Unedited version of article published in Dialog 49, 1 (Spring 2010), 34-44.

God’s People, Borders, and Boundaries

Does God choose some people as God’s own in order to bless them above all others? Such a claim has been made repeatedly throughout history. Undoubtedly, the example that most immediately comes to mind for those steeped in the Scriptures is that of Israel. Both the Hebrew and the Christian Scriptures speak of Israel as God’s chosen people, and since biblical times most Jewish people have continued to understand themselves in those terms. Not only is it claimed that God has established a boundary around Israel by means of the law, observance of which separates the “clean” from the “unclean,” but also that God gave Israel a land within certain borders so that the people might there enjoy God’s blessings, free from those who would obstruct God’s purpose to bless them.

According to the New Testament, the first Christians also claimed to be chosen by God. Initially, as a small minority, they did not establish geographical boundaries to separate themselves from others, although they did consider themselves to be separate and distinct from those not belonging to their community. Later, however, when Christianity became established as the official religion of the Roman Empire and eventually other nations, kingdoms, and empires as well, the boundaries separating Christians from non-Christians came to be understood not only in spiritual terms but geographical and national terms as well. One of the primary objectives of the Crusades, for example, was to expand the boundaries of Christendom by taking land from the “infidels,” especially the land that was seen as holy and thus as the proper possession of God’s people alone.

The Europeans who subjugated, colonized, displaced, and destroyed the indigenous populations of the Americas following Columbus’ arrival to the region in 1492 believed that God had chosen them to extend further than ever before the boundaries of God’s reign. This justified their taking the land from those who had previously inhabited it. The claim that God had given the land to the Spanish, English, Portuguese and other colonial powers was later taken up by the independent countries that emerged out of the colonial period in North America. Even today, the Mexican national anthem affirms not only that God has given the land to its current inhabitants but also that God expects them to defend it as something holy: “… in heaven your eternal destiny has been written by the finger of God. But should a foreign enemy dare to profane your land with the sole of his foot, think, beloved fatherland, that heaven has given you a soldier in every son.”[1] In the United States, doctrines such as that of “manifest destiny” served the same purpose of asserting that God had determined that the new nation had been chosen by God to establish a new system of government on earth, and this justified its westward expansion.[2] The idea that the United States is especially blessed by God was common long before “God bless America” became popular both as a song and an acclamation. In fact, when one examines closely the debates and decisions over questions of domestic and foreign policy in the United States, including things such as the waging of wars, foreign aid, immigration, health care, and social programs, the idea that “America” has a special relation to God and thus a special role to play in the world is usually present, at least implicitly if not explicitly.

The Blessing and Mission of God’s People

The claim that God has elected certain peoples as God’s own and has established boundaries to set them apart from others can serve several purposes. First, it can be used to justify the greater prosperity of those on the side of the boundary or border identified with God in relation to those on the other side. In this case, their prosperity is not to be attributed to any greed, injustice, or exploitation of others but to God’s will. Second, it makes it possible to regard the power of some people over others as divinely ordained, at least within certain confines. Thus it is argued that God is the one who has determined that power is to be unequally distributed in the world and that those chosen by God as God’s representatives are to exert authority and leadership over others. Third, it can be used to give those defined as God’s chosen people the right to cross over the boundaries into the space of others without their permission, while at the same time denying the latter the right to cross over the boundary into the space of the former.

Examples of these ideas can be found in both the biblical texts and human history. In the Book of Deuteronomy, the Israelites are told that they “shall be the most blessed of peoples” (7:14) and “rule over many nations” (15:6; cf. 28:9-10). As God’s “chosen portion,” they are to cross into the promised land to dispossess and destroy the peoples there and settle in their towns and houses (19:1); in this way, every place on which they set foot shall be theirs, “from the wilderness to the Lebanon and from the Euphrates to the Western Sea” (11:23-24). Similarly, in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the Spanish believed that they were chosen to receive special blessings from God, particularly as these flowed from the New World.[3] At the same time that the Spanish were exercising their divine right to cross over into the lands inhabited by the indigenous peoples so as to subject both land and people to their authority (an authority confirmed by none other than Christ’s vicar the pope), they were expelling from within their own borders the Jews and Moors, whose rejection of Christ meant that they were not God’s people.

