For the past three weeks I have been reflecting on the uneasiness I feel with regard to Christianity and immigration. I’ve felt uneasy about American politics, about the use of Scripture, and about what our actual Christian perspective ought to be. I began with the question of how we ought to treat the stranger, and concluded that, yes, the Scriptures command us to be hospitable. In the second post I reflected on the role and boundaries of the nation-state, and there I concluded that, yes, states have the right and responsibility to defend their borders. Throughout, I have highlighted the necessity for Christians to align themselves with the Kingdom, rather than their preferences or nation-states. Today, I want to conclude with one final reflection: on the nature, the duties, and the boundaries of solidarity.
To get us started, I want to highlight three evocative image macros, popular in recent discourse about Christianity and immigration (we’ve looked at two of these, already). The first is an icon of Christ, imaged as a refugee behind barbed wire.
The second is the icon of the holy family, imaged as Hispanic refugees:
The third is Christ, gathered with Hispanic children at the border:
While previously I have highlighted other elements in these images, today I want to focus on an element that is present in all three—namely, the suggestion that what you do to these, you have done to God. By putting a refugee behind barbed wire, you have put God behind barbed wire. By treating refugees poorly, you are treating the Holy Family poorly. By treating children at the border poorly, you are treating Christ poorly. Now—and as I think I’ve made abundantly clear already—our duties to the stranger necessitate that we care for and treat hospitably all immigrants, whether legal or illegal. There are no conditions under which we are permitted, as Christians, to advocate for cruel conditions for any persons who are “strangers.” However, when we do act toward them (in whatever fashion) is it in fact that case that we are indirectly (or directly!) doing things to God?
Let’s frame this problem another way—is it the case that God stands in such a position of solidarity with the poor, the suffering, and the downtrodden, that whatever you do, or don’t do, to them, is something you have done, or not done, to God Himself? Do suffering, poor persons—irrespective of faith, nationality, goodness, or Kingdom identity—do they by virtue of their poverty have a privileged position in God’s sight?
This claim is a form of what is sometimes called the “preferential option for the poor,” a strain of Catholic social teaching with its roots in Latin American liberation theology. In turn, it anchors its claims, chiefly, on interpretations of Matthew 25 and of Matthew 5:3. It also divides Christians into two broad camps—one the one hand are believers who think that the Gospel is summed up in social action; on the other hand are those who think that the Gospel is chiefly a preached word. Let’s take a moment to examine these texts and then return to the question of solidarity and the gospel.
Matthew 25:31-46—The Judgment of the Throne
In this well-known passage, Jesus speaks about the judgment at the end of time—the separation of the nations into sheep and goats—and moreover lists distinctive criteria for why and how persons (nations?) are going to be judged. For some, Christ was hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, and imprisoned, and we fed, watered, clothed, visited, and joined them. For others, Christ was in those conditions and we did not. The concluding verse in both situations is the same, “Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it [or did not do it] to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it [or did not do it] to Me.”
There’s a great deal to say about this potent and important passage. It falls within a triad of warnings about the end times, each presenting clear instruction on how we are to live while we wait for Christ’s return. The Ten Virgins parable instructs us to wait in a prepared way. The Talents parable instructs us to work with the gifts God has given us until his return (and accounting!). And the Judgment parable instructs us to be attentive to the social needs of our community while we wait for Christ’s return. But this summary highlights our question—what are the bounds of that ‘community’? According to the text, it appears that the boundary falls with “the least of these my brethren.” Is “my brethren” everyone? Is it humanity in general? Is it, drawing from Matthew 12:50, that “whoever does the will of My Father who is in heaven, he is My brother and sister and mother”? Or is this, according to some interpretations I have heard, an appeal for Christian believers to care for Israel? So that Christian treatment of national Israel is the crucial determining factor in our salvation?
When Jesus uses family language—brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers, My Father, Our Father—he seems always to be appealing to the family of faith. That family, according to Matthew 12:50 (and other passages) is one defined by faith, not by genealogy, or blood, or by other marks of heritage, nor by a kind of general humanity. This suggest that if we are going to contextualize Jesus’ language of “brother and sisters,” the commands to feed the hungry and thirsty, to clothe the naked, and to visit the sick and imprisoned, are commands directed at members of the Church to one another. It is difficult to make a coherent case for how these verses would apply, in one case to Israel alone, or in the other case to the entirely of humanity.
Matthew 5:3—Blessed are the Poor
“But what,” I hear you ask, “about the Beatitudes, and the blessing of the poor?” Of course you are right, and many people have taken Jesus’ statements about the blessing of the poor as the ground for their understanding of God’s preferential option for them. But is it a blanket blessing? Does poverty become its own justification for blessing? Consider momentarily the two texts which record this blessing. In Luke 6:20 we read that Jesus says, simply, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the Kingdom of God.” However, Matthew 5:3 adds a few words, saying, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.” There’s lots that can be said about this (and if you’re interested, I treat these two passages extensively in my book Ordinary Prayer). For the sake of brevity let’s assume that Jesus doesn’t mean two different things in these two passages, but one thing which he’s used slightly different language to get at. It seems evident that the clarifying language of Matthew’s version helps us to understand that poverty, as poverty, isn’t what Jesus is really on about. It’s something different—a poverty of spirit. It isn’t the case, moreover, that wealthy people have no place in the Kingdom—they have lots of places (providing homes [Col 4:15], selling fields [Acts 4:36-37], supporting ministries [Luke 8:1-3], etc.). What seems crucial is that such persons—and this extends to all who would call themselves Christian—refuse to depend on material goods for their satisfaction. We each, in coming to God, must come as one who has nothing, one who is poor. By contrast, those who have their hands full with material wealth have a hard time coming to Jesus. (I note that a danger in reading this beatitude as only directed at the poor is that we miss its piercing application to all of us.)
Can we get from this passage to a “preferential option for the poor”? Not without some exegetical gymnastics. God values poverty of spirit, He appears to desire a certain disposition in all His followers. But it also seems to be the case that wealth—or relative wealth—is immaterial to the condition of the heart, and the poor can live as much in the grip of Mammon as can the rich.
Can we get from passages like these to a belief that God is meaningfully embodied in the suffering of others, by virtue of their humanity? Does God stand in a position of total-human-solidarity with the poor? I don’t think so. And interestingly (to draw from last week’s post) in the same way that those who advocate for laxity in borders appear to be advocating for the removal of nation-states, those who advocate for this kind of total-human-solidarity appear to be advocating for universalism. Think about it—if God is in perfect solidarity with humans by virtue of their human poverty, then a state of being other than faith in Christ is a condition for salvation. Here we have salvation by social status (which certainly taps into some of the Marxist roots of Liberation theology). By extension, Heaven itself appears to have no boundaries, no doors, no in and out (except, possibly, for those who oppress the poor or advocate for heavenly boundaries!).
Rightly or wrongly, the Kingdom of Heaven is a place that establishes boundaries. In Christ the nation-state is redefined, the family is redefined, and the person is redefined. In each social sphere we are re-orientated toward the Kingdom, with new allegiances, duties, and criteria of judgment. As Kingdom citizens we stand in perfect solidarity with Christ crucified and resurrected, and it would seem that we bear chief responsibility while we wait for his return to wait attentively (Virgins), to wait industriously (Talents), and to wait caring for our brothers and sisters in faith (The Sheep and the Goats).
However—and this is an enormous however—one of the responsibilities we inherit is the charge to practice hospitality toward strangers, especially since we might by our deeds entertain angels unawares (Heb 13:2—a la Sodom and Gomorrah!). In this respect, and critically, our practice of social hospitality—how we treat the poor, the hungry, the imprisoned, the sick, the destitute—is both a hallmark of our status as Kingdom Citizens and an instrument of our evangelization. In view of this, I want to note Romans 5:8, that “God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” The love of God for us preceded our Kingdom status. In the same way, it seems fitting that our love for the poor of the world might precede their Kingdom status. Christ died for all—his death makes sufficient provision for all persons. And yet not all will receive his loving work. In the same way, ought we not to be lavish in our love for the world, irrespective of the world’s acceptance of the meaning of that work?
So, is it the case that Jesus stands in embodied solidarity with every refugee? No, it is not. Can we reduce the Gospel to social action? No, we cannot. But we must remember that Christ might be with some of them. And until we visit, and clothe, and feed, and care, we will never find out if He was.