For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ (Matthew 25:25-36)
A Word of Hope
Fundamental to the Progressive Faith: What Would Jesus Do?
Today is World Day of Migrants and Refugees. I have been pondering this commemorative day over the past several weeks in light of our distressing national immigration context: 1) 200,000 contributing Salvadorans in the U.S. soon to be deported and potentially separated from children and spouses, 2) undocumented persons sent back to countries where they fear for their lives, 3) 800,000 Dreamers living in limbo, and 4) our country’s leader denigrating refugees and immigrants from countries where the majority populations are people of color . . . among other things.
What should the Christian response be to this sort of trend, rhetoric, and system that allows such injustice to occur? Never mind what laws of Caesar are in place. As Christ-followers, first we must ask, is what is happening in keeping with the Gospel?
When I find myself in questionable moral/ethical territory, my question to myself is: “What would Jesus do?”
You may have heard this question before and think it has origins in recent times and even that it comes out of the Evangelical movement. IT DOES NOT.
It is a product of our own UCC’s progressive roots, propelled by what came to be known as the 19th century’s Social Gospel phenomenon. It also came to be a thorn in the side of the burgeoning Fundamentalist movement, which in the 1920s decried the Social Gospel, calling for a return to the “fundamentals” of the faith. It was Modernist or Liberal churches that became known for their alignment with the Social Gospel and their commitment to social compassion.
Interestingly, it was a popular book that propelled all of this more than a century ago. In His Steps, was written by Charles Sheldon in 1896, and was subtitled "What Would Jesus Do?" Sheldon's novel grew out of a series of sermons he delivered in his Congregationalist church in Topeka, Kansas. (Remember that the Congregational Church is one of the founding denominations of the United Church of Christ.) Sheldon's theology was shaped by a commitment to Christian Socialism, and the ethos of Sheldon's approach to the Christian life was expressed in the phrase "What Would Jesus Do", with Jesus being a moral example as well as a Savior figure. Sheldon's ideas coalesced with those espoused by prominent theologian of the day named Walter Rauschenbusch, who described his understanding of belief and Christian response to God’s grace as the Social Gospel. Indeed, Rauschenbusch acknowledged taking inspiration from Sheldon’s novel, and Sheldon himself identified his own theology with the Social Gospel.
Because of a mistake by the original publisher, the copyright for Sheldon's novel was never established and multiple publishers were able to print and sell the novel. This caused the novel to be easily affordable and it sold 30 million copies worldwide, making it one of the top 50 bestselling novels ever, translated into 21 languages by 1935.
So, what would Jesus do in terms of welcoming the refugee, the homeless, the immigrant? What would Jesus do if he had knowledge that a refugee would be killed if sent back to a home country? What would Jesus do if he knew that forced deportation would deprive children of a breadwinner, the comfort of a father’s or mother’s love, and family chaos and heartache? What would Jesus do if someone in need from another country presented himself or herself to him and asked for sanctuary?
The answer is found in what we know about the character and heart of Jesus. He mingled with people that his fellow Jews considered unclean, outcasts, and impossibly undesirable. He loved and welcomed all comers. We also know that he rebuked those who were too exclusive and who ignored people in need.
Also notable: Jesus frequently singled out for special attention and compassion those considered the outcasts of society – lepers, prostitutes, Samaritans. In fact, we when we read New Testament stories and come across those words, we can legitimately insert any of today’s so-called reviled classes of people to understand perfectly who Jesus accepts, champions, and loves without qualification! Likewise, wherever the stories talk disapprovingly about Pharisees, Sadducees, and scribes, we can insert the categories of today’s stubborn hate groups, demagogues, and self-righteous hypocrites and get a sense of the countercultural message that Jesus brings. Jesus’ love is not about society’s norms, it is about God’s norms.
Our society has lately become rather hysterical about immigrants and refugees. The associated injustices that are occurring are too glaring to be ignored. For those of us who call ourselves Christ-followers, it is time to ask, what would Jesus do? If Jesus were here right now, what would Jesus’ response be and what would Jesus expect of us? I can imagine a variety of Jesus-inspired responses – from active prayer and offering comfort to refugees and immigrants to giving financial gifts and political action.
However, “doing nothing” as an answer to “What Would Jesus Do?” seems inadequate and unconscionable.
Prayer for Migrants, Refugees and Asylum Seekers
God, no one is a stranger to you
And no one is ever far from your loving care.
In your kindness watch over migrants, refugees and asylum seekers,
Those separated from their loved ones,
Those who are lost
And those who have been exiled from their homes.
Bring them safely to the place where they long to be,
And help us always to show your kindness to strangers
And those in need.
We ask this through Christ our Savior,
Who too was a refugee and migrant
Who traveled to another land
Searching for a home. Amen.
(Source: US Conference of Catholic Bishops)
Patricia (Patsy) R. Bjorling, M.Div.