By T.R. Robertson
When I identify myself with the outcasts of society that too many condemn or ignore, I am prepared to serve them in a way that pleases God.
This past fall, during the heat of the presidential campaign, yet another political link appeared on my Facebook feed. The gist of the headline was that Muslims were threatening to leave the United States in protest. Typical clickbait—it didn’t tempt me to keep reading for the details.
But I did notice the comments from people on Facebook, most of whom probably didn’t read beyond the headline either: “Good-bye!” “Thank the Lord!” “I’ll certainly pray for that to happen.” “Good idea.”
I clicked on the names of the people who left the more “religious” comments. One person had several posts about sharing the gospel. Another posted frequently about having taken in foster children. Yet another was an active volunteer at an interracial congregation that helps the needy.
They were all active, servant-hearted Christians.
So why the lack of compassion for one specific people group?
Upholding God’s Cause
He is the Maker of heaven and earth, the sea, and everything in them—he remains faithful forever.
He upholds the cause of the oppressed and gives food to the hungry.
The Lord sets prisoners free, the Lord gives sight to the blind,
the Lord lifts up those who are bowed down, the Lord loves the righteous.
The Lord watches over the foreigner and sustains the fatherless and the widow, but he frustrates the ways of the wicked (Psalm 146:6-9).
If God upholds the cause of the oppressed, the hungry, prisoners, and the rest, it makes sense Christians would do the same. And yet, every one of those groups listed by the psalmist (and by Jesus in Matthew 25) can prompt strong political reactions among some believers.
Some will read “the oppressed” and immediately think of racial profiling and the familiar sight of protestors reminding us that “Black Lives Matter.” Others counter with “All Lives Matter,” a phrase black people hear as dismissive, not inclusive. Still others think about how Christians are oppressed by an increasingly liberal culture.
Others read “gives food to the hungry” and their opinions about food stamps and panhandlers come to mind. Why don’t those people just get a job?
As someone who has tried to recruit helpers for prison ministry, I’ve learned firsthand that some otherwise compassionate Christians react negatively to the idea of helping “prisoners.” You really can’t trust those people. They deserve whatever difficulties prison brings them.
The psalmist’s mention of the “foreigner” can prompt a wide range of political opinions about immigrants and refugees. Those Facebook comments encouraging Muslims to leave America were relatively tame compared to many of the anti-immigrant posts and tweets I’ve seen.
What happens when biblical teachings and political platforms go head-to-head? Too often, the political shoulders aside the spiritual.
Recent polling by Lifeway Research shows most Christians don’t base their opinions about refugees and immigrants on the Bible.1 When asked to list the top influences on their opinions about immigration, only 12 percent of Evangelicals listed the Bible, while 2 percent listed the church. Respondents were influenced most often by their interactions with immigrants, by friends and family, and by the media.
The research showed 47 percent of the Evangelicals polled said they either don’t know or are unsure what the Bible teaches about how immigrants should be treated.
Polls have shown similar data about the basis of Evangelicals’ opinions on other social issues.
Even when the Scriptures are abundantly clear, such as when the psalmist says God upholds the cause of the oppressed, the hungry, and the foreigner, Christians still tend to base their opinions on other factors.
Many nonreligious Americans stand for absolute separation of religious beliefs from politics. They criticize Evangelicals for intermingling the two.
Based on the data, it appears we’re actually doing a pretty good job of paying little attention to our religious teachings when we make up our minds politically.
Could it be we’ve forgotten or misunderstood who we are?
Who We Are
I could choose to see myself as a partisan, a member of the Evangelical voting bloc. Or maybe as one of the minority who are “conservative” in theology but “progressive” in politics.
Either way, I should take note that Psalm 146 warns against putting our trust in political leaders and their platforms.
Do not put your trust in princes, in human beings, who cannot save.
When their spirit departs, they return to the ground; on that very day their plans come to nothing.
Blessed are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord their God (Psalm 146:3-5).
No less than one of every six psalms speaks about the importance of relying on the King of kings rather than the kings of the nations. Many of the blessings the psalms promise are a direct result of choosing the Lord’s priorities over the weak promises of politics.
The church’s most serious problem today is not that we’re aliens in the 21st-century American culture. It’s that we believe we can share the same kind of politically charged identities as the nonbelievers around us. We’ve painted a religious veneer over our self-image, but we’re not much different than the rest of the world.
We believe we are politically active Christians and love our neighbors, but only as long as they fit into our political comfort zone.
The alternative is to choose to see myself as God sees me, in fellowship with those mentioned in Psalm 146.
I am the oppressed.
The trend in American culture is indeed toward marginalizing and limiting the rights of religious people to act on their consciences. I could react to this oppression by championing the protection of religious rights and freedoms as my number one priority. And yet, I understand that Christ promised we will always be persecuted. Why should I expect the government to guarantee freedom from something Jesus has promised?
Whatever my political stance on the subject, being oppressed should move me to identify with others who are oppressed. I sometimes disagree with the methods and rhetoric of some who are protesting oppression, but I’ll defend their freedom to do so. And I’ll still feel empathy with them, weeping with those who weep.
I am the hungry.
Whatever the level of my wealth and access to food and possessions, I owe it all to the God who provides. We’re warned against identifying ourselves among the rich in this world, as though we were self-made people.
I’ll empathize with people who are truly struggling to feed themselves and their families. I may have strong opinions about government subsidies and I might have definite ideas about handing out cash to panhandlers. But that won’t stop me from compassionately and constructively helping the poor.
I am the prisoner.
The grace of God has released me from the chains of sin, and yet somehow I keep finding myself entangled in them. This helps me see people who are physically incarcerated as fellow lawbreakers, struggling to walk the line. No matter what my opinions might be about the American justice system, I’ll gladly uphold the cause of my fellow prisoners.
I’m often blind to the needs of people around me, fixated solely on my own priorities.
I’m regularly bowed down under the weight of the mistakes I’ve made.
I am the righteous, but only because I wear Christ’s robe of righteousness.
And I am the alien.
Scriptures describe us as sojourners, refugees, and aliens. Our biblical identity as a peculiar people and the “set-apart ones” doesn’t put us in a class above others. We’re not better because we know the King. Quite the contrary, our status carries with it the promise that we can expect to be among the outcast, the odd ones, and the oppressed.
If I believe I’m an alien, I won’t easily choose political options aimed at protecting my own status, whether legal, financial, or societal. I have no status, other than that of a pilgrim temporarily on mission in a foreign land, looking forward to going home.
My alienated status will lead me to identify with others who are strangers in my adopted country. Whatever my opinions about the legal and political issues surrounding immigrants and refugees, I’ll choose to show them kindness and to uphold their cause along with the Lord.
If I choose to believe I’m among “the least of these,” it will change the way I approach political issues.
I’m still likely to have opinions about illegal aliens, refugees, prisoners, poor people, protesters, and whatever other groups are in the trending news of the day.
But as a fellow sufferer, I’ll also look past those hot topics to see the individuals who are suffering because of those situations. I can disagree with a protestor’s tactics and still be willing to stand beside him and share his pain. It’s possible to have reservations about the government’s immigration policies and still be proactive in caring for the suffering people we’ve labeled as refugees and illegals.
Stand up for your beliefs. Freely vote your opinions.
And, above all, uphold the cause of your fellow sufferers.
¹Lifeway Research, “Evangelical Views on Racism,” February 2015; accessed at http://lifewayresearch.com/content/uploads/2015/03/Evangelical-Views-on-Immigration-Report.pdf.
T. R. Robertson is a freelance writer residing in Columbia, Missouri.