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A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery

Of Walls & Bridges
February 25, 2016

Much was made last week of a couple of statements Pope Francis and presidential candidate Donald Trump made debating the essence of authentic Christianity. Since Trump is Presbyterian, the media called on me to comment, along with my friend David Zubik, Roman Catholic bishop of Pittsburgh. I declined to respond publicly, and over the ensuing days the temperature of the dispute toned down considerably, as Francis clarified that he did not intend to impugn Trump’s personal Christian commitment, and Trump declared his appreciation for Francis and his ministry.

The discussion focused on building walls and bridges. As he was flying home from visiting Mexico’s border region, Francis was asked by reporters about Trump’s proposal to build a wall along our Mexican border. He replied that the Christian way is to build bridges, not walls. Trump quickly and sharply objected to the inference that his Christianity may not be genuine.

It is debatable whether there is a “Christian” blueprint for statecraft; what is not debatable is that both statecraft and Christianity are inescapably political. By “political,” I mean they both have to do with how people live together (“polis” is the Greek word for “city”). Francis rightly pointed out that Christianity is concerned not merely with inward personal convictions, but also with how we relate to one another. To put it in biblical terms, love for God and love for neighbor are inseparable. Trump rightly protested the notion that anybody can know what’s in his heart as a Christian – even a Pope! Again to put it in biblical terms, God alone “knows who are his,” though that doesn’t absolve Christians of the duty to speak and act in ways that befit followers of Jesus.

Walls both hide and protect; they both separate and make secure. The prophet Isaiah celebrates that God’s people are surrounded by a wall called “Salvation.” Yet ultimately all walls are provisional, made necessary only by the persistence of sin. In the kingdom of heaven, there is nothing to hide and nothing to protect, since Jesus’ light shines everywhere and all that harms and destroys is banished.

Through the cross, Jesus has bridged the walls that separate us from each other. Ephesians 2 declares that the Crucified One has “broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.” I find it helpful to think of this visually – imagine the outstretched arms of Jesus on the cross as a bridge between those who have been separated by insurmountable walls. Jesus himself is the bridge that unites us.

So what does that have to do with statecraft? There is no single “Christian” way to run the state. Yet the practical significance of Jesus’ work on the cross for the church is inescapable. As those who claim Jesus as Lord, we are called to acknowledge and honor the bridge he has built between us, no matter the height, breadth, or depth of the walls that ordinarily separate people from each other. We are not naïve about the continuing virility of our disagreements. When we embrace the cross, we are still fully aware of the deceitfulness in our own hearts as well as in the hearts of people we are called to embrace. Yet we refuse to let our sin determine whether and how we walk together.

Welcoming one another in Jesus’ name is no guarantee that our differences will melt, our struggles will cease, and everyone will live happily ever after. It’s simply our way of acknowledging that what Jesus has done to unite us by the cross is greater than whatever sin has done to divide us.

To embrace the cross is to embrace heaven’s bridge that transcends all human walls. Yet walls persist among those of us who call upon the name of the Lord Jesus – racial, ethnic, political, ideological, aesthetic, national, socio-economic, generational, and theological walls, to name a few. Whatever the nature of our divisions, the cross of Jesus is God’s act of bridging over them by the Holy Spirit. Just as the cross bridges the chasm between holy God and sinful humanity, so it bridges the walls that separate us from one another. The cross will be triumphant in the end. Believe it! Live it!

Yours because of the cross,

The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister

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