Everyone can see the division in our country right now and it has filtered down to our friends, families and churches. I have seen many people complaining about people talking about “politics” and causing “division” and have even been told to stop voicing my own concerns for these reasons. Some people seem to be confused why politics would be causing so many problems in our daily lives, and if we would just stop talking about politics all the time, then these problems would just go away.
It’s not “just politics”
Of course, the issues behind all this division are not mere “politics.” Regular political questions are those things like debating budgets, or a 5¢ tungsten tax, or trademark disputes. These issues should certainly not in normal times cause communities to be divided.
Other issues are much bigger than that and though many of the conversations about them happen in the political world, dismissing them as “just politics” can lead you to both diminish the importance of these issues in people’s lives and then be surprised at the strong reaction you will receive when interacting with people who hold different views on these issues.
There are many issues like this, such as the Black Lives Matter movement, the Muslim ban, and Trump’s Wall, but I am going to use Trump’s Wall as the main example here because that is what I am most familiar with and feel the most qualified to talk about, but the same fundamental dynamics are at work in those other issues as well.
Trump’s Wall is racist
Let’s start with Trump’s Wall. Specifically, the wall as initially proposed by Trump in 2015 and not other border control policies that have been proposed before that. Some people (mostly those in favor of it) want to dismiss all conversation about the wall as simply politics and boring immigration policy. Naturally, people with this viewpoint get very shocked at the very strong reaction they receive when talking with people who oppose the wall. Why would there be such strong feelings about a boring political issue?
That’s of course because it’s not just a boring political issue to people on the other side of the issue. To Mexican and other Latin American immigrants, the wall represents the country telling them that they do not belong in this country or that they are inherently bad people. How can we tell this? What makes this different from previous Mexican border policies? Well we can look at the context around when the wall was proposed.
In the beginning of his speech announcing his presidential campaign, Donald Trump first says regarding Mexico that “[t]hey are not our friend, believe me.” Then he says these now infamous words: “Donald Trump said these now infamous words: “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” He follows this up by expanding his scope beyond Mexico: “It’s coming from more than Mexico. It’s coming from all over South and Latin America, and it’s coming probably — probably — from the Middle East.” What was his solution? “I would build a great wall, and nobody builds walls better than me, believe me, and I’ll build them very inexpensively, I will build a great, great wall on our southern border. And I will have Mexico pay for that wall.”
So the context around this wall and the purpose behind it was very clear: Mexico and the rest of Latin America is not sending good people here, so we need to build a wall to keep them out. Now we could spend some time here debating the truth or fiction of this statement, or the efficacy of walls in general or of the US–Mexico border fence in particular, but that’s missing the point behind why there is such anger around this wall. You have tens of millions of immigrants from Mexico and Latin America living in this country already feeling like they don’t belong, have been explicitly told they don’t belong, who have fought hard to even earn a place in this country, who now have had a presidential candidate and later a president tell them that they shouldn’t be here in the first place.
Am I just imagining this or speculating? No. I know this because I have a Mexican family now and they have told me that they often feel like they don’t belong in this country like everyone else and that the wall is another message from White America that they should not be here.
So of course there will be consequences
So there’s the problem. You might be saying “I’m concerned about immigration!” or “I’m concerned about the economy!” in your support of the wall, but what is being heard is “You don’t belong in this country”. Given that, of course there will be social and personal consequences. There is a population of people who are constantly being told that they do not belong and they have just lived through a presidency where that message was amplified. They are always looking for places where they can feel safe and accepted. Given the choice (and there is always a choice) would they choose to associate with people in favor of the wall or not? Where would they feel the most safe? Where would they feel least likely to be attacked either directly, indirectly, or passively?
Should we be surprised when immigrants do not want to come to our churches when we have church leaders supporting policies like the wall, and politicians like Trump? Of course not! A church is where you come to be loved, accepted, and be safe, and it is impossible for a Latin American immigrant to feel safe in a church or anywhere where there are leaders who support policies like the wall. Even if the people supporting the wall aren’t explicitly racist or white supremacist, there would be just too much risk for them of being hurt, so they would look elsewhere. I don’t believe it is possible to support the wall and also be truly welcoming to immigrants and people of color because they will always need to hold you at arm’s length to protect themselves because they will never know if church members truly see them as equal human beings in the United States let alone in the eyes of God.
Beyond the wall
This extends beyond the wall, of course. You will find similar experiences when discussing the Muslim ban or Black Lives Matter. When you hear “black lives matter” you are of course free to respond “all lives matter!” but consider what that represents to black people who may hear you say that. and Then consider if those same black people would want to be a part of the same church or community as you or if they would instead feel unsafe. Would they believe you if you were to tell them you cared for them? Or how many Muslims would let you into their lives if they knew you supported the Muslim ban? I think the best you’d get is a shallow, small-talk relationship at best, and they certainly would never be able to consider you a close friend.
