“Challenge and Stay: A Prophetic Response to Xenophobia”

“Challenge and Stay: A Prophetic Response to Xenophobia” July 23, 2019

In the wake of the political firestorm involving a presidential suggestion that four outspoken congresswomen – all citizens and three of which were born in the USA -should return to their nations of origin, the pastor of the ironically-named Friendship Baptist Church in Appomattox, Virginia, placed the following message on the church marque, “America: Love It or Leave It.” When queried about the sign, the pastor responded, “People feel hard about our president and want to down the president and the country and everything, they ought to go over there and live in these other countries for a little while.”

In response to the pastor’s comments, I suggest another Christian viewpoint toward prophetic troublers, “challenge and stay,” present us with alternatives including those alternatives that we currently don’t like so that we might aim, in our diversity, toward a “more perfect” union. Democracy and faith both thrive in the contrast of viewpoints and the recognition that light and shadow, in other words, difference, are essential to a healthy personal and national life.

Now, I realize that the pastor is entitled to his opinion as theologically, ethically, and politically misguided as it may be. But, as biblically orthodox as this pastor believes himself to be, it is again ironic that the conservative Christian community has, for the most part, either supported or been silent about Trump’s recent racist comments, his traumatizing of children on our borders, and the fact that his xenophobic viewpoint, all of which are contrary to the message of the Bible. Moreover, nowhere does scripture identify national policies or leaders as ultimate and worthy of our uncritical adulation. In fact, Bible challenges every nation, including God’s beloved Israel, to live up the vision of Shalom. Critique is at the heart of authentic Christianity.

Prophets are always a problem to those in power. Speaking God’s judgment on behalf of the vulnerable, marginalized, and neglected is always dangerous to those who uphold the status quo or benefit from the misery of others. In speaking of the relationship between God’s realm and the rulers of the earth, Jesus recognized that Caesar’s sphere deserves our acknowledgement, but Caesar – and Caesar is symbolic of every government – never deserves our ultimate loyalty. The penultimate, including our nation’s leaders and political policies, is always subject to scrutiny and critique from a biblical perspective. God is God, and the president isn’t!

The scriptures reserve their greatest condemnation on those who forget the poor and focus on power and wealth rather than justice, and often these sins of omission and commission occur as a result of governmental policies. While I am not a hell fire and brimstone preacher, Jesus himself says that the nations of the world will be judged as sheep or goats depending on how they treat persons who are hungry, thirsty, imprisoned, sick, and foreign. (Matthew 25:31-46) Our leadership is certainly failing this text in its separation of children from their parents, its turning its back on refugees, and its intentional racist rhetoric.

Prophetic denunciation is uncomfortable to those in power, but it is a necessary aspect of God’s call to embody the values of heaven in our earthly lives, including the political affairs of nations. All have sinned and fallen short, as the apostle Paul says, and that includes our leaders and ourselves. While such realities call prophets to humility, the prophets are still called to critique their nations when they fall short of God’s vision of Shalom.

Despite the controversy created by his sign, Pastor Lewis plans to keep the sign up “for awhile because of the positive feedback he’s received.” In explaining his rationale for posting the sign, Lewis noted that preachers are “afraid they’re gonna hurt somebody’s feelings, and when I’m in the pulpit I’m afraid I won’t hurt somebody’s feelings.”

No doubt, Lewis thinks he’s being prophetic, but his prophetic aspirations fail the biblical test. Perhaps this pastor would have been more biblical had he posted, “My house shall be a place for all people” (Isaiah 56:7) or “God so loved the world.” (John 3:16) Or as he justifies by his silence the traumatizing of toddlers on our borderlands or racist rhetoric, he might recall the words of Amos 5:24: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” Such comments remind us that God’s ways are not our ways. God is more hospitable, inclusive, forgiving, and iconoclastic than we are. In contrast to such pastoral perorations, a far better theologian and pastor, Abraham Lincoln got it right when he asserted in response to a minister who said, “let us pray that God is on our side,” “no, gentlemen, let us pray that we are on God’s side.”

That is the point, isn’t it? God is God, and we aren’t. God is God, and no sovereign or nation or political leader deserves our adoration or unconditional support. To threaten exile, bully, or seek to silence those with whom we differ or baptize a politician as God’s chosen messenger is both idolatrous theologically and contrary to the better angels of our nature, as Lincoln averred.

So, let us be open to the limitations of our viewpoints and let us challenge our own complicity in evil, but let us do so, knowing that God is more than we can ever encompass, that God’s love embraces every person and every nation, and that God welcomes those we would exile and builds bridges where we would build walls. When we disagree with prophetic voices, whether on the borderland or in the halls of Congress, uncomfortable as we may feel, let us look for their truth, mend our ways, and faithfully turn our hearts to God’s vision of Shalom. Let us listen and, even if we disagree, support the right to disagreement, as we affirm “challenge and stay.”
Bruce Epperly is a Cape Cod pastor, professor, and author of over 50 books, including “One World: The Lord’s Prayer from a Process Perspective,” “Ruth and Esther: Women of Agency and Adventure,” “Jonah: When God Changes,” and “The Mystic in You: Finding a God-filled World.”

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