A controversy has exploded near Cincinnati, Ohio, just across the river from where I live. Local authorities recently arrested Maribel Trujillo Diaz, an undocumented Mexican mother of four, and deported her this past week. She first came to the United States fifteen years ago, fleeing threats from a drug cartel. She has nothing to take with her to Mexico and nobody waiting there for her.
I might rattle my conservative friends here, but I’m tired of our national immigration debate. The nationalist/Alt-Right/Trump view of immigrants is perversely anti-life and a grave sin against God’s blueprint for a good society.
The oldest scriptures in the Bible reveal God’s gratuitous love for immigrants. Only recently freed from slavery in Egypt, the Israelites were instructed by God to “love the alien as yourself” (Leviticus 19:34 NAB) and to leave some of their crops for resident immigrants to eat (19:10). God commanded that “aliens” (foreigners) receive equal treatment under the law as if they were natives (Exodus 12:49). God also admonished his chosen people to remember that they were once destitute immigrants in a foreign land (Deuteronomy 10:19), which he gave them as a gift they neither earned nor built (6:10-12). Abraham himself, the father of the Hebrews, dwelt in Egypt as an immigrant because of famine (Genesis 12:10).
The sheriff for Butler County, Ohio, Richard Jones, has said that fidelity to the law outweighs humanitarian concerns in Diaz’s case. I can think of one response to him; it was first preached two thousand years ago, and it’s called the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). Answering a legal scholar, Jesus told the story of a man robbed, beaten, and left alongside the road to Jericho. Two religious officials, a priest and a Levite, pass the man on their way to the temple in Jerusalem, but don’t help him. Only a Samaritan man ministers to the victim and rents him a room where he can recover.
Some commentators like to say that the parable is about one man following the law and two others breaking it. But that’s not true. Both the clerics and the Samaritan are obeying the law—the clerics narrowly, the Samaritan wholly. The priest and Levite refuse to help the victim for fear of touching his wounds, which would spoil their purity for their duties at the temple (see Leviticus 15 as an example of teachings on the body and ritual cleanness). The Samaritan, however, acts with respect to the law’s superior priority, the preservation of human life (Genesis 9:5-6).
That’s why Sheriff Jones is wrong. Fidelity to the law for its own sake, to the point of destroying human life, violates the purpose of having laws. That purpose, justice, means the right treatment of all people in accord with their dignity. God has established justice as a standard which supersedes all manmade laws. Wherever and in whatever degree the law does not conform to justice, the law must change. Undocumented immigrants who have crossed our southern border should get a chance to redress their mistake through fines and probation, pay any taxes they owe, and live as equal citizens in a society that honors their contribution.
I have to admit my distaste when I hear so-called Christians calling for deportations of nonviolent, noncriminal people that could easily result in their ostracism, starvation, or murder in a dangerous country. If that TobyMac song playing on your radio and that Jesus fish on the back of your SUV don’t penetrate your heart in how you relate to other people, then what is the use of the Gospel? “What good is it…if someone says he has faith, but does not have works?” (James 2:14). But there will be justice for the oppressed, even if it has to wait for the new world which will arise from this one. And I suspect that many of our holy-rolling, demagogic politicians are in for a surprise when they reach the checkpoint at heaven’s border wall and find out that the king is a brown man who doesn’t speak English. A man named Jesús.
I'm pleased to announce that Jabberwock Review, the literary journal at Mississippi State University, has accepted my story "The Bloodhound" for publication in it summer issue. The story was also a finalist for the Nancy D. Hargrove Editors' Prize in Fiction. "The Bloodhound" is about a priest who reluctantly becomes the chaplain of a small Catholic college in Appalachia, where an encounter with an abrasive beggar forces him to confront his conscience and reckon with the new job he's unwillingly assumed.
Every Christian seems to have a struggle accepting some particular aspect of the faith. It might be the biblical outlook on specific moral controversies, such as abortion or sexuality. It could be a general theme taught by the Church, like the idea that there is an absolute truth to which everyone must answer. For me, the greatest private struggle with the Christian faith is one of Jesus’s practical teachings, often known as “turning the other cheek” (cf. Mt. 5:39 NAB). I can be a grudge-nurse, an instinctive revenge-taker, an accountant of misdeeds and injuries. In the midst of pain over someone’s wrong against me, whether slight or great, I tend to feel that my healing should begin with redirecting hurt toward the other person.
