Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
I’m finding it difficult to be openly Christian in America today. I’ve heard some of you say that this is hard because Christians are being persecuted. I haven’t experienced persecution. I’m just struggling with the ways in which I hear my faith being used to hurt the very people in whom we’re told we’ll meet Jesus. Can we talk about that?
You and I worship Jesus. We strive to serve him, imitate him, and draw people to him. I’ve seen the love, zeal, courage and self-discipline you bring to this. I’ve volunteered beside you in soup kitchens, sung with you on Sundays, prayed for you and been grateful for your prayers. I know we’re members one of another (Romans 12:5.) Sometimes when we talk about vital political questions we seem to be strangers and adversaries. I hope we can look at the things that divide us without forgetting the things that unite us.
We all want to encourage people to encounter Jesus. But how do we speak in Jesus’ name? Do our words draw people in?
I’m a Christian. When I hear some of my fellow progressives describe Christians as ignorant superstitious cruel hypocritical bigots, I feel shamed and furious. Sometimes I remember that I am supposed to pray for people in those moments, and to try to understand the hurt that may lie behind their words. Too often I just resent them.
I’m also a progressive and a Medicaid recipient. When I hear some of you describing Medicaid recipients as lazy welfare leeches, or progressives as enemies of our country and our God, I respond with the same blend of shame and fury, the same struggle to pray and listen rather than striking back. I suspect that non-Christian progressives have a similar response—and some may generalize that response to all Christians, whom they associate with the angriest speakers they’ve heard.
It’s not just bad tactics to revile other living souls made in God’s image; it’s also bad Christianity. Jesus tells us to bless people who curse us (Luke 6:28). James says, “With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness… This should not be,” (James 3:9-10) and warns, “Human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires…. Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless.” (James 1: 20, 26) Jesus also warns us against judging and suggests strongly that we remove the planks from our own eyes before picking specks out of the eyes of our neighbors. (Matthew 7:2-5) What would happen if Christians took that seriously? If we confessed the harm done by our people and tried to make restitution? If we acknowledged the good as well as the evil in people who disagree with us?
We all want to serve and obey Jesus. How does our treatment of other people reflect that?
In Mark 12:29-31 Jesus says whole Law is summed up in the commandments to love God wholeheartedly and to love our neighbors as ourselves. In Matthew 25 he shows that these two commandments are really one. Christ is God. Christ promises that he will come to us in ‘the least of these,” in our neighbors who need our help. What we do for–or to–those neighbors is what we do for–or to–God.
I know you know this. When a neighbor’s kid is sick, when a friend is injured at work, when a fellow parishioner’s house burns down, you help out, raise money, offer comfort. But I’ve heard some of you deny that same neighborly care to people who are less familiar to you. I’ve heard some of you say we should turn away refugees and imprison asylum seekers, quoting Pat Buchanan or Franklin Graham about how Muslim immigrants will undermine “our Christian nation.” Sometimes you say that we have to help our own people first, and can’t take any thought for others’ needs so long as there are still suffering white native-born Christians.
But that’s not what Jesus taught. In Luke 10, when Jesus laid out the central commandment to love our neighbors, a listener asked, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus told the story of a Samaritan—one of those people whom Jesus’ people sometimes saw as invaders, racially and religiously foreign and wrong—who showed mercy to one of Jesus’ people. Jesus said we’re all supposed to follow that Samaritan’s example; that the Other who needs our mercy is the neighbor whom we must love as ourselves.
Jesus had said such things before. Luke 4 describes how Jesus told his home congregation that God’s prophets are sent to people from outside their in-groups—that in the great famine Elijah helped and was helped by a Sidonian widow not an Israelite, and brought a cure for leprosy to a Syrian, not an Israelite. At this the worshippers became enraged and tried to kill Jesus.
Jesus himself was a refugee child; when he was a baby his parents fled with him into Egypt to escape Herod’s death squads. As an adult Jesus was killed by the government, which was trying to protect national security; his death was approved by religious leaders who wanted to preserve the purity of their tradition and also the comfortable relationship they had worked out with the State.
Jesus said in Matthew 25 that he will come to us as a stranger, and that we will not recognize him. What would our churches look like, what would our world look like, if we remembered that what we do to aliens and strangers is what we do to Jesus? If we stopped condemning Jesus and turning him away to die in Jesus’ name?
I also hear some of you condemning, not helping, people whose suffering is caused by the actions of our government–saying that we must punish undocumented immigrants and take away their children because God means us to follow the law, condemning Black Lives Matter protestors as unpatriotic while ignoring the injustices they are protesting, reposting Franklin Graham’s remarks about how police shootings could be prevented if people obeyed orders unquestioningly, saying that the Bible tells people to submit to the authorities.
I know that Paul said in Romans 13, “Whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted…” But let’s consider what the rest of the Bible says about resistance and obedience to the authorities. The Roman authorities killed Paul. They killed Jesus too. Shiphrah, Puah and Moses disobeyed Pharaoh’s unjust commands. Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego and Daniel defied the edicts of Babylon’s ruler. Elijah, Jeremiah, and many other prophets challenged the rulers of their own Hebrew people when those rulers turned away from God and exploited the poor. Paul wrote in in Hebrews 13:3 “Remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.” Jesus told us in Matthew 25 that he would be in prison and that we would not recognize him. What would our churches look like if we cared for prisoners and people at risk from the authorities as we care for ourselves, or as we would wish to care for Jesus? What would our country and our world look like?
Following Jesus more closely, and looking more closely for Jesus in the suffering people around us, is not a recipe for the success or security or prestige that some people say Christians deserve. But I don’t believe that Jesus’ good news promised us any of those things. The devil offered all those things to Jesus at the beginning of his ministry (Matthew 4 / Luke 4), and Jesus turned them down. Jesus calls us to let go of our possessions and privileges. To give freely. To see Christ in neighbors and strangers. To acknowledge and remedy our own harmdoing before we chastise others. To love and forgive enemies. To die to ourselves. God loves us and God remains in us and with us, always. Jesus lives, suffers and dies in every person hurt by our injustices. Jesus lives in us, bringing strength and compassion in our sufferings, bringing the chance of repentance and forgiveness in our wrongdoing, bringing joy and abundance of life.
I still call myself a Christian, despite all the harm that’s been done in Christianity’s name, because I believe in that Good News. Can we work together to claim that Good News in our own lives and share it with the world?
Your sister in Christ,
Joanna Michal Hoyt
I wrote this letter in 2018, when it appeared in the anthology Alternative Theologies. The publisher’s exclusive rights expired last month, and as I listen to the news from CPAC now I’m reminded that I still mean what I wrote then–and would still welcome responses.