By:P.J. Somersault | May 29, 2018
As I was finishing up an embroidery of a Maya Angelou poem while contemplating Jamie Smith’s profound and almost mystical use of parentheses and italics, I almost split my PJs and spilt my latte when I read that not-my-president Trump called the MS-13 “gang” a bunch of “animals.” With deranged determination, I tweeted my #disgust with a hearty #gross at such an outrage and I liked all my friends’ outrage-tweets. The evangelical justice league was assembled and ready for some swift twitter-action. Many evangelical leaders, from tenured seminary professors to pastors in the upper echelons of denominations, courageously denounced Trump’s comment, risking yet again their jobs, standing, and livelihood, which only by the grace of God they’ve kept after many similar risks. (I’m shocked that they still get so many book deals.) Willing to risk it all and die on the hill of human dignity, I stand with them deeply concerned with the language Trump has used to describe MS-13.
As a gospel community, we Christians should always strive to love the unlovable, to lift up the marginalized, and to bring near the outcast. We are to shower people with our gospel love. This is why we vehemently take issue with President Trump’s dehumanization of MS-13. We fully concede that these image-bearers mutilate their enemies’ children and sell young girls into prostitution, but they nevertheless possess inviolable, infinite dignity—a spark of divinity is in every person. No matter how irrational they might be, no matter how lacking in reason and judgment, no matter how devoid of natural human affection, no matter how unfit they are for human civil society, no matter how far they go in extinguishing in themselves the fundamental principles of human relations—they remain fully human. Indeed, they are just as human as you and me, and only by the grace of God are we not one of them.
When we dehumanize people, we lose the gospel. While we of the justice league don’t believe in the social gospel, we do believe that the gospel is social. The gospel declares that all persons are equal—equal in worth, in sin, and in need of grace. The gospel is the great equalizer, for all of us are sinners equally in need of it. Whether you carve your names in other people’s flesh or you fib when you tell your communications intern that his man bun accents his v-neck, we are all equally deserving of one thing: hell. All sins are violations of cosmic justice. We are therefore no better than MS-13. And that’s a good thing, for as Duke Kwon said, “It's impossible to love someone you disagree with when you secretly believe they need Jesus more than you do.” Don’t get puffed up with pride because you haven’t committed an act of (physical) violence lately.
The gospel makes all things new, so we must wear gospel-colored glasses. We must no longer view others as “good” or “bad,” “decent” or “murderous,” and “fit” or “unfit” for natural (fallen) civil society. The gospel downplays performance and elevates grace. The gospel tells us to look past appearances and look to the heart. Aren’t we all bad, murderous (in our hearts), and unfit apart from grace? We are all broken in one way or the other, and the Christian community ought to be a place for broken people. The church is the place for messy people with messy lives, even people whose lives are as messy as the MS-13.
And what is the Christian ethic but a denial of the self, a refusal to put one’s needs above those of others, a refusal to take the safe and expedient route? The church, trusting in God, must take up its cross and welcome the stranger, the MS-13 stranger, into its midst. As Matt Chandler says, “The best kind of evangelism [is] love and hospitality on the margins.” Our churches must be a refuge for the outcasts, for the rejected, downtrodden, and despised. We ourselves were once far from God and he has brought us near. Let us consider God’s loving-kindness to us and love on those who, despite being fully human, will always be judged and scorned by the world for their appearance and behavior. As Ed Stetzer has said, “Stand with the vulnerable, even if you have to stand against the powerful.” Do not fear those who look, think, and sin differently than you. With a gospel-lens, see their inner God-given dignity. The spirit to exclude comes only from a spirit of fear, and God has not given us a spirit of fear.
Though MS-13 people frequently demean themselves and their partners with their actions, deep down the psychological structure that leads to these sins is one that we all, especially us men, share. It is the same structure that gives us men pleasure when chopping wood with our shirts off or demolishing a wall. We men all have a deep desire to destroy. The attraction to this general pleasure is not in itself sinful, but can quickly become sinful in the form of either toxic masculinity (e.g., Jordan Peterson) or beating innocent men with clubs. The point is that deep down, we’re all the same, with the same fundamental structure that may or may not lead to sin. Perhaps, in affirming our common struggles, the church can make room for a spiritual friendship between MS-13 and those whose toes they want to cut off. With the power of the gospel, there really is no danger in that arrangement, especially if the rest of us validate and affirm, validate and affirm.
To get a taste of what it’s like to be an outcast, marginalized, and unwelcomed in the MS-13 experience, listen thoughtfully and submissively to our brothers and sisters of color who have experienced similar rejection. Our sisters especially, who by nature greatly exceed us in holiness, warn against and justly chide us for our patriarchy, exclusion, and our natural male lust to dominate. Sit under the words of these women at every opportunity. And if you ever find yourself doubting their narratives and generalized anecdotes, slay that doubt. Doubting key elements of the Christian faith is not unbelief, but distrusting our select Christians of color and our sisters fails to treat them as equals. It shows that you’re not interested in justice, truth, and unity in the body.
