Because Jesus was a Refugee

Identity Religion

Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.’–Matthew 2:13

You’ve probably heard of ‘identity politics’. And you may have heard it in the context of white guys complain about women, LGBTQ+ persons and minorities complaining about their less-than-equal statuses. Well, ‘identity religion’ is as old as the hills.

…in American Religious History

Identity religion is where one identifies God (and God’s nature) in and/or through one’s historical context. Or it is when someone’s understanding of God is shaped by the historical circumstances of others. Most of the time the identification of God has a strong 1st person perspective (usually 1st person plural) as in liberation theologies. James Cone, major figurehead of Black Liberation theology, recognized that Jesus was a poor, marginalized subject of an oppressive empire (the Romans), just like his black American community was poor and marginalized and subjects of an oppressive empire (USA). Therefore, Jesus is black. Liberation theologies find likenesses between the scriptural story and the contemporary context. These likenesses reveal God in their own context. Cone and others inherited the technique from their slave-era ancestors who sang about crossing the Jordan as a way to escape slavery. The immense spiritual strength of these slave-era ancestors sprang from their ability to find Jesus comin’ forth to carry [them] home.

…In Ancient Hebrew History

My deep respect for the slaves spirituality is amazed even further when understanding how they reclaimed this identity technique from the ancient Hebrews.

When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it; it shall be left for the alien, the orphan, and the widow, so that the Lord your God may bless you in all your undertakings. When you beat your olive trees, do not strip what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow.

When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, do not glean what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore I am commanding you to do this. –Deuteronomy 24:19-22

The ancient Hebrews were commanded by God to remember their slavery, their estrangement in a foreign land and the difficulty that entailed. They were also commanded to act according to the deep memory. Those who are suffering like things are to be granted mercy. The free have a deep responsibility to protect and provide for the less-free.

Slaves used identity religion to sustain themselves and to seek freedom. Post-Exodus Hebrews used identity religion to curtail abuse of the stranger by being merciful to others who are suffering.

…in Jesus

Jesus used identity religion so as to promote compassion as a hallmark of the People of the Way. He projected God’s very identity onto the suffering.

Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”–Matthew 25:37-40

God is in the poor, even if we don’t know it. We treat God the way we treat the suffering. Perhaps, I should stop ignoring them so often.

…in Paul

Finally, the Apostle Paul made identity religion his ethos for living out his faith. He desired the glory that Christ had attained. But he couldn’t bypass the pathway that Jesus took to that glory.

But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.

We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you. –2 Corinthians 4:7-12

So identity religion is a thing. And it has always been a method for connecting souls to souls across many human divides. Hebrews were to find a soul connection to the resident alien in their land because they were once resident aliens and then slaves in Egypt. Christians are to find soul connections to people through the suffering of Christ. We’re even supposed to put ourselves to suffering in order to make that soul connection. And we can look into the life of Christ and use it as a means for making connections with people across many divides. And African slaves in America figured out how to do that as a means of survival and eventual victory over slavery. Through liberation theologies, the descendants of these slaves are using identity religion and identity politics to be freed of the rippling effects of slavery (and Jim Crow and mass incarceration) that still  suppresses their freedoms in America.

Jesus is a Refugee

Which brings me to the fact that Jesus was a refugee. If I am to find Jesus in America, if the millennia tradition of identity religion is teaching me anything, then I need to go to the airport. I won’t find Jesus in clergy garb. He will be brown and speaking Arabic.

He may even be a she…

…the mother who clung to her child for dear life as they navigated the minefields between Assad and ISIS,
who paused (I originally wrote “rested”) in encampments in Jordan,
who strapped the last orange vest to her child as they crossed the Mediterranean,
who passed her freezing child to the Greek man she has never seen before or since,
who entrusted umpteen translators to get her story straight, to spell her name correctly in Latin letters from left to right,
who crept in shadows for years, wary of the men with no hair,
who taught and consoled that same child as she silently catnapped through the fright,
who finally boarded her first airplane with a glimmer of hope only to land at JFK on the wrong day, be “detained”, distrusted and denied, and try her luck at English as the men in suits shake their heads and tell her that she has to go back and try her luck with Assad and/or ISIS.

That’s bullshit.

…in me?

