The central thesis of pastor David Platt’s bestselling Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream (Multnomah, 2010) is that, for many American Christians, our faith has become a comfortable, culturally-co-opted shadow of the costly, seemingly crazy commitment to which Scripture calls us. Platt, a well-known mega-church pastor in Birmingham, Alabama, challenges the idea of what makes us successful as Christians, arguing that it is our total faithfulness to Christ’s commands—most notably, in Platt’s estimation, to the Great Commission command to “go and make disciples of all nations” and to care for the poor and vulnerable in our own communities and around the world—that define faithfulness, not leading a large church surrounded by a large parking lot that can accommodate millions of dollars’ worth of vehicles, not living in a large house with the security of a growing 401K plan and picture-perfect kids, and not any other status symbol of the American dream. Christ’s call is quite different, and much more costly: “When Christ calls a man,” Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in the seminal The Cost of Discipleship, “he bids him come and die.”
At the root of this problem, Platt identifies a drift from our biblical identity “as aliens and strangers in the world” (1 Peter 2:11) whose ultimate allegiance needs to be not to the culture that surrounds us but to Christ. “Though you and I live in the United States of America now,” Platt says, “we must fix our attention on ‘a better country—a heavenly one.’” We need to view all of life first and foremost as followers of Christ, privileging a biblical worldview over the seductive messages of the American Dream affluence, comfort, and security. Platt writes:
[Americans] have a dangerous tendency to misunderstand, minimize, and even manipulate the gospel in order to accommodate our assumptions and desires. As a result we desperately need to explore how much of our understanding of the gospel is American and how much is biblical.
Platt believes that, for many American Christians, the issue of materialism presents a blind spot, where “part of our sinful nature instinctively chooses to see what we want to see and to ignore what we want to ignore.” That blind spot is what allows so many American Christians—the Holy Spirit convicted me as I read this section—to miss the clear meaning of the many passages in Scripture that call us to care for the poor—he highlights in particular the billion people in the world who struggle to survive in situations of extreme poverty and the resulting 26,000 children who die each day due to starvation or preventable disease—as we jockey for bigger, better, and more.
I believe that many American Christians have a similar blind spot around the issue of immigration. They overlook scores of passages where God commands us to care for the immigrant—along with orphans, widows, and others who are vulnerable—and justify their positions with one or two biblical texts that, when examined, do not necessarily support their conclusions.
At the heart of the wariness to extend biblical hospitality to immigrants, I believe, is fear. Many Americans fear (irrationally, according to most economists) that immigrants will take their jobs or be a drain on the economy—threatening the affluence for which they have strived and saved. They fear for their security—imagining all immigrants as potential terrorists—and for the comfort, as being forced to interact with individuals speaking other languages, eating other foods, and unaccustomed to a new country make them feel uncomfortable. Platt wisely notes that many are simply afraid of isolation: they want to be faithful to Scripture in counter-cultural ways, but they are afraid they will not fit in with their friends if they do. (Maybe you’re wrestling with whether you should share this blog post on Facebook or Twitter, weighing the social consequences amongst your friends if you publicize your belief that Scripture demands a compassionate approach to undocumented immigrants). Obedience to God’s repeated command to “be not afraid” allows us to faithfully live into his other commands, to his glory.
One of those commands—the one which Platt makes his primary focus—is the command of our Lord to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19). Platt is passionate about sharing the hope of the gospel with the estimated 4.5 billion people throughout the nations who are not Christians. We must not allow fear or apathy to keep us from going when Christ calls—but we also need to recognize that, through immigration, the nations have come to our communities, and we must not allow a cultural narrative of fear to keep us from loving and sharing the gospel with those from other nations who migrate to our cities and towns—even if they have arrived unlawfully. Just as Peter was called by God to share the gospel with Cornelius (Acts 10), a member of a group of people his culture had told him it was wrong with whom to associate, I believe God calls us share and declare his love amongst undocumented immigrants.
As the nations come to our country, we also find that many already know the Lord and bring the gospel with them to the many in our own land who do not know Christ. Some can even help us to see our cultural blind spots by exposing us—second-hand—to the realities of persecution which very quickly dispense of nominal Christianity in other parts of the world. Platt writes about several transformative encounters with persecuted Christians from his travels throughout the world; when they are able, some of these persecuted brothers and sisters come to the United States for safety. Some are granted legal status as refugees or asylees, while others—like Hussein Wario, who fears persecution because of his conversion from Islam to Christianity—face deportation when their asylum claims are denied. Rather than risk a denial and deportation to further persecution, some live as undocumented immigrants and never apply for asylum.
Platt’s call for lives of radical devotion to Christ is a challenging but biblically-grounded reminder that faithfulness is not—and was not promised to be—easy, requiring us to stand against our culture at times when the call of Christ clashes with the American dream. The costly decision to follow Christ—which might challenge the ways that we view immigrants, the poor, and our own—also promises great reward, as Platt notes:
When we risk our lives to run after Christ, we discover the safety that is found only in his sovereignty, the security that is found only in his love, and the satisfaction that is found only in his presence. That is the eternally great reward, and we would be foolish to settle for anything less.
Matthew Soerens is the co-author of Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion & Truth in the Immigration Debate (InterVarsity Press, 2009) and the US Church Training Specialist at World Relief. His blogs appear here on Mondays.
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