loving (all) the least of these
We're officially the subject of the local paper op-ed. You can find this letter to the editor in the Radford New Journal. Our Steering Team is already composing a response. You'll find that in the RNJ soon enough.
There's plenty of reasons from financial, logistical, social, and even foreign policy perspectives that suggest resettling refugees is not only something that we're able to do well, but that it's right thing to do as a community. My purpose here, though, is expressly theological.
Matthew 25, some of Jesus's last words before his crucifixion, remind his listeners that what "you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me," and conversely, "when you haven’t done it for one of the least of these, you haven’t done it for me."
Every human is created in God's image (see Genesis 1-3), no one more so than any other. We're all deserving of care, assistance, and relief from tragedy (see Amos 5), no one more so than any other. We're all sisters and brothers of Jesus (see Matthew 25), and when we offer compassion to those on the lowest societal strata, we serve both them and Jesus through them.
This applies not only to Christians, but to people of all faiths and no particular faith. This applies not only to Americans, but to people who call other countries home and whose nations have been wrenched away by violent extremists. The call of Jesus sends us to embrace not just those who are like us, to relieve not just those who share our religion, to support not just those who are our allies, but to pray for those who persecute us, to overcome evil with good. What better response is there to a destabilized international community, caused in part by our own government's actions and in part by other governments who seek to seize and retain power,, than to face that evil with the good of relief for the refugees created by such violence?
As I told a concerned citizen on the phone last week, it isn't my job as a pastor to just protect Christians. It's to offer good news in word and deed to all people. I'm not called to love Christians more than others, but instead to offer Christ's love to all, with whatever needs they bring, whether Muslims (or Christians) from Syria, Buddhists (or Hindus) from Burma, or Christians, agnostics, atheists, and all others who already call the New River Valley their home. So, we'll continue to work with partners like Beans and Rice and Bobcat Backpacks to provide relief to the hungry here. We'll continue to work with the Women's Resource Center to provide a place of safety and a new start for victims of relationship violence. We'll continue to welcome refugees. We're financially able to do this as a community. We've got connections in the housing and job market already lined up. We've got a community that believes its welcoming, and an opportunity for them to put that into practice.
Most importantly, as people of faith, we've got sisters and brothers of Jesus who've become the least of these due to circumstances beyond their control. Bound together in the God who created us all, we share spiritual DNA with these people, Before us, Jesus lays a harrowing reminder: what you do and don't do for the least of these is your very same response to me.
In the words of one of our forebears in faith, "As for me and my house we will serve the Lord."
On Memorial Day, two things caught my eye. The first was this meme, from my denomination's Facebook page, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. After some introspection about how I felt relating this passage from John's Gospel to the sacrifices of soldiers, I shared it on my page without incident. More on that later.
The second thing that I came across was an article from last year, titled Why I'm A Pacifist But I Still Celebrate Memorial Day. A friend from the traditionally pacifistic Brethren tradition shared this, which sparked some good conversation about the author's general intent, as well as some of the particular points within the article. The author writes from the unique perspective of a pacifist within the military, namely the medical reserves. Like myself, the author also lives life in the odd space of a pacifist within a military family. My grandfather was a ball turret gunner in a B-17 during WWII, was shot down, and spent the last months of the war as a POW. My uncle served in Vietnam and my father served in Germany as part of the Medical Service Corps during that war. My brother is continues to serve, now as a Lieutenant Colonel. This has led to many interesting conversations around Christmas dinner, and more importantly, to many people I consider friends who've served in combat across the globe. These are important background pieces for that author's reflections, and for my own.
The author, whose identity is not detailed beyond the above markers, reflects upon C.S. Lewis's The Last Battle, and in particular a scene wherein Aslan counts faithful service in the army of Tash, the enemies leader, as service to him in the resurrection. From this point, the author concludes, "God turns all dedicated service into beautiful and willing sacrifice unto Christ himself." In short, while the author is a pacifist, s/he sees loyalty as an acceptable sacrifice to God, even if misguided, even if shaped by violence, That's how one pacifist pastor commemorates Memorial Day. I understand the desire to make this move and see God in this way; I simply disagree at a fundamental theological level.
Let me be clear about two things. First, in the resurrection, God will look at some things about our lives and our choices and say an unequivocal "No." Second, there's only one acceptable sacrifice to God, and that's Jesus. God needn't turn our misguided attempts at fidelity into obedience; rather, in Christ God's extended forgiveness to us for all of our unfaithful behavior and decisions. These are vital distinctions to make.
There are certain things within any action that might honor God. The courage displayed by soldiers, the self-sacrificial behaviors made by many, the loyalty shown to their comrades in arms and to the people they're called to defend and protect. Those are undeniable goods. Yet, even while God says "Yes" to those things, this does not mean God affirms every behavior required of a soldier. God's given us life to promote life, not take it. God's redeemed us to pursue reconciliation, not division by death. When we enter into eternity, God doesn't magically make our failures into faithfulness. This is a subtle difference, but an important one. God takes broken things and makes them beautiful, but God does not affirm the brokenness. Transformation doesn't mean that our sins are honored, but that they are burned away like impurities from ore. What I mean to say is this: as a pacifist, I do not believe that God turns all dedicated service into divine service because service that takes life is contrary to the abundant life trajectory of God's Kingdom.
Yet, this does not mean we're all damned. Neither does God abandon us because of our faults. In Christ, God forgives us the things we have done and the things we have left undone. God does take our brokenness and make it beautiful, but like a potter with a cracked pot, pummels us into clay once again and recreates us with a new integrity. Our past brokenness isn't made into faithfulness. It's erased by God's faithfulness. When the author of the aforementioned blog post suggests that God turns our sacrifices into acceptable sacrifices, that obscures the central Christian claim that only the self-sacrifice of Jesus justifies us. Our actions may reflect that sacrifice, and insofar as they do, they're worthy reflections of God's love. As Christians live lives that display the selflessness of God before others, they point to the paradigmatic selflessness of Christ.
That, then, is how a pacifist like myself celebrates Memorial Day. I don't celebrate the wars. I don't agree with the decisions to risk the lives of these women and men by governments with suspect motives and precious little experience on the battlefield, especially when those lives are of my family members, my loved ones. Neither do I look to God to turn the sacrifices of soldiers into acceptable gifts. Instead, I lament the loss of life as I look to the selflessness of soldiers who, within a broken system, embodied a selflessness that ended in death on behalf of their sisters and brothers that reflects the sacrifice of Christ. I don't agree with the violence of war or the decisions that send these people to battle. Instead, in their courage and loyalty, in their willingness to die so that others might live, I respect how they, perhaps better than anyone else on this earth, know what it is like to pray alongside Jesus: Father, take this cup from me. Yet, not my will, but yours be done. That's how I'm able to post the picture above, with the graves of soldiers as background to the words of Jesus. In the willingness of my family members and of many soldiers across the world to risk their lives for their friends, whether friends back home or friends at their side, they tap into something like the love that Jesus spoke of in John 15. They put on display, however imperfectly, the kind of perfect love that Christ has for us all. God will raise them up on the last day not because their sacrifice was appropriate - for, let's be clear, none of our sacrifices before God are good enough to warrant abundant life - but because Jesus's transformative grace extends to us all. Through their willingness to give up their lives, they point to the sacrifice that does earn us eternal life: God's willingness to die so that we might all live.
While we must never forget that Jesus' sacrifice was one that didn't entail violent retribution to his enemies, that does not mean soldiers don't risk laying down their lives. They do, and that's why this pacifist pastor commemorates Memorial Day.
Simultaneously a sinner and a saint.