As already noted briefly above, the idea that God has blessed the United States more than other nations and conferred on it the right to exercise dominion and leadership in the world has almost always been quite common. This gives the U.S. the right to send its military across borders into countries like Grenada, Panama, Afghanistan, and Iraq to “liberate” the people there from oppressive regimes. Rather than always resorting to military force, however, the U.S. has more commonly used other means to be active across borders in other countries throughout the world, at times using diplomacy to pressure foreign leaders and governments into doing what is in American interests―which are inevitably equated with the interests of all―, and at other times providing funding or aid to people in other countries, including both those in governments allied with the U.S. and those fighting against governments that are considered oppressive or even “evil.” Visa policy throughout the world reflects the same idea that U.S. citizens have the right to enter into any other country in the world virtually unrestricted, while U.S. government restrictions make it difficult and often even impossible for citizens of many other countries, especially the poorer ones, to cross the border legally into the U.S.

The claim that a particular people has been chosen by God for blessing raises the theological question of cur alii non alii: Why some and not others? If this is attributed to God’s grace alone and not to any qualities that distinguish those chosen from all others, then God appears to be unjust and arbitrary. Traditionally, this difficulty has been addressed in two ways. The first is in essence to affirm a doctrine of merit by claiming that only some and not others have responded properly to God’s grace. This response may be defined in terms of taking advantage of what God has graciously given to multiply it through hard work and wise decisions or as living an upright and moral life before God in obedience to God’s law. Those chosen by God are thus more deserving of God’s blessing than others. In this case, the borders and boundaries separating God’s people from others serve the purpose of ensuring that only those who submit obediently to God’s will enjoy the blessings God intends for the righteous and obedient alone.

The problem with claiming that people in countries such as the U.S. are better off than others in the world because they have worked harder and done more with that which was given them is that, when one looks at history, many other peoples have worked much harder without reaping the benefits. Who worked harder than the African slaves brought in cruel and merciless fashion to the U.S., for example? Or who works harder today than the people in poor countries throughout the world who must toil long hours seven days a week even from childhood simply to survive while at the same time struggling endlessly in the face of enormous difficulties on account of the lack of basic necessities such as food, water, decent health care, and access to education? At the same time, to affirm that such people deserve to be poorer than others because they are less moral or godly is problematic; anyone who has spent time in communities of poor people in developing countries knows that it is impossible to make such a generalization.

A second way of responding to the problem of why God has chosen some to be blessed over others has been to posit a doctrine of mission according to which God’s intention is to use those who have been blessed as instruments to bless others as well. This generally requires affirming the previous idea simultaneously: those who have not been initially chosen for blessing must change their ways and become like God’s chosen people if they are to obtain the same blessing, since they must be deserving of that blessing. Such an idea is common in the Hebrew Scriptures where, from the time of Abraham, it is said that all the nations of the earth are to be blessed in Abraham’s descendants Israel; others will enjoy God’s blessings alongside of Israel as they come to serve Yahweh as well, especially by submitting to God’s law and flocking to God’s house in Jerusalem.[4] Likewise, the Europeans who established colonial rule believed they were serving to “civilize” those colonized and thus accomplishing a divine mission in their favor. Similar claims can be found repeatedly throughout U.S. history: God has chosen “America” so that it may be a “light to the nations.”[5] This is to take place as other nations adopt the same political and economic system found in the U.S., a system which is in accordance with God’s will for all people. Thus, God’s determination that on different sides of boundaries some are to be rich and others poor is said to be for the good of all, including those on the poor side. It is best for them, since they are ignorant and undeveloped and need to learn from those who are wiser, more powerful, and more fully developed. They will be saved only as they submit like children to those chosen by God. This is how the indigenous people and the slaves brought from Africa were often regarded; it was even argued that their enslavement and subjugation to those of European descent was for their own good.

