We Are All Separated Children
I haven’t preached or written on the new phase of the migrant crisis, the separation of children from families, mostly because there are so many people who are expressing their moral outrage so eloquently.
People are arguing from Biblical texts, from religious tradition, from American values, from simple human decency, from the very fact that the Holy Family were refugees and immigrants, to express the deep sin and shame of the United States of America taking children from their parents and warehousing and imprisoning them.
It doesn’t seem as though I could add much to the discussion.
But there comes a point in time where silence is taken as consent, and failure to speak is collusion with sin.
And so I asked myself, as so many have, “How did we get here? How did America, a nation I was raised to believe in and be proud to belong to, stoop to this level of racism, xenophobia, and toxic militarism?”
And for me, the answer comes back as it almost always does, to a deep and debilitating lack of spiritual groundedness.
Values and ethics cannot survive on the thin sustenance of stirring emotions or even cultural traditions.
To be effective, to withstand controversy and trial, to guide people to actions that are just and altruistic, values and ethics must be based on something deeper.
And that something deeper is the spiritual life.
It doesn’t matter what tradition that spiritual life comes out of—Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, or any other.
It simply matters that there is a worldview greater than the paltry ends of the individual self, that calls us to something higher than selfish and short-sighted tribalism, and that awakens the soul, that dwelling place of God within us that lies deeper than mind or even heart.
But as I continued to reflect on our spiritually starving people, I realized that the most damaging part of the lack of soul life in America is unspoken and unrealized.
Americans cannot deal with death.
And thus by our insistence on living shallow lives we miss out on two of the major benefits and purposes of the spiritual life: learning how to treat one another well, and knowing that our soul’s life extends far beyond our biological body’s expiration date.
In short, we’re afraid to die, and so we isolate ourselves in a futile self-protection that harms anyone we consider “other.”
This jumped out at me all the more vividly when I read a BBC news article that describes how scientists have actually proven this to be true.
“In more than 1,000 peer-reviewed experiments, researchers have found that, when reminded that we are going to die…we become more defensive of our beliefs and react with hostility to anything that threatens them. Even very subtle nods at mortality – a 42.8 millisecond flash of the word ‘death’ across a computer screen, a conversation that takes place within sight of a funeral home – are enough to trigger behavioral changes. What do some of those changes look like? When reminded of death, we treat those who are similar to us in looks, political slant, geographic origin and religious beliefs more favorably. We become more contemptuous and violent towards people who do not share those similarities. We profess a deeper commitment to romantic partners who validate our worldviews. And we are more inclined to vote for heavy-handed charismatic leaders who incite fear of outsiders.”
If that doesn’t sum up the roots of the American poverty of decency we’re swamped with right now, I don’t know what does. It’s scientific proof that we need relationship with God, we need spiritual community, and we need spiritual practice in some way, shape, or form.
It also forces me to say that if your idea of God, your spiritual community, and your spiritual practice do not lead you to care for the widow and orphan, the refugee and stranger, with the same devotion you would care for Christ himself, then that “spiritual life” is neither transforming you nor feeding you.
Religion that drives us toward self-isolation and demonization of others is idolatry, plain and simple.
Americans fear other people because they fear death, and they fear death because they are neither seeking nor being provided the spiritual tools to grow beyond their fear into love.
What does it look like to live a life empowered by love to move beyond fear?
What are the characteristics of someone who cannot be swayed by vicissitudes of daily life?
We need look no further than Paul in our lesson from 2 Corinthians.
“As servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; in honor and dishonor, in ill repute and good repute. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see– we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.”
Paul has traveled the deep valleys and high peaks of the spiritual life, of the adventure of growth in God.
He has taken the inner journey of confronting his own weakness, arrogance, and sin, and known himself redeemed and cherished by Jesus Christ himself.
And so when outer circumstances go straight to hell in incredibly real and brutal ways—beatings, imprisonments, riots, and hunger to name just part of his list—Paul’s inner refuge of grace and hope cannot be breached.
He knows that the bright star of the Holy Spirit at the center of his being will shine out, leading him forward, no matter what happens to his body or his life.
The average everyday American has no certainty of this kind.
In this increasingly angry, polarized world, violence both literal and emotional buffets us daily, and for all too many of us, the kneejerk response is to answer with violence in kind.
If you do not believe in your bones that you—the you that is more than just your short biological life–will be taken care of, loved, saved, protected by God, you are afraid. Deeply afraid.
And your fear will awaken a primal drive to keep yourself and your small, insular tribe safe, isolated, and always ready to strike out at the “other.”
This is where the traditional American Christian definition of salvation falls incredibly short.
Many American Christians have been taught a doctrine of salvation that is essentially a “get out of hell free” card.
It posits a crassly selfish motivation for being in relationship with Jesus Christ—to be saved from damnation at the hands of a vengeful God.
That in turn implies a vicious and small God who would condemn God’s creatures to an eternity of punishment for unrepented mistakes and sins.
It’s a theology custom made to nurture fear, paranoia, and the longing to externalize fault onto others.
It’s also very handy for painting oneself as right, virtuous, and saved, with the side ego-boosting benefit of thundering about the destruction of others if they do not agree with your religion.
What kind of conditions are those for being transformed into the mind of Christ?
What kind of motivation or tools does that provide for loving God with all one’s heart, soul, mind, and strength and one’s neighbor as oneself?
It’s a short road from fear-based theology to a fear-based worldview, and a fear-based worldview is exactly what has led to the very situation we now face, of children separated from their parents at our much-vaunted national border.
That border seems less a geographical boundary any more than a border between sanity and madness, between poverty and wealth, between what America would like to believe it is and who we really are.
Salvation is not just about what happens to us in the afterlife. It is much, much bigger than that.
The Latin root of the word “salvation” is salus, which is related to healing.
The work of Jesus Christ in our souls is to root out our fear and heal us at our core, giving us the ability to love God and our neighbor.
And he’s not going to wait until we’re dead to do it. If we say yes to the work of God in our lives, we’re accepting salvation now, not when we die.
And lest you think this is some new-fangled theology that departs from tradition, let me take you right back to our text for today. Paul says, “See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!”
Not in the future, now.
God knows we desperately need it now.
But that is the incredible good news—it is always available, here and now.
Paul knew this. So when his outer world deteriorated into crisis, he turned to the inner salvation of Christ always happening within him.
It is a place of joy and challenge, where grief and hope collide in the unrelenting, radiant shock of resurrection.
That is the richness Americans are denying themselves by their refusal to go on the deeper spiritual journey, and the Americans who support policies that separate children from their parents are the most spiritually poverty stricken of all.
Is there any question that our president is spiritually starving to death?
And his spiritual starvation is creating imprisonment and trauma for thousands of innocent children.
Inner hunger denied and unassuaged always leads to violence.
We’re all separated children, terrified, alone, teetering on the abyss, unless and until we accept salvation, the soul-deep healing of Jesus Christ.
And as long as we insist on remaining spiritual children, refusing the call to grow up into the full stature of Christ, our actual children, children of every nation, will suffer.
It takes a lifetime of spiritual practice and spiritual community to grow beyond fear into love, to be saved.
But it also always and forever happens right now, in any moment we surrender the small self to the open arms of God.
“See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!”
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