Tuesday, December 01, 2015

It Makes A Good Headline, But ...

... that doesn’t make it true.

In a post entitled There Was Room at the Inn, Rachel Held Evans is off and running again, this time about Syrian refugees and how their situation is morally equivalent to that of Mary and Joseph long ago in Bethlehem when a child was born who would change the world forever.

For Evans, saying no to having Syrians resettled in your neighbourhood is like turning away the Lord Jesus.

Could we have another spoonful of cheesy rhetoric, please?

Of course Evans is entitled to have her political opinion and to write about it as she pleases. In this case it’s clear she’s in full-throated support of immigration policies that have resulted in 30 governors to date issuing statements to the effect that they would bar Syrian refugees from settling in their states.

Controversial? A bit. But her opinion is not the problem; Christians may agree to disagree about politics so long as we do it in good conscience before the Lord. What bugs me is her risible misappropriation of scriptures in the cause of issues they simply do not address. That, and the fact that gullible or inattentive believers may be inclined to assume her position on the issue is the only possible “truly Christian” response.

So how does Evans’ biblical evidence hold up under scrutiny?

The Inn in Bethlehem

With regard to the inn in Bethlehem, there is no legitimate point of comparison.

Joseph and his bride had every reason to be where they were. They were neither refugees nor migrants looking for a better life. They were not seeking asylum in a foreign country. They didn’t make any inappropriate border crossings. They came with no expectation that their needs would be provided via the taxes of others. They came to discharge a civic responsibility. That was all.

The trip also ended up inadvertently fulfilling numerous Old Testament prophecies about Messiah, which was considerably more important. But Joseph and Mary were almost surely unaware of all that. They were simply responding to a command from Caesar Augustus that “all the world should be registered”. The way that was accomplished in those days was that “all went to be registered, each to his own town”. For Joseph, that meant Bethlehem, because he was “of the house and lineage of David”.

So Joseph was headed for his ancestral home, not a foreign nation or province. Legally, he not only had a right to be where he was, he was obligated to be there.

The Lack of Hospitality

In Evans’ rejigged gospel narrative, the innkeeper in Bethlehem is a racist.

It makes a nice rhetorical flourish, but it’s not the story Luke or Matthew tell. All Luke says is that “there was no place for them in the inn”. I suppose it’s remotely possible this was a bigoted snub on the part of an innkeeper who detested Nazarenes, but that is reading into the New Testament account things that are simply not even hinted at. Luke’s comment suggests nothing more sinister than overcrowding.

The use of a manger for the newly-arrived Lord was, by the way, a temporary arrangement. By the time the wise men arrived to see him, Matthew tells us Mary and Joseph were staying in a “house”. After that night at the manger, someone either rented them space or took them in temporarily and showed them hospitality. We are not told which. If either Matthew or Luke (or the Holy Spirit speaking through them) had wished to make the story of the birth of the Lord Jesus into an anti-bigotry screed, there was ample opportunity.

They didn’t. It isn’t. Evans’ story is useful propaganda but entirely extra-scriptural.

One of the Least of These

Having mangled the story of his birth, Evans then misapplies the words of the Lord from an entirely different portion of scripture to really ramp up the guilt:
“Jesus said: ‘For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me … Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’ ”
Though frequently misused, this subject of this passage is the Lord’s coming in glory at the “end of the age” and his judgment of those who care for and those who mistreat his Jewish brothers and sisters, which will be the litmus test of righteousness for Gentiles living during the Tribulation period. Read from the beginning of Matthew 24 if you are unclear on that fact. It has nothing to do with believers in the Church Age in which we currently live. The “you” in Matthew 25:42-45 is not the Christian of today but the Gentile of a future time. If we create from these verses some supposed obligation of so-called “Christian” nations today to feed, clothe and care for anyone claiming to be poor, persecuted or in need, notice that the consequence of failing to act on that obligation is “eternal punishment”.