By relating divine election to mission in this way, the problem of why God has chosen only some for blessing is to some extent resolved, since God’s election of some people is seen as having as its ultimate goal the blessing of all people through them; thus it can be claimed that ultimately there is no favoritism or injustice on God’s part. Nevertheless, the question still remains as to why God chose only some people to be blessed initially rather than blessing all people equally from the start.

In the end, then, if we say that inequity in the world exists according to God’s will and that God is not arbitrary or unjust, we must affirm that some are more deserving than others of God’s blessing and that those not initially chosen by God can only attain that blessing if they become obedient to God’s will under the guidance of those who have been chosen by God as God’s instruments and representatives in the world. Of course, one might also deny that the present situation of inequity in the world is to be ascribed to God’s will by attributing it to something such as chance, an accident of nature, or the evolution of the human species. Yet this would involve rejecting the notion that God has blessed some over others, since then God has nothing to do with the inequity in the world. There is one other alternative, however: that the inequity on different sides of borders and boundaries runs contrary to God’s will and is the result of human injustice. In that case, rather than the greater wealth of some people constituting a blessing, it must be regarded as an evil that from God’s perspective must be condemned and corrected.

Jesus’ Redefinition of the Righteous and Sinners

Is the idea that God has chosen to bless some people more than others compatible with the Christian gospel? In order to answer that question, we must take a closer look at the gospel itself. Lutherans have traditionally understood the gospel in terms of justification by faith, that is, the gracious forgiveness of sins for Christ’s sake. While this understanding of the gospel has usually been associated with the apostle Paul, in my new book Redeeming the Gospel: A Lutheran Deconstruction and Reconstruction of the Christian Faith, I argue that Paul actually took the doctrine of justification by grace through faith from Jesus himself and, in particular, from Jesus’ practice of having fellowship with those labeled “sinners.”[6]

Although Jesus is presented as affirming that God loves all people, good and bad, righteous and unrighteous (Matt 5:45; Luke 6:35), he nevertheless claimed that the actions of some people were unacceptable to God. In particular, he has extremely harsh words for the Jewish leaders who oppose him when he goes against their traditional interpretations of the law in order to meet human needs (Mark 2:23-3:6; Matt 12:22-37; 15:1-9; Luke 13:10-17). Jesus calls them “hypocrites” and accuses them of being full of sin and injustice (Matt 23:23-28; Luke 11:42-52). They refuse to recognize their own sin and repent, believing that they are righteous before God when in fact they are sinners (Matt 21:32).

In contrast, Jesus seeks out those labeled “sinners” and has table fellowship with them. He calls a tax collector to follow him and enters into his house as well as that of another tax collector in order to eat there (Luke 5:27-29; 19:1-10), while at the same time allowing a sinful woman to wash his feet with her tears (Luke 7:36-50). When the religious leaders express their displeasure at Jesus’ acceptance of sinners, he responds: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners” (Mark 2:17; cf. Luke 5:31-32; Matt 9:12-13). The fact that, as just noted, Jesus repeatedly accuses those religious leaders of being sinful and oppressive means that Jesus’ words should not be interpreted as affirming that the religious leaders were not in need of healing but rather that they refused to recognize their need. Jesus’ affirmation that those who have been forgiven more love more (Luke 7:47) and his allusion to the righteous who need no repentance (Luke 15:7) should be understood in the same terms: it is not that some have actually been forgiven less or have no need of repentance, but that they do not see how much they have been forgiven or how in need of repentance they are.

This, then, is the paradox underlying Jesus’ teaching and practice: the real sinners are those who claim to be righteous, while the truly righteous are those who recognize they are sinners. Nowhere does this paradox appear more clearly than in Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:9-14). While the Pharisee hypocritically thanks God for not being like other people such as thieves, rogues, adulterers, and tax collectors, the tax collector implores God to have mercy on him, a sinner. Jesus concludes the parable affirming that the tax collector “went down to his home justified rather than the other” (Luke 18:14). The tax collector recognized that he was a sinner in need of God’s grace and assistance. This is why those who see themselves as sinners are acceptable to God: they can be helped because they recognize that they are sick and in need of a physician to heal them. On that basis they are “justified,” that is, accepted as righteous by God, since what God wants is to heal and help them through Jesus. Those who refuse to recognize that they are sinful, however, cannot be helped and healed because they insist that, since there is nothing wrong with them, they have no need for God’s grace and assistance. For this reason, they are unacceptable to God.

