Friday, November 21, 2014

A Christian Response to Immigration Reform

In light of President Obama's speech last night on why he is taking action regarding immigration, here's a post I wrote last year on how Christians should respond to immigration reform.

Perhaps the most beloved story in the Gospels, and indeed maybe the favorite story for many from the entire Bible, is the story of Jesus’ birth. Even when it is not the time for Christmas, the familiar nativity story lives on in our hearts and minds, narrating for us the incarnation of God into the world in the person of Jesus. Yet, while we celebrate and retell the story with feelings of warmth and comfort, from its beginning to its end the story is a narrative about the rejection of Jesus as a stranger and alien in a foreign land.

Luke tells us that when Jesus was born, Mary laid him in a feeding trough because there was no room for him in the inn. Matthew narrates a story about a young family having to live a nomadic life because of the threat of governing authorities. While these stories may not be entirely historical, both birth narratives reflect what Jesus knew to be true about his own life, “The Son of Man has no place to lay his head” (Luke 9:58). Throughout his life, while Jesus did gather a small following, in most cases, he was rejected. The story of the incarnation, then, is a story about how the God of creation had entered into that creation as a rejected alien and stranger. Can this story shed biblical light on the question concerning our current immigration policies?

I am ill-equipped to answer questions about immigration from a legal stand point, and I see the strengths and weaknesses of various positions on the issue. But as Christians who follow a Savior who himself lived as an alien rejected by his own, I am troubled that many folks are not concerned about developing a compassionate response to the immigration issue.

Since the horror of 9/11, xenophobia has been prevalent in our country. This fear of foreigners has grown out of a return to an entrenched and zealous patriotism that has gone too far in its understanding of America as the only culturally pure society. Yet, some blame must also be placed on our fear of not feeling secure and the perception that American culture is under threat. Such xenophobic tendencies may overtly or implicitly influence our feelings about immigrants and our political positions on the issue of immigration.

How might Scripture inform us as we struggle to formulate common sense and faithful Christian responses to the issue of immigration? First, we need to recall God’s commands to Israel regarding aliens in their midst. The Mosaic Law states that God is one “who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing.” Moses goes on to command Israel to “love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Deut. 10:17-19).

When we turn to the New Testament, we find that followers of Christ are called citizens of the kingdom of God, and alien and strangers to the world. The Christian movement negated ethnic differences and crossed boundaries of ethnic separation to welcome all into the kingdom of God. Jesus consistently reaches out to the outcasts of society, even the Gentile, who were viewed as ethnically inferior by the Jewish religious leaders. Paul reaffirms the breaking down of ethnic divisions by stating that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, as both have been joined together into one new humanity (see Gal. 3:28; Eph. 2:14-22).

One thing we must keep in mind is that most immigrants we see and meet in our communities are not undocumented immigrants. They are law abiding citizens who desire a better economic and political life for themselves and their families. We should remember that at some point in history our ancestors were immigrants to this country seeking exactly what immigrants to the U.S. seek today. Moreover, we cannot simply blame immigrants for problems such as crime, loss of jobs, or other social programs. These problems would exist even if there were no immigrants.

And, while there may be as many as 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S., many of these are hard working people who are seeking a better life for themselves and for their families. The majority contribute to the economy of this nation, including doing many jobs that Americans will not perform, as well as starting small businesses in the entrepreneurial spirit of America, as a report on NBC indicated.

As people of faith, we should be informed about this important issue and voice our religious conscience. But if we claim to follow Jesus, we need to make sure our views are more informed by the compassion of our faith than the fear our culture feeds us. Our positions on the issues surrounding immigration must not only model the teachings of Jesus on welcoming the strangers and outcasts, they should also be views that see the person of Jesus in every human being. If they do not, we may find ourselves asking Jesus, “When did we see you as a stranger?” only to hear, “Just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me” (Matt. 25:31-46).