A multitude of influences lead us to respond to one evil with another, and sometimes greater, evil. Our own sin-wounded human nature, our own pride and egotism, is frequently enough. The world itself acclaims those who retaliate against wrongdoers and oppressors—the government that executes a criminal, the politician who returns the spite of a hated rival. Perhaps most powerful is our urge to forgo mercy and chase destruction, to satisfy our own individual and collective sense of justice.
Jesus asked a lot when he gave the command to “love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you” (5:44). It’s not something we consider natural. Deep within us is a fear that the choice not to pursue revenge demeans us, reveals our weakness, and even reveals a lack of dignity. But Jesus never asked us to do something that violated our personhood. The refusal to respond in evil is not the surrender of a weak soul; it is a life-giving resolution that demands discipline and confidence in God’s power over all circumstances.
When Jesus spoke the Beatitudes during the Sermon on the Mount, he promised ultimate vindication for “the meek”; for “they who hunger and thirst for righteousness”; for “the merciful” and “the peacemakers” (5:5-7, 9). Each of these callings describe followers whose final confidence rests in God—not other men, not an institution, and not themselves—to correct all wrongs. In telling the parable of the unforgiving servant, Jesus instructed Peter, and through him all current and future believers, to recognize that we will never forgive anyone as much as God has already forgiven us (Mt. 18:21-35). A relationship with him should make our lives a celebration of the mercy shown to us, and it should provide for mutual leniency and peace in our relations with other people (Luke 2:14)
“Beloved, do not look for revenge but leave room for the wrath; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord’” (Romans 12:19). If we appoint ourselves the judge in God’s place, we’ll get the mean, quick gratification we want, and the heartache and lingering animosity we never planned. But if we refuse “to be conquered by evil,” we will “conquer evil with good” (12:21) and reflect the new life he has won for us. That’s hard to do, but it’s the strongest and truest way to live, and the only way to freedom (John 8:32).
The Resurrection of Jesus from the dead is the crux of the Christian faith. “If Christ is not risen,” Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “your faith is futile” (1 Cor. 15:17 NKJV). The centrality of the Resurrection is matched by the difficulty of believing in it as a historical event—because it is, literally, unbelievable. But the Resurrection only means something if it really happened.
Even for Christians living two thousand years after the end of Jesus’s earthly life, there are ways to know the reality of the Resurrection and embrace its transformative truth.
1) The lives of the first Christians. Skepticism wasn’t invented during the Enlightenment. The Gospels tell us that when a group of women reported the Resurrection to the apostles, their accounts were seen as “idle tales” (Luke 24:11). Matthew records that some of Jesus’s followers did not believe he had risen even when they saw him themselves (Matthew 28:17). The early Christians’ initial doubts are important because of the ways their eventual belief in the Resurrection led them to suffer defending its truth. The disciples were killed (Acts 12:5) and jailed (v. 2) for their ministry, and gave up relationships with their families and friends (Luke 18:29) in the unconverted Jewish community. No greater example arises in the New Testament than Paul, who disavowed his reputation as a persecutor of Christians and accepted the status of hypocrite to establish the church throughout the Roman Empire. Our inheritance of faith from the apostles should move us intensely to recognize the truth that changed these doubters into zealots for the Gospel.
2) The influence of God seen in those around us. The Resurrection demonstrates itself presently through the people we know who have chosen life because of their faith. I remember a young father in Sunday school who admitted that his early twenties had been mired in addiction; he credited his belief in the Resurrection’s defeat of darkness with rescuing him from his impulses. The last book in the Bible may have been written centuries ago, but Jesus dwells with us in the present, always the same (Hebrews 13:8) and making the power of his Resurrection present in us. “[J]ust as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4).
3) Our experience of God’s creation. Life contains instances of beauty that can scarcely be believed. How much paint has been devoted to sunsets on canvases, and yet none of them can compare to the ones that end each day? Beauty is more than a sensation, it is a tug in our spirits telling us that impossible things happen, that life outlasts death; the normal order of nature can yield to a deeper truth about the universe. God reveals himself to us through his creation (Romans 1:20), and the Resurrection is sewn into that created reality. Just as day follows night, and spring follows winter, the rising of Jesus from the tomb follows his death on the cross, when “the light of the world” (John 8:12) was dimmed in anticipation of his victorious return.
