Wineskins Archive

January 23, 2014

Seeing Social Issues “Theologically” (Jul-Oct 2008)

Filed under: — @ 7:46 pm and

by Gary Selby
July – October, 2008

One of the best political discussions I ever had happened in a small village in Uganda. We were sharing a meal together, a handful of Americans and Ugandans, all fellow believers in Christ. We’d spent the day meeting with members of the village to see their progress toward a number of “home improvements,” from safer cooking stoves to cleaner latrines. Now, as we sat around bowls of rice, posho, and beans, our spirited talk ranged from development and local politics to the impending U. S. presidential election.

I was enjoying the conversation until one of the Ugandans brought up American policy in Africa. “Why does your government support rulers who don’t help the average Ugandan?” they wanted to know. I wasn’t sure how to answer—it’s a complicated issue and I didn’t have all the facts—but his question forced me to look at the policies of my country in a new way, through the eyes of someone besides myself and my immediate “tribe.” It forced me to ask this question: “What are the effects of the policies of my government on my brothers and sisters in Christ in other parts of the world?” I had never thought about it! I had never really considered the disturbing possibility that policies aimed at protecting my own personal and economic interests—policies that I have likely supported and from which I have certainly benefited—might be hurtful to the very people to whom, according to scripture, I owe an allegiance above even that I give my country, that is, to my brothers and sisters in Christ who live across the globe.

The discussion raised an even more uncomfortable question: What interests and values lie behind the positions we take toward the social and economic issues of our day, issues like immigration or healthcare reform, global warming, or the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? To what degree are our views driven by nationalism, fear of attack, or simply a desire to protect and improve our own economic position? Do we think about these issues theologically, from the perspective of what we understand as God’s vision for the world, or do we simply “vote our pocketbook”? We might ask these questions of any number of issues, but as an exercise in thinking theologically, consider the issue of immigration reform.

Immigration as a Test Case

Current estimates place the number of undocumented aliens in the U.S. at around 12 million, and many observers predict that immigration reform will be an issue of intense debate in the coming year. If the recent past is any clue to the future, as part of that debate we will hear appeals such as this one, offered at a congressional hearing in July of 2006 in support of constructing a fence along the U. S.-Mexico border:

It’s elementary that to defend ourselves against our determined and resourceful enemies, our border must be secure; or in the parlance of the Border Patrol, we must have “operational control.” The Border Patrol acknowledges that we don’t have this now, which is obvious, especially to those Americans who live in border communities and suffer the consequences of illegal immigration.

The speaker went on to raise the specter of al Qaeda operatives “changing Islamic surnames to Hispanic surnames” and entering the country out of a desire to “hit us as hard as they can.”1 In the debate to come, we will also likely hear vehement arguments that undocumented aliens have broken the law, as in this blogger’s assertion:

The people you’re talking about are in our country ILLEGALLY, and that’s a crime! God’s people can love these lawbreakers without dismissing their crime or giving them permission to continue flaunting their illegality . . . No one, including “very hard-working illegals” deserves God’s free, unmerited grace! They all must pay for their illegal violation of our immigration laws.2

We’ll probably hear warnings that “waves of illegal immigrants willing to work at substandard wages and working conditions” will “depress the wages of American workers” and cause dramatic overpopulation in America, “crowding school classrooms, consuming already limited affordable housing, and straining natural resources like water, energy, and forestland.”3 We may hear the influx of immigrants described in terms of the “conquest of America,” as in one pundit’s dire prediction: “If we do not get control of our borders and stop this greatest invasion in history, I see the dissolution of the U. S.”4 Or perhaps, we will find ourselves asking the question that was put to a candidate in the current presidential campaign: “Why, as an American, do I have to push a button to speak English or hear English?”5

Consider the appeals on which these claims are based. Some evoke the deep sense of insecurity that has pervaded our nation in the post 9-11 era, an insecurity that many observers argue has been heightened by the political discourse to which we have been exposed over the past six years. Others appeal to our desire for law and order, but in ways that stereotype immigrants as lawless criminals and elevate punishing their “crimes” to a place of ultimate value, without regard for the often desperate circumstances that lead them to attempt crossing the border illegally in the first place. Others call us to fight to preserve what is ours—our resources, our economic prosperity, our culture and language—often in ways that play on our natural suspicion of those who are different from us. Running through most are appeals to fear and self-preservation.

Heightening the sense of threat that many feel toward immigrants are the metaphors that politicians and the media often use to talk about immigration, metaphors related to war (the “invasion” of immigrants) or natural disaster (the “flood” of immigrants). These metaphors can profoundly influence our perceptions, often without our even being consciously aware of it. To illustrate the power of metaphor, imagine looking at the night sky through a smoked piece of glass—the glass will create a particular “picture” of the sky, calling your attention to some features and causing you to ignore others. That’s how metaphors work. With just a word or a phrase, they tell us how to “see” the problem. They explain what’s “really” going on and why, and they assign motive and morality to the behavior of others. Most of all, they make strong, yet implicit arguments about how we should respond to the problem. Take the war metaphor, for example. If we see immigration through the lens of “war,” then of course, illegal aliens are invaders. And why do people from one country invade another? Obviously, to take it over. How do we respond? We fight, we repel them! Framed this way the immigrant is an enemy, a threat from whom we must protect ourselves.

Certainly, questions about the legal, social, cultural, and economic implications of illegal immigration have a legitimate place in the discussion. But as followers of Jesus, we also bring a different set of values to the conversation than those of national and personal security, protection of our economic position, and the preservation of our culture. In short, our challenge, with immigration as any other public issue, is to examine the issue through the lens of our theology—to ask ourselves what that issue looks like when we hold it up in the light of the Gospel.

What Difference Does Theology Make?

What theological values might we use as lenses for understanding and responding to this problem, even as we even as we engage other questions related to its cultural, economic, and legal implications? Here are three possibilities.

One value would surely be scripture’s persistent call that we practice hospitality and, particularly, that we care for the stranger. This value lies behind the command given to the Israelites not to oppress the alien (Exod. 22:21, 23:9), nor to harvest every last bit of grain or fruit, leaving some behind for the “alien, the orphan, and the widow” (Deut. 24:17-22 NRSV). Even more telling is the vision of the last judgment that Jesus offers in Matthew 25, where the mark of those he recognizes as his own is not their orthodoxy but, rather, the fact that they offered clothing to the naked, food and drink to the hungry and thirsty, care for the sick and imprisoned, and welcome to the stranger (vv. 34-41). As Christians taking a position on an issue like immigration, can we evade his command that we care for the stranger and still call ourselves his followers? Does his call to care for the “least of these” stop at the border?

Thinking theologically might also mean that we see immigration from the perspective of God’s ultimate act of empathy, the incarnation. At the core of the Gospel is this stunning claim: In Jesus, God became flesh and lived among us (John 1:14). As the writer of Hebrews puts it, he became like us, immersing himself in our experiences of disappointment and suffering so that he could sympathize with our weaknesses (4:15-16). As God’s people, can we do less than to identify with the pain of those who suffer in our world? When we think about illegal immigration, of course, this means that we seek to identify with the plight of these people who have broken our laws, even as we debate how to address their “crimes.” One example is the case of Felix Aguilara and his wife, Yolanda, whose story was carried in the Los Angeles Times in August of 2006.6 Felix and Yolanda left their infant son in the care of relatives and “trudged 100 miles through the boiling Arizona desert,” only to be caught by the U.S. Border Patrol and returned to Mexico. Rather than return to their home, they immediately boarded a bus back to the town where they’d started the journey in order to attempt the crossing again. Later, as the story reported, when asked how she felt about leaving their baby behind Yolanda simply turned away “to hide the tears on her face.” Yes, Aguilara and Yolanda, like hundreds of other Latinos who attempt to cross our border, are acting illegally. But do we ask why? Do we wonder what kind of desperation would force people to leave their homes and extended families and often even their own children and attempt a treacherous journey across a desert, often for a low-paying job cleaning houses, picking fruit, or mowing lawns? As people who claim to follow Jesus, can we escape asking what the world looks through the eyes of Aguilara and Yolanda?

Finally, as followers of Jesus, we cannot examine an issue like immigration apart from God’s passion for social and economic justice, captured in the vision he gave Isaiah of the “new heavens and the new earth” (Isa. 65:17):

Never again will there be . . . an infant who lives but a few days, or an old man who does not live out his years; he who dies at a hundred will be thought a mere youth; he who fails to reach a hundred will be considered accursed. They will build houses and dwell in them; they will plant vineyards and eat their fruit. No longer will they build houses and others live in them, or plant and others eat . . . My chosen ones will long enjoy the works of their hands. They will not toil in vain or bear children doomed to misfortune; for they will be a people blessed by the LORD, they and their descendants with them.

That vision addresses many of the very conditions that prompt desperate people to attempt the treacherous border crossing: infant mortality, hunger, poverty, inadequate housing and health care. One recent discussion of the border fence noted that “the difference in per capita income between the U. S. and Mexico is among the greatest cross border contrasts in the world.”7 How can we not be struck by that disparity? How can it be fair that we have so much and they have so little? That we have an abundance of food—literally, whatever delicacy we want from virtually anywhere in the world, when all over the world children go to bed hungry? That we have access to the greatest health care in the world while in so much of the world people die from easily-treated diseases? That we can turn on a tap (not to mention grab a bottle of Evian or Aquafina), when people in much of the world drink from stagnant, germ-infested pools? In light of Jesus proclamation that he had come to “preach good news to the poor . . . proclaim freedom for the prisoners . . .[and] release the oppressed,” can we as his followers approach an issue like immigration guided solely or even primarily by a determination to preserve “our way of life”?

Nothing Above the Kingdom

Not long ago, I attended a fireworks display at the end of a L. A. Dodgers game. We fans were invited to come out onto the outfield (walking barefoot on the center field grass is a fan’s dream) and the fireworks were spectacular. As the show moved toward its climactic ending, a succession of bursts of color backed by an 80’s blues rendition of “America the Beautiful,” I found myself caught up in the emotion of the moment; tears began to trickle down my face. But in that moment, I immediately thought of the people I’d gotten to know in Africa, people who have always been my brothers and sisters in Christ but who are also now my friends. I thought about how few of them would ever venture more than a couple of miles from their villages, how many had had children die because of inadequate health care, how hard they worked to keep food on the table, and yet how graciously they had welcomed me. The fireworks were wonderful, but I found that I couldn’t quite enjoy them in the way I had before I went to Africa.

That’s the problem with thinking theologically—it takes issues that are already complicated, that already defy simple answers, and makes them even messier. Even without theological considerations, immigration reform is a tough issue—what to do with the 12 million who already live in the shadows, how to maintain a border in the face of the reality that desperate people will find a way to get across regardless of the obstacles (even the Berlin wall, where soldiers shot would-be border crossers, was not sufficient to keep 5000 people from successfully crossing), and finding a way to offer succor to the world’s “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” without overwhelming the housing, health care, and employment resources of our major cities. Throw in the values of the kingdom—the call to practice hospitality, to empathize with the poor and oppressed, and to seek justice, and it only gets worse. But if we are truly followers of Jesus, who taught us to pray for the coming God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven, can we do otherwise?


  1. Ed Royce, Statement to the Subcommittee on International Terrorism and Nonproliferation, “Border Vulnerabilities and International Terrorism,” July 5, 2006. Available at (retrieved July 2, 2008).
  2. See (retrieved July 2, 2008).
  3. “Illegal Immigration is a Crime,” Federation for American Immigration Reform Issue Brief. Available at (retrieved July 3, 2008).
  4. “10 Questions for Pat Buchanan,” Time (28 August 2006): 6.
  5. Robin Abcarian, “The Language Line: A McCain questioner hits a nerve with a question about English in America. He agrees on its importance, but also urges tolerance” Los Angeles Times, 2 July 2008, A9.
  6. Letta Tayler, “They’re Bound and Determined,” Los Angeles Times (13 August 2006). Available at,0,943835,full.story (Retreived July 8, 2008).
    David Von Drehle, “The Great Wall of America,” Time (June 30, 2008): 35.


Gary SelbyGary Selby is a Blanche E. Seaver Professor of Communication at Pepperdine University, where he chairs the Communication Graduate Program and serves as director of the University’s Center for Faith and Learning. He serves as a leader in the worship ministry of the University Church of Christ in Malibu, and is also very involved in the church’s campus ministry.

His research focuses in two areas, religious communication and discourse related to racial conflict in U. S. history. His recent essays include “(Em)bodying the Faith: Baptism as Ritual Communication,” “Scoffing at the Enemy: The Burlesque Frame in the Rhetoric of Ralph David Abernathy,” and “Mocking the Sacred: Frederick Douglass’s ‘Slaveholder’s Sermon’ and the Antebellum Debate over Religion and Slavery.” He is also the author of Martin Luther King and the Rhetoric of Freedom: The Exodus in America’s Struggle for Civil Rights, published in 2008 by Baylor University Press.

Before coming to Pepperdine in 2005, Gary spent 22 years in local ministry, first with the Silver Spring, Maryland Church of Christ, and then, beginning in 1985, with the Church of Christ in Columbia, Maryland, a congregation that he helped to plant. He served as minister for the Columbia church for 19 years, the last 5 of them focused particularly on worship and preaching. For the last nine of those years, he was also on the faculty of George Washington University, teaching in their communication program.

Gary did his undergraduate work in history and political science at Harding University. He earned his Masters of Theology degree from Harding Graduate School of Religion and his PhD in Public Communication from the University of Maryland. Gary and his wife Tammy have been married for 27 years, and he is the proud father of two sons: Joel, 24 and Tyler, 21.

Regardless of where his paycheck comes from, Gary’s heart is in ministry. He loves his work at Pepperdine and feels incredibly blessed to have the opportunity to mentor and shape the lives of Christian young people. He also has a deep passion for the church and, especially, for helping churches discover vibrant, life-transforming worship. His dream is to see an entire generation of bright, talented young people who are informed, engaged, full of the love of Christ, and passionate about making a difference turned loose on the world.


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