Are people really as hateful as they appear to be on social media?
This question has been plaguing me since last Saturday morning, merely twelve hours after the horrific attack on Paris by Daesh (also known as ISIS, also known as ISL, also known as… for more on what to call this group, see the insightful article at theweek.com). I am still absorbing what took place in France, Beirut, and Baghdad last week, and then just two days ago in Yola, Nigeria, where 32 people were killed by Boko Haram.
Our world seems to be spinning out of control into chaos. Hundreds, thousands, displaced by war and terror, fearing for their very lives. I have two jobs: I am a part-time pastor at a small church, and I am a full-time English teacher at a small private school. In both of these roles, I struggle with what to say, to my parishioners and my students. When I hear a couple of freshmen guys talking about how World War 3 is beginning, I pray they are wrong, but I find myself wondering along with them.
It is hard to not give in to fear.
With these attacks has come a renewed debate about refugees and what “to do” with them. If we take at face value everything we are told in the media, as well as everything posted on social media, then the United States is not looking too good these days. From presidential candidates politicizing the Paris attacks mere hours after they took place, to memes decrying our lack of attention to our own security, the American internet has become a toxic, xenophobic arena where people feel comfortable attacking those they do not know.
And I return to that question that has been haunting me: are people really this hateful?
I want to tell myself that it is thoughtlessness that leads to someone posting a picture of an eagle giving an icy stare with the caption: “The time has come to take back what is ours.” I calm myself by remembering that it is probably fear that leads a person to post a link to a “Breaking News” report that someone from Daesh was detained at an airport posing as a refugee. Is it just mindlessness when someone hits “like” on a picture, any picture, that disparages a refugee because they look different?
But then I read that 30 governors have called for a complete halt to the resettlement of Syrian Refugees in the United States (www.npr.org/governors-oppose). The news reports that Paul Ryan is seeking to “pause” the flow of refugees while Congress evaluates security concerns (www.npr.org/house-republicans-create-task-force). (My sarcastic reply to this is, ‘so the play button will never be pushed because Congress can’t do anything).
Let us not be mistaken. These refugees are not terrorists. These are people- human beings- who have fled from their homes because to stay would have meant certain death. They have flown from their homes not because they might lose their homes; not because of a lack of a food; not even because they are simply seeking better jobs. They are fleeing persecution and execution at the hands of a terrorist organization.
Last night I received a phone call from my mom. The weight of the world’s violence and hatred had overwhelmed her (she’s not alone!). She reminded me of the story of Mary and Joseph seeking a place of shelter in Bethlehem. As I meditated on this story, I remembered that their running didn’t stop in Bethlehem. When Herod learned from the Wise Men that a baby was to be born King of the Jews, he was terrified that his power would be threatened. His reaction? To kill “all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under” (Matthew 2:16). Joseph, warned in a dream, took Mary and the baby Jesus to flee to Egypt.
Make no mistake: Jesus was a refugee.
How many more children must die before we respond in care and humility? How many limp bodies must wash up on shorelines? How many more children must mourn the loss of their mothers and fathers?
Syrian refugees are not the problem.
I am given hope by a President who refuses to bow to fear and will honor the commitment our nation has made to welcome with open arms those who seek asylum.
I am given hope when French President Hollande affirms that France will still welcome 30,000 refugees over the next two years, despite the smoke that still hangs in the air (abcnews.go.com/french-president-francois-hollande).
I am given hope through an open letter from 18 U.S. Mayors who courageously pledge to take more refugees, as others who react out of fear say they will take none (www.huffingtonpost.com/mayors-letter).
I find hope in a gospel that urges, no, commands us, to welcome the stranger in without concern for ourselves, without demanding compensation, without prejudice.
“You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt… If you do abuse them, when they cry out to me, I will surely heed their cry” (Exodus 22:21; 23).
So is it ignorance that is saturating Facebook, Twitter, and other forms of social media? One post (or type of post) I have noticed in a few places makes the assertion that we shouldn’t accept any refugees until we take care of the 50,000+ homeless veterans. Are we so small-minded that we cannot do both? Do we not have the ability and the heart to care for all? We are a nation of excess, and perhaps we are so self-involved, self-invested, that we cannot bare the thought of parting with some of our possessions (i.e. money). But if that is the truth, we must accept that truth, own that truth, and stop pretending to be something we are not. Because we can take care of the alien, the widow, the orphan, the veteran, the hungry, the sick, the poor, the imprisoned. But only if we want to.
Maybe that’s the problem.