In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus rebukes those who disbelieved in his return because of “hardness of heart” (16:14). His chastisement of his skeptical followers uncovers a truth about our own doubts—that they often arise less from scientific considerations and more from fear of the changes and sacrifices demanded of us if the Resurrection is true. But if it’s true, and we’re not admitting it because it’s inconvenient, we’re only denying ourselves the way to life (John 14:6). And if fear is the real obstacle to our faith, why let it stop us anymore?
For two thousand years, the story of the vineyard workers in the Gospel of Matthew has confronted its hearers with an implicit question: Is God fair in the way we expect him to be?
The parable (Matthew 20:1-15 NKJV) tells of a landowner who hires laborers and sends them into his vineyard. He gathers men all day until “the eleventh hour” (v. 6), when he discovers a group of idlers and commands them to work for him with the promise that “whatever is right you will receive” (v. 7). At sunset the laborers come to get their wages. The “eleventh hour” group receives one denarius, a Roman silver coin worth about fifteen cents, the typical pay for one day’s work. The first hour’s group expects a greater reward, but they are given the same. When they complain to the owner about this inequity, he dismisses their demands. “Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what is yours and go your way. I wish to give to this last man the same as you” (v. 14).
Clearly Jesus was not teaching an economics course on how businesses should salary their employees. He used the story to attack a lie many of us believe without realizing it: we think the nature of our choices and actions is what makes God’s love for us possible.
How often have you viewed a bad day—inconvenient weather, unproductive work, illness or exhaustion, arguments, moral regrets—to be a manifestation of God’s retribution for your wrongdoing? God loved me less today, we tell ourselves, usually unconsciously. I’ve got to do better. The opposite applies, too. When we work “in the heat of the day” (v. 12), when we feel proud about a commendable choice, we’re more willing to feel God’s love for us. I really earned it today, we think. I can feel good. Everything’s okay with me and God.
When we follow this attitude, we submit to legalism—the ledger balancing the accounts of our right and wrong actions to see what we’re worth to God. We deceive ourselves and deny the contentment that grace can bring us. “If you, Lord, kept a record of sins…who could stand?” (Psalm 130:3 NIV). No human alive could ever claim God owed him a blessing. Likewise, it’s impossible to argue with God’s right to give us more than we’ve earned.
So don’t yield to the superstitious ups and downs of legalism. Forget about complaining that “these last men have worked only one hour” (Mt. 20:12 NKJV) when you think you deserve better. Refuse to feel suspicious when God opens “the windows of heaven” (Malachi 3:10) and gives you far more than you could ever hope to repay. He allows the hard days for his purposes. He gives us free gifts to remind us he’s good. He’s not just impartial; he’s radically fair. No matter our inadequacies or how persistently we do good things, our outcome still hinges on our answer to his most important question: “Who do you say that I am?” (Mt. 16:15)
I'm pleased to tell you that my story "The Windows of Heaven" is now available to read online and in print in The Columbia Review. You can read it here.
This story draws on a few biographical details from my grandfather's life. It's about a delivery driver who's rejected by his church because he works for a brewery. His descent into self-righteous outrage jeopardizes the family whose dignity he's claiming to defend. I hope you enjoy it!
If there’s one thing that can come between God and people, it’s God’s people.
Just recently, during a medical appointment, a technician told me she hadn’t baptized her children as Catholics because she had some lingering antipathy toward her childhood parish. Her mother was the only woman in the town to have been excommunicated for divorcing. The monsignor who headed the local school often asked the little girl why her mother wasn’t at church, though he obviously knew that the experience of attending while being forbidden from Communion was humiliating.
Incidents of social stigma, of course, aren’t restricted to one part of the faith. My grandmother grew up in terrible poverty in coal country and had trouble feeling God’s love because her classmates, all Baptists, ridiculed her for her lack of table manners and shabby clothing. My mother didn’t get married until she was in her middle thirties, and until that time she often skipped services at her Baptist church because of the moral suspicion and condescension directed at singles. (I can’t help wondering if the Pharisees who view singles as incomplete human beings ever realize that the incarnation of God was an unmarried carpenter).
