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A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian. This is not in the gospel. — Pope Francis on proposals to completely seal the U.S. southern border.
This statement raised eyebrows in some quarters and incited a riot in the Twitterverse. For many folks, I hope, it also raised the important question: What is a Christian?
The Pope’s comments suggest that a Christian is known by how well their thoughts, words, and deeds align with the Gospel of Christ. The response from those offended by the Pope’s remarks suggest that a Christian is someone who says they are a Christian, regardless of their actual attitudes and behaviors.
I think readers will agree that the final authority on that question is Christ himself:
Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. — Matthew 7:21
That seems pretty clear: Just calling Jesus “Lord” isn’t a key to the Kingdom—acting on God’s will is. But this single verse forms part of a larger context; Jesus goes on:
Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’ Therefore whoever hears these sayings of Mine, and does them, I will liken him to a wise man who built his house on the rock: … But everyone who hears these sayings of Mine, and does not do them, will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand… – Matthew 7:22-27
Here, Christ brings the answer to the question into the material world and gives us a benchmark for a believer’s behavior. This is one of several passages in which Christ links hearing his word with doing it, as in John 14:23: “If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching.”
In Christ’s estimation, a true Christian hears his words and acts on them. One question logically follows: What teaching does Christ expect believers to put into action?
To determine which principles Christ considered most important, we need only ask where he placed emphasis. Consider this dialogue:
One of the teachers of the law … asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?” “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these. – Mark 12:28-30
Christ expects his followers to possess certain qualities: to love their neighbors as they love themselves and treat others as they would be treated. They do this because this behavior is called for by commandments Christ, himself, placed above all others.
This raised another question in the mind of the lawyer with whom Christ was speaking: Who is my neighbor?
Christ responded with the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). A Jew was attacked by thieves and left for dead. A Jewish priest came along and passed by without helping, as did a Levite. The poor man was finally helped by a Samaritan, who took him to an inn and tended to him, then paid the innkeeper to care for him until he was well.
Jesus asked the lawyer, “So which of these three do you think was neighbor to him who fell among the thieves?” And he said, “He who showed mercy on him.” Then Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”
This particular illustration has great significance because the Samaritans and Jews were on opposing sides of a divide that went back centuries. Religious leaders of both groups insisted it was an offense to have contact with the other or cross into their territory. The Romans didn’t understand this ethnic nuance, and crammed the two groups together with disastrous results. At the time of Christ, violence between Samaritans and Jews wasn’t uncommon.
Christ’s illustration makes points about racial and religious harmony and the breaking down of manmade barriers, in both a material and spiritual sense. Jesus chose the perfect example to illustrate his point—our neighbors are not just those who are like us or whom we like; our neighbors are the people we loathe in perpetuity, the strangers, the foreigners.
Lest anyone think this is only true if those strangers are nice to us, Christ pushes the envelope further with these words:
But I say to you who hear: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, and pray for those who spitefully use you. To him who strikes you on the one cheek, offer the other also. … Give to everyone who asks of you. And from him who takes away your goods do not ask them back. And just as you want men to do to you, you also do to them likewise. But if you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. …But love your enemies, do good, and lend, hoping for nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High.—Luke 6: 27-35.
So: What is a Christian? Obviously, a Christian is one who hears Christ’s words, and does them. Christ emphasized doing—the emphasis of every great religion.
This leads full circle to the question the Pope addresses: What ”fruits” should a Christian produce—that is, what do Christian virtues look like in practice … according to Christ?
In that context, read the Pope’s words again: “A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian. This is not in the gospel.”
We each need to do our own math on this one, with a clear idea of what the Gospel actually says. Think of it as a reasoned exercise in independent investigation of truth, which, according to the Baha’i teachings, underpins the essence of justice:
O Son of Spirit! The best beloved of all things in My sight is Justice; turn not away therefrom if thou desirest Me, and neglect it not that I may confide in thee. By its aid thou shalt see with thine own eyes and not through the eyes of others, and shalt know of thine own knowledge and not through the knowledge of thy neighbor. Ponder this in thy heart; how it behooveth thee to be. Verily justice is My gift to thee and the sign of My loving-kindness. Set it then before thine eyes. — Baha’u’llah, The Hidden Words, pp. 3-4.
Listen to Jeff and Maya Bohnhoff’s new song on this subject.