - to take the kinds of positions that they are taking in antagonism towards refugees in the United States?
AC: This is a steep hill, indeed. And I can’t help but wonder: Is it fear that, especially the white, Evangelical Church in America is siding with Mr Trump? Is it a result of fear? And when I say fear, some things come to mind. Fear that the “power of the Church” is eroding. There’s a feeling that the Democrats, by virtue of their liberal positions on certain matters such as abortion and same-sex marriage, should they get in power they would obliterate the Christian tenets upon which the American society is built. My concern is that the Evangelicals, in an effort to frantically safeguard these particular principles, would overlook the other crucial principles of truth and justice and human dignity that undergird that particular society. It’s a part of the history; human dignity, justice and truth. So fear of loss of power, to my mind, may very well be a driving force. Somewhere in the back of my mind, given the fact that only a minority constituting some 25% of white Evangelical support, reaching out to and caring for refugees, I can’t help but wonder if the whites are fearful that the dominance of their race is being threatened, and allowing these other people from all other countries entry to their country further exacerbates the problem.
EM: We know that there are many Jamaicans who follow closely the teachings and preaching of some of these Evangelical leaders in the United States, and indeed that they have affiliate churches in Jamaica. What should be the response therefore from Jamaica to what is happening; what should Evangelical leaders in Jamaica be saying; what should the Church, more broadly speaking, in Jamaica; what should it be saying?
AC: We in Jamaica, we need to be very careful. And we need to really interpret scripture properly and not forget our own history and not forget the need to ensuring that we never go down the road of building walls, but rather building bridges so that people may experience the life more abundant that Jesus Christ offers, regardless of how the people look, regardless of where they come from, regardless of their religious affiliation; the beauty of our faith is the ability to see beyond who people are to see the image of God in them. Because every refugee has a name, every refugee has a story and every refugee matters to God. And that clearly means that every refugee should matter to us as well.
EM: So the lesson or the message to the Jamaican state and Jamaican Christians would be then, in respect of the vulnerable around us right here in the Caribbean, some seeking from time to time to come here from Cuba, from Haiti, and one might also say; given the fact that we have an historical link with the Middle East, that there may be occasion to welcome some desperate person or persons from out of Syria for example. What should the response from the Jamaican state, or the attitude of the Jamaican state and the Jamaican church broadly speaking; what should that be?
AC: Earl, I’m not a cricketer but you have bowled me a googly. The first pushback I hear coming is one of economics; can our economy sustain these people? What influences will arrive with these people that will serve to undermine our socio-cultural norms? Or even our ethics. I hear people asking the question what implications would there be for national and social security. Now, it would be disingenuous of me to behave as if these concerns have no merit, because they do. But we must be careful of exclusionary behaviours. We must remind ourselves that we do not live in an economy, we live in a society. And society serves for the broadening of life, the exposing of opportunities, the sharing of resources, the deepening of relations. Would it put pressure on the various systems of the country? Yes it would. But I honestly believe that as a country and as a people we are creative enough to make space for all. I further believe that it would challenge us as a Church to move from the mere feel good approaches to Church, and then do good. I think it would bolster the ‘do good’ ministry to which we are called. The Church corporate, I believe, would have to seize the opportunity of caring not only for those who are returned home by other countries, but refugees, people who are different from us. It’s part of us showing the love of the Christ, the God to whom we sing when we sing our national Anthem, it’s part of our pledge.
“…so that Jamaica may, under God, increase in beauty, fellowship and prosperity and play her part in advancing the welfare of the whole human race.”
I think it is inescapable, our need to be open and show the hospitality to those who are in need of such hospitality.
Saving your soul
EM: I go back to one of your earlier responses for this final question: Is it possible to save your soul by making a deal with the devil?
AC: (Chuckles) Well, Brother Earl, you may need to clarify that question!
EM: Far be it from me to characterise Mr Trump as the devil, but in respect of the behaviour of some of these Evangelical leaders seeking compromise with the Trump Administration in respect of some of the issues that they think are more amenable to their own cause, the question that might be asked metaphorically, is it possible to save your soul by making a deal with the devil?
AC: The Church must be careful of becoming “pally-pally” with those in the seat of power. As Church we must not forget that we are called to be moral clarifiers, and we can’t cherry-pick the issues that require our prophetic voice. As church we must not be afraid to be marginalised as we agitate for what is right because when we surrender our prophetic calling and start to play for the gallery, then the potency of our witness is undermined and we unwittingly participate in the building of a society where wrong is called right and right is called wrong. My friend, the only way to save your soul is for us to deny the self, individual and corporate, take up our cross daily, that is to die to selfish ambition and individualistic myopia and follow the ways of Christ. Do his work as He did, selflessly give and faithfully accompany others along the cut and thrust of life’s realities. You can’t save your soul by selling out to the devil.