I came across this photo today on Twitter:
It’s a group of Mennonite youth from Ohio meeting with Sheriff Joe Arpaio. Arpaio, an Arizona sheriff, is a well-known, controversial figure in the immigration conversation. To many (myself included), Arpaio is easily one of the most openly racist elected officials in the country. To others, Arpaio is a hero who stands for the “rule of law.” Whatever one thinks of him, he’s a man accustomed to the media spotlight and adept at weaving narratives. I doubt these Mennonite youth share those same skills, so the photo concerns me.
In truth, the photo infuriates me.
It infuriates because of the message it sends to our Latino/a and Hispanic sisters and brothers, that Anglo Mennonite’s expressions of care and concern are just a thin veneer of politeness, a facade masking an ugly, racist reality.
It infuriates me because it runs so contrary to the ethos I’ve experienced at Convention in Phoenix.
It infuriates me because Arpaio and others have no qualms using these young people as propaganda, reducing them to ideas in a broader ideological conflict, presenting them in unfair ways, not validating their basic humanity.
It infuriates me because of my own response, which has been angry, irritated, and decidedly ungracious.
Arpaio’s photo (and my response) reminds me how much I (and, I believe, all of us) have to learn about encountering the other.
The teachings of scripture and the example of Christ encourage us to be gracious, hospitable, and humble when encountering those who are different from us. “Welcome one another, therefore, as Christ has welcomed you.” (Romans 15:7) How did Christ welcome us? Unreservedly, without precondition or judgment.
For most of us, our experience of “the other” is anything but a picture of how Christ welcomed us.
In fact, most of us go to great lengths to avoid even encountering those who are different from us or disagree with us. We’ve become remarkably skilled at staying in narrow, self-perpetuating echo chambers, lobbing rhetorical grenades across highly fortified walls.
We simply can’t be gracious from that posture. We simply can’t reflect Christ from behind those walls. We simply can’t welcome one other as Christ welcomed us if we fail to even meet one another.
Perhaps this is the question before me: Can I welcome Sheriff Arpaio the way Christ welcomed me? In truth, I don’t believe I can. Not if he only remains this icon or image of all that is wrong with our immigration conversation.
I don’t know the man. All I know is his public persona, his public proclamations, his public photos. I can’t extend a gracious, hospitable welcome to an artificially constructed persona.
Can I welcome those who are bigoted or prejudiced or racist the way Christ welcomed me? Not if they only remain categories in my mind, examples of “the other” that need to be vilified to I can feel good about my own inclusiveness.
Can students from these Ohio youth groups welcome those who are undocumented? Not if they only remain an undifferentiated mass of “the other.”
Can privileged white Mennonites welcome those who don’t share that history, don’t share that skin tone, don’t share that language? Not if they only remain a collection of “racial / ethnic constituencies.”
Christ didn’t welcome categories of people. Christ didn’t welcome public personas. Christ welcomed people: living, breathing, broken, hurting, desperate, confused, contradictory, angry, lonely people.
If we truly want to fulfill the mandate of Scripture, we need to encounter “the other” as human beings first and foremost, and as we do that, we need to extend the grace and peace of Christ, just as Christ welcomed us.
(I realize that arguing for inclusion in this way neglects to consider the ways in which we have to differentiate and name injustice and sinful behavior, even while welcoming people. That’s a conversation for another day).
UPDATE: Richer context and analysis from Marty Troyer here: http://blog.chron.com/thepeacepastor/2013/07/an-unfortunate-teachable-moment-on-race-and-public-witness/