When Vice President Mike Pence went to visit the CBP detention centers on July 12, I was relieved. Pence calls himself a Christian first and foremost. He talks about his Christian identity often and employs it in myriad ways that he considers in keeping with his version of faith — like his demonizing of LGBTQ people and his virulent anti-abortion stance, none of which appears in the New Testament.
I assumed Pence would go to the camps, as most of us on the left refer to them, see the conditions, and immediately make some effort to help the refugees. I assumed this because the foundation for Christian behavior is the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus handed down his message of radical love and caring for others, highlighting his demand for us to help society’s most vulnerable and most needy.
I assumed at the camps Pence would be thinking of the Sermon on the Mount. I assumed Pence would look at the refugees (not detainees, because they have committed no crime) and recall that Jesus, Mary and Joseph were themselves refugees when they were forced to flee the violence of the State and go to Egypt.
Pence did not do that, though. Despite hearing the men in overcrowded cages calling out for food and showers, despite reporters traveling with the VP, notably Pamela Brown of CNN and Josh Dawsey of the Washington Post, reporting that the room reeked of sweat and other bodily odors, Pence did nothing. He sent out a series of tweets in which he claimed the issue at the camps was overcrowding caused by Democrats refusing more DHS funding.
And then, like Pontius Pilate, he washed his hands of the camps.
I try not to judge other Christians’ commitment to faith, but Pence is such a blatantly epic fail, as are the majority of evangelicals, at following Christ’s most basic teachings. The fact is, Christianity calls for a radical view of the world and a true evangelizing for our faith in ways that are rarely evinced by politicians or other public people claiming to be Christian.
Christianity calls for us to love each other as ourselves. Christianity calls on us to feed the hungry, care for the sick, the homeless, the poor, the mentally ill, the lonely, the heartbroken, the vulnerable — anyone and everyone in need. It’s a clear dictate laid out in the gospel of Matthew, chapters 5-7, in that Sermon on the Mount that rejects the wealthy, commands fealty not to the State but to each other, calls for us to love God, but also to see God in each other at all times and in all ways.
Pence failed to see God in those men at the border. Pence fails to see God in women and LGBTQ people and people who are not white and not wealthy.
That is a failure of faith. That is failing Jesus Christ and his overarching message to love one another no matter what and no matter who.
I was raised a Catholic by Socialist Civil Rights parents. I attended Catholic school for nine years, where I immersed myself in the lives of the female saints who taught me not humility, but bravery and activism. I often think my love for other women evolved naturally out of the loving commitment I witnessed in the community of nuns who taught me. I know Christ taught me to be a Socialist revolutionary like he was.
A few years ago I was headed to Mass for Holy Thursday at my Center City parish. On the steps of the church was a young woman with a sign written on a scrap of cardboard: Please help. I need food. She was crying quietly.
It was an early spring evening in one of the wealthiest spots in Philadelphia. Men in $3,000 suits walked by her as if she were invisible. I was running late — finding a parking spot had taken forever. But how could I leave her there, unfed, to go celebrate the Mass of the Last Supper? There was a small market a block away with a hot bar. So I took her there and bought her dinner, as well as some things to put in her bag for later. She said to me, “I thought at the church, people would help me, but they just walked right past me.”
I will never forget that night, that exchange, that meeting with Christ on the streets of Center City in the form of a young, homeless woman in need of food and acknowledgment. We are tested every day in our faith. We fail often. But our role within our Christian faith is to bear witness to Christ’s radical love by being there for each other in all ways. That is what being a Christian means. Don’t let the Vice President tell you otherwise.