Yet the problem with the religious leaders is not only that they refuse to recognize their sin and their need for help but that they claim that their obedience to God’s will sets them above others and qualifies them to represent and speak for God in relation to the rest. According to them, because in God’s eyes they are righteous, they have a special relationship with God; and because God condemns those who are sinful and demands that they repent, as God’s representatives they too are justified in condemning others and demanding that they repent. They define this repentance in terms of living according to God’s law as they interpret it. In other words, others must become like them if they are to be accepted as righteous.

Rather than drawing others to God so that they may be helped and healed, however, these religious authorities end up doing the opposite. Those labeled “sinners” are led by the religious authorities to believe that the God who condemns and rejects them until they become like those same religious authorities is the one true God. For these “sinners” to submit to this God would require that they submit to the religious authorities as God’s representatives. However, because the sinful, unjust, and oppressive ways of the religious authorities are evident to these “sinners,” they refuse to acknowledge their sin and repent of it, since to do so would mean recognizing the divine right of the religious authorities to be above them as their judges and guides. The “sinners” thus end up refusing to repent because of the way the religious leaders have defined repentance. These “sinners” consequently also refuse to believe in God, not realizing that the God they are rejecting is not the true God but a false God invented by the religious authorities. As a result of the oppressive ways of the religious authorities, then, those who need help from God end up not receiving it, since they neither recognize their sin, repent, nor turn to God.

Jesus’ harsh condemnation of the religious authorities must be viewed against this background. They “lock people out of the kingdom of heaven,” neither entering themselves by repenting nor letting others go in through repentance, and make those whom they convert to their way of thinking “twice as much a child of hell” as themselves (Matt 23:13, 15). Rather than being righteous, they are full of greed, hypocrisy, and injustice, even though on the outside they seem to be the opposite (Matt 23:27-28). From Jesus’ perspective, they proclaim a false God: the true God is one who joyfully accepts with open arms those who acknowledge their sin and return to God, as in the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:20). This means that Jesus’ call to repentance is fundamentally different from the call to repentance of the religious leaders: one can only call others to repent when one identifies oneself with sinners, as Jesus himself did from the beginning of his ministry when he submitted to John’s baptism of repentance (Mark 1:4, 9). In contrast, those who believe that they have no sin of which to repent are not qualified to call others to repentance. Nevertheless, Jesus’ condemnation of the sinful and oppressive ways of the religious leaders should not be understood as going against the idea of unconditional love: it is precisely because of the love of God and Jesus for all people without exception that Jesus calls on all to repent, including those who believe they are righteous; these need to repent both for their own good and the good of those whom they oppress.

As I argue in Redeeming the Gospel, these ideas are behind Paul’s teaching regarding justification by faith. According to Paul, all people are sinners and are acceptable to God when they acknowledge this and turn to God in Christ for help. This is faith. As in the Gospels, those who believe that Jesus is the one sent from God to save or heal them are able to be helped by him as they form part of the community established through his death, and for this reason they are declared righteous by God or “justified” as the tax collector in Jesus’ parable was; they are doing what God wants them to do. They are also aware that in Christ God helps and heals them by pure grace, not on account of any merit or work of their own. This sets them apart from those who refuse to acknowledge their sin but instead claim to be living according to God’s will and God’s law and who believe that God’s acceptance of persons depends on whether they have been righteous and obedient to God or not. In contrast, Paul’s gospel affirms that God justifies not those who are good and righteous, since no one is righteous and has kept the law, but rather those who as sinners turn to God in faith, acknowledging their sin and asking for forgiveness, help, and healing. Those who do so are the true children of Abraham, the true people of God.

