A recent scroll through my Facebook feed led me to spiritual wisdom in the form of a sign at Madison Avenue Baptist Church in New York City. (The church is known for its clever, humorous and poignant messages.) The sign pictured on the church’s Facebook post has haunted and inspired me. Its message:
Rather than a wall, America needs to build a giant mirror to reflect on what we’ve become.
I thought about that sign after another appearance on Fox News by Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Church, Dallas, Texas – this time to offer a biblical endorsement of President Trump’s border wall plan. Declared Pastor Jeffress, “The Bible says even heaven itself is going to have a wall around it. Not everybody is going to be allowed in.”
This might be the gospel according to Robert Jeffress and Fox News. But, according to Jesus, it is not the message of God’s Good News.
For starters, Jeffress invokes Revelation 21 to propagate what is politically expedient at the expense of biblical integrity. This biblical reductionism says far more about his and others’ exclusionary conservative ideology than it does about what Jesus cares about most.
Jeffress gets it wrong biblically by misusing the image of a mystic jasper wall (a “big, beautiful wall” indeed) in Revelation 21. What he refers to is the vision of the New Jerusalem, which is described as having a “great, high wall with 12 gates…and the gates will never be shut by day….People will bring into it the glory and honor of the nations.”
It seems to me if Jeffress chooses to petition biblical precedent to sanction the president’s border wall plans, it would be more faithful to Scripture to include in the technical details of the steel-and-slats wall on the Mexico-U.S. border some accommodations for 12 open gates. But I digress.
“Jeffress invokes Revelation 21 to propagate what is politically expedient at the expense of biblical integrity.”
To be so tit-for-tat about literal features of a border wall to keep out immigrants from Central and South America belies the deeper humanity that is at the heart of the gospel of Jesus Christ. The political calculation of “the wallers,” even when the Bible is (mis)used to support it, distracts from the deeper spiritual consideration that we should be following the way and will of Jesus, especially when we would be tempted by our own will to political power to neglect both Judaism’s and Jesus’ core values to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind” and to “love your neighbor as yourself.”
When Christianity’s own leaders use the Bible to oppose the compassionate spirit and actions of Jesus, it undermines the very heart of the gospel (emphasis on “heart”) to do unto others what we would have others do unto us. What ought to rip our hearts out are the cries of anguish from children at the border; children on U.S. side of the border who are still separated from their families; and parents who are telling American reporters that they are trying to do the right thing and to honor U.S. laws. Refugees seeking asylum stress that they want to do right by America. They, like so many others before them, want to create a new life for themselves and their families that would make America and their native country proud.
The caricatures of so-called hostile migrant caravans betray the honorable character of men, women and children who are seeking to enter the United States the right way. It is true that desperation pushes these beloved children of God to the limits. But these are not people to be afraid of. These are not armed masses of immigrant invaders. These are the sojourners and vulnerable ones that Jesus calls us to welcome and love. So, while the New Jerusalem might have a wall, it’s not for the reasons Pastor Jeffress claims. How in the name of Christ could we possibly justify building a multi-billion dollar wall to keep people out when all that Christ teaches us is to draw circles to welcome people in?
Perhaps in no other place in the Gospels is Jesus’ own heart on fuller display than when he calls us to be more fully human with this admonishment:
I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me. . . . ‘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 25:35-40, NRSV).
By this spiritual account, ALL people count. Jesus calls deep to our common humanity by teaching us to see that God wears the faces of people who occupy all sorts of physical places. To put it in another way, Jesus wants us to know this much:
“When Christianity’s own leaders use the Bible to oppose the compassionate spirit and actions of Jesus, it undermines the very heart of the gospel.”
Nobody should go hungry, because whenever you give food to people who are hungry, you are feeding me, too. Nobody should go homeless, because whenever you welcome a stranger, you are giving shelter to me, too. Nobody should be denied medical treatment, because whenever you take care of sick people, you are taking care of me, too. Nobody should be tortured, because whatever you do to prisoners, you do the same thing to me. No gay or lesbian person should ever be excluded from the full fellowship of the church, because wherever there is discrimination like this, you are discriminating against me, too.
Likewise, when we separate families and separate parents from children in the name of a “zero-tolerance” policy for people who break the law of the land while desperately fleeing extreme violence, poverty and persecution, we are breaking an even greater law – the law of love – that calls us ever and always to love God with all that we have and to love our neighbor as ourselves.
A conspicuously well-timed protest anthem by American folk singer and composer Anais Mitchell asks musically what we ought to keep asking spiritually:
Why do we build the wall?
My children, my children, why do we build the wall?
Who do we call the enemy?
My children, my children
Who do we call the enemy?
Who do we call the enemy?
The enemy is poverty
And the wall keeps out the enemy
And we build the wall to keep us free
That’s why we build the wall
We build the wall to keep us free
Because we have and they have not!
My children, my children
Because they want what we have got!
We build the wall because we have yet to understand a foundational truth of our faith: Every human being is made in the divine image. In the kin-dom of God proclaimed by Jesus we are known not by our names or where we were born or what walls of division we hide behind; we are known as beloved siblings in God’s human family.
An ancient rabbi once asked his students how they could tell when the night had ended and a new day was about to begin.
“While the New Jerusalem might have a wall, it’s not for the reasons Jeffress claims.”
One student replied, “Could it be (the time) when you can see an animal in the distance and tell whether it is a sheep or a dog?” “No,” the rabbi answered.
“Could it be,” ventured a second student, “when you look at a tree in the distance and can tell whether it is a fig tree or a peach tree?” “No,” said the rabbi.
“Well, then what is it?” they demanded. The rabbi answered, “It is when you look on the face of any (person) and can see…your brother (or sister). Because if you cannot do this, then no matter what time it is, it is still night.”
Likewise, unless and until we summon our deepest humanity to respond with Christ-centered hospitality to refugees and asylum seekers at our southern border, it will still be night in America. And no wall, no matter how big or beautiful it may be, can ever protect us from an even greater enemy that is not foreign but domestic – namely, ourselves. It’s way past time to look in the mirror.
And to hear the question, “Why do we build the wall, my children?”