For a couple of weeks now, I have been preoccupied with the perception that the public discourse influences even believers toward stridency, rigidity, and lack of compassion. Oddly, at the same time, I have been hearing again and again in my mind’s ear the lyrics of a children’s hymn I learned to sing in Vacation Bible School: “Jesus loves the little children/ All the children of the world/ Red and yellow, black and white/ They are precision in his sight/ Jesus loves the little children of the world.” The hymn paraphrases Jesus’ teaching that, “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me; and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me” (Mark 9:37 RSV). Moreover, Jesus stands in the biblical tradition that God requires God’s people to recognize in all other human beings the image of God; that God requires God’s people to exercise particular care for orphans, widows, and immigrants (cf. Deut 10:18-19, passim); and that God does not settle for quid pro quo transactions, calling instead for God’s people to love even their enemies (Mark 5:44).
Jesus repeatedly asserted that true discipleship transcends giving assent to a definition of who he is. He called upon people to follow him; to join him in bearing the cross of sacrificial love; to attend to the lost, the sick, and the sinner; and to love (not just our friends, family, and fellow-believers, but also) our enemies.
Baser human nature, of course, following the “law of the jungle,” prioritizes the needs of the self, often extending such concerns to family, and sometimes even to village or tribe, but not to the outsider, the foreigner, the other. Everyone else must fend for themselves, at best, or are objects of suspicion, to be excluded or controlled, at worst. Nation-states, including the US, represent artificial incorporations of these “natural” human inclinations on a grand scale. The first responsibility of nations, according to dominant political theory, is to protect itself against enemies, real and potential. Even internally, the state seeks to regulate the selfish competition among its citizens expected of individuals and groups seeking first their own advantage. A society based on rights trades in establishing and policing boundaries between individuals and groups because it anticipates that individuals and groups will otherwise, naturally, seek to dominate other individuals and groups. Compassion, self-sacrifice, and kenotic concern for others have no place in nation-states, per se.
I spent all day yesterday with a group of area pastors studying “Humor in the Bible.” Among other things, we discussed the comically pitiful prophet Jonah, who sought to restrict God’s grace for fear that the merciful God of Israel would likely leap at any opportunity to forgive even the hated Ninevites. These pastors reported their perplexity and frustration over similar attitudes held by their parishioners with regard to minorities already in the country (especially non-Christian groups), to immigrants, and to refugees.
I repeat my contention that this moment is a time of testing for the church and for individual believers (see “A Time of Testing”). It will not be a test primarily of our ability to mobilize successfully to influence the political apparatus; it will not be a test of the extent to which the nation is “Christian.” It will be a test of whether we identify ourselves first, and if need be only, as disciples of Jesus; it will be a test of whether we seek first the sovereignty of America or the kingdom of God. It will reveal whether we believe, contrary to Jesus’ teaching, that we can serve two masters.
This morning, the news media features accounts of the discovery of the bodies of seventy-four refugees, drowned in the Mediterranean Sea as they fled from desperate and dangerous circumstances in their homelands (see http://abcnews.go.com/International/wireStory/red-crescent-74-bodies-migrants-wash-ashore-libya-45625572). Authorities expect to recover scores more victims of the same tragedy: men and women, boys and girls, fleeing the chaos and destruction of war.
Are they not my problem?