We’ve got a problem with others, and we need to address it. This problem is not an American problem (though we certainly have our share of it), or even a Western problem. This is actually a human problem. And Christians might expect (or hope) this to persist as a merely a problem which faces only those who are not regenerate. But unfortunately this problem with others also infects the Church.
As with the Pharisees, we too often prejudge people and concern ourselves more with their verdict (“Were they in the wrong?”) than with their personal well-being.What we mean by this concept of otherness is how we view certain groups of people with which whom we have some fundamental differences and subsequently begin to see those people only in light of those differences. The differences may be economic status, ethnicity, gender, or some other distinction. Often, and unconsciously, we allow this concept of otherness to define ourselves as the norm, and thereby we, in effect, marginalize that which deviates from our standard.
At the core of the problem of otherness stands the issue of identity. What makes this particular problem so thorny is it forces us to look inside ourselves and ask what really defines who we are. And within that question, we who claim the name of Christ find all sorts of secondary things entwined with what should be our most fundamental marker of identity—being in Christ.
We also should distinguish the other from the outsider, categories which often overlap. By outsiders I mean those not in Christ—not committed to the faith. In contrast, an other may be an insider or an outsider—a Christian or not. Therefore, this concept of otherness is person-relative: Those who are other for me as a white, male, evangelical are obviously not universally other.
With semantics behind us, we can move on to illustrate the problem. And we need only look at the recent, politically charged conversations happening across the country and in the Church. Take, for example, the immigration debate. Many Christians find themselves siding with the conservative political contingent in calling for harsher laws, prosecution and deportation of offenders, and more secure borders in order to resolve the problem. According to a 2013 PRRI survey, 63% of white, self-identified born-again Christians believe all illegal immigrants should be deported. Perhaps more telling, 69% of white, self-identified born-again Christians are concerned that the American way of life stands threatened by the increasing diversity of the country. What we should find startling is a greater concern expressed over preserving an “American way of life” than caring for the other.
Because this struggle involves such deeply embedded marks of identity and biases, we have great difficulty stepping back to even recognize the problem. But once we recognize it, we must ask, what does it look like to truly and fully, as Christians, embrace the other? And subsequently, how might our awareness of our own otherness reconfigure how we deal with these divisive social issues?
We might be surprised to discover just how embedded otherness may be, not only in our salvation history (the story of God’s work among humanity) but also in the New Testament presentation of the Gospel itself. Though we could look elsewhere, Jesus and the apostle Paul help establish a course for our conversation.
It is widely recognized among New Testament scholars that Jesus’ ministry was heavily focused upon the marginalized of his society. The Gospels emphasize Jesus’ outreach to various outsiders and others in different ways. For Luke, the emphasis tends to fall upon Jesus ministering to the poor. At the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, no less, quoting Isaiah 61, Jesus proclaimed he had been anointed to bring good news to the poor, release the captives, give sight to the blind, and free the oppressed (Luke 4:18). In many ways this verse becomes programmatic for Luke’s presentation of Jesus’ ministry. In Luke 7:11–17, Jesus felt compassion for a widow whose son had died and brought him back to life. In Luke 14:12–14, Jesus challenges the Pharisee who invited him to dinner to also invite the poor, injured, and sick rather than friends and honored guests to his social events. In Luke 21:1–4, Jesus praises the poor widow who gave a penny, more or less, as a freewill offering. In Jesus’ days as in ours, the poor were not viewed as valued persons but were marginalized and viewed as unproductive citizens and leeches upon society (sound familiar?). Jesus, however, does not affirm that stereotype but rather dramatically counters it.
Often the attitudes we hold about those in poverty do not mirror Jesus’ response. Are we more likely to consign them to their lot or to feel compassion and motivation to love and care for them even though we may belong to a different tax bracket?
Likewise, Jesus frequently contradicts the social norms of his day concerning the sick, something the Gospel of Mark emphasizes. Jesus encounters and heals those suffering from leprosy (Mark 1:40–44), paralysis (Mark 2:1–11), demon-possession (Mark 5:1–19), and blindness (Mark 8:22–25; 10:46–52), among various other illnesses. The Gospel of John illustrates the attitude of many in Jesus’ day concerning the sick. In John 9, the Pharisees dispute with the (formerly) blind man Jesus had healed. When they found he did not side with them concerning their opinion of Jesus, the Pharisees remark in John 9:34, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you teaching us?” They viewed his (former) blindness as evidence of his sinfulness. They thought his fate was deserved due to his (assumed) failure to live as they expected. They labelled him as guilty and wanted to leave him consigned to that fate.
As with the Pharisees, we too often prejudge people and concern ourselves more with their verdict (“Were they in the wrong?”) than with their personal well-being. Are we more likely to condemn the disadvantaged than to seek ways to bring resolution to their plight?
Further, Jesus frequently reaches out to the irreligious. Part and parcel of this category is Jesus’ dining in the home of Matthew. Tax collectors widely held the reputation for being extortionists, adding to their own success through dishonest means. Jesus dines with both tax collectors and sinners in Matthew’s home (Matt. 9:9–13). The sins of these sinners are not identified, but given the Pharisees applied this label, their guilt may have come from any number of vices. Jesus does not dispute the label which the Pharisees assign, but rather contrasts the motivation of the Pharisees with his own. The Pharisees sought to keep their distance from sinners, retaining proper boundaries with outsiders and others. Jesus defines his mission as centered on those very people the Pharisees shunned.
