We commonly speak of “this religion” and “that religion,” but in fact, religions are less like clear, coherent objects and more like big, uproarious, often messy family reunions. There’s real kinship under each tent, of course, and common customs, and perceptible family resemblances that allow us to speak generally of “Christianity” and “Islam” and so on. But at the same time, as any careful reading of the daily paper will tell you, these families are constituted not only by agreements and common cause, but also by fierce, longstanding arguments driven by very different points of view.
Your family is probably the same, and so is mine. In fact, in some respects, it is closer to the truth to say that Christianity is a community of debate about Jesus Christ – not a community of lockstep agreement about him. What makes us “Christian” is that we are committed to interpreting Jesus (and therefore to arguing about him from time to time) and following him as best we can.
And this is why a crucial question in religious life is the question of essentials, of boiling things down, of interpreting certain aspects of the tradition in terms of other, more important aspects. In the Christian Bible, for example, though Deuteronomy 22 reads that if a new bride is found by her husband not to be a virgin, she shall be stoned to death by the men of her town (Deut 22:20-21), it is also written that above all, God requires us to “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God” (Micah 6:8). And so in Matthew’s Gospel, Joseph, faced with Mary’s surprising pregnancy, confronts an interpretive challenge: which text should govern his actions? Joseph decides to read the law as a guide to mercy, not violence – and so begins the Christmas story.
Joseph gets it. He understands that though certain portions of his own religious tradition may be quite readily interpreted toward violence, the essence that that tradition, the key texts and themes and narrative contours, actually point in the opposite direction. And of course Jesus, the good rabbi, does the same, interpreting the essence of the law in terms of loving God and neighbor. Acting violently in the name of Christianity – or for that matter, in the name of Islam or any other religion that essentially asserts peace – may be historically common, but it is nonetheless mistaken. It misses the center of things, the heart toward which God calls us again and again.
Is religion violent? It certainly can be, and it often is. But Christianity, to take the religion I know best, is at its heart a ploughshare, a tool meant to make for harvest and bounty, and ultimately for nourishment and good health. It’s true that we too often beat it into a sword, and for that we should continually confess and seek forgiveness. But we shouldn’t let such misuse distract us from seeing what Joseph and Jesus saw so well: religion’s blade isn’t for violence. It’s for turning over the earth, so that all may eat together.
Whenever the Israelites’ “wilderness wandering” comes up, it presents a golden opportunity – especially in the current U.S. political climate – to talk about immigration.
This kind of preaching and teaching “with the Bible in one hand, and the newspaper in the other” (as Karl Barth is said to have put it) provides at least two major advantages. It’s an opportunity to consider and engage a major political issue in light of the gospel. It’s also an opportunity to consider and engage Christian life in light of a major biblical and theological motif: the idea that every disciple is fundamentally a pilgrim, a “stranger in a strange land.”
As far as immigration from the South is concerned, the reality is that our southern border is everywhere – it’s not just along the far rim of California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. Undocumented workers’ extremely low wages enable low prices in supermarket produce sections across the country, and a similar subsidizing effect is in place in a whole range of homestead industries: construction, housecleaning, landscaping, house painting and so on.
The U.S. standard of living depends on poor people who work for low wages and are often separated from their families for long periods of time because of immigration laws. Becoming more aware of these dynamics means becoming more aware of reality itself – and of the real consequences and costs of our everyday decisions.
It isn’t for nothing that the Bible spends so much time reminding readers that they, too, were (and so in some sense still are) slaves, strangers, aliens in a foreign land. It’s a point that might motivate us again and again to work to reform our society into a more humane, self-aware, graceful place to be.