"Yeah But They Broke the Law!"
America is separating children from their families along the southwest border and placing children in detention centers. Forefront church believes that this practice is abhorrent and depraved and yet there are still some who defend such an ugly practice.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Press Secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders both profess to be Christians. Worse yet, they've cited scripture to justify the separation of families. Acquaintances on social media continue to point to the law. "If you break the law you should expect bad things to happen!" Another person wrote, "If I take my child with me when I break the law then I should expect that bad things will happen to my child when I'm caught."
Technically they're right. Technically many immigrants at the border are trying to cross illegally. And yes, technically speaking there are consequences to illegal actions.
That being said, I'm absolutely perplexed by these technicalities. I'm infuriated by the fact that some would choose the technicalities of the law over the flourishing of a human being. Furthermore, how could anyone who calls themselves a Christian choose the law over the flourishing of another human being?
It turns out that we shouldn't be surprised by the fact that Christians choose the law over the flourishing of humanity. In fact, Christians have a pretty good track record of doing just that.
Diana Butler Bass speaks of a misguided view of scripture that often keeps the church from moving toward affirmation and generosity of all people—our vertical and hierarchal understanding of God. As Christians we’ve spent way too much time with a vertical reading of our Bibles. What does Butler Bass mean by vertical constructions of God?
We hang heaven at the top of our vertical construction. That’s where God resides and it’s the place to which we attain, heaven. We’re on earth, a place often seen as broken and getting worse. For those who don’t measure up to the standards of God we have a third tier, hell, which lies beneath our “broken” earth and is punishment for not looking upward.
The vertical construction of Christianity invades our sensibilities until it becomes second nature to believe that there is another place above for which we strive and one below, which we avoid at all costs. And what are the costs of avoiding the tier below us?
In a vertical construction of God we ask what it is we have to believe? How do we believe? How do we follow the right laws that allow us to gain membership in the ascension to a better place?
Based on those questions we get to work interpreting a rather flat and literal reading of scripture. We line up a platitude of beliefs and opinions designed to measure the worthiness of one who will ascend or descend depending on their position. Finally, we create a meritocracy designed to make our vertical construction exclusive. Our membership to another place is gained through creating complete clarity and structure around the first two questions: “Am I reading scripture in such a way that it’s acceptable to the gatekeepers of heaven (whoever they may be)? Can I put a check next to each moral platitude and practice that keeps me out of the danger of hell? If that’s the case then I’m able to join the membership of heaven.”[i] And finally, "Am I following the law so that I might be kept away from eternal torment?"
The tragedy of the vertical construction of God and the scriptures is that relationships, compassion, or selfless love are no longer essential to the Christian ethic. Regardless of the fact that our Christian faith is centered on the mutually loving relationship of the triune God, we throw out the trinity for the sake of the letter, the law, and our membership in another place. There’s no need for relational investment.
Those who believe in the vertical construct willingly trade love for fear. They fear that God is only a decision away from sending them to eternal torment. To eschew the law for the sake of love brings them perilously close to hell.
It's not surprising that Christians show little compassion towards those at the border. To accept a group considered "illegal" threatens the very vertical construct in which their Christianity operates. If they break the law then God's wrath will surely be upon them. After all, in their construct, God can only operate within the meritocracy they created.
It's this vertical construct that allows Jeff Sessions to cite Romans 13 as justification of separating families. It's the overriding of love replaced with fear that causes someone to live within the technicalities of the law at the expense of human life. And unfortunately much of my compassion towards families at the border and outrage over their separation is met with, "Yeah but they broke the law."
I'm genuinely sad for those who are trapped in the vertical construction of God. That's not a God I want to worship. I don't believe in that God.
If Christianity is good news then we have to believe that Jesus's death and resurrection abolishes all punishment. In each and every interaction Jesus puts restorative justice and the flourishing of humanity above the law. In every single interaction Jesus calls out those who uphold the law rather than being on the side of law. Every. Single. Time.
The good news is that we can be God's mercy in this world. The good news is that we have a voice to denounce the vertical construct that values fear and meritocracy. The good news is that we believe in a God who wants to see humanity flourish over the law every single time.
As a church we don't have to be afraid of a vertical construct. We don't have to be afraid of an angry God. We don't need to appease God by following the law at the expense of human flourishing.
Let's be God's mercy in this world and bring the human flourishing that God intends.
[i]“Diana Butler Bass – A Horizontal Church for a Horizontal Spirituality (N125),” Nomad Podcast, July 8, 2016, http://www.nomadpodcast.co.uk/nomad-108-diana-butler-bass-a-horizontal-church-for-a-horizontal-spirituality