The Pharisees were highly religious people. They viewed their religious identity as requiring their separation from those who didn’t meet their standards. Jesus tears down this approach, prompting us to ask, are we embracing outsiders and others or are we shunning them? Are we tearing down walls of separation or reinforcing them?
Jesus also embraced those who were ethnically other. We must necessarily step back in this area, because ethnic identity and religious identity were far more intertwined in the Jewish context than we think of today. For many Jews, any non-Jew (i.e., Gentile) embodied what they as God’s people were to oppose. This meant many Jews saw Gentiles as more or less doomed to judgment, though there were exceptions. Jesus encounters such a Gentile (a Syrophoenician woman from Tyre, we are told) in Mark 7:24–30. Religious Jews, like the Pharisees, would have primarily viewed her as a hopeless outsider, consigned to judgment as a Gentile sinner. Jesus’ initial response turns the woman away since his ministry was directed first to the Jews, and she did not fit the description. The woman persists in pleading with him, and Jesus responds by healing her daughter. This action conflicted with the early audience of Jesus’ mission, but her faith prompts his response nonetheless. We find a more well-known encounter in John 4, where Jesus converses with a Samaritan woman. Jesus reveals his identity to her and invites her to anticipate the time when even she, a Samaritan, will worship God “in spirit and truth,” a thought which would have been reprehensible to many of his contemporaries (John 4:4–26).
Jesus did not maintain the resistant posture which his contemporaries often demonstrated toward non-Jews. He invited them to discover God and removed the restrictions of access his fellow-Jews often created.
The poor. The sick. The irreligious. The ethnically other. Jesus meets them all where they are. He does not expect them to conform to some pre-existing ideal before he shares life with or converses with them. Perhaps most surprisingly of all we find Jesus himself was labelled as an outsider by his own people (John 1:11). Jesus himself was marginalized.
The story doesn’t end there, of course. We find in Paul further indications we must adjust our attitudes toward outsiders and others. Paul had become convinced, through both experiences and encounters with Jesus, that Gentiles did not need to conform to Jewish expectations in order to be included in God’s people (see Rom. 3:21–4:25; Gal. 2:6–3:14). This was, of course, a startling departure from his contemporaries who primarily either held out no hope for Gentile inclusion, or likely viewed such a possibility as either coming only through conformity to the Torah or possibly at the final judgment, where God might show them mercy. The tension produced by Gentiles becoming God-followers through faith in Jesus alone brought so much consternation that it required a council of sorts to resolve (cf. Acts 15). For Paul this was true in the now, not some future, far off possibility. Romans 11 illustrates, however, how we often turn this on its head. Gentile Christians, Paul contends, became a part of God’s people by being grafted into the root which already existed (Rom. 11:17–21). Scholars debate what the root represents, but Paul makes this much clear: Gentile Christians are outsiders brought in. And this point, I think, we often overlook when we fail to serve, love, and empathize with outsiders and others. In fact, this very thing happened among the Ephesian believers, forcing Paul to remind them of their former state (Eph. 2:11–12) and calling to their remembrance the fact that God had brought them in as both outsiders (i.e., unbelievers) and others (non-Jews) into his household (Eph. 2:10).
If we require the other to be like us before we open our arms to them, we undercut the entire thrust of the Gospel, which is that God loved humanity in its complete and utter otherness from him, and yet embraced them through his son anyway. We are called to offer the same response to both outsiders (those outside of the faith) and others (those who are different from us). That is the call with which those who claim the name of Christ have been entrusted. Yes, governments exist to enforce laws and prosecute criminals. But the Church does not. This does not mean the Church should withdraw from public engagement. But our engagement must be driven by biblical and theological convictions and attitudes, and not political ideologies and legal inquiries.
Our application here, hopefully in obvious ways, extends beyond the immigration debate to many other social issues which provide great intellectual, moral, and emotional challenges for the Church today. This is not, obviously, a policy solution to solve this issue for the United States. But this is an attitude solution to prevent Christians from inadvertently (or, God forbid, intentionally) shunning others because of their personal political commitments. There are lessons we must learn from Jesus and his followers concerning how we posture ourselves in these conversations. Whether it’s racial tensions, conversations about sexuality, foreign policy controversies, helping victims of the Ebola outbreak, or some such other difficult and divisive issue, our attitude and posture often matters as much as, if not more than, our position in how we communicate with others.
All of us come to God as outsiders and others in every sense of those words. When we forget that reality, we sabotage our ability both to empathize and to relate to those outside of the faith and those with whom we share some fundamental difference or contrast. Our posture often and regrettably, however, supposes them as people in the wrong, neglecting to remember we ourselves are not far removed from that designation. We must learn to react in these situations as Christians in the fullest possible sense of that term—as those dying to live after the pattern of Jesus Christ, a pattern established in the New Testament as one deeply and lovingly concerned with both outsiders and others.