By George A. Mason
The great Puerto Rican golfer, Chi Chi Rodriquez, was asked about how he learned the game. He said his first round of golf was an act of trespassing.
Now, I am a golfer myself. I have always loved the game and can relate to what Chi Chi says. I grew up across the street from a country club golf course in Staten Island, New York, and I would often sneak on there even though I was not a member. There were free public courses within driving distance, but I had no way to get there, so I trespassed. That’s what Chi Chi did too. And while I have no defense for my sin of trespassing, I want to say that I’m glad Chi Chi did and I think we should be thinking less about the trespassing and more about whether young people like him have access and opportunity to learn the game.
There are all sorts of borders we erect in this country and across the world to keep people apart, and it’s time Christians took a hard look at what we support. Here’s my thesis today: Christians in America—and particularly white Christians in America—have become more concerned with defending the law-and-order crowd that builds walls and fences against trespassers than they are for the people who live on the other side who share the same hopes and dreams for opportunity. If we are going to bear witness to the world in a way that makes a compelling case for our faith, we may have to switch sides and become a trespassing church.
Let’s take a look at where we are, to begin with. If I preach in my church about the southern border crisis, about the policy of separating children from their mothers at the border, about the idea of building “a big, beautiful wall,” as our president puts it, about the Muslim immigration ban, about the dehumanizing camps of people in Mexico awaiting a hearing just to be able to declare for asylum, about the fact that we will not appoint adequate immigration judges to hear cases because that will only lessen a crisis we would rather call an emergency so that we close the border altogether, about the explicit racism of claiming that the people who are seeking to come to this country to flee violence and seek safety, if not opportunity for their families are really rapists, murderers, drug dealers or terrorists in disguise, about the idea that we should have more Norwegians who look like me than people of Latinx descent coming in, and that we ought to act as a nation according to the highest principles of humanitarianism—if I say those things, some people will think I’ve gotten too political. They just want me to preach the gospel. They want to leave public policy to the politicians.
But since Jesus, and the Hebrew prophets before him, and the apostles after him, were all political, I can’t do that and honor my ordination papers. Since it’s probably obvious to everyone in this room, I won’t belabor the point for long—especially since Tony Campolo has been making the case for Evangelicals to speak and act for social justice for so long, Christianity is political by its nature. It isn’t partisan, but it is political.
Jesus came proclaiming the coming of the kingdom of God. Kingdom. That was the language of his day for a political entity. And no fair rushing to the argument about him telling Pilate that his kingdom is not of the world: the of is genitive, meaning something more like “authorized from” another world rather than “pertaining to” another world (John 18:36). Likewise, when Jesus says the kingdom of God is within you, the “you” is plural, not singular (Luke 17:21). So it means the kingdom is among you, here. And Jesus didn’t teach us to pray that God’s kingdom go, but rather that “God’s kingdom come, God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
Politics is how we live together in the world. It’s not a dirty word, no matter the grime and crime it often attracts. God wants us to bear witness to this world of God’s desire for this world by the way we live together now in this world. We are not biding our time until we escape it for Beulah Land.
Interestingly, many fundamentalists, who used to eschew the politics of this world and thought the kingdom of God was only for our hearts now and for heaven when we die, have entered the fray with a fervor we haven’t seen in ages. And they have taken center stage in this engagement. They have gained the ear of the White House and Congress and the Supreme Court, and their version of engagement has changed the face of our faith in ways we have to confront with our faith.
Christians—again, primarily white evangelical Christians—have courted the corridors of power and have curried favor to gain power over their enemies. They have been changing the principle of religious liberty into a license to discriminate against people who offend them, on the basis of their sincere religious convictions. This is not something a Jew or a Muslim could successfully claim in this America.
We have forgotten that once we were no people, but now we have become the people of God (1 Peter 2:10). “Once we were slaves in Egypt,” Jews say during Passover. “My father was a wandering Aramean,” the Hebrew confession begins (Deuteronomy 26:5). Once, we were rejected by popes and bishops and left to worship in hovels and homes and clearings in the woods. Once, we had to pay taxes to the state so that somebody else’s minister could be paid, while we couldn’t even hold the office of dogcatcher in our town because we were Baptists or Quakers or some other unauthorized sect. Once, we boarded ships to flee persecution and find a place to worship and work where nobody told us that some human beings had more purchase on the right to call themselves children of God than we.
How did we get from there to where we are today, siding with the rich and powerful against the poor, defending walls and caging children. We say we belong to the tribe of Jesus, but we’ve been revising his words to fit our politics instead of revising our politics to fit his words.
Jesus declared his own mission in that Nazareth synagogue long ago, reading from the Isaiah scroll:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor (Luke 4:16-21). He didn’t edit the prophet to our own liking. He didn’t say:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, and has anointed me to preach good news to the rich, mass incarceration to targeted minorities, recovery of insurance payments to the optometrist, to let the oppressor get off Scot-free, and to declare the year of the Lord’s vengeance.
And yet, here we are. Eighty-two percent of evangelicals in America voted for a man for president whose policies are day-by- day an affront to the way of Jesus. We have a Fox News religion analyst who pastors a tall steeple church in downtown Dallas and who declares that heaven has a wall in it to keep out lawbreakers, so there’s no reason not to support a wall on our southern border to keep out trespassers. This is the same man who speaks for millions of American Christians when he says he wouldn’t vote for Jesus for president, because Jesus isn’t mean enough and wouldn’t punish evildoers. This same man prays at the ceremony in Israel when the Trump Administration announced the moving of the U. S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, because of his Christian Zionism that is based on a premillennial dispensationalism needs Israel to crush its enemies so that Christ can return to rapture true believers and establish a timeline for judgment that will reward people with his theology and leave the vast mass of humanity to get its just desserts in the eternal fires of hell.
For heaven’s sake! Literally.
Before offering a different biblical approach to addressing these matters, I think we need to think a little more about borders and nations and the concept of national sovereignty.
When people make the claim that nations are sovereign and have the right to secure borders, we tend to think this is unassailable logic. But part of the unwinding of all this is to challenge that idea at its core. Where is it written? The modern nation-state is a social construction, not a God-ordained natural political right.
No one knows for sure where the idea of the modern nation-state comes from. There are several theories, but they are just that. The most common is to trace it back to Europe and the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 that that ended the Eighty Years’ War between Spain and the Dutch, and the Thirty Years’ War that included the Germans. Prior to this, empires came and went, marching across the landscape to gain ground for their glory until they were defeated by a stronger empire.
Westphalia laid the groundwork for a modern sense of internationalism that recognizes territorial sovereignty of a people. But still, there are questions of whether these nations can simply declare themselves or must be recognized by others in order to be legitimate. And then there’s the question of whether ethnicity and culture should be the determining factor in the constitution of a nation-state.
In its more benign form, the idea that the people who naturally inhabit a region and share a common language and culture should determine their identity as a nation-state seems appealing. There’s a certain coherence to that theory, giving a clearer sense of identity to a people. But we have seen the malignant version of this in the “blood and soil” mantra of Nazi Germany that viewed the Jews as a scourge upon their land. So maybe that isn’t a solid moral basis for establishing a nation.
We translate the New Testament Greek word ethnos as nation, and we’re supposed to go into all nations to preach the gospel. Is every ethnic group on the planet supposed to have its own nation-state? What about the Kurds in Northern Iraq, then? What about the Rohingya people in Myanmar? The Jews lived in diaspora for centuries before returning to Palestine—some claiming it as a divine right. They declared themselves a nation-state in 1948, but 30 states, primarily Arab ones, still do not recognize Israel. Yet neither does the State of Israel recognize the right of the Palestinian people to their own national sovereignty in the land of their birth.
And what about many nations that have many ethnic groups within their borders? The word nation comes from the Latin root natio meaning birth or tribe, and thus means something like where or to whom you were born. So, most nations have this idea that if you are born within its borders, you have a claim to citizenship. But now our current administration in Washington is controversially trying to change that in order to discourage unauthorized border crossings and, in a more covert way, to protect a certain culture.
If you consider the American case, the natural inhabitant part quickly falls apart, since Native Americans are the only ones with original claim on the land. We decided that we would become a nation by declaration and that certain ideals about humanity would inform us—all men being created equal, for instance; each having the natural right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
But when your nation has to construct a narrative to justify its claim to land, it tends to neglect certain factors in favor of other factors. So, we tell a story of people seeking freedom from persecution, the right to worship as we please, the opportunity to pursue prosperity, etc. But no sooner do we do so than we privilege certain aspects of that story. For instance, we initially privileged white, northern European Protestant immigrants. We didn’t consider African slaves fully human, so they weren’t a problem; they were just property. When the Irish and Italian Catholics starting coming over, we weren’t sure they could be integrated fully into this WASP-dominated nation, because of their higher loyalty to the Pope. In 1939, America turned away 900 Jews on the MS St. Louis who were fleeing Hitler’s genocide. No room at the inn. So much for Emma Lazarus’s poem at the Statue of Liberty that ends with these flourishing lines:
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
I tell you all this to remind you that when we hear people talking about borders and the rights of a nation-state to defend its borders, there’s a more fundamental question about the definition of a nation-state that we aren’t addressing. The nation-state is a social and political construct in search of a natural and universal grounding that falls apart with every attempt. It may be the best construct we have to work with today, but it isn’t absolute or divinely ordained.
