A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery
Of Walls and Open Borders
August 15, 2019
Bumper sticker theology has long been a booming business. From the alarmist – “Hell is Real!” – to the clever – “In case of Rapture, this car will be unmanned” – to the sermonic – “Coexist” – we have lots to chew on theologically without ever darkening a church door. A woman in our congregation bought a used car and proudly glued a large sticker to the rear bumper declaring, “God has everything under control.” Less than a week later she backed into a fire hydrant, and considering it wasn’t worth the rise in her premiums to file an insurance claim, she decided not to fix it. It was only the bumper, after all. And thereafter “God has everything under control” was smashed in. She drove it that way for years. Now that was a bumper sticker theology conversation worth having!
A friend recently reported seeing a bumper sticker that read, “Heaven has a wall, hell has open borders.” I Googled the saying, and discovered that there is a whole range of merchandise sporting this slogan available on Amazon, sometimes with the additional jab, “Let that sink in.”
In my August 8 letter I proposed that Christians cease speaking ill of each other, and instead promote and defend each other’s good name. Such a proposal may seem good-hearted and right, but it quickly gets tested for me when a believer in Jesus considers it righteous to refuse entry to or sanctuary in our beloved country simply due to a foreigner’s lack of documentation.
Our church has clearly and vigorously declared its support for welcome and refuge to those who flee their homelands in search of sanctuary in our midst. Our presbytery has publicly declared our firm conviction that the Gospel leads us to grant refugees our full hospitality and support. Our Stated Clerk recently wrote a letter to Congress rehearsing our church’s long commitment to welcome and assist foreigners who seek refuge among us.
Welcome to the stranger, generosity to the alien, and aid to the needy – all are commended and commanded across the entire arc of Scripture. Our denomination is trying to lift up more clearly what it means to follow Jesus in these ways through its new Matthew 25 Initiative.
On August 7 our Immigration and Customs Enforcement service rounded up and arrested nearly 700 foreign food-plant workers living in Mississippi in the largest-ever ICE raid of suspected undocumented aliens. Many of those arrested had children who discovered only after school that their parents were gone, and were placed in the custody of other guardians. While some parents were soon returned to their children, some children were still separated from their parents six days later. Surely no follower of Jesus could affirm this forcible separation of children from their parents as something good. Or could they?
Given the depth and breadth of our church’s biblically-grounded social justice commitments, how do we relate to a fellow-Christ-follower who wears a shirt or raises a mug that theologically justifies walls that keep out and programs that deport foreigners who have sought out sanctuary among us without going through prescribed legal channels? The gulf separating such a worldview and faith-understanding from that of our church seems almost unbridgeable. And we must acknowledge that just because our church officially declares in favor of one side of this chasm doesn’t mean that all our members concur.
We could argue theology or politics, or even play Bible Tug-of-War with each other, going toe-to-toe on what the Bible really teaches about walls and borders, strangers and refugees, legal compliance and just mercy. I have rarely seen anyone persuaded to set aside deeply held convictions by such arguments.
Jesus calls his followers to love one another in the same way he loves us. (John 13:34) And how does he love us? First, he takes us just as we are, loving us enough to die for us while we are still hostile to him. (Romans 5:8) Second, he expresses his love in his unsparing honesty with us. He calls a spade a spade with his disciples. He is direct with both his praise and his correction of them. But he never rejects someone personally just because their ideas or way of life may be out of kilter.
Unconditional acceptance. Uncalculated truthfulness. These two marks of Jesus’ love for us should likewise mark our love for each other. We may not affirm our sister’s or brother’s opinion about this or that, and we may even challenge them vigorously. But we never have the right to call their integrity into question, or to turn a deaf ear or cold shoulder to them because their convictions differ from our own. We need to listen to each other gladly, even as we speak to each other freely, acknowledging from the outset what I shared with presbytery in a sermon last year that I entitled, “I May be Wrong.”
Seeking to be a better listener,
The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister