17 Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us. 18 For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. 19 Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things. 20 But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, 21 who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself. Therefore, my brothers, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm thus in the Lord, my beloved. (Phil. 3: 17-4:1)
If you’re still looking for something to give up for Lent, here are two sacrifices which today’s passage recommends: our identity and our nationality, or our citizenship. Is that shocking? Now that I have your attention, please hear me out.
The terrible terrorist event in New Zealand this week, and the hateful, racist, white nationalist identity politics that inspired it, force us to think again about who we think we are, and whose we think we are. And not just in New Zealand. If you think that communication on Facebook, Twitter, and other forms of social media is getting meaner and more personal, if you’re increasingly afraid to say anything, not because your ideas might get attacked, but because you, personally, might get attacked, not just for what you think but for who you are, you’re not alone. Identity groups and identity politics have become so feverish and super-charged today that a recent survey found that big percentages of both Democrats and Republicans agreed with the sentence, “Our country would be better off if large numbers of people in the opposing party just died.” Almost as many people of both parties said that violence could be justified against people of the opposing party from “a little bit” to “a lot.”
That tells me that people are not really becoming less religious today. People are just as religious as ever. Only now we’re getting religious about race, culture, gender, wealth, politics, sexual desires, even about celebrities and sports teams, to the point of becoming crusaders, even killers, killers of relationships and reputations, if not of persons.
This is not a new thing, by the way. The targets and the tactics only change. Last week I reported for jury duty. When the defense attorney asked all of us in the jury pool, “Have any of you had any negative experiences with police and law enforcement?” all of us shook our heads to say, No, with one exception: the one and only African-American person in the jury pool. He told about times in Portland where he had been pulled over or followed very closely by police for strangely long times, just often enough to make him wonder if his real crime was a DWB: “driving while black.” I heard stories about that while living in Detroit and Minnesota, too.
We need better ideas about identity.
The same could be said for nationality, or citizenship. I have shared with you about a ministry I have recently joined, that of prison visitation at NorCor, the four-county prison in The Dalles. It serves as an overflow facility for immigration detainees when the federal detention facility in Tacoma, Washington, runs out of space. I go out to The Dalles with Becky on Sunday afternoons or evenings, to stay overnight in our unit there. On Monday afternoons, I visit at NorCor with Spanish-speaking detainees caught up in immigration sweeps. Mainly it’s just to listen to them, record some of their needs to see if other local ministries can help with them, and to pray with them.
Three years ago, a presidential candidate launched his campaign by saying that these border-crossers are murderers, rapists, drug dealers, gang members, terrorists, and thugs. Borders do tend to attract some dangerous people, from both sides. And yes, some people should be sent back home. But if even the worst offenders in a prison should want a pastor to visit and pray with them, I’m not going to say, “Sorry, the wickedness of your crime disqualifies you from ministry.”
Borders not only attract dangerous people, they attract endangered people. There are about 70 million people currently displaced in the world by war, poverty, violence and corruption. It’s no surprise then that some of those 70 million would show up at our borders. Most of the people with whom I have visited at NorCor came here trying to get away from murderers, rapists, drug dealers, gang members, terrorists and thugs in their home countries.
Because they can’t cross our borders legally, at least not in time to save their lives, they must live and work in the shadows of our society. All the more reason then for them not to go looking for the thug life here. But the thug life comes looking for them, precisely because of their vulnerability. I understand why nations must regulate travel and work and status across their borders, if citizenship and nationality are to mean anything, if there is to be the rule of law. I just think that currently we’re going about those matters in ways that are not only cruel, they’re stupid and self-defeating. All the complex, crazy-making, self-contradictory laws, procedures, regulations and paperwork having to do with immigration today never fail to amaze me, in a sad and sorry sort of way. Getting legal status anymore is like working a Rubik’s cube, or one of those Rube Goldberg contraptions that require a chicken to lay an egg, for the egg to roll down a chute and drop onto a lever, and for that lever to set in motion another twenty steps, before a light goes on or a door opens. Who knew that citizenship could become such a dangerous, difficult and divisive thing?
But I get just as surprised, in a good way, at what I see of God and of goodness in prison and among these detainees. Jesus is also an inmate at NorCor. One person with whom I visited last Monday wanted to make sure that I knew the names of other detainees who did not have family nearby helping, visiting nor supporting them, the way he did. Another inmate shared how God has given him something of a witness and a ministry in prison, and how God used him to lead a very frightened and despairing young man, another immigration detainee, to Christ, and how they now support and encourage each other spiritually. When we prayed together, he prayed for me, and for us, this church.
As we talk and listen as fellow human beings, about our families, our faith, and as we pray together, the boundaries and borders between our nations, cultures and customs disappear, along, it seems, with the glass between us. Then we experience the truth of Paul’s words to his beloved friends in Philippi: “Our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, 21 who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself. Therefore, my brothers, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm thus in the Lord, my beloved.”
