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If Any of Us Suffer: Building a Bridge Over the Partisan Divide

The Republican legislator from Kentucky, an evangelical believer, had been historically anti-immigration. The bipartisan group of immigrant and nonimmigrant pastors who came to meet with him about immigration reform handed him a bookmark listing 40 Scripture passages with implications for immigration policy. They challenged him to read one a day in his daily meditations and asked to come back in 40 days to have a conversation. When they returned, the legislator had shifted his position. He had not become an advocate for immigration reform, but his heart had changed toward immigrants. He could respect the pastors’ perspective. He had become open to a public policy dialogue.

Given the current intensity and fury of partisan conflicts at this historic moment in the United States, the above account sounds like a fantasy. It occurred only five years ago. Although we had not arrived at the current level of mutual animosity in 2015, it was already neither simple nor easy to achieve mutually respectful dialogue and common purpose on public issues across partisan lines. This story is a testimony to the fundamental capacity of Christians to achieve a greater unity than the world considers possible—to be the answer to the prayer of Jesus in John 17, that the world would know that he had come through the unity of his disciples.

Christians are settled on both sides of the partisan divide in ways that have implications beyond politics. While the total number of Americans claiming Christian faith has declined rapidly over the past decade,1 81 percent of White Republicans still identify as Christian (55 percent of whom attend church regularly). More than 74 percent of Black Democrats and 71 percent of Hispanic Democrats also still identify as Christian (61 percent of Black Democrats and 49 percent of Hispanic Democrats attend church regularly).2 The early church amazed the Roman world by their evident unity across ethnic, class, and national divisions. Imagine the power of the testimony that we could offer to the living Christ if the United States saw Christians on both sides of our bitter partisan divide showing a level of unity similar to the early church. What would it take to achieve that goal?

Some would say that we could achieve that goal by staying away from the political arena. According to another recent Pew Research Center study, more than 60 percent of Americans think that churches should not express their views on day-to-day social and political matters, and more than 75 percent believe that churches should not endorse candidates.3 The role of the church4 in the political arena has been hotly debated throughout church history. Christian positions on the issue have ranged from the prophetic defiance of the earliest church to the complete adoption and incorporation of the church under Constantine; from the early Reformers’ common understanding that political service was a vocation and political systems a divine instrument to the Radical Reformers’ belief that the political realm was inherently corrupt and corrupting, to a diverse array of modern perspectives and stances on church engagement in political processes. It’s understandable that the average American Christian would be theologically confused about this question and would default to a common misunderstanding of the constitutional separation between church and state.

Yet much of the unjust and unnecessary suffering in the modern world, particularly that which afflicts the most vulnerable among us, is caused or impacted by government decisions. If we have the capacity to impact those decisions, the principle of stewardship calls us to respond. On April 3, 1968, the day before his assassination, Martin Luther King Jr. preached his famous “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” sermon on the parable of the Good Samaritan.5 In his sermon, King suggested that those who passed by the man in need had good reasons for not stopping: the Jericho Road was dangerous and robbers often pretended to be victims to induce travelers to stop so they could more easily attack them. King said that those who did not stop were asking themselves the reasonable question, “What will happen to me if I stop?” The Good Samaritan may have asked the same question, but he also asked an additional question: “What will happen to him if I don’t stop?” That second, empathetic question led him to risk stopping to help. Jesus told the rich young ruler whose question sparked the parable to “go, and do likewise.” In a representative democracy, most of us have the opportunity and capacity to influence public decision-making. We are responsible for stewarding that influence in a way that is empathetic to those who are suffering unjustly, even if it takes us into the dangerous territory of the political arena.6 The question is whether we can do that in a way that also manifests Christian unity across our societal divides. Do we have to leave the political arena to find reconciliation with our brothers and sisters who are our political enemies, or can we find a way to be in and not of the world together?

Emerging generations (who are describing themselves as religiously unaffiliated at truly alarming rates) are watching to see if Jesus offers anything that helps further the advancement of peace and justice in our common life. The stakes are very high.

The story at the beginning of this article came out of the work of the Evangelical Immigration Table (EIT). When it first went public in 2013, the EIT engaged the broadest cross-section of evangelical leaders since the abolition movement, including the top leadership of the Southern Baptist Convention, Focus on the Family, Sojourners magazine, World Vision, World Relief, the National Association of Evangelicals, the Christian Community Development Association, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, the Republican-leaning National Hispanic Christian Leadership Council, and the Democratic-leaning Esperanza USA (and many more denominational and nondenominational leaders). The EIT included the whole political spectrum by focusing on a simple core set of Christian principles, and EIT leaders were free to differ on political strategies and policies as long as they could advocate together for legislative leaders to create policies that supported these principles. The principles were not proof texts but rather core biblical values such as the well-being and unity of the family. In the dialogue to form these principles, leaders came together on even more fundamental Christian beliefs such as the call to love as Jesus loved—a love so strong, deep, and wide that it includes enemies and strangers. Imagine the witness of Rev. Dr. Richard Land, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and Rev. Dr. Gabriel Salguero, president of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition, sitting down together to call a believing legislator to love the stranger in his heart before creating policy.