Jesus was a refugee. And he more-or-less disowned his nationality in favor of faithful Canaanites and merciful Samaritans. And he more-or-less disowned his religion due to the callousness of the Temple. And like that Levite on the Jericho road, I wear a robe that convicts me every week.

Moral Foundations for Living in Trump’s America (Part 2 of 3)

In thinking about how to live in Trump’s America, I am thinking through moral foundations that will guide subsequent actions and stances. What are the spiritual nonnegotiable bases for how to live. The 3 foundations I have identified, based on my spiritual and religious upbringing, are love, truth and grace (coming January 16).

The Foundation of Truth

Burnt Fingers and Too Many M&Ms

Truth is the accuracy of a thing, idea or person. A truthful person can speak and act from actual facts of a matter. Trust is one’s reliance on the accuracy of a thing, idea or person. My mother told me that if I touched the oven, my finger will get burned. I touched the oven and my finger got burned. A hot oven will burn you. My mother’s words, after she iced my finger, were realized to be trustworthy. I tell my children that hitting is wrong and that there will be consequences. One child hits another and gets spends time in her room. The consequences showed up right on schedule. Hopefully, by being reliable in dealing out consequences for hitting, my child will trust my words. If my words are trustworthy, then when I say that I love her and she can come to me in any situation she will know that she is loved and supported.

Yesterday morning, I got on the scale and it read the highest number ever. I know why: I ate all the M&Ms and that package of cookies and that 4th piece of pizza. In adulthood, truth exposes the adult as much as the word around him. I had to take a good look in the mirror and realize that I have been mistreating my body. Truthfulness turned inward is honesty. And honesty about one’s flaws is humility. Now, can I trust myself to put in the effort to reverse a true trend within my health? Time will tell.

On Distrust

I do not trust Mr. Trump because he is not truthful. He is also not honest, even with himself. Does he know the most about national security? Nope. This lack of humility is almost pathological. And if he cannot live in the truth, then how can anyone trust him?

Falsehood has real consequences. Discredit the truth on national security and people will get hurt. Discredit the real consequences of repealing the Affordable Care Act and people will suffer. Ultimately, falsehood kills. Falsehood about bridge technology leads to falling bridges. Falsehood about medicine leads to rampant disease. Falsehood about a particular race or religion leads to genocide. Falsehood about oneself leads to misery. As it stands, it really is the truth that sets us free.

I am very distant from Mr. Trump, but I am not outside of the impact-zone of his decisions. Furthermore, I want my children and my community to operate in the truth. That being the case, if truth does set us free, then I have to be pathologically addicted to the truth.

Meaning of Truth

Truthfulness as a moral foundation means 1) seeking and knowing the truth, 2) defending the truth and 3) exposing the falsehood.

Seeking and knowing the truth means reading and listening to a lot of voices. It requires personal silence to make room for the voices I need to be hearing. Seeking the truth requires self-awareness of my own ignorance. Finally, seeking and knowing the truth requires judgement to know when a particular truth is relevant.

Defending the truth requires that I know the truth. I can defend my Muslim neighbors from falsehoods and discrimination if I know what Islam actually teaches and if I know actual Muslims. So it is that I need to read the Quran and meet Muslims. Likewise for my Mormon neighbors, my immigrant neighbors, my elderly neighbors, my African-American neighbors, etc. I have so much ignorance, yet a deep awareness of my many blind spots. It will probably take me my whole life to know all that I need to know.

Defending the truth also requires moral courage to speak up when that truth is threatened. It means being willing to speak the truth about my Muslim neighbors because falsehoods do threaten them. Exposing a lie is a necessary way to love your vulnerable neighbors.

Conclusion

Living in Mr. Trump’s America will challenge lovers of truth. I fear that truth will begin to matter less and less. I still firmly believe, as surely as that oven burnt my finger many years ago, that truth can set us free. Let us be free indeed. And let us lead others to the light of truth.

Moral Foundations for Living in Trump’s America (Part 1 of 3)

With the impending inauguration of Donald Trump as President of the United States of America, I feel the urgency of my faith like never before. By ‘the urgency of my faith’ I mean its usefulness in guiding who I will be and how I will act now that Mr. Trump will rule the land. I think I would still be alarmed by Mr. Trump without my faith. But I know my religion-the system that puts practices and routines to my beliefs, the system that has taught me these beliefs-is guiding me into deeper thinking and preparation than I would have done without it.