How would this impact your ability to witness to people in these other groups? What do you think they will think of you? They are watching what you say and do. Would they be able to trust what you’re saying to them about kindness and love? How are you demonstrating discipleship in your interactions with them? How comfortable would they be in small groups with you? There is no way for people in these groups to have truly trusting relationships with you because they will never feel comfortable letting their guard down. Is that what a church should look like?
I can imagine similar divisions in the 1850s before the Civil War. Was debating slavery just a “political issue” that shouldn’t be discussed because it was causing “division”, or was the division already there and the issue transcended politics into an area of basic human rights? Should pastors of churches then not have spoken out against slavery because it was “politics” or should they have taken the side of the oppressed like Jesus did? Should the pastors have caved to the racists and not spoken up so their churches wouldn’t become “divided”, or is the issue of human rights more important? Would non-enslaved black people attend a church where there were people in favor of slavery or would they have felt unsafe and looked elsewhere?
This means we all have to take stock of our values and understand what is truly important to us. Is it the political party we may have been in our entire lives? Is it our friends and family around us? Is it building a church that represents the community around us? The answer to those questions should inform what political stands you take because those same stands will necessarily impact who you will find wanting to be in your lives. This is especially challenging now because it is impossible to separate Trump (and in fact most of the Republican party today) from policies like the wall, and that is why we must all make sure our public stances flow from our core values, rather than what political leaders want us to believe.
Silence is support
Now here’s where things get really tricky. Some people may not like the Wall nor the Muslim ban or they may support the Black Lives Matter movement and yet they still have supported Trump for one reason or another, and these same people may also be surprised and confused to find people still pulling away from them. That’s happening not only because you can’t separate Trump from these policies, but also because of where the gravity of our country pulls which, unfortunately, seems to always be toward racism and segregation. It’s baked into our Constitution, we’ve gone to war over it, and have had riots over it. The country had been around almost 100 years when the Civil War broke out, and the war was of course not the end of racism. Jim Crow laws followed soon after and were enforced for another 100 years until the Civil Rights Movement. This is 200 years of codified racism. That much history carries a lot of momentum. This history gets combined with explicit policies like redlining that create additional hurdles for people of color to overcome. And of course the Civil Rights Movement did not end racism: we still see disparities in income, representation, incarceration, and social status that require continued attention.
This means we must always be fighting against these forces. People of color are always looking for people who will go to bat for them and be their allies, and do even the most basic of actions like vote for people who have their interests in mind (is there anything really any easier than checking a box?). They want to have genuine relationships with you and are watching your actions more than your words, because words are cheap. You say you live Mexican people, and maybe you’ve gone on the occasional missions trip to Mexico, but what are you doing for the Mexican and other immigrants that are already here in your own neighborhoods? How are you showing them that you value them?
Staying silent, or supporting the guy who enables this overt racism to continue, even if you yourself do not like it, is like preventing a falling glass from breaking. You might not want the glass to break, but if you do not act to catch it, it will break and you will have to live with the consequences regardless. What are you willing to give up so that others can feel free and equal? What are the “other guys” offering that is so terrible that it’s worth supporting racism. Is there anything really to give up? We might have a little less political power as a group, but isn’t it worth it to ensure these other groups are represented? At the minimum, we white folks need to acknowledge that our history isn’t squeaky clean and we have made terrible mistakes. That might make us feel uncomfortable, but we cannot learn and grow without facing our past.
Yes, I take this personally
My amazing wife is a Mexican immigrant. She has lived here for over 30 years. When I speak up, it is to defend her and her family so that the experiences she has told me about can stop happening to her and to people like her. We are all God’s creation and no one deserves to be told that they are less than others, especially not based on where they happened to be born or what language they happen to speak, or even what religion they practice. Everyone is equal in the eyes of God, right? We need to take the time to listen to other people’s experiences and have the humility to accept that people have had vastly different experiences than our own and that these different experiences are mostly invisible to us and the only way to know about them is to listen to those who have experienced them. That is how I have learned and why I choose to share what I have learned with others.
You are free to believe whatever you want. You just need to ask yourself if you are willing to live with the consequences. Regardless of your intentions, the public stands you take on these “political” issues will very much have non-political consequences. You will have few, if any, non-white friends. Churches will see the impact as well because the church is first and foremost a community, and people of color are watching what you do outside of church programs. If you are a leader at a church, you will see a decrease in people of color attending much less serving in your church, regardless of how many mission trips or outreach programs you establish. You should not be surprised by this, because you are telling them that they are not fully welcome in your life. Are you okay with that?