I have just returned home from the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship’s national General Assembly. The focus text for the assembly was Matthew 25:35-40:
…for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
The clear focus of the whole week was that CBF ministers to “the least of these.” By that, of course, they mean (almost exclusively) those who are poor, homeless, live in poverty, etc. They very often leave out those who continue to be outcast by societies and by their own society such as immigrants, the LGBT community, the rich, etc. I take great issue with who CBF leadership seems to be determining are worthy of our resources (time, money, presence) and who they are saying – sometimes explicitly and sometimes not – who is not worthy of these resources. What has nagged me this week, though, is a broader issue.
Whom CBF categorizes as “the least of these” is merely under the umbrella; my greater issue is with the umbrella itself. The phrase itself implies that if there are those who are less than then there are also those who are greater than. Our use of the phrase only to describes others makes clear quickly which group we think we belong to. The fact that we are defining who are “the least of these” says that we think we are not among that group, that we are “the greatest of these,” that we are the ones in the right position and with the (God-given) authority to establish the hierarchy. This is a systemic problem with American baptist Christianity – we are the faithful ones (clearly) and so it is our job to help others be faithful.
The arrogance of American Christianity persists.
We cannot say at one moment that we believe all people are created equally and then turn around the next moment and categorize others as those who need help and ourselves as the harbingers of that help. Further, we do even more injustice to our movement and work when we mindlessly repeat the sins of past Christians – saying, preaching, and singing that we welcome ALL when we discriminate against LGBT folk and are less diverse than some Amish communities.
Now, to be fair, I fully recognize that CBF is using the phraseology of the text to attempt to make a point. I am also aware that CBF works intentionally to minister alongside people not to people and that CBF (especially Together for Hope) implements asset-based approaches to ministry. Nevertheless, that does not excuse the reliance on a two millennia old phrase that harbors a world-view that did not hold all people to be created equal.
It is time for us to rethink not just how we do ministry but how we talk about it, for our language often reveals the unconscious views we have of the world.
So I say, as Ken Medema sang, “there ain’t no least of these.” We are all in this together. We are all God’s children.