The more anxious we become about it all, the more likely we double-down on defending the indefensible. Nationalism is one such attempt. In the case of the United States, nationalism is always mixed up with white supremacy, no matter how much nationalists try to deflect that.
Representative Steve King of Iowa has been sanctioned by the House of Representatives by a vote of 421-1 for his comments to The New York Times, where he said, White nationalism, white supremacist, Western civilization—how did that language become offensive? He has likened his censure to Jesus’ trial and crucifixion. He has also said that we have to limit immigration because we are losing our culture, since the birthrate among immigrants (read Hispanic immigrants) is higher than whites. And from the highest office in the land, we get much the same sentiment, even as white nationalists are far more guilty of racially and religiously-motivated mass murder and terror than immigrants or Muslims. Good people on both sides. Right.
This all spills over into white Christian nationalism, too. Muslim bans, the right of Christians to discriminate against those who offend their beliefs, the denial by the Supreme Court to allow for a chaplain of one’s own religion to serve a death row man: these are all trends that reveal the ungodly nexus of nationalism, white nationalism and Christian nationalism.
Now, what is the church to do in order to be faithful in our time and place? We should begin with Jesus and look backward and forward from Him—to the Hebrew Bible and to the early church.
When we look to Jesus, we find a consistent disregard for borders in His mission. With the possible exception of his enigmatic claim to the Syrophoenician woman that he came for the lost sheep of the house of Israel, Jesus consistently modeled religious and ethnic trespassing (Mark 7:24-30). And even with this woman, we should probably see his encounter with her as a kind of hip fake intended to get him on to his more universal mission or a moment in which he stated the expected and accepted in order to move beyond it. The Gospels portray Jesus crossing over into Gentile territory time and time again, healing and teaching in ways that frustrated if not infuriated those with more nationalistic ambitions for the messiah. Furthermore, He challenged the purity codes of His tradition that were another way of marking exclusion. The confession of the Roman centurion of His being the Son of God at the point of Jesus’ death is another indicator of how the significance of His life transcended acknowledged borders.
This was also true of the Hebrew prophets. While post-exodus and post-exilic Israel continually focused on identity over against foreign influences, even in the Pentateuch there are clear commands to welcome the stranger, to treat the foreigner among them as if he were one of them (Leviticus 19:34). Likewise, it was in this same Holiness Code in Leviticus that Israel was instructed to love thy neighbor as thyself (Leviticus 19:18). And Jesus made clear in His Good Samaritan parable that “neighbor” didn’t mean only those who live in your neighborhood. For all the rules against intermarriage, there are moments like that in the Book of Ruth where an alternate vision is put forward.
The Bible does not speak with one voice. It shows us how God is working out God’s will and way against previous assumptions of how the world should be organized. There is a trajectory to Israel’s understanding of how to account for insiders and outsiders that reaches a more universal moral grounding in Second Isaiah with the vision of Israel becoming a light to all nations, bringing salvation to the ends of the earth.
So, Jesus doesn’t just appear out of nowhere with these boundary-blurring ideas that burst the bubble of Jewish nationalism. He escaped Nazareth by a whisker when He interpreted Isaiah’s words to mean that He would rely on the examples of the prophets Elijah and Elisha who in their day served and healed Gentiles as well as Jews (Luke 4:24-27).
And then the early church in the Book of Acts takes up this border-crossing, boundary-crashing work. The Spirit continually moves the apostles to accept God-fearing Gentiles, eunuchs and women without regard to traditional religious identity markers such as circumcision and purity laws. The early church had to reckon with this as it continued to move beyond Palestine into Roman territory—whether in Asia Minor, Greece or North Africa. The gospel simply would not be defined by nationalism.
And so today, we find ourselves in need of reimagining our role in the world as the church of Jesus Christ. We have a history of Christian missions to draw upon that, while respecting national borders to some extent, saw the imperative of trespassing those borders at times in order to bring the gospel to unreached people groups. Likewise, we have transnational corporations that argue for a global economy that requires nations to compromise the extent of their sovereignty for the sake of the greater good.