The EIT had its first public press conference in the Rayburn Building of the US Senate in June 2013; two days later, President Barack Obama issued the executive order commonly known as DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), which provided a measure of security and support for young immigrants who had been brought to the United States as children. The president privately called EIT principals afterward and let them know that he could not have done it without the bipartisan force they embodied.

Clearly, the work of the Evangelical Immigration Table has not been sufficient to build broader public reconciliation between Christians across the partisan divide in the public arena. Nevertheless, there are lessons to be learned from the EIT as we, in our own corners and contexts, attempt to “go and do likewise.”

First, we must simply but seriously intend to prioritize our Christian identity over our political affiliation and cultural tribe. The EIT engaged leaders who had never sat down at a common table before but who decided that their common faith was more important than their political differences. In The Borders of Baptism, Michael Budde states his conviction that “‘being a Christian’ is one’s primary and formative loyalty, the one that contextualizes and defines the legitimacy of other claimants on allegiance and conscience—those of class, nationality, and state, for example.”8 Budde’s comments echo Jesus’ severe statement in Matthew 10:37, that “anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” This is far from easy at a moment when many of us feel that not only our deepest values, but the lives of those we love and all that we hold dear, are threatened by the people on the “other side.” We may even feel that those on the other side cannot possibly be real Christians. Bishop Desmond Tutu, the great Black South African leader who played a significant role in the ending of apartheid and became the chairman of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that followed, says:

There are days when I wish I could erase from my mind all the horrors I have witnessed. It seems that there is no end to the creative ways we humans can find to hurt each other, and no end to the reasons we feel justified in doing so. There is also no end to the human capacity for healing. In each of us, there is an innate ability to create joy out of suffering, to find hope in the most hopeless of situations, and to heal any relationship in need of healing.9

To prioritize Christian unity is to share the faith of Bishop Tutu that it is possible to overcome terrible conflict and all that people do to one another in the midst of it.

Second, we have to find our true, sacred common ground. The EIT worked hard to identify foundational biblical concepts that they agreed on and that could guide political decisions. For example, the body of Christ is a reality that goes beneath and beyond all of our issues. “If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it” (1 Cor 12:26). This fundamental biblical concept has concrete implications for all of our political decisions about our common life. If we take this seriously, how do we make decisions differently? If we start with this agreement, how does it change the conversation about public health and the health of the economy on the other end of the coronavirus pandemic? It does not make the right decisions obvious, but it does give us a North Star to hold us together.

Third, we have to live out our faith in relationships across the divide in which we experience the incarnate love of Christ. The EIT engaged immigrant and nonimmigrant leaders as peers, united in a joint mission. Relationships of charity can still be characterized by a subtle disrespect, an “other species” dynamic that impedes true and full unity. However, relationships of joint mission create the trust necessary for transformational understanding. Brenda Salter McNeil in Roadmap to Reconciliation states:

It is simply this: fellowship springs from a shared mission. Contrary to popular belief, it is not the other way around. It’s not enough to just be friends. It’s not enough to hear someone’s story and feel genuine compassion. While those things are certainly helpful, they are not enough to sustain a group over the long haul and bring about systemic change on a larger scale. Instead, we must focus first on a mission to which our group can be committed together.10

The intensity of hatred and fear that fills our common space (and tries to find a home in us) at this historic moment is daunting and can easily cause us to despair. One of my oldest, closest friends just stopped talking to me because we have different political perspectives and tribes. The darkest moment, however, can be an opportunity for the light of Christ to shine. In the words of the apostle Paul:

We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. . . . Since we have that same spirit of faith, we also believe and therefore speak, because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead will also raise us with Jesus and present us with you to himself. All this is for your benefit, so that the grace that is reaching more and more people may cause thanksgiving to overflow to the glory of God. Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:8–9 and 13b–18)

May we not lose heart but rather commit ourselves to find in this difficult time an opportunity to show that Jesus has come through the unity of his disciples. Amen.

Written By

Alexia Salvatierra is assistant professor of integral mission and global transformation in the School of Intercultural Studies. She is a Lutheran pastor with over 40 years of experience in congregational and community ministry in both English and Spanish, including church-based service and community development programs, congregational/community organizing, and legislative advocacy. She has also served as adjunct faculty for many other institutions. With Peter Heltzel she authored Faith-Rooted Organizing: Mobilizing the Church in Service to the World and is founder of the Faith-Rooted Organizing UnNetwork. She was executive director of Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE) for 11 years.