These same ideas lie behind Luther’s teaching on justification. As Luther repeatedly insisted, we are all sinners. In fact, even after we turn to Christ for help and healing, we never stop sinning but remain sinners in constant need of God’s grace, mercy, and forgiveness. Even the good that we do is tainted with sin. What distinguishes believers from unbelievers is not that believers are better or less sinful―believers, like unbelievers, continue to be sinners in their totality in this world―, but that they acknowledge their need for Christ and in faith look to him for help. Through the proclamation of the law they see that they are ill and in need of a physician. On this basis, they are accepted as righteous by God, even though they are not actually righteous; God accepts them as righteous now because God knows that, as long as they cling to Christ in faith, they will actually become righteous as Christ is. As they are being healed by Christ their physician, they are righteous “in hope” (in spe) but not yet in reality (in re). Their faith in Christ also enables Christ to begin to transform them into people who love others and serve their neighbor.

Righteous, Sinners, and Hypocrites Today

If on an individual level “there is no one who is righteous, not even one” and “all have sinned,” as Paul teaches (Rom 3:9-19, 23), then the same must be true on the level of human communities and societies. Every human community, every human organization, every society, every nation, every human structure, and every human system is sinful. All nations and countries, for example, are founded on injustices. Those who emigrated to the American continent from colonial powers such as Spain and England took land unjustly from the indigenous populations there. This means that countries like Mexico and the U.S. were built on a foundation that is unjust both because of the way their land was taken from others and because they were built on the backs of oppressed and enslaved indigenous and African peoples. Later, as Mexicans never tire of pointing out, the U.S. unjustly took over half of Mexico’s territory during the nineteenth century, often justifying this on the principle of manifest destiny. Yet Mexico itself incorporated land taken violently from the indigenous American peoples such as the Aztecs, who in turn had also taken land violently and unjustly from other indigenous peoples. Similarly, the establishment of the State of Israel was a response to the cruelties perpetrated on the Jewish people by the Nazi German government yet involved attempting to correct one injustice with another by expelling those who had previously inhabited Palestine from their land. In fact, tremendous injustices can be traced back in the history of every country, nation, and people, all of whom have been both oppressed and oppressors.

Such sin and injustice, however, must be regarded not merely as a thing of the past but as a permanent and ongoing reality. All peoples, nations, societies, and human systems continue to be sinful, unjust, and oppressive, just as all individuals remain so throughout their life on earth. Every country―including Mexico, the United States, Israel, Iran, and even tiny states such as Grenada―continually practices, promotes, and justifies oppression, injustice, and evil in its treatment both of people within its own borders and in its dealings with other nations. While the governments of some countries certainly wield much more power in the world, even those with less power ally themselves with those who are more powerful to perpetrate sin and injustice. When countries such as the United States provide foreign aid, supposedly to give “assistance” to others, they inevitably do so in ways that are inherently sinful, promoting their own self-interests and manipulating others for their own ends. This sinfulness becomes evident when the affirmation that in its foreign policy the U.S. must “defend American interests abroad” is contrasted with Paul’s commands, “Look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others” (Phil 2:3) and, “Do not seek your own advantage, but that of the other” (1 Cor 10:23).

Of course, when the foreign policy of a people or nation is based on the idea that that people or nation has a divinely-given mission toward others, then the people or nation involved tends to define the interests of others for them and in fact generally equates the interests of others with its own, insisting that it is seeking the good of all. This leads to injustices not only because others are treated in paternalistic fashion as ignorant people who do not know what is in their own best interest but because those who seek to propagate their own structures and systems among others fail to realize that those structures and systems are inherently sinful as well.

