July 2019

Jesus, the Bible, and Xenophobia

The US Supreme Court has ruled on two cases that are different, but have an affinity. One case ruled on gerrymandering on the state level, to promote or protect a partisan majority in a Congressional district. The second case ruled on the legality of a “citizenship question” in the 2020 census.

What is the affinity between these two cases? Both are driven by fears of changing electoral demographics. As has been forecast for decades, the USA has now become a diverse and multi-hued nation.

Fear-mongering is a common and crude reaction to changing voter constituencies. Gerrymandering, using sophisticated computer analysis, helps politicians to maintain control and remain in power. A citizenship question can generate fear to suppress voter registrations — but reduce federal funds in under-counted congressional districts.

At the turn of the 20th century, a huge influx of Italian, Polish, Russian and Eastern European immigrants transformed the electorate. By 1910, 13.5 million immigrants were in the USA. Between 1892 — 1954, Ellis Island processed about 12 million immigrants.

Fears of demographic change often produce a backlash of xenophobia. There was the Know-Nothing movement of the 1850’s, especially in the East. In the West, following the California Gold Rush (1848–1855) and construction of the Transcontinental Railroad with cheap Chinese labor, the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882) barred Chinese immigration.

In John 4 we read that Jesus
“had to pass through Samaria.” While “Jews do not associate with Samaritans,” Jesus welcomed a minority woman into a gospel conversation. Jesus didn’t overlook their religious differences: “You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews.” But an entire Samaritan village came to confess Jesus as the “Savior of the world,” not just the Savior of Israel.

From Acts 16, I often remind friends that the first Christian in Europe was Asian. Paul and his team obeyed God’s vision and guidance to take the gospel to Europe for the first time. But the first person to become a disciple in the Roman colony of Philippi was not a
“man of Macedonian,” but Lydia, an Asian immigrant who was in Europe to pursue economic opportunity.

With the Samaritan woman, and with Lydia, the majority populations of Palestinian Jews or the European Philippians could have taunted, “Send her back!” “Samaritans don’t belong here!” And “Lydia, you sell duty-free fine linens in our local markets.”

But Jesus is sovereign over all the movements of all people groups. His
“all authority in heaven and on earth” is the basis for our “going and making disciples of all nations.” And "all nations" includes unwelcome political exiles expelled from Mesopotamia and ambitious Asian immigrants.

Should Christians try to preserve the dominant culture, suppress voter registration, or scapegoat immigrants? For Jesus' followers, there's a higher citizenship, not based on maintaining political control. There's a Gospel way. Hospitable love, not hostile fears.

Mass chants have degenerated from “lock her up” to “send her back.” The 2016 race invoked anti-corruption. The 2020 campaign may stoke xenophobic scapegoating, justified as patriotism. “MAGA” can become “MAWA” — make America white again.

The Bible challenges all Jesus’ followers. You may be a proud citizen of Rome — or of the USA. But
“our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.” (Philippians 3:18-20). There is a higher obligation than nationalistic patriotism: “let your manner of life (politeuomai) be worthy of the gospel” (Philippians 1:27). So, if you are a citizen of God’s kingdom, your life must reflect the gospel — the good news of God’s love, and not exploiting human fears.

Reflections from the PCA sidelines

For two weeks, I’ve reflected on the recent national meeting of my Presbyterian denomination. I’ve listened to thoughtful comments and read the posts from my friends and fellow ministers.

Now retired, I chose to not participate in floor debates, nor to cast votes. But, as a septuagenarian minister from the PCA sidelines, I am constantly drawn to Jesus’ prayers for his church in John 17.

Jesus’ high priestly prayers for his people are both timeless and timely as the PCA considers the identity, ministry, and mission of the church at this time and in our broken world. From John 17:

verse 9: “I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me …”
What should the church and its ministers (not cultural leaders) say and do?

verse 11: “I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world.”
Jesus’ church is not siloed from a place and ministry in our world.

verse 15: “I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one.”
The church's greatest vulnerability, therefore its greatest need, is spiritual protection, not cultural isolation or disengagement.

verse 17: “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.”
The church is spiritually distinct only if faithful to God’s Word.

verse 18: “As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.”
The church should not turn away from a broken world. Jesus sent his church into the world — to embody God’s love and God’s truth. The church’s great co-mission reflects Jesus’ own mission.

verse 21: “May they all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you … so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”
Visible church unity is what makes the good news of Jesus Christ demonstrable, plausible, and credible to the world.

Decades ago, John R. W. Stott expounded John 17:

“There are two distinct human communities … spiritually distinct … not socially segregated.”
“Remaining in the world [the church] should be … by the power of God, ‘kept’ a distinct people …”
“If we are sent into the world, we cannot withdraw from it. If we are sent into the world, we cannot conform to it either, or we shall lose both our message and our power.”
“The principle of incarnation challenges us not to cut ourselves off … nor to become assimilated … [but] to accept the pain and the peril of entering [the world] … understanding its thought forms and learning its language, while remaining ourselves distinct from it.”
“This is the ‘sanctification’ for which Christ prayed … summed up in the three prepositions … the Christian is ‘IN’ the world, not ‘OF’ the world, but sent ‘INTO’ the world.”

I have convictions and concerns on human sexuality, views that are not detailed here. I prayerfully await and eagerly expect a PCA Study Committee Pastoral Statement that is gospel based, that speaks the truth-in-love, and that reflects the heart of Jesus Christ.

But John 17 offers boundary constraints on our motives, processes, and goals. Will the church reflect Jesus’ incarnation, not assimilation or isolation? The prayers of Jesus in John 17 form my heart and shape my prayers for my church family.

May the church not separate what Jesus Christ has joined together. May God sanctify us — set us apart. First, for Christ-like character, “kept” spiritually distinct. And for Christ-like mission, to be “sent” and socially engaged. God sanctifies the church for both distinction and mission — to be "in," not "of," but sent "into" our world.