And we have groups like Doctors Without Borders, which see human need as a higher value than national sovereignty. Their web site borrows the Christian language of “bearing witness.” They declare that part of their mission is “to alleviate suffering, protect life and health, and to restore respect for human beings and their fundamental human rights.” And they believe this involves at times risky disregard for borders that protect governments and dehumanizing actors from being held accountable for their crimes.
One of your alumni the other day saw my title for this lecture, Christians without Borders, and suggested that it might be better if we had Borders without Christians. I think we know what he means, since the people who most egregiously defend the cruel and inhumane policies of policing our borders against desperate people yearning to be free almost always claim Christian warrant for their behavior. But it would be better if we would instead take ourselves to task and renew our commitment to being the salt of the earth and the light of the world.
We can start by remembering the distinction Martin Luther King, Jr., made in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail between a just and unjust law. A just law is a man-made code, he said, that squares with the moral law or the law of God. This is to be respected and honored. An unjust law, however, must be resisted and opposed.
One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.
He was specifically dealing with segregation laws in his own day, but it didn’t take him long before he trespassed into other areas of militarism and materialism. Today I believe he would also speak against an ungodly nationalism that divides us against one another within our borders and against one another across our borders.
Recently, my work with clergy colleagues in Dallas has taken us to the city council in defense of the church’s right to house the homeless on nights when inclement weather forces them off the streets and when shelters are full. The old neighborhood canard, NIMBYism—Not In My Back Yard—rears its head time-and-time again when addressing the plight of the poor in our communities. And the council was receiving pressure to pass a code that would prohibit churches from taking in the homeless on such occasions. My Methodist colleague, Rev. Rachel Bachmann, rose to speak for many of us:
I worry that many of the proposals come from a Not in My Backyard mentality. I, too, rise to offer my own Not in My Backyard speech, but the proposals I would offer are rooted in morality and the faith that comes from Christian scriptures.
This past winter, among the individuals we provided warmth included infants whose mothers were without shelter. Exposed to the elements these children may not have made it through the night. When we open the doors of our church, we proclaim, ‘infants won’t die on the street tonight—not in my back yard.’"
When we open the doors of our church we proclaim, ‘people without shelter will not be deprived their right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’ Not in my back yard.
When we open the doors of our church we proclaim, ‘human beings will not be stripped of their dignity just because they’ve been stripped of their financial well-being” Not in my back yard.
Close the doors of our church to those in need, try to stop my church from following through on the mission appointed to us by God and you’ll have one hell of a fight in your front yard because this city will not deny us the right to religious expression and freedom so that some citizens can shuffle unsheltered persons into faraway places and feel a little better about the comforts they enjoy.
This same feisty spirit should characterize our advocacy for human life and dignity at our southern border. Defending the right of our nation to make our border all but impenetrable to outsiders on the basis of Roman 13, as some do, is both horrible hermeneutics and terrible ethics. Paul claims there that we are to be subject to governing authorities, because authority comes from God and governing authorities are instituted by God. Some Christians today, especially those who are controlling the public understanding of our faith, see our current administration as wielding just such godly authority—although they didn’t claim that for the previous administration. But this view conveniently passes over the historic struggle of the church to reckon with what to do with leaders who violate our sense of the universal moral law.
Martin Luther was challenged on just such a point in the early 16th century, the civil and ecclesiastical authorities calling upon him to be subject to their rule. The Swiss Reformed theologian, Philip Schaff, comments on this moment for Luther: When tradition becomes a wall against freedom, when authority degenerates into tyranny, the very blessing is turned into a curse, and history is threatened with stagnation and death. At such rare junctures, Providence raises those pioneers of progress, who have the intellectual and moral courage to break through the restraints at the risk of their lives, and to open new paths for the onward march of history.... Conscience is the voice of God in man. It is his most sacred possession. No power can be allowed to stand between the gift and the giver. Even an erring conscience must be respected, and cannot be forced.
Civil disobedience is sometimes the mark of faithfulness to God. And the church that loses its conscience, loses its soul. At certain times, we have to declare to the world that there will be hell to pay for the foul treatment of human beings created in the image and likeness of God. The faithful church in these cases will be a trespassing church that respects God before human authority.
We will never know for certain if we are right in doing so; but certainty is not a Christian virtue—faith is. And if we are wrong, we can always pray as our Lord taught us to pray: … forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.
— George A. Mason is Senior Pastor of Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas. This address was first presented as the Campolo Lecture at Eastern College/ Palmer Seminary on 26 April 2019 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Dr. Mason is a member of the Board of Directors of Christian Ethics Today.