Monday, November 10, 2014

The Disciples in Mark: Human Failure and Human Possibility Before God

The role of the disciples in Mark has received a great deal of attention in Markan scholarship over the years. Scholars have debated the seemingly unanswerable question of who the disciples are in Mark, and what their role is in the hearing of Mark’s audience. Several have essentially argued for their negative portrayal, while others have viewed the presentation of the disciples along more positive lines. 

Some have suggested that the portrayal of the disciples has been for polemical purposes, to address an alleged false Christology rampant in the Markan community. Still others have viewed Mark’s treatment of the disciples as more pastoral, representing the reality of discipleship dependent on Mark’s Jesus. Yet most would agree that the role played by the disciples of Jesus in Mark’s Gospel is certainly ambiguous. 

The question remains, however. What are we to make of the portrayal of the disciples in Mark’s gospel? Why does Mark present the disciples sometimes in a positive ways, but in other places in negative ways?

While I am cautious to avoid simplistic answers to these questions, it seems to me that the most valid, and I think most defensible answer, is that the ambiguous portrayal of the disciples in Mark is for the purpose of demonstrating to the Markan audience the reality of human existence before God. 

From reading the Gospel narrative, one can see the great dichotomy that exists within the narrative between “the things of God and the things of humans” (8:33). The negative and positive portrayals of the disciples then are both for purposes of plot and to demonstrate human failure and human possibility before God that occur in the lives of real people. 

In this way the Markan audience is confronted by their own reality as followers of Jesus on the way. They are called to faith and discipleship, which is defined not only in following Jesus, but also in their dependence on God.

Jesus is clearly seen as the true model of discipleship who thinks the things of God and is dependent on the Spirit of God to carry out God’s will. The disciples are presented as often weak followers of Jesus, whose relationship to God comes through Jesus.

Thus, the Markan audience is presented with a choice of two models to follow. Either they can follow the examples of the disciples, which will lead to misunderstanding and failure, or they can follow the example of Jesus that will lead to understanding and faithfulness before God.

Given this awareness of the narrative presentation of both Jesus and the disciples, it seems very plausible to me that the audience of the Markan narrative is supposed to view Jesus as the paradigmatic disciple, who not only makes the way possible for them to be in relationship to God, but sets for them an example of how one truly lives faithfully before God.

It is Mark’s Jesus that faces temptation with success (1:12-13). It is Mark’s Jesus that expresses faith in God; faith enough to cast out evil spirits when the disciples cannot (9:14-29). It is Mark’s Jesus who goes the “way of the Lord”, even when that entails his death (8:31-32; Mark 9:30-32; Mark 10:32-34). It is Mark’s Jesus that follows his own command to “take up your cross” (8:34).  It is Mark’s Jesus that serves while the disciples try to “lord over one another” (10:35-45) It is Mark’s Jesus who declares the rule of God and acts out the rule of God as God’s own Son. And, it is Mark’s Jesus that God not only affirms at the baptism of Jesus, but is the one God commands the disciples to listen to (1:11; 9:7).

The audience of Mark’s story would view themselves as the discipleship community, the new community of God, and Jesus as the one whom they follow and with whom they participate in doing the will of God.

Thus, the presentation of the successes and failures of the disciples in Mark is for the purpose of presenting human reality before God, and to show Jesus as the exemplary Human One, who is the faithful disciple. The negative presentation of the disciples is meant to remind Mark’s audience that they are also susceptible to failure and sin, to denying and deserting Jesus, and to becoming those that represent Satan (8:33).

The discipleship community of Mark is to hope in the God of Jesus, who was faithful to Jesus, and will indeed be faithful to all who imitate and participate with Jesus in doing the will of God. 

Although discipleship is about the disciples’ relationship to Jesus, it is also, and perhaps more, about their relationship to God, for disciples hope not in the power of Jesus to raise them from the dead and give them salvation, but in the God who raised Jesus, and through whom all things are possible (10:27).