Since we care deeply for reconciliation and our Christian moral witness, on what ground can we call for the exclusion of any MS-13 member from the United States? This world is not our home. The United States is not our home. We have but a loose grip on this world. Our earthly life is but a fleeting moment, and it is the arena of our gospel-opportunities. What better way to demonstrate the power of God to our neighbors than to live among MS-13 and to extend our gospel-love without judgment? As Dr. Russell Moore has stated, “In thinking through Christian ethics you must ask, do you want to be magnified or crucified? Do you aim to protect yourself or to find yourself hidden in Christ?” Do you want to protect you and your family from gang violence by excluding others or do you want to hide in Christ? (Perhaps consider converting your prayer closet into a cozy hiding place.) The choice is clear. In the interest of our Christian walk and witness, we must open our borders to MS-13. Our Christianity requires it. Their equal humanity demands it. To exclude is to dehumanize.
Wouldn’t this however cause a major disruption in our American way of life? Probably. But Jesus isn’t an American. He does not have blond hair and blue eyes. Jesus does not drive a big truck with a “Don’t Tread on Me” sticker on the bumper. He does not wave the American flag. America will pass away, but the kingdom of Christ is eternal. American will eventually burn. If Jesus were on earth today he might be as tatted and dark as the MS-13. Would he be allowed through the doors of your church? And even if MS-13 inflicts some harm on the US, don’t we deserve it? Slavery, Jim Crow, Native Americans, the Chinese Exclusion Act, homosexuals, unappreciated single women—haven’t we done enough to deserve the judgment of God? Perhaps MS-13 is God’s instrument of judgment, and who are we to reject God’s judgment on us?
But might not this bring tragedy to our non-Christian neighbors? Unfortunately it might, but then we can point them to the peace of Christ and the transience of this world. Who are our neighbors after all? Everyone, equally everyone, without distinction or categorization. The MS-13 neighbor has just as much infinite dignity as your non-MS-13 neighbor. Who deserves more justice, you might ask. Well, have we received what we deserve from God? As Christians equally saved by the mercy of God in Christ, how can we extend unequal mercy? As followers of Christ, we cannot pick and choose who gets more justice and mercy. And anyway, if for example a non-Christian loses a spouse by MS-13 violence, we can comfort them with a book on the gift of singleness by my friend who also writes for my website. Like the black backdrop that only makes the stars shine brighter, all their violence merely opens doors for hospitality and Christian good works. As Bonhoeffer said, “Thus the call to follow Christ always means a call to share the work of forgiving men their sins. Forgiveness is the Christlike suffering which it is the Christian's duty to bear.” The more we suffer, the more grace and love and good deeds we can extend—the more we can show Christ to the world.
But don’t we have a duty to maintain good civil order? Let me ask you, when was the last time any of my friends and I considered the relationship of Christian witness to civil order? To be perfectly honest (and a bit more analytical than I’m comfortable with), doing what the state does to ensure civil order would simply undermine the upper-tier level of our morality that witnesses the greatness of the gospel. The institutional church, as the visible and eternal kingdom of God on earth, is eternal and therefore above the fallen, temporal state institutions. The Church serves a higher function–a Gospel function. We are the ambassadors for Christ’s visible reign on earth. The Church follows the Law of Christ–the Law of Grace–not the fallen principles of the natural and fallen civil society. Seek first the the kingdom of God and do not concern yourselves with the natural (fallen) consequences of your obedience to grace. As Andrew Walker, an ethicist at the ERLC, recently said, “Your primary responsibility is to represent the gospel with credibility. Let whatever happens, good or bad, proceed from that reality.”
It is true that permitting MS-13 in our country would place a burden on the state. But isn’t this a small price to pay for the great public demonstration of our moral witness, a witness that, while state-dependent, would be a grand display of our gospel weakness? Our weakness is so contagious that it will change the world. Imagine the gospel-triumph shown forth when our mercy, faith and humility melts the hearts of the MS-13 around us. We can watch their eyes brighten when they feel loved, heard, and humanized. Our words can give life in the midst of death. The gospel changes everything–our politics, hierarchies, our masculine proclivities toward violence, etc. And though we, as confident millennials, naturally know these truths, we still have much to learn from others. As white Americans, we experience so much privilege, but as gospel-formed exiles and strangers we submit to and learn from all the stories of “outsiders.” To our downturned faces, MS-13 will show us a much-needed glimpse into the image of God and the face of Christ.
So how can we follow Trump in dehumanizing MS-13 when we have so much to learn from them? The church is strengthened by a multiplicity of voices. Let us struggle against the forces of Satan that would place so much concern on peaceful comfort in this life—this pernicious cultural Christianity, which sends people straight to hell! The cultural Christianity that is not a cruciform Christianity is no Christianity at all. A cross with no suffering is no cross at all. And by gaining MS-13, perhaps we’ll lose the Bible Belt religion that held us back anyway. Great! So rest in gospel-peace; relax into gospel-comfort. And let us continue running the race, not as if running away from MS-13 murderers, but away from our exploitive and safe suburban lifestyle. Far from being animals, these gang members are exactly the sort of human beings we need, dignified agents of God hastening the day when we meet the Lord face-to-face.
P.J. Somersault is an editor at The Gospel Alliance. He is the author of Gospel (Dis)traction: A Reflection on Everything Wrong with Trump’s Evangelical Supporters without Mentioning Trump or his Supporters (2018).