In our prison fellowship and in our prayers, we experience and express something of the love and care for one another that you just heard Paul express for his friends in Philippi. At NorCor, smiling at each other across the glass in the visiting rooms, speaking over the phones, we are exercising our citizenship in a realm that will outlast and replace all the realms and kingdoms and countries which currently divide and define the world. When the day comes that “the kingdoms of this world have become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever,” I want to be standing on the right side of that kingdom’s border with you and with my Latino brothers in prison.
When Paul reminded his Philippian friends of the heavenly citizenship that they shared, those were not just pious platitudes, nor just some irrelevant “pie-in-the-sky” escapism. Paul was writing to people in a city that was in Greece. But it was not a Greek city. It was a Roman colony, built to be an outpost of Roman law and order, culture and commerce, politics and religion, with every intent of Romanizing the surrounding area, like when France and England sent colonists to North America, or Spain to Central and South America.
There were all sorts of people in Philippi. But its founders, leading citizens, mayors, city council members, members of the chamber of commerce, police force and more, were Romans, ethnically and in every other sense of the world. With Roman citizenship and identity came the rights and responsibilities of free people, like voting, due process of law and a jury trial by peers. Other kinds of people in Philippi did not get those privileges. Roman citizens in Philippi then had power, privilege, dignity and identity unavailable to the mere subjects and slaves among their neighbors.
Paul also had Roman citizenship. So, when Paul reminded his Philippian friends about their common heavenly citizenship in Christ, was he talking to fellow Roman citizens in that church, urging them to resist the temptation to look down their Roman noses at the subjects and slaves among them? Or was he writing to subjects and slaves who were tempted to be jealous or resentful of Roman citizens? More likely, he was writing to all three kinds of people in the church—citizens, subjects and slaves, Jewish and Gentile. He was reminding them of who they really were, and what they had in common, namely, their heavenly citizenship, and the glorious eternal destiny and identity that they share with Christ and each other. That should have an effect upon the way they see and treat each other, don’t you think?
Their new, shared, heavenly and eternal identity and citizenship reminds me of what happened in Hungary during the last year of the Second World War. As the Russian army closed in on Budapest, the Nazi machinery for deporting Jews to death camps like Auschwitz or Treblinka was cranked up to a desperate pace. But one man managed to save the lives of thousands of Hungarian Jews. He was Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat, stationed in Budapest. He could have left that increasingly desperate and dangerous war zone. Instead, he stayed on to save thousands of Hungarian Jews.
How did he do so? Simply by declaring them Swedish. He issued thousands of Swedish passports, even Swedish citizenship papers, to Jews in danger of the round-ups, even though few of them had ever been to Sweden, or spoke a lick of Swedish. Wallenberg even housed them in homes that he bought or rented with Swedish money, and which he registered and declared as, “official Swedish diplomatic territory.”
German military police wanted to arrest Wallenberg and stop this rescue effort. But their superior officers made them leave Wallenberg and these new Swedish citizens alone because 1) they couldn’t spare the men from the front to round them all up; 2) they didn’t want to add Sweden to their growing list of enemies, and 3) some of them were thinking, “The way this war is going, I might just want Swedish citizenship soon. Or at the least, I don’t want to add anything more to any future possible war crime charges against me.”
But sharing his Swedish identity came at great cost to Wallenberg. Ironically, it was not the Nazis who arrested him for saving Jews in Budapest, but KGB agents in the Soviet Red Army. Wallenberg died a few years later in a Siberian prison camp.
Wallenberg, coming and staying in a war zone to save people by sharing his identity and citizenship with them, at so great a cost to himself, is a wonderful picture of the gospel, the good news today. So did God, in Christ, come to share our condition and our fate in the flesh. So did God, through Christ, offer us a share in his divine nature, through the gift of God’s Spirit. And so does God offer us a new, common citizenship and a new identity that we share now and forever with Christ and with each other, whatever other markers of identity or nationality we own, or that supposedly own us.
So, when I say, Let’s give up our identities and our nationalities for Lent, no, I don’t mean, let’s burn our birth certificates, our social security cards, our drivers’ licenses and our passports, if we have one, and renounce whatever citizenship we have. I’m saying, let’s renounce the over-blown hope and the over-blown hype that people put into such things. Every war, every hate crime, every phobia and every kind of prejudice and supremacy just shows how our identities can turn into idolatries. If we’re Americans and Oregonians of whatever color or class or political leaning, don’t see that as something that divides or distinguishes us, or that elevates us above others. See them instead as roles and places in which to live out the gospel of Jesus Christ. But only by putting the identity and the citizenship that we share as people on this same beautiful planet ahead of these other identities and nationalities. That we can do best if we keep in first place the identity and citizenship that Christ Jesus shares with us, and that he shares with people of every tribe, tongue and nation.
What Zion MC and many of our friends and neighbors did yesterday to host, support and celebrate with Bridging Cultures Canby here shows how our heavenly citizenship and identity can direct our citizenship and identity wherever we live. I hope that my visiting and praying with Latino immigration detainees is one way of leveraging my Anglo-American citizenship and identity to help them experience our shared citizenship and identity in Christ. I hope this message does the same for all of us.