Twenty years ago, in the hot July heat of a north Georgia summer, I was taught that Christianity demands we put others first. The Southern Baptist summer camp I attended had a theme that year: I am third. The idea was that God comes first, then others, and finally, ourselves. Many of the conservative teachings of that camp are at odds with the affirming, progressive theology I live out today. But that crucial framing — that Jesus calls us to care for others above all — has stuck with me.
In the last week, President Donald Trump has issued several executive orders, taking his promised action toward building a wall across our southern border to keep out immigrants from Latin America and instituted an immediate ban on immigrants from seven majority-Muslim countries. Both of these reflect the “America first” rhetoric that defined his inauguration speech, as do his other promises to work against DAPA/DACA and deport immigrants who are not documented. As a result of Friday’s executive order suspending entry to the U.S., many who were traveling outside the country — even those with valid green cards — have been detained, including a 11-month-old U.S. citizen at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport and a 5-year-old child at Dulles International Airport outside of Washington, D.C. In response a New York judge issued a temporary stay on deportations and protests have broken out at airports across the United States.
The president’s action has received strong condemnation from many religious leaders across the political spectrum, but I have witnessed many other Christians remain silent, and some — like Franklin Graham — have gone so far as to praise the ban while suggesting that it is “it’s not a biblical command for the country to let everyone in who wants to come.” And of course, Trump himself claims to belong to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) — though the denomination’s leader released a statement Sunday denouncing the president’s ban.
In response to Trump and these Christians who support his efforts, I find myself wanting to ask: Where is your Jesus in that? Show me how you reconcile your faith with your acquiescence to hate. Show me how you justify your stance in light of the Jesus we both follow.
Where is Jesus in your support for a wall that keeps out our neighbors? Jesus taught us, “the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Galatians 5:14)
Where is Jesus in your silent acceptance of policies that terrify children and threaten them with deportation? For Jesus said, “let the children come unto me and do not stop them, for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs” (Matthew 19:14).
Where is Jesus in your celebration of a ban that denies shelter to refugees and rejects our Muslim siblings around the world simply because they follow a different understanding of God? Jesus taught us that when we welcome the stranger, we are also welcoming him (Matthew 25), and the Bible tells us that in the Spirit all divisions are conquered (1 Corinthians 12).
The Bible is rife with examples of Jesus’ commitment to those who are suffering and oppressed. He makes time to heal a bleeding woman even when it makes him late to the house of an important official whose daughter is dying (Mark 5). He dines with prostitutes and tax collectors. He shares parables like the Good Samaritan that call us to care for even those who we’ve been taught to hate or avoid (Luke 10) and teaches that when someone asks for out coat we should offer the shirt off of our backs as well (Luke 6). This is the ethic of generosity and grace that Jesus offers to all those he encounters without regard to their background or social status. And he commands that we do the same, telling us that when we offer food, drink, shelter, and relationship to those whom the world has labelled “least” — we also serve him (Matthew 25).
In part, Jesus’ transformative preaching was informed by his own Jewish faith, which teaches that hospitality should always be shown to the strangers in our midst, because we too were strangers once (Exodus 23). And when even the human limits of Jesus’ own prejudices compel him to speak harshly to a Syrophoenician woman begging for food, she challenges him and he praises her faith and expands his own understanding of grace and inclusion (Matthew 15).
When it comes to theological debates around LGBTQ justice and even women’s rights, I know that there are biblical arguments to be made on either side, even if I vehemently disagree with interpretations that reject gender equality and an inclusive understanding of human sexuality. But there is no biblical support for a xenophobic ethic. There is no biblical defense for the rejection of refugees or a foreign policy dictated by fear of “the other.”
It is the brokenness within us that leads us to fear those who are different and to fear that we do not have enough to give to others in need. But Jesus offers a challenge to those fears. He comes into this world so that God can be with us, all of us, and he binds us up together in his love (John 1). In the feeding of the five thousand, he rejects the myth of scarcity and uplifts a conviction that when we all give freely, there will be enough (Matthew 14, Mark 6, Luke 9, John 6). But he also asks us to sacrifice, to be willing to give up our comforts and even, sometimes, our security (Matthew 16) in the effort to build a world founded on something stronger than every fear and every evil and every brokenness: a world founded on grace.
I understand fear — I feel it too sometimes — but I also trust in the power of grace, and I am calling my fellow Christians to do the same.
I want to ask: Where is Jesus when you call for a ban and a wall? But the answer is clear. Jesus is with them: the ones we’ve turned away, the ones we allow to suffer out of fear and hate. Jesus is holding the hand of the scared child being detained in an airport backroom. Jesus is breaking bread with our neighbors on the far side of the wall and our siblings seeking refuge across the world. And Jesus is saying to us, “come and follow me.”
The true question of this moment for those of us truly seeking to follow Christ is not: Where is Jesus? It’s: Where are we? Because Jesus is with them. And if we are with him, then we must be with them too.