U.S. foreign policy, for example, has been geared to promoting its own type of democracy through both diplomatic and military means, often understanding this in terms of a divinely-given mission to liberate people in other countries (although the U.S. has had no qualms about working with governments that are not democratic when these support U.S. policy). Yet it is rare for people in the U.S. to point out the faults and injustices that are inherent to the democratic system they promote. In such a system, minorities tend to be disregarded and even oppressed since the desires of the majority prevail and are imposed on the minority. In order to be elected, political candidates must raise sufficient funds, which are most readily available from wealthy and powerful people, organizations, and corporations that seek to promote their own self-interests, and thus the politicians inevitably end up serving the interests of those who have provided them the funds necessary to get elected rather than the interests of those in greatest need who are unable to contribute to political campaigns. Thus, even in democracies, the rich and powerful still reign supreme and impose their will on others. In addition, candidates cannot expect to be elected if they are faithful in stating their true views on every issue; instead, they must express views that will favor their popularity. Rather than being open and transparent, they must therefore be dishonest to get elected. They may justify this on the basis of the notion that they can only serve others if they are elected, but this involves an implicit adherence to the principle “the end justifies the means”―an idea traditionally associated with Soviet-style socialism. In order to produce results that will allow them or their party to continue to win elections in the future, those in power also mortgage the future, improving living conditions in the present by increasing government debt and making economic and environmental decisions for which future generations will be required to pay heavily. For these and other reasons, it must be recognized that, like every other human system of government that there ever has been and ever will be, the democracy represented and exported by countries such as the U.S. is inevitably and inherently sinful.

Although people in virtually all human communities and societies would readily admit that they and the systems and structures they construct are not perfect, those that claim to have a special relation to God nevertheless tend to maintain their claim to moral superiority in relation to others. In this case, though they do not regard themselves as sinless, their sin is viewed as being different in nature than the sin of everyone else: supposedly, they do not fall into the depths of sin that others do but only sin in the sense of failing to live up fully to God’s expectations of them, which are far above the expectations God has of others. Yet this involves falling into the same type of hypocrisy Jesus criticized. When U.S. presidents, for example, use phrases such as the “evil empire” and the “axis of evil” to refer to other countries, they fail to recognize the tremendous evil that the U.S. has done and continues to do, often (but not always) even with good intentions. People in other countries who have suffered grave injustices due to U.S. policies, however, are quick to point those injustices out and on that basis argue convincingly that the U.S. has itself been an “evil empire” and led an “axis of evil”; yet the U.S. typically responds by justifying its actions rather than recognizing its sin when others point it out, hypocritically calling attention to the speck in the eye of others while refusing to see the log in its own. Other regimes throughout the world consequently follow suit in denying their own sin and injustices, and the result is a world full of countries and governments that all act hypocritically in relation to one another and to their own people. Hypocrisy breeds hypocrisy, and when those in power are hypocrites, they turn everyone else into hypocrites as well. In reality, only those who acknowledge their sin and injustices when these are pointed out to them, repent publicly of what they have done, and seek to mend their ways with help from others can defend what is right and just and exercise any type of moral leadership in relation to others. People who see themselves as just and righteous cannot practice justice and righteousness; only sinners can.

Similar observations can be made with regard to the sin of racism. In today’s world, when people are accused of being racist, almost without exception they deny it vigorously, either attempting to justify whatever led to the accusation or insisting that it is a problem from the past that has now been overcome. The reality, however, is that we are all racist. This is true of all human groups, peoples, and nations, and it is true of every person no matter what their background or skin color. We all live in racist systems in societies that are racist and a world that is racist. As a result, we all act in racist ways and contribute to the propagation of racism. Even those who have fought most strongly against racism have been racist, just as I am racist and you are racist; and as long as we deny that we are all racist, we will never be able to make inroads against racism in the world. Only when we recognize that we act in racist ways and thus are in need of forgiveness and help can we begin to overcome racism in ourselves and others, though we must recognize that we will never be able to eradicate it fully. As soon as we claim to have successfully overcome racism, we blind ourselves to the racism that remains in and around us and thus contribute to its propagation. At the same time, as we acknowledge our own racism, we can point out the racism in others and urge them to acknowledge their own racism and help us see our own more clearly so that we may help one another address the problem. What separates some from others, then, is not that some are racist and others are not but that some admit their racism and their need for help to address it as a problem while others deny being racist, thus hypocritically refusing to recognize their sin. What breeds racism is the refusal to recognize that we are all racist and in need of help.

