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Christians are really good at defending their own religious freedoms. When it comes to other faith traditions, however, Christians often seem quite ill-prepared to defend the religious freedoms of non-Christians.
This discrepancy was one of two key elements that fueled Matthew Kaemingk’s research into immigration and Christian hospitality. The other element was a volunteer work experience in a refugee camp in Eastern Europe following the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, where he heard stories of Muslims running away from terror and seeking refuge in Europe.
“That personal connection for me with Muslims made Muslim immigration a very personal issue. I built friendships with them and heard their stories,” Kaemingk says.
His book, Christian Hospitality and Muslim Immigration in an Age of Fear, was released in 2018 after extensive research into the question: What obligation do Christian citizens have to defend the religious freedom of others?
Kaemingk currently serves as an assistant professor of Christian ethics at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. He is also an ordained minister in the Christian Reformed Church. His work on Christian hospitality and Muslim immigration has been commended by the Christian community as of late. He received an award last year from Christianity Today for his book. More recently, he was named Redeemer University College’s 2019 Emerging Intellectual.
Millions of Muslims have migrated to Europe and North America over the last several decades, but Kaemingk says the conversation in the United States became intense only after 9/11. Muslim immigration sparked a public debate that is often isolated into two divisive sides, politically and socially speaking. The book itself, says Kaemingk, ultimately seeks to find a middle-ground between the two dead-ends of right-wing nationalism and left-wing multiculturalism.
“I see them both as incomplete answers. I tried to articulate a third way that centres on Christ and (His) work in us and in the world.”
Kaemingk’s research took place in the Netherlands, where immigration has been a topic of conversation for far longer than where he lives in the United States. It is also home to the Christian Reformed tradition, which has a long history of thinking about religious freedom and immigration. Kaemingk says he sought to answer whether this unique Christian community, which has vigorously defended its own religious freedom, would defend the religious freedom of others.
The response was not coherent. Kaemingk found some community members defended Muslim immigration, rights and dignity. Others did not, leading him to believe there is something lacking in the community that would motivate its population to defend all religious freedoms.
“It was sad that the Reformed people who had been arguing for their own religious freedoms failed to see the implications for how they would live with a different faith… It's one thing to defend Christian schools and Christian beliefs and Christian businesses. It's another to defend mosques and Muslim schools and Muslim organizations.”
But his book was not solely written for those in the Reformed tradition. Rather, Kaemingk speaks to all Christians on hospitality as Christ would have it. Issues arose, however, when he had finished most of his book, and it was interrupted with the presidency of Donald Trump. In large part, he needed to change his strategy and develop, as he puts it, a more urgent argument. President Trump’s inauguration did not spark American Islamophobia per se, but the election stoked up fears, furthering something that was already existing on American soil, mimicking what Kaemingk believes to be the rhetoric of European nationalism.
The two concerns he hears most often when speaking to American audiences are those of security and the threat of Sharia law. But the fears tell more about the American culture than about Islam, he says.
“One to two per cent of the population is Muslim, and so it is very difficult to imagine such a small and disempowered population ever achieving legislative dominance to enforce Sharia law on all people. And yet still the fear continues. If a population can be afraid of a small one per cent segment, that tells you something about the health of the democracy. The political fragmentation and fear is so strong that it's a fertile soil for Islamophobia to take hold right now.”
When he speaks on the subject, though, Kaemingk isn’t citing numbers and statistics in an effort to quell fears. Rather, he speaks about Christ’s sovereignty and defeat over death, and the paradoxical issue of being both Christian and afraid.
“... (T)he politics of fear cannot reign over those who follow Him. If you are a Christian, and you are being ruled by the politics of fear, a critical disconnect has happened between your faith and your action. Something's gone wrong, terribly wrong, in your discipleship, in your understanding of who is truly in charge. I tend to argue that the politics of fear tell us something about the state of your soul... I want to respond with Christ and have these people search their hearts about that fear.”
Bringing hospitality onto the Christian scene and bridging gaps between two divisive approaches to immigration is an opportunity, Kaemingk says, for Christians to defend Muslims – with whom they fundamentally disagree – on a political scale, engaging in Christ-like pluralism.
Kaemingk’s next book, which he expects to have published next year, is significantly different from the political conversation, but nevertheless works towards the integration of Christian lives and cohesion between Sunday services and the rest of the working week, an effort he says will seek “to help people bring their daily work before God in worship, and to bring that with them as opposed to leaving it at home... to make the walls of the Church more porous.”