“These aren’t people. These are animals”

“These aren’t people. These are animals.” President Donald Trump said this. The debate is whether he said this in relation to only a specific gang or in relation to all immigrants. The context seems to point towards a reference to the gang, but previous comments by him leaves the door open to raise the question.

Regardless of who he is referring to, it is wrong to refer to anyone as an animal — no matter how terrible they may be.

Why? Where do we draw the line? Who is considered an animal and who is considered a person? And if they are an animal — what can be done to them?

I wonder what the president thinks about the people we work with and do ministry with at Flying J. Are they animals? They aren’t immigrants. They are citizens. But they come with many challenges. Many are homeless or living in their vehicles. Some are ex-convicts. Some have health problems. There are families with children. Some work, some can’t.

When we do ministry at Flying J twice a month, we start with an assumption — that everyone we encounter is a person, has value and worth, and is a child of God. We provide the limited resources that we have — we make sure people get a shower and can do their laundry. Being clean is important. It is a way to bring dignity to a person. It is a way for a person to feel human again. To be seen as a person. To be seen and not smelled.

We bring people over to Denny’s and sit down as a large group, hand people a menu and ask people what they want to eat. Choice is important. It’s not much, but having a choice on a menu is a way of empowering people who don’t have much power over other things in their life. When we empower people with choice, we are saying that they have value and worth. That they are capable of making decisions. That they are human.

We sit with our friends and talk and laugh and share. We share information. We share jokes. We share life. We hear stories and we tell stories. And we offer respect, a listening ear, and