Most evangelicals are not entirely prepared to concede that eternity in hell is the biblical penalty for the failure to advocate convincingly for the welfare of the poor in other nations. I’m pretty sure Rachel Held Evans isn’t either.

But even if we leave aside entirely the prophetic purpose of this passage, it is clear that it has nothing whatsoever to do with public policy. It is addressed not to the Roman government or even the Jewish authorities but to a few poor disciples with even less ability to affect the decision-making processes of those who rule over them than you or I have today. It is addressed to individuals.

Because the judgment in this passage is an individual one, it is clear that any obligation that might devolve on Christians (assuming we concede Evans’ highly dubious interpretation) is also an individual one. This is not a foreign policy prescription for the U.S. or any other country.

A Gentle Suggestion

Here’s an idea then: Rather than lecturing the governor of Indiana on affairs of state (or in this case, States), Christians like Rachel Held Evans who are convinced that Americans have an obligation to help Syrian refugees ought to be the first to offer the hospitality of their own homes and the support of their own bank accounts to a few Syrians chosen for them at random. (Although I suspect the Evans family would not find themselves housing the young couple with an adorable five year old child that are constantly trotted out in the media but rather the hordes of young Muslim males who comprise the overwhelming majority of those around the world currently seeking either asylum or just a change of scenery.)

I’m fairly sure Ms Evans and her husband will get right on that.

In reality, Evans is not interested in changing the mind of the governor of Indiana. If she were, she’d be arguing data rather than rhetoric, and facts instead of scripture. Rather, she’s hoping to sway average Christians like you and me and perhaps to influence voting patterns in the next election to further her own social justice agenda.

But the Bible says what it says, not what we might like it to say. It was not given us to be misappropriated and twisted into any shape we please in order to further the cause of our pet political projects.

Especially not the story and words of Christ.


  1. Nice analysis Tom and obviously quite a bit of research and effort. But, I am wondering, is Ms. Evans ever going to see any of it, never mind benefit from it? This is a rather sparse blogging environment with regard to attendance, so, is it worth the effort to produce all this when there are mostly no hearts and minds around to inform and perhaps change (which I surmise you are interested in)?

  2. A fair question, Q. I don't really write for people like Ms. Evans or John Piper or others whose writings I'll reference from time to time. Their minds are clearly made up in the face of much contradictory evidence, and they almost surely regularly encounter critics more formidable than me. I'd welcome a chance to engage any of them, but don't see it as terribly likely.

    I'm much more concerned about how people whose minds are not already made up react to their sort of misuse of the word of God. The Lord has made some of us a little better at dissecting false arguments than others. To the extent that I have any ability to stick a pin in some of these doctrinal balloons, I feel an obligation to use it, as others did for me when I was less mature in my own knowledge of God and continue to do today.

    As for where this will end up and who will see it, I agree that this a small circle compared to some. But search engines are wonderful things: some of our older posts are still being regularly read via key word searches. Depending on how esoteric the subject, when topics addressed by Ms. Evans or Mr. Piper get Googled, there is a chance we will show up after them like a bad penny. Also, a number of our regular readers use RSS feeds that don't show up here as pageviews. The potential reach here is greater than either of us may think.

    As someone who has spoken from the pulpit in local churches many times, I have grown used to looking down at as few as twenty to as many as a couple of hundred people, many of whom (children, teens, some spouses) are not motivated listeners. Even if we use the 40% metric (my calculation of how many of our readers are actually here intentionally and read entire posts) our readers are already more numerous than a bad Sunday at church, except many are quite motivated and consistent in showing up here on a regular basis.

    Also, a message given in church is generally one-and-done. A post here is available on an ongoing basis until such time as widespread internet censorship becomes a reality. I've had people tell me they have copied and circulated our posts as well.

    And after all, it is God who gives the increase (1 Corinthians 3:6), right?

    All to say, I absolutely think it's worthwhile, or I wouldn't keep doing it.

    Thanks as always for your interest and regular input.