Last week, Vice President Mike Pence toured one of America’s immigrant concentration camps. The self-styled “man of faith” listened as a border agent explained how they handle “rowdy” inmates, carefully avoiding walking too near or making eye contact with any of the nearly-400 men trying to get his attention from behind a massive human-dog kennel.
The men, who are forced to sleep on crowded, concrete floors with no pillows, tried to tell Pence that it had been weeks since any of them had even been allowed to get a shower; that they do not have access to toothbrushes and toothpaste; that they are not getting adequate food. But Pence, arms folded and his face stoic, allowed not an inch of their humanity to penetrate his heart. After just 90 seconds, he turned his back and walked away.
I’ll never forget that image of the American vice president and the cold lack of empathy it reflected.
Hours later, Pence called the conditions he saw “humane” and thanked border patrol for “working tirelessly each day … to keep our country safe.”
Hundreds of men packed in a cage in the hot summer, with only a concrete floor to sleep on and lacking basic necessities is “humane,” says the man who all but claims to be the biggest follower of Christ in America.
Yet he completely ignores one of the most pivotal passages in all of the Bible: Matthew 25:31-46. It became my favorite passage as an evangelical teen reading the New Testament for the first time, and ultimately helped disillusion me with the evangelical world that seemed concerned about everything—except what Jesus said in Matthew 25.
In it, Jesus tells his disciples that whenever they give food to the hungry, water to the thirsty, clothing to the naked, refuge to the stranger (immigrant), or visit someone in prison, they are doing it for him, too.
But he also says: “Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.”
How can you practice this Christian faith without understanding Jesus’ core message?
Men like Mike Pence center their Christianity on disdain for empowered women, LGBT people, people of color who speak up against injustice, and other marginalized groups. With a very selective theology, they turn their fear and resentment of their fellow humans into a gospel of oppression.
But they can’t even recognize Jesus when he’s standing before them—often because he comes in the form of those whose humanity they refuse to affirm.
In 2017, Mike Pence made a big show of his decision to get up and leave a football game because he was offended that some players kneeled during the national anthem, in protest against police brutality that targets people of color.
“I left today’s Colts game because @POTUS and I will not dignify any event that disrespects our soldiers, our Flag, or our National Anthem,” he tweeted.
Imagine if Mike Pence was even 1/100 as offended by the sight of men forced to live in overcrowded human-dog kennels in the July heat, to sleep on concrete floors with no pillows, and go without a shower for weeks on end.
Imagine if Mike Pence dared to see Jesus in the faces of the men whose eyes he would not even meet.
Because, if he believes the Bible, the vice president did see Jesus in that camp this past week—and he looked away.
When his family fled King Herod’s wrath when he was just an infant, Jesus was a brown-skinned refugee. In Mike Pence’s America, Jesus is the thousands of brown-skinned refugees who are unloved, rejected, and caged by the very people who shout Christ’s name loudest during public prayers, but whose hearts are as distant from him as the lands from which the weary sojourners they despise travel.
“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’”
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’”