“Build bridges, not walls,” advised Pope Francis, when he came to my neighborhood (Ciudad Juarez/ El Paso) last year. This is Part Three of a series following up on that wisdom.
A friend, who was an undocumented immigrant from Mexico at the time, commented that his experience was a good preview for eternity, when he would become “a wetback in heaven” (“un mujado en el cielo”). It is an interesting observation that we all become “illegals” at heaven’s gate, with no right to enter due to our complete inability to atone for our sinful nature and dependent entirely on the amnesty of God for our salvation. Even passing through the waters of the Rio Grande is a prototype, since our entrance into God’s Kingdom is through the baptismal waters. It is in fact an old analogy, as the image of transitioning from this life to the next by crossing a river is a pre-Christian one, still with us today as “crossing over Jordan.”
Many American Christians have an ambivalence about this, preferring a walled earthly environment followed by a wet heavenly one. Being a patriotic American and a patriot of the Kingdom of God is resolved by many in choosing allegiance to the former in this life and to the latter in the next. For the less analytical, there is often a conflation of the two in any case. The Constitution and Declaration of Independence blend with the Bible in the minds of many, with equal and interchangeable truths.
But the Kingdom of God is established for this life, on this earth, as well as the next. The two citizenships exist concurrently, not consecutively, even if the one will last a lot longer than the other. Baptism is not an insurance for reference at a later date, but the beginning of a new birth in a different realm, at the very moment of water and the Word connecting with your body.
It has never been a comfortable co-existence. Since the time when Jesus announced the arrival on earth of the Kingdom, his followers have been puzzled. He himself, though, seems quite clear in the context of the time, and the general principles still apply:
1. Our primary loyalty is to the Kingdom of God: “Seek first his kingdom” (Matthew 6:33)
2. Few Jews of the day, including Jesus, regarded the puppet King Herod as a valid successor to the Old Testament kingdom of the chosen people
3. Despite widespread popular expectations and pressure, Jesus had no interest in establishing a political kingdom
4. Jesus advised civil obedience, based on God allowing the Romans to be in authority: “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s” (Matthew 22:21) and, to Pilate, “You would have no authority over me if it were not given to you from above”(John 19:11)
5. Yet Jesus did not renounce his Kingdom to avoid persecution; he tells Pilate he is a king of another kind of kingdom and does not try to fudge the truth.
The early Christians likewise conformed to Roman law and authority unless they were asked to renounce Christ. It was both harder and easier for them than us. It was harder in that we are not handed the death penalty for confessing Christ. It was easier, because the Roman Empire didn’t ask its citizens, let alone the large number of non-citizen residents, to help make policy. In even a partial democracy, the citizen has responsibilities for the formation of policy which the Roman citizen did not have.
Our American citizenship, therefore, places upon us the burden of exercising the stewardship (management) of the Lord’s earth through influencing government policy. Jesus makes clear what the evening news can verify: there will be no earthly utopia. Historically, even empires officially committed as Christian were not necessarily much better at doing God’s will than more unaffiliated governments. Still, we who see clearly our obligation as stewards to operate the earth according to the Lord’s will are expected to participate as best we can to form public policy accordingly.
The most obvious deviations from that will are in the human divisions and inequalities which exist, leading to violence, poverty and suffering. Those divisions do not exist in the Kingdom of God. The great host arrayed in white of Revelation (7:9-10) are “from every nation, tribe, people and language.” The gift of baptism is intended for all people. In the Church, we are baptized into the family of God, adopted as children of the Father and therefore brothers and sisters to each other. Human walls of race, nationality, affluence, language, ethnicity, denomination and gender do not apply. A separate census of Jews is noted in Revelation 7, but no separate status follows from it. For the rest, the host is robed in white to cover their sin, but it covers many earthly distinctions as well. Neither will it be possible to purchase a designer robe instead of wearing the government-issue one given you by the Kingdom authorities.
Having this glimpse of our status in the heavenly Kingdom, should we try to replicate this on earth? In terms of denominations, the answer is precise. It is sin to divide the Body of Christ. In terms of national boundaries and policies, it is less clear. Jesus makes no effort to reform the Roman Empire. Attempting to do so would have hopelessly muddled his hearers, including the disciples. It would probably have meant leading an insurrection, which is what most were hoping for. But for the Kingdom of God, political reform is always secondary and incomplete. It is our citizenship in the Kingdom which really matters. The focus is on an individual ethic, outlined in the Beatitudes and elsewhere. It defines behavior in the public and private sectors, but it emanates from the Christian’s personal ethic.
As the Pope points out, that ethic is not difficult to grasp. Wherever walls between people exist, it is Christian to work at eliminating them and building bridges instead. Because it is personal, the walls erected in our hearts must be the first to go. The next walls to come down need to be the racial, ethnic and economic segregations in our parishes, which exist silently but effectively. Nor is this an admonition only for the primary perpetrators, those historically dominant. Movements like “Black Lives Matter” and “La Raza” also perpetuate the same racial divides which cause so much pain, even when the justice of their origins is undeniable. Christians are called to effective solutions which simply end human prejudice, not solutions which make sure the walls are all equal in protecting each group.
Likewise, the Kingdom of God has no borders. As mentioned above, we are all illegals yet simultaneously covered by the blood of the Lamb through the amnesty of our baptism. Does this imply total free trade and unlimited immigration in our earthly kingdom? In answering that:
1. Chaos is an enemy of God. He first creates order (see Genesis 1:1). Earthly government is responsible to maintain that order, and is supported by Christians when it does. The Christian will always try to ensure order is maintained humanely.
2. The ideal order is that of the Garden, without borders, violence, human distinctions or sin.
3. From early days, mankind rejected this lifestyle, and even the direct kingship of God (see 1 Samuel 8). Therefore, we live in the context of an unjust, imperfect society, and must deal with it as best we can. Paradise is lost.
4. As a result, the need for order and the need for eliminating walls live in tension for the Christian. Breaking down walls is a project which cannot cease, but equally cannot be done by destroying all order. There is, of course, no injunction against improving order, making it reflect Christian ethics more completely.
5. Regardless of national policy, the Christian always respects all creatures, including humans, as creations of God, entitled to be treated with dignity and compassion.
6. If national policy builds a wall, the Christian always seeks to improve conditions for people on the other side of the wall, until the wall becomes pointless
7. The invisible walls, hidden in the heart but expressed in actions and attitudes, are objects for repentance and amendment of life, starting with the face in the mirror but continuing in church and community.
Christians exercise our stewardship in part through government. We are called to act in building bridges among people. Remember how Jesus said “Blessed are the peacemakers?”