Our society is so divided over many hot-button issues. There are conservative and liberal viewpoints, with variations of all kinds in between. It can be confusing to know what to think when half of the population seems to have strong opinions one way and seemingly the other half of the population has just as strong views on the other side.
When people express opinions about a particular issue, I always look to see how charitable they are in this. Do they take the concerns of others seriously and try their best to get to the bottom of it? Or do they simply dismiss their concerns outright without getting involved? That is often a clue as to whether their opinions are in line with Christian discipleship.
Jesus promises that he is close to the poor and suffering of the world. He is so close that he can say whatever is done to the "least of these" is also done to him (see Matthew 25:31-46). In this passage, he compels us to do the same through the works of mercy. This is a great model for how Christians can move and act in this world.
If you are trying to figure out what position to take on a controversial issue, you can use what I call the Matthew 25 Solidarity Test: Do you know the people who are affected by this issue? Have you walked in their shoes? Have you heard their concerns in their own words rather than from a third party? Are you so close to them that whatever happens to them also happens to you?
I'll use two hot-button issues to illustrate this point: Racism in the U.S. and the struggle of refugees and undocumented immigrants.
Reports have been mounting in recent years of unarmed black people in America being killed or otherwise brutalized by police officers. There are so many reports that it is hard to dismiss them all as simply isolated incidents. Yet, some people are quick to say, "There is no racism in the U.S.!" It is strange how that is their first thought. It comes across as defensiveness and frankly just flat out denial.
Anyone who studies statistics can tell you that a string of incidents does not necessarily prove that there is something like societal racism in play. Such things are difficult to prove and it can take years for the proper data and studies to come in. However, anyone who is even remotely charitable should recognize that we have a big problem. All indicators point to it. Even if we were to find out later that this treatment of African Americans is somehow NOT systemic racism (which I sincerely doubt), we should still be acting as if it were racism until we know for sure. That is what a charitable person would do. Until we get to the bottom of it, we should be doing everything possible to solve this. We should be sensitive, compassionate and diligent until this problem is solved. The fact that so many resist any effort to work on this issue just about proves the legitimacy of the charge of racism.
For example, if someone falls out of a tree and thinks he has broken his arm, the best thing to do is take him to the hospital. It is possible that the arm is not broken, but doctors will treat that person as if the arm is broken until they can properly diagnose. It would be cruel and inhumane to say, "quit crying, your arm is not broken!" without actually doing the necessary evaluation to know for sure. Yet, that is exactly how many in our culture are treating African Americans who present strong evidence of racism and are met with resistance, dismissals of their concerns and overall lack of interest.
The people who say that racism is not a factor are rarely (if ever) close to the issue. They seem to pronounce their judgement from their comfortable living rooms in very white neighborhoods. They aren't the people who are consoling grieving family members or helping a wounded and angry community heal. Those who are involved seem to have no problem recognizing the footprint of racism at work.
I see the same pattern over how we treat refugees and undocumented immigrants. The people who are closest to migrants—who hold their hands when a loved one is missing or who simply listen to them with open minds and hearts—these people overwhelmingly support a merciful approach to welcoming immigrants and granting hospitality whenever possible. Those who want to shut out immigrants and refugees with strict rules are usually people who have had no meaningful contact with those migrants and have rarely taken the time to fully understand their concerns.
Being in close solidarity with the poor and suffering of the world is no guarantee that you will always form the best opinions. However, in our culture that seems almost evenly divided on so many important issues, we are actually not very divided when we factor in solidarity. Looking at the issues of racism and immigration, those who are in solidarity with the affected groups overwhelmingly have a supportive, sympathetic opinion of their struggles while those with differing opinions are almost always those who are not in solidarity. I'm sure there are exceptions, but quite frankly, I have never met one. Exceptions must be very rare, if they exist at all. This is a pretty clear indicator to me that opinions on both sides are not equal in validity.
I'm reminded of the lyrics to the old church hymn:
Where charity and love prevail,
there God is ever found;
Brought here together by Christ’s love,
by love are we thus bound.