“...the ‘others’ need not be perceived as innocent in order to be loved, but ought to be embraced even when they are perceived as wrongdoers.” – Miroslav Volf, “Exclusion & Embrace”
As an immigrant in the U.S., I often think of that first Pentecost when God’s people first expanded across national and linguistic boundaries. I’m privileged to worship with Christians who are ethnically and culturally different from me. Differences can bring life-giving diversity, but can also present challenges.
At high-pressure points in history, differences can feel especially hard to navigate. We are part of an increasingly polarized society; it seems to demand that we take one side or another on various issues. Our differences have never been more sharply felt than since last year’s presidential election.
The church has not been immune to polarization. Most of us have at some point heard fellow believers share views we consider wrong, and have felt that we are on different sides of some great divide, even as we share fellowship and communion. How can this be?
In this culture of polarization, every conversation potentially involves the wielding of power: words are not means of dialogue, but tools for exerting superiority. I feel it deeply when I am the victim of this. Rather than seeking to listen to and empathize with my fears, he dismissed them and argued his position. Rather than taking a charitable interpretation of my words, she misunderstood me and took offense.
In the midst of polarizing post-election conversations, I became wary of the words of others (especially about issues relating to immigration policy). I started seeing enemies everywhere. So of course, I responded in kind. Everything others have done to me, I am ashamed to admit I’ve done in return.
Borrowing from theologian Miroslav Volf, we are prone to exclusion: we either ignore, silence, or mischaracterize the voices of those who are “other”, or we try to reform them in our image (only then can we be sure they are “safe”). We allow communion only on our terms, but we’re fine without it.
The polarization in our society is unsustainable – can we exclude from our lives roughly half of the population who don’t think as we do on topics like immigration policy? The polarization in church may feel more subdued, but is in fact worse when we consider the high calling for unity within the church. How do we move forward in mission to serve immigrants and refugees if we cannot agree on what is good and right? How do we share communion with those whose beliefs we may find objectionable, even harmful?
How can I empathize with others who are prone to exclude my perspective? How can I express my voice when I fear it will be misunderstood? How can I trust that someone who disagrees with me still cares about justice? I am keen to raise these questions, but hesitant to provide answers. They are complex. This blog aims to reflect on how we can face these questions as they pertain to immigration-related issues.
I want to end this post by suggesting that in some cases, try as we might to interpret others’ words and deeds charitably, there is no justifying the exclusion they carry out. Their beliefs may in fact be harmful and sinful. They may in fact be oppressors. We are rightfully offended.
But we are called to something even more offensive: to forgive, and to embrace rather than exclude the oppressor. If we’re truly as polarized as I believe, I expect counterarguments at this point. I must of course clarify: forgiveness does not equal endorsement, and we must stand up to oppressors for the sake of victims.
But after (maybe even before) these clarifications have been settled, we are called to start imagining what it looks like to embrace our enemies. In doing so, we can enable them to lay down their arms, but we will first need to lay down ours.
If we cannot embrace the political “other” with whom we currently share communion, the communion we might offer to the ethnic and cultural “other” will not be as rich and full as it should be. Over the next few weeks, let us move forward together in our mission to serve and love the foreigner, as the church did that first Pentecost.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies…” (Matt 5:43-44)