Justice, Borders, and Mission

Once we recognize that we are all sinful, unjust, and oppressive, then we can recognize that the inequity that exists on different sides of borders and boundaries is not due to God’s blessing some over others but to human sin and injustice. Those of us who are comparably better off must acknowledge that we have benefited from sinful, unjust, oppressive, racist, sexist, classist systems at the expense of others, and that all of us together have contributed to the perpetuation and extension of these systems. While even those who suffer most from these systems are sinful and contribute to them like everyone else, in reality we must realize that all of us suffer from them and no one truly benefits from them. This is not only because inequity foments things such as crime, hatred, and violence from which all people in a society suffer, but also because none of us can truly be whole as long as others are not. The wholeness and well-being of each person, group, community, and society depends on the wholeness and well-being of all others.

God’s blessing can never, therefore, be equated with situations of inequity; inequity must instead be seen as the consequence of injustice. It is not God’s will, for example, that I am able to live in a home that I own, have all that I want to eat, earn a living by working in something I choose, and in general enjoy life while there are countless others who can do none of these things. I must recognize that in today’s unjust world, in order for me to earn the salary I earn, wear the clothes I wear, and maintain a bank account and pension plan, there are many who have suffered and continue to suffer oppression and injustice. And if oppression and injustice are contrary to God’s will, then I cannot consider what I have a blessing from God but must instead regard it as the fruit of unjust human structures and systems to which I contribute along with everyone else. I cannot be blessed until all others are blessed. And in order for others to be blessed alongside of myself, together we must recognize our sinfulness and seek help from one another.

In this regard, a quick and facile recognition in general terms that we are all sinners is insufficient. While that is a start, we must proceed on to a closer examination of precisely what we have done wrong and where the injustices lie, joining with others in seeking to understand and determine through careful analysis what is contributing to the propagation and perpetuation of the sinful, unjust systems in which we live; only then can we seek to address the sin and injustices in ways that are not simplistic. For example, we must look at U.S. history to study the root causes behind slavery, the ways that slavery affected the whole of society in its day, and the lasting effects that slavery has had on us today, including not only people of African-American descent but all people in the U.S. The same must be done with regard to what has been done to the American indigenous populations and the many other forms of sin, evil, and injustice that have been present in U.S. history. It then becomes clear that these problems cannot be addressed through simplistic measures such as sending people back to Africa, giving American Indians their own tracts of land on which they can live and build casinos, or throwing money at the victims of injustice in an attempt to atone for the past. Instead, we come to see that we must address the past and present injustices in ways that take into account the complexity of the problems and get at the deeply-embedded roots of the sin and injustice that oppress us all.

Similar observations must be made with regard to the question of immigration. The way in which this question tends to be addressed in the U.S. focuses on the problem of others crossing over “our” border to share in what is “ours” or even take it away from “us.” According to this way of thinking, the border must be defended so as to ensure that the inequity of abundance on “our” side is maintained; as noted previously, this inequity is often justified by claiming that it is something “we” have earned or by regarding it as a divine blessing. This hypocritical way of viewing the question of immigration must be replaced by another in which we realize that the reason that immigration is a problem is that all of us have contributed to a sinful, unjust, and evil global system in which borders and boundaries are used in ways that promote grave injustices and inequity. Things such as international laws, treaties, and agreements as well as the oppressive use of military force have led to a situation of such inequity that many see no alternative but to immigrate elsewhere in order to attempt to live in a decent and dignified manner. We then realize that the problem is much deeper than commonly recognized and that we must address the root causes of immigration by altering radically an international system that is unjust, oppressive, and evil. While this seems to run contrary to the interests of those on the wealthier side of the border, in reality no one benefits from unjust and oppressive systems that promote and maintain inequity, as noted above. We also come to see the unbearable living conditions of those who are having to leave their homelands and move elsewhere as a problem that we share with them rather than a problem that is theirs alone. We enter into solidarity with them and look for solutions that take into account once more the deep roots of the problem and the complexity of the issues involved.

