Phil’s Points to Ponder for February 9, 2017

(Since we are observing Scout Sunday this week, we will have a guest speaker.  But, I wanted to share this timely message with you in this format.)

     United States society in 1917 was one filled with much fear and misunderstanding. The end of the Progressive Era and its Social Gospel message of reform, the onset of World War I, and the Bolshevik Revolution raised anxieties in the minds of many Americans. One significant manifestation of this fear was the rise of xenophobia; Americans grew wary of outsiders. The nation, which was built on the sweat and blood of immigrants, now turned its back on these very same people. Beginning as early as 1882, ideas of immigrant restriction had been circulating with the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act. A decade later, the Immigration Restriction League, founded in Boston in 1894, argued that the best way to keep out “undesirables” was a literacy test. The campaign bore no real fruit at the outset as initiatives passed by Congress in 1896, 1909, and 1915 were vetoed by presidents Cleveland, Taft, and Wilson. However, in 1917, a literacy test bill was again passed and made law over the veto of Wilson. The United States had created a situation where, in essence, immigrants had to pass a litmus test to gain entrance.

      The immigration policy of the United States in the wake of World War I, which was capped with the passage of the Johnson-Reed National Origins Act in 1924, presents a situation all too common in human history, personally and communally. Similar situations have existed throughout human history, many of which are recorded in scripture, particularly in the Old Testament. But, there were also admonishments by God to remove barriers and treat aliens (people of a different faith or nationality), and immigrants as we have been treated by God.

Victims of leprosy couldn’t pass the litmus test of Hebrew society; they were shunned by all. But in a story found in 2 Kings 5, Elisha, God’s prophet showed no fear and offered Naaman a way to be healed of his disease. Naaman initially rejected the means of healing but finally yielded to Elisha’s direction and was healed. Naaman’s cure demonstrates that God has no particular litmus test for people. All that is necessary is that they have the ability to trust and to do what God asks. All are acceptable; none will be rejected, even those outside Israel. God shows no favorites or partiality; there is no litmus test for the Lord.

      As the Father showed no partiality toward Naaman, a man afflicted with leprosy, an outsider from the community of Israel, so Jesus of Nazareth accepted all who came to him. No one was rejected; all were accepted. As one who understood human nature very well, Jesus realized human frailty and the tendency we have to make judgments on people in order to measure them. In other words, Jesus understood that we often require people to pass a litmus test before we find them acceptable.

      The gospels provide many examples of how Jesus reached out to all. Jesus asked no litmus test for one’s physical or spiritual condition. What was important to him was meeting the needs of those who asked his assistance, Jews and foreigners alike. Immigrants to Israel and those outside the Jewish community were rejected by the people of Jesus’ day, but again this was no obstacle to the Lord. When a Canaanite woman asked him to cure his daughter he fulfilled her wish, noting that the woman’s great faith was the reason for his action (Matthew 15:21-28).

      Jesus broke all the taboos of his day by speaking not only to a foreigner, but a woman. His conversation with the Samaritan woman surprised even his apostles, but, as always, Jesus used this incident to teach his apostles the value of being inclusive (John 4:1-42). Again, Jesus demonstrated that he had no specific test that a foreigner must pass in order to gain his attention or help.

      Jesus reached out to his own people, but most especially those who, for one reason or another, had been brushed aside by the ruling elite. But Jesus gave no apology for his outreach to these people; on the contrary, in some ways he sought them out in a preferential way. Jesus never required a litmus test for anyone — nor should we!

      The Christian community needs to hear the message of Jesus and rethink how it treats people, both as a church and individuals. Acceptance and tolerance must be trademarks of our day-to-day existence, but unfortunately these important virtues are not the hallmarks that characterize our lives. On a communal level we must reject attitudes like those so glaringly present in the current political climate and welcome the stranger, the orphan, the widow, and those who are stereotyped as “not welcome.”

      Too often in our contemporary society we classify the poor, certain races, ethnic groups, or religious denominations with the tag “to be avoided.” This pattern has been a persistent problem with human society, but that does not mean it should be tolerated. On the contrary, systemic prejudice in our world can only be eliminated when people first recognize its existence, understand its sinful nature, and resolve to change institutions, laws, and patterns of operation and belief. Such changes do not happen overnight, but as was dramatically demonstrated by the American Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and the work of F. W. DeKlerk and Nelson Mandela in South Africa, systemic racial segregation and injustice can be transformed.

      The transformation of society into one that is more tolerant and accepting must begin, however, on the individual level and move upward. As the expression goes, one must think globally but act locally. Thus, individual Christians must make the ofttimes perilous inward journey, see the prejudices and ways of exclusion that we practice in our personal lives, and then make every effort to change. We exclude people, consciously and unconsciously, by their appearance, ethnic or national origin, religious persuasion, economic prosperity, or level of education. Whether we realize it or not, the people we encounter, even on a regular basis must often pass a litmus test to be found acceptable. While our admission requirements are not as obvious as passing a literacy test, they are, at times, even more restrictive. Some people are in and others are out in our view of the world. This attitude, however, is inconsistent with the message of Christ who welcomed all, but preferentially sought those who needed him most.

      The Christian life is filled with many challenges, most of which we probably would choose to avoid. Yet, it is through the great challenges of life that we learn the most significant lessons. When we are forced to review how we treat others, how we set barriers before them, we come to the realization that we miss so much by excluding others. Diversity is the spice of life, but we will never know how sweet the taste of this diversity will be if we are not willing to take a chance on others. Let us, therefore, not be compromised by the way society categorizes and excludes groups and individuals, but rather break through the barriers that institutions, governments, and even churches place before others. Let us be like Elisha who sent his messenger to Naaman and through his action brought not only healing, but additionally, the power of God. Let us as well take up Christ’s work to be a physician to those who need us most. Let us do as the author of the letter to the Hebrews suggests: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it” (Hebrews 13:2). Amen.

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  1. Nonie

    This is a most useful contributon to the debate.