The Test of the Church
This month Abingdon Press publishes my book, Fear of the Other: No Fear in Love. It is my attempt to think through the sin of Xenophobia, fear of the other, in a Christian, biblical way. The book has discussion questions for individuals and groups after each chapter, so I hope it will be useful in churches for study and growth. But for the Grace of God
The phrase, “There but for the grace of God go I,” was first used in the sixteenth century by John Bradford upon seeing a group of men led to the gallows. If God practiced justice rather than graciousness, if God loved high moral standards more than God loves us, we all should be headed for the gallows. Or, as Paul put it, “All have sinned and fall short of God’s glory” (Rom. 3:23 CEB). Not “most,” all.
“But all are treated as righteous freely by his grace because of a ransom that was paid by Christ Jesus” (Rom 3:24 CEB). Jesus Christ saves sinners, only sinners.
Paul’s sweeping declaration of our sin and Christ’s redemption is a basis for Christ-like response to the Other: “While we were still weak, at the right moment, Christ died for ungodly people” (Rom. 5:6 CEB).
Or as 1 Peter puts it, “Christ himself suffered on account of sins, once for all, the righteous one on behalf of the unrighteous” (1 Pet 3:18 CEB).
“Joe would do anything for his family. He was a great husband and father,” a speaker intoned at a funeral. Goodness toward ones family is morally noteworthy? As Eddie Murphy complained of folk who brag about how much they love their families, “That’s your job!”
Of course I love my wife, my children; they look like me. When I have loved the Other, as Christ has loved me in my otherness and enmity, then that’s a specifically Christian, countercultural, virtually miraculous love.
When a presidential candidate talks of closing our borders to members of one faith, speaking about them as insidious, dangerous, threatening, evil doers, I remember a TV program some years ago (during one of our many wars to end all wars in the Middle East). A group of Afghan boys had their homes and town destroyed by American bombs. Now, without parents, they had fled to a safer but more wretched life in Karachi, Pakistan. They now lived in a garbage dump, surviving off rotting food and living in filth.
The boys’ only hope was to be received by one of Pakistan’s many madrasas, Muslim religious schools, infamous breeding grounds for Jihadists. The boys told the reporter that they hoped to be selected as students because there they would be protected, fed, and clothed.
When asked what they thought of Americans the boys responded that Americans were cruel killers who bomb a whole country into oblivion and ought to be paid back for their cruelty.
We have met the enemies of Christ—us.
I remember when Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, a victim of Soviet repression and punishment, was invited to the United States. We celebrated our welcome of this hero of the Cold War (a deliciously in-your-face gesture to the Soviets). Then Solzhenitsyn gave a stunning speech in which he failed to condemn the Soviets but instead criticized American capitalism, superficiality, and godlessness! Solzhenitsyn really believed what he wrote in The Gulag Archipelago: “the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties….but right through every human heart.”
More than one presidential candidate has recently bragged, “I will never apologize for America.” Christians, on the basis of the great grace we have received from Christ are always apologizing, confessing, and repenting. “While we were still weak, at the right moment, Christ died for ungodly people [us]” (Rom 5:6).
In the light of Paul’s testimony in Romans, an important function of Christian preaching and church life is to render me into the Other. I am the enemy of God. I the one who by my lifestyle and choices makes myself a stranger to my sisters and brothers. I’m free to admit that because, in spite of my hostility to God, Jesus Christ has received me as friend.
I am also the one who has received grace and revelation from the Other. Even as Christ came to me before I came to Christ, I have been the beneficiary of ministry from the Other before I was able to receive the Other as Christ had received me.
I grew up in the segregated South; I’m a product of an unashamedly racist culture. Every day I boarded a Greenville bus with a sign: SOUTH CAROLINA LAW. WHITE PATRONS SIT FROM THE FRONT. COLORED PATRONS SIT FROM THE REAR.
Nobody I knew questioned that sign, especially no one who sat next to me in church each Sunday.
My Damascus Road conversion came when my church sent me to a youth conference at Lake Junaluska and I was assigned a room with another sixteen-year-old from Greenville. When I walked in, there he sat on the bed opposite me, better prepared for me than I was for him. We had never met, even though he went to a school four blocks from mine and played on ball fields where we never ventured. He was black.
I recall nothing from the conference worship or lectures, but I’ll never forget our conversation that lasted until dawn. He told me what it was like to go to his church, and not mine, his school, rather than mine, his world in which I was a stranger. In a paraphrase of Langston Hughes, your Greenville was never Greenville to me. By sunrise, I had my world skillfully cracked open, exposed, and also infinitely expanded, ministered to by the Other who was kind enough to help me go where I avoided.
Later, when I read Richard Niebuhr define “conversion” as “a new way of seeing,” I knew he was talking about me. I once was blind, but now I see.