My religion gives me a moral foundation. And this foundation’s truthfulness and trustworthiness, I believe, is about to be put to a serious test by the Trump administration. So what are these foundations? Where do these foundations come from? And what do these foundations mean in Trump’s America? I am thinking in terms of the Foundation of Love, the Foundation of Truth and the Foundation of Grace.

The Foundation of Love

Loving God

“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment…” –Matthew 22:36-38

Love is the purpose of all Christian life. Loving God, loving neighbor and loving enemy are specifically commanded by Christ himself. This foundation must under-gird all Christian activity in both the private and the public spheres.

Loving God means living with a hierarchy of purpose. God is at the apex of this hierarchy. God created me. I live under God’s law and grace. My life is thus ordered by the processes of seeking out and living out God’s will for my life. This includes cultivating gifts and skills necessary to faithfully following Christ. It means knowing God through scripture and meditation, through community and service, through study and self-improvement. It means praying, fasting, worship and confession as regular practices for cultivating my relationship with God. None of this is glamorous. Most of it is the tedious stuff that makes church boring.

But this foundation teaches me who I am: a child of a loving God, who has redeemed me from all my messed-up-ness through the messy Messiah known as Jesus, and sustains me by the near presence of the Holy Spirit. This knowledge of myself transcends all other labels. I am not a consumer, nor a patriot, nor a voter, nor anything else as I am a child of God. I defy with deep laughter any government who tries to usurp that.

Loving Neighbor

“…And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” –Matthew 22:39-40

Loving neighbor validates love as the central tenet of the godly life. My neighbor is also a walking, talking image of God carrier. It makes a difference how I treat that neighbor. It also validates an important aspect of my own being: that aspect of connecting with another. Altogether, my spirit, mind and body are built for connection. I am less human when I am disconnected from others. I am more human, as well as more holy, when I have invested energy in others. So it is that images of Syrian refugees activates my outrage and my feelings of helplessness. Stories of genocide in South Sudan trigger also a deep fear of the world. the story of Sergei Rachmaninoff fleeing Russia and living as a refugee his entire life has stirred up in me a sense of exile from my homeland. Likewise, the image of a family of grandkids around a Christmas tree gives me a sense of peace for that friend of mine. And I have taped up around my office, photos of people acting out of moral courage and freedom.

Furthermore, Jesus defines love of neighbor in terms of mercy (Luke 10:30-36). The comfort and betterment of my neighbors is my Christian work. Those who are hurting or threatened suffer enough without the heartlessness of their neighbors. The Christian counter for this is love of neighbor characterized primarily as mercy.

Loving Enemy

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous…” –Matthew 5:43-45

I live too cushy of a life to say with any real authority that enemies are a farce. I’ve never lived through an Aleppo. I’ve never slept on the street. I’ve never been foreclosed or evicted. With that caveat confessed, theologically, enemies are just neighbors with issues. The presence of issues is no excuse not to love a neighbor. Who would ever be loved on those conditions? That is NOT to excuse treacherous behavior: namecalling, scapegoating, violence, emotional abuse, etc. In fact, the antidote for these behaviors is love. Love operates in the realm of truth and as such can cure people of hatred and its related behaviors.

This was the ultimate power behind Martin Luther King, Jr.’s work. He genuinely wanted to win the hearts of those who were persecuting his people. This was also the great offense of white Christian obstruction: that people bearing the name of Christ would obstruct the love of neighbor. This is an ongoing reality that convicts me.

What does love have to do with Trump?

It may very well be that I fit into Mr. Trump’s enemy category. It would be easy to fall into the tit-for-tat game of vilifying Mr. Trump. Of course, my basis for vilifying Mr. Trump would be his vilification of others. And many of Mr. Trump’s opponents have already fallen into the vicious circle of vilification. I think God calls us to go higher. Love is the higher plane.

If I am going to live out God’s will in Trump’s America, then it must be a calling to a radical and effective form of love. A view whose only enemies are ideas that kill, divide and plunder. Even those entertaining those ideas are merely ‘siblings unrealized’.

So, yes, I will be praying for Mr. Trump. I will be praying for peace, truth, goodness and love to be the hallmarks of his administration. I will actually be praying that God moves his heart in just and loving directions.

“…For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” –Matthew 5:46-48

Foundations of Truth (coming January 9, 2017)

Foundations of Grace (coming January 16, 2017)