The Republican legislator from Kentucky, an evangelical believer, had been historically anti-immigration. The bipartisan group of immigrant and nonimmigrant pastors who came to meet with him about immigration reform handed him a bookmark listing 40 Scripture passages with implications for immigration policy. They challenged him to read one a day in his daily meditations and asked to come back in 40 days to have a conversation. When they returned, the legislator had shifted his position. He had not become an advocate for immigration reform, but his heart had changed toward immigrants. He could respect the pastors’ perspective. He had become open to a public policy dialogue.

Given the current intensity and fury of partisan conflicts at this historic moment in the United States, the above account sounds like a fantasy. It occurred only five years ago. Although we had not arrived at the current level of mutual animosity in 2015, it was already neither simple nor easy to achieve mutually respectful dialogue and common purpose on public issues across partisan lines. This story is a testimony to the fundamental capacity of Christians to achieve a greater unity than the world considers possible—to be the answer to the prayer of Jesus in John 17, that the world would know that he had come through the unity of his disciples.

Christians are settled on both sides of the partisan divide in ways that have implications beyond politics. While the total number of Americans claiming Christian faith has declined rapidly over the past decade,1 81 percent of White Republicans still identify as Christian (55 percent of whom attend church regularly). More than 74 percent of Black Democrats and 71 percent of Hispanic Democrats also still identify as Christian (61 percent of Black Democrats and 49 percent of Hispanic Democrats attend church regularly).2 The early church amazed the Roman world by their evident unity across ethnic, class, and national divisions. Imagine the power of the testimony that we could offer to the living Christ if the United States saw Christians on both sides of our bitter partisan divide showing a level of unity similar to the early church. What would it take to achieve that goal?

Some would say that we could achieve that goal by staying away from the political arena. According to another recent Pew Research Center study, more than 60 percent of Americans think that churches should not express their views on day-to-day social and political matters, and more than 75 percent believe that churches should not endorse candidates.3 The role of the church4 in the political arena has been hotly debated throughout church history. Christian positions on the issue have ranged from the prophetic defiance of the earliest church to the complete adoption and incorporation of the church under Constantine; from the early Reformers’ common understanding that political service was a vocation and political systems a divine instrument to the Radical Reformers’ belief that the political realm was inherently corrupt and corrupting, to a diverse array of modern perspectives and stances on church engagement in political processes. It’s understandable that the average American Christian would be theologically confused about this question and would default to a common misunderstanding of the constitutional separation between church and state.

Yet much of the unjust and unnecessary suffering in the modern world, particularly that which afflicts the most vulnerable among us, is caused or impacted by government decisions. If we have the capacity to impact those decisions, the principle of stewardship calls us to respond. On April 3, 1968, the day before his assassination, Martin Luther King Jr. preached his famous “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” sermon on the parable of the Good Samaritan.5 In his sermon, King suggested that those who passed by the man in need had good reasons for not stopping: the Jericho Road was dangerous and robbers often pretended to be victims to induce travelers to stop so they could more easily attack them. King said that those who did not stop were asking themselves the reasonable question, “What will happen to me if I stop?” The Good Samaritan may have asked the same question, but he also asked an additional question: “What will happen to him if I don’t stop?” That second, empathetic question led him to risk stopping to help. Jesus told the rich young ruler whose question sparked the parable to “go, and do likewise.” In a representative democracy, most of us have the opportunity and capacity to influence public decision-making. We are responsible for stewarding that influence in a way that is empathetic to those who are suffering unjustly, even if it takes us into the dangerous territory of the political arena.6 The question is whether we can do that in a way that also manifests Christian unity across our societal divides. Do we have to leave the political arena to find reconciliation with our brothers and sisters who are our political enemies, or can we find a way to be in and not of the world together?

Emerging generations (who are describing themselves as religiously unaffiliated at truly alarming rates) are watching to see if Jesus offers anything that helps further the advancement of peace and justice in our common life. The stakes are very high.

The story at the beginning of this article came out of the work of the Evangelical Immigration Table (EIT). When it first went public in 2013, the EIT engaged the broadest cross-section of evangelical leaders since the abolition movement, including the top leadership of the Southern Baptist Convention, Focus on the Family, Sojourners magazine, World Vision, World Relief, the National Association of Evangelicals, the Christian Community Development Association, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, the Republican-leaning National Hispanic Christian Leadership Council, and the Democratic-leaning Esperanza USA (and many more denominational and nondenominational leaders). The EIT included the whole political spectrum by focusing on a simple core set of Christian principles, and EIT leaders were free to differ on political strategies and policies as long as they could advocate together for legislative leaders to create policies that supported these principles. The principles were not proof texts but rather core biblical values such as the well-being and unity of the family. In the dialogue to form these principles, leaders came together on even more fundamental Christian beliefs such as the call to love as Jesus loved—a love so strong, deep, and wide that it includes enemies and strangers. Imagine the witness of Rev. Dr. Richard Land, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and Rev. Dr. Gabriel Salguero, president of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition, sitting down together to call a believing legislator to love the stranger in his heart before creating policy.