I’ve always suspected that few people are driven from Christianity by purely rational objections, even if they claim this is the case. More often, I see believers who feel rejected by God because a self-identified Christian, perhaps even someone entrusted with authority in a church, had found them lacking in a trivial respect. This struggle, this sense of being an unwilling outsider, is the only fight that has ever endangered my faith. Asking God for an answer, I found great relief in remembering that Jesus, too, was an outsider among religious types.
Christ was born of a young, unwed mother (Mt. 1:18 NKJV). His identity as the Messiah was least believed in his “own country” (Mt. 13:54), where those who knew him best were “offended” (v. 57) at his teaching. He told a scribe, bluntly, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head” (Mt. 8:20).
Jesus knew well the awkwardness and anguish of being an outlier. His experiences of rejection didn’t turn him from God; instead, he directed his love all the more fully toward the misfits and outcasts of society. He touched lepers (Mt. 8:2-3), ate with despised social groups (Mark 2:16), and spoke in public with a Samaritan woman (John 4:9) despite the Israelite prejudice against that ethnicity. At every opportunity, he made himself the definition of loving God “with all your heart” and, of necessity, extending that same love to other people (Mt. 22:37; 39).
Don’t become troubled in your faith because you’ve conflated God’s warm, welcoming, open character with the personality defects of other believers. We have a God who sympathizes with the outsider life—because he lived it. His love for us, and his understanding, demand we find courage and peace in that example.
I'm happy to tell you that The Columbia Review has accepted my story, "The Windows of Heaven," for its Fall 2016 issue. This story is a particular favorite of mine, and I couldn't be more pleased to have found it a home. At 4,300 words, it's one of the longest standalone works I've written. It will appear in the print journal and, if it is available online, I will provide a link in the Publications section.
Losing hurts. This week our country has a lot of hurting and disappointed people in it. During the time between loss and acceptance, fear can derail our lives. It can become despair if turned inward and rage if turned outward on the world. As a little green Jedi master once warned, “Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”
I’m not devoting this space to an autopsy of the election or the estrangement that politics has caused between Americans of divergent passions. The real story here is the poison of idolatry, a sin we commit when we replace God with any person, possession, or aspiration as our primary motive for living, our reason to be assured that everything is all right. It happens, unconsciously or not, when we fail to worship the being we were made to worship.
Only God can fulfill the expectations we lay on him to provide for us. There is no other like him or equal to him (Exodus 15:11 NKJV). He never changes (Hebrews 13:8) because perfection doesn’t decrease and can’t be improved. Nothing is too hard for him (Jeremiah 32:27). He expects us to have hope about the future because of him (Jeremiah 29:11). He rightfully demands to rule our hearts because his good intentions for us are fulfilled only when he does.
Contrast his nature with human beings. We are all alike, made from the same clay, equally valued and fallible; we change all the time, seized by emotions or blinded by desires; we fail and mess up; we pursue our own interests. We get sick. We age, decay, and die. I don’t need verses to support this.
The Psalmist tells us, frankly, “It is better to trust in the Lord than to put confidence in princes” (118:9). We also hear there is “no help” in man, for when he dies, “in that very day his plans perish” with him (146:3-4). Yet we continue to fasten our hopes for victory and redemption on athletes, politicians, or even ourselves. Inevitably the disparity between hope and outcome disillusions us. Either we latch immediately on another idol, such as the knowledge of a better possibility in the future (I imagine the Cubs practiced this plenty during the last century), or, more dangerously, we allow our loss to push us toward depravity. We become consumed with hatred against our opponents and pride that we know better than God how the world should be. This ugliness progresses to emotional collapse and the seeking of comfort outside the knowledge that God loves you. Here is where alcoholism and addiction begin. Here is not where God wants you.
In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus visits Martha and Mary, two sisters whom he knows well. While Mary sits at Jesus’s feet and listens to him, her sister is “distracted with much serving” (10:40) and finally approaches Jesus to ask that he make Mary help her. Jesus answers, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and troubled about many things. But one thing is needed, and Mary has chosen that good part, which will not be taken away from her” (v. 41-42).
Notice that Jesus doesn’t tell Martha the household is unimportant. It is. So are elections, sports (to some folks, I guess), and money. But he is telling her that only “one thing” (a relationship with God) is truly needed to know that life is all right. It’s the only thing that can’t be taken from you by death or loss.
This election was very significant, and God’s love for you is not the only thing that matters. But it is the thing which matters most.
The Apostle Paul writes that “what may be known of God is manifest” even in those who don’t believe in him (Romans 1:19 NKJV). The story of the Gospel shapes our lives more powerfully than any of us would like to admit. Our choices and reactions all reflect an innate need for mercy and a desire for a gracious consideration of our failings. Even if we don’t believe a Judge sits on the bench, we’re still asking for a not-guilty verdict. Our literature and TV shows demonstrate it even if we won’t admit it.
The CBS legal drama The Good Wife ended earlier this year. In an insightful essay for The New Yorker, Joshua Rothman argues that The Good Wife centers on the theme that “an ultimate court of law” oversees life, one where “we’d all be found guilty if all the evidence were put before the judge”—the “ignoble thoughts, craven motivations, imperfect natures” common to all people. The Good Wife’s protagonist, Alicia, an ambitious attorney, “can’t help suspecting that other, more important rules exist” than manmade laws; that “no truly honest person can plead not guilty in the court of life.” The only hope is “that, somehow, the judge will look kindly upon you.” Rothman concludes that the show “has no illusions, least of all about the ones we use to maintain our innocence.”
Arthur Miller’s play After the Fall occurs in the mind of a New York intellectual. The character, Quentin, once saw life as a “case at law,” a series of opportunities to prove himself “brave…or smart,” an “upward path toward some elevation, where…I would be justified, or condemned.” But then he “looked up one day…and the bench was empty. No judge in sight. And all that remained was…this pointless litigation of existence before an empty bench.”
The question that worries these characters is the same one that plagues us in the absence of God. How do I know if I’m a good enough person? Regardless of how much we stuff down our feelings and soldier onward with a smile, we all feel unworthy, lacking, short of some unattainable height of moral perfection. We know, as God does, that “there is none righteous, no, not one” (Romans 3:10); we know that if anybody ever fully uncovered the wrongness in our hearts, we would be instantly convicted.
Secular people will find it difficult to reconcile this interior sense of judgment with their belief that no higher justice exists than the circumstantial justice our society has crafted for itself. But being a Christian means believing that the Judge is real and the verdict has been pronounced. David writes that God has “removed our transgressions from us” and placed them “as far as the east is from the west” (Psalm 103:12). 1 Peter tells us that God has “begotten us again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (1:3), so that even convicts like us can take heart that the judgment on our shame was borne by someone else—someone so pure he could bear it and rise again. Anyone who recognizes his or her need for grace and follows it to this conclusion will ask for mercy and always find it waiting.
Sydney Carton, the hero of Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities, is portrayed as a cynical and resentful drunkard who sabotages his own career as a lawyer. But later in the book, walking alongside a river in Paris, a revelatory moment confronts him:
A trading-boat, with a sail of the softened colour of a dead leaf, then glided into his view, floated by him, and died away. As its silent track in the water disappeared, the prayer that had broken up out of his heart for a merciful consideration of all his poor blindnesses and errors, ended in the words, “I am the resurrection and the life.”
Anthony Otten has published fiction and essays in Jabberwock Review, The Columbia Review, Grasslimb Journal, Hot Metal Bridge, Coal Hill Review, Wind, and others. An excerpt from his novel manuscript appeared in Still: The Journal last summer. His story "The Bloodhound" was a finalist for the Nancy D. Hargrove Editors’ Prize in Fiction. A graduate of Thomas More College, he lives in Kentucky.
Jesus and The "Illegals"
The Hardest Command
Grasping the Resurrection
The King of Outsiders
When Your Idol Falls
Our Not-Guilty Verdict
Nobody Dies for a Lie
Would You Be The Doorman?
What is a Blessing?
Real Obedience is Love
Jesus was Inevitable
The Death of Envy
What God Really Wants
Submission and Query Resources for Writers
Hearing His Voice
The World Overcome
Honestly, God: Praying Our True Feelings
When God Gives Us What We Want
Jesus's Emancipation Proclamation
Hell's Bells: Does Everybody Go to Heaven?
Can Water Save You?