In a recent discussion with my arch conservative son-in-law, whom I love dearly, he defended his argument for racially profiled secret surveillence, summary imprisonment, and torture of Americans and legal and illegal aliens suspected of being terrorists with this little gem: "let's face it, Bruce, you and I and people like us will never be suspected of terrorism, so why should we care if the government spies on Muslims to protect us?" Miraculously stifling a primal scream, I began, in a later quiet time to meditate on that question and seek an answer based in his ideology that addresses his self-interest.
It caused me to remember another conversation with a young, idealistic homeless and hunger activist a few years earlier. As I was awakening from years of suppressing my liberal background and nature in a conservative job, I lamented to her my shame that our society, with so much wealth, treats low-income people so poorly. She replied: "our society does not treat anyone well, its just that some people have the money to take better care of themselves than others."
Then in the last few days, our President announced he would veto a proposed law to increase funding to the State Children's Health Insurance Program, thereby denying health care to millions of low-income children to save less money per year than we spend in Iraq each month. Denying health care to poor children while pushing for permanent tax cuts for the richest people in the history of the world. Then another shameful development. I just read a the most graphic story yet about the Bush Administration's refusal to help the Iraqi refugees Bush's own war is creating. "Bush Administration Utterly Callous Toward Iraqi Refugees" http://www.commondreams.org/archive/2007/07/28/2826/
Adding this conversation and these recent events to my meditation on how we treat each other and why those of us who can take care of ourselves should care deeply about those who cannot, I naturally found my way to Jesus and his most beautiful words on right human action.
Jesus And The Least Among Us
In its grand depiction of the scene when Jesus returns to earth as The King and judges his professed followers, the Book of Matthew accounts the ultimate test Jesus will use to decide who joins him in the Kingdom of Heaven and who will burn in eternal fire. And Jesus declares that those will join him in heaven who fed him when hungry, gave him drink when thirsty, clothed him when naked, visited him when sick, came to him in prison, and invited him in as a stranger. When they ask when they did these things for Jesus, he replies, "to the extent that you did it to one of your brothers, even to the least among you, you did it to me."
To those who would burn in eternity, Jesus explained:
"Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me." They also will answer, "Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?" He will reply, "I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least among you, you did not do for me."
Matthew, 45, 31-46 (42-46 quoted in full) (emphasis added).
Now, you may or may not believe in the concept of judgment day, or Jesus or even God, but that is not needed to understand the basic moral principle announced. In a more universally accessible spiritual, secular moral, or ethical sense, Jesus is announcing the only reliable test of a person's basic humanity: how that person treats the least among his or her society.
Action Toward The Least Among Us As An Essential Political Assessment
This most fundamental moral principle of right behavior and action is as important a political assessment as it is an assessment of humanity. Of course, the Bible and the words of Jesus are the sources of the radical Christian right's claim to political and legal superiority. But it is also incredibly important in a world with huge movements setting up Jesus's or Allah's or whoever's criteria for judgment day as the basis for legal and governmental systems to understand that Jesus's ultimate assessment of his followers was not how well they followed the Ten Commandments, whether they were for or against abortion or gay marriage or war against infidels, had sex outside marriage, or went to church every Sunday. No, the ultimate measure was whether they fed the hungry, clothed the naked, cared for the sick, visited the imprisoned, invited in strangers. And if they denied this even to the least among them, they also denied it to Jesus himself! But if they did this to all including the least among them, they also did it to Jesus himself! In short, God said through Jesus, how we treat each other is the single most important measure of our lives
More specifically, how we treat the least among us is the one and only truly reliable assessment of our genuine humanity and the only way to know how we can truly count on our political leaders to treat all members of society, including ourselves. To expand on that concept politically, let me first delve in to who are the least among us.
Who Are The Least Among Us?
The obvious groups are the ones Jesus listed: the poor, hungry, homeless, sick, mentally ill, imprisoned, strange, alien. Minorities, women and children are often among the least in societies. Native Americans have always been among the least here. But these listings are neither exhaustive nor exclusive. Numerous times in history wealth or familiarity did not protect certain groups or persons from becoming "least". Wealth did not protect Jews in Europe, nor Palestinians in either Palestine or Israel. In America, minorities would generally be included, but wealth has protected certain minorities from oppression or even bought them the same apparent exceptions from the rules applying to the non-wealthy long experienced by wealthy whites. Illegal aliens are certainly the least among us, but some are considered lower than others depending on their skin color and religion-Latinos and Persian, Arabic and Asian Muslims are considered much lower than Canadians or Europeans or even Indians.
Neither wealth nor legal status nor innocence protected the thousands of Muslims rounded up in the United States after September 11, 2001 and hounded, followed, spied-on and suspected ever since for the crime only of being Muslim and having brown skin. Children, of course represent the least among us in stature and political right, but children of successful parents are seldom considered among the leastwhile children of the poor most certainly are. To expand the definition even further beyond easy categories, think of those suddenly and unexpectedly oppressed for their political beliefs in the McCarthy era, or for their ancestral home in the Japanese internment.