The Rev. Robert Jeffress thinks Jesus would build a fence at the U.S. border so desperate children from violence-ridden countries would be discouraged from heading north.
“Yes, Jesus loved children,” Jeffress admits, “but he also respected law. He said, render unto Caesar the things that are Caesars.”
In other words, Christians shouldn’t trouble themselves with immigration policy; that’s Caesar’s concern.
Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Church, Dallas, once suggested that Barack Obama is preparing the world for the coming of Antichrist, so his “Caesar” reference probably doesn’t mean that we should leave immigration policy in the hands of the presiding president. He means instead that everything Jesus said about welcoming children, and all the warnings he pronounced against those who harden their hearts against the pain of young ones, is irrelevant to American immigration policy.
Sure, Christians must be kind to the children they encounter within the suburban bubble, but the boys and girls of Honduras simply are on their own.
Since nothing can be done for the unaccompanied migrant children on our doorstep, the most compassionate course is to build a border wall so thick and so tall that the poor little blighters will have no choice but to return to the violence and squalor that drove them into the arms of America.
That young girl of seven or eight, carrying her two-year old sister on her back has spawned a crisis of conscience among American Christians.
On the whole, we have responded admirably. “This is an unfortunate, even awful, situation for everyone,” said David Hardage, Executive Director of the Baptist General Convention of Texas. “So much of what has happened and is happening is out of our control. What we can control is our response to human need. We will try to be the hands and feet of Jesus to those in need.”
Hardage sees Jesus standing on the side of desperate children, an assumption shared by most Texas Baptists.
Terry Henderson, state disaster relief director for Texas Baptist Men, compressed the issue to a simple question: “If Jesus was standing here with us, what would he tell us to do? That sounds kind of basic, but that’s the deal.”
That’s supposed to be a rhetorical question, but Robert Jeffress doesn’t provide the expected answer. He thinks Jesus would slam the door. Call it tough love.
The disagreement between Jeffress and mainstream Texas Baptists cuts to heart of what Christian faith is all about. The pastor of First Baptist Dallas grew up under the preaching of W.A. Criswell. In 1956, when Jeffress was but a babe in arms, Criswell stood before a gathering of Southern Baptist evangelists in South Carolina and issued a call to arms.
Describing the sort of fiery ordeals they must face, Criswell segued into a heated attack on the forces of desegregation. He expressed astonishment at the
cowardice of ministers “whose forebears [sic] and predecessors were martyrs and were burned at the stake” but who themselves refuse to speak up about “this thing of integration.” True ministers, he argued, must passionately resist government mandated desegregation because it is “a denial of all that we believe in.”
Like his childhood pastor and mentor, Rev. Jeffress doubts Southern Baptist pastors can win the culture war unless they man up.
“A lot of Christian leaders see Jesus as this little, wimpy guy who walked around plucking daisies and eating birdseed and saying nice things, but never doing anything controversial. The fact is, Jesus did confront his culture with truth — and he ended up being crucified because of it . . . Wimpy pastors produce wimpy Christians — and that is why we are losing this culture war. I believe it’s time for pastors to say, You know, I don’t care about controversy, I don’t care whether I’m going to lose church members, I don’t care about building a big church. I’m going to stand for truth regardless of what happens.”
Wally Amos Criswell lived to regret his defense of Jim Crow segregation. “Never have I been so blind,” he confessed a decade later. Is the current pastor of First Baptist Church, Dallas headed for a confession of similar moment?
No time soon, I’m afraid. Like the pre-conversion Criswell, Jeffress wraps his capitulation to secular conservatism in heroic language, but no one is fooled. Like his mentor, Jeffress parrots the prejudices of the people in the pews. He wouldn’t survive a single hour if he didn’t.
Jesus went to the cross because he refused to deny the radically inclusive ideals he preached; Jeffress maintains the fawning adoration of his constituency by denying everything his Master stood for. He inherited one of the largest churches in the nation and needs to build his membership base. Therefore, everything Jesus said about the poor, the prisoner, the oppressed or the children in our midst must be divorced from American immigration policy.
Ayn Rand, the high priestess of American conservatism, consciously rejected the compassion of Jesus in virtually every particular. The single exception is telling. One of her students shares this vignette:
Someone asked her for her views on immigration, if she thought it was a good thing. And she got indignant immediately at the very idea that anyone might be opposed to immigration, that a country might not let immigrants in. One of the things she said in her answer was, “Where would I be today if America closed its doors to immigrants?”
Ayn Rand was offended by the very thought of closing the American border because she had stood on the hurting side of the wall. Would a trip to a detention center have the same affect on Robert Jeffress?
Marla Bearden, disaster response specialist with the Baptist General Convention of Texas, has seen hearts and minds at the Mexican border.
“I spoke with a couple of volunteers who worked with the children, who went with the idea that we just need to turn them back. Once they saw the conditions the children were in, it changed their hearts and it changed them.”
Some contend that Criswell’s about-face on segregation was motivated by his desire to serve as president of the Southern Baptist Convention. Outspoken bigotry was no longer acceptable in the SBC and the Texas preacher was forced to adapt. If that’s true, I long for the day when a sea change within First Baptist Church, Dallas forces a hard-hearted pastor into the waiting arms of Jesus.