The EIT had its first public press conference in the Rayburn Building of the US Senate in June 2013; two days later, President Barack Obama issued the executive order commonly known as DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), which provided a measure of security and support for young immigrants who had been brought to the United States as children. The president privately called EIT principals afterward and let them know that he could not have done it without the bipartisan force they embodied.

Clearly, the work of the Evangelical Immigration Table has not been sufficient to build broader public reconciliation between Christians across the partisan divide in the public arena. Nevertheless, there are lessons to be learned from the EIT as we, in our own corners and contexts, attempt to “go and do likewise.”

First, we must simply but seriously intend to prioritize our Christian identity over our political affiliation and cultural tribe. The EIT engaged leaders who had never sat down at a common table before but who decided that their common faith was more important than their political differences. In The Borders of Baptism, Michael Budde states his conviction that “‘being a Christian’ is one’s primary and formative loyalty, the one that contextualizes and defines the legitimacy of other claimants on allegiance and conscience—those of class, nationality, and state, for example.”8 Budde’s comments echo Jesus’ severe statement in Matthew 10:37, that “anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” This is far from easy at a moment when many of us feel that not only our deepest values, but the lives of those we love and all that we hold dear, are threatened by the people on the “other side.” We may even feel that those on the other side cannot possibly be real Christians. Bishop Desmond Tutu, the great Black South African leader who played a significant role in the ending of apartheid and became the chairman of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that followed, says:

There are days when I wish I could erase from my mind all the horrors I have witnessed. It seems that there is no end to the creative ways we humans can find to hurt each other, and no end to the reasons we feel justified in doing so. There is also no end to the human capacity for healing. In each of us, there is an innate ability to create joy out of suffering, to find hope in the most hopeless of situations, and to heal any relationship in need of healing.9

To prioritize Christian unity is to share the faith of Bishop Tutu that it is possible to overcome terrible conflict and all that people do to one another in the midst of it.

Second, we have to find our true, sacred common ground. The EIT worked hard to identify foundational biblical concepts that they agreed on and that could guide political decisions. For example, the body of Christ is a reality that goes beneath and beyond all of our issues. “If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it” (1 Cor 12:26). This fundamental biblical concept has concrete implications for all of our political decisions about our common life. If we take this seriously, how do we make decisions differently? If we start with this agreement, how does it change the conversation about public health and the health of the economy on the other end of the coronavirus pandemic? It does not make the right decisions obvious, but it does give us a North Star to hold us together.

Third, we have to live out our faith in relationships across the divide in which we experience the incarnate love of Christ. The EIT engaged immigrant and nonimmigrant leaders as peers, united in a joint mission. Relationships of charity can still be characterized by a subtle disrespect, an “other species” dynamic that impedes true and full unity. However, relationships of joint mission create the trust necessary for transformational understanding. Brenda Salter McNeil in Roadmap to Reconciliation states:

It is simply this: fellowship springs from a shared mission. Contrary to popular belief, it is not the other way around. It’s not enough to just be friends. It’s not enough to hear someone’s story and feel genuine compassion. While those things are certainly helpful, they are not enough to sustain a group over the long haul and bring about systemic change on a larger scale. Instead, we must focus first on a mission to which our group can be committed together.10

The intensity of hatred and fear that fills our common space (and tries to find a home in us) at this historic moment is daunting and can easily cause us to despair. One of my oldest, closest friends just stopped talking to me because we have different political perspectives and tribes. The darkest moment, however, can be an opportunity for the light of Christ to shine. In the words of the apostle Paul:

We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. . . . Since we have that same spirit of faith, we also believe and therefore speak, because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead will also raise us with Jesus and present us with you to himself. All this is for your benefit, so that the grace that is reaching more and more people may cause thanksgiving to overflow to the glory of God. Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:8–9 and 13b–18)

May we not lose heart but rather commit ourselves to find in this difficult time an opportunity to show that Jesus has come through the unity of his disciples. Amen.

Alexia Salvatierra

Alexia Salvatierra is assistant professor of integral mission and global transformation in the School of Intercultural Studies. She is a Lutheran pastor with over 40 years of experience in congregational and community ministry in both English and Spanish, including church-based service and community development programs, congregational/community organizing, and legislative advocacy. She has also served as adjunct faculty for many other institutions. With Peter Heltzel she authored Faith-Rooted Organizing: Mobilizing the Church in Service to the World and is founder of the Faith-Rooted Organizing UnNetwork. She was executive director of Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE) for 11 years.

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