This does not involve erasing or eradicating borders and boundaries but instead affirming that the only legitimate purpose for borders and boundaries is to promote equity and justice for those on both sides rather than to preserve a situation of inequity between those on different sides. Borders and boundaries are necessary to ensure that all have a space of their own in which they can live a dignified life and enjoy wholeness. The only borders and boundaries that can be considered pleasing to God are those that exist to make sure that what God our Creator has given not only to some people but to all people in the world without exception―including things such as the land and its abundance, the earth’s natural resources, and the fruit of human labors―are distributed in equitable fashion. All belongs to God alone and must be used by human beings in accordance with God’s will for the wholeness of all.

This way of viewing things leads to an understanding of mission very different from that outlined above. Mission must begin with a recognition of our own sin and injustice and an understanding of how we have all contributed to systems and structures that promote oppression, inequity, and suffering. It must then continue with a call to others to do the same in solidarity with us, recognizing their own sin and injustice and looking together with us at the ways we have all sinned against one another, against others, and even against ourselves. Only in this sense can it rightly be said that the goal of mission is that others become like us: we want others to recognize that they are sinful and unjust as we ourselves are. When others refuse to admit this, we must respond as Jesus did, bringing out into plain view their sinful and oppressive ways for all to see while nevertheless never failing to point to the log in our own eye; if we merely accuse others of sin and hypocrisy without continuously acknowledging our own sin and hypocrisy, we make them even more hypocritical and join them in becoming obstacles to God’s purposes.

Mission thus involves raising a prophetic voice and calling others to raise their prophetic voices with us to make evident the sin and injustice of all, including our own. Once we have identified and comprehended our sin and injustice, we can then address that sin and injustice together with those who see themselves as sinners as we are. Only in this way can we obtain God’s blessing―a blessing to be defined not in terms of power and material wealth only for some but rather in terms of communities and societies in which all can feel safe and secure, not because they have built fortified borders and boundaries around themselves and their possessions to keep others from taking what is “theirs,” but because all have what they need and thus have no need to steal and because all know that they will be taken care of when they are sick or elderly or alone or in any type of need. Then and only then can we rightly say that we are blessed by God. Communities and societies of that type will also work with the same kind of communities and societies elsewhere to seek justice and equity everywhere so that no one needs to leave their home and migrate elsewhere in order to survive.

Who, then, are God’s chosen people? As in Jesus’ teaching, they are not those who regard themselves as righteous and justify themselves and their actions in God’s name but those who see themselves as unjust sinners in need of forgiveness and help from God and from one another. Only such sinners can do what is pleasing to God and carry out God’s mission in the world. Only such sinners can be God’s instruments to make the many borders and boundaries that exist in our world a means for promoting equity and blessing for all.

[1] The Spanish text reads: “en el cielo tu eterno destino por el dedo de Dios se escribió. Mas si osare un extraño enemigo profanar con su planta tu suelo, piensa, ¡oh patria querida!, que el cielo un soldado en cada hijo te dio.”

[2] On the notion of the U.S. as God’s chosen people, see Richard T. Hughes, Myths America Lives By (Champaign, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 2004), 19-44. On manifest destiny, see especially Anders Stephanson, Manifest Destiny: American Expansionism and the Empire of Right (New York: Hill and Wang, 1995).

[3] See, for example, Jacques Lafaye, Quetzalcóatl y Guadalupe: La Formación de la Conciencia Nacional en México (Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1977), 75-84.

[4] For the relevant biblical texts, see Donald E. Gowan, Eschatology in the Old Testament (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986), 51-54.

[5] On this understanding of the mission of the U.S. in the world, see Winthrop S. Hudson, Religion in America: An Historical Account of the Development of American Religious Life, 2nd ed. (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1973), 110-116.

[6] David A. Brondos, Redeeming the Gospel: A Lutheran Deconstruction and Reconstruction of the Christian Faith (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010). On the material in this section, including the last paragraphs on the teaching of Paul and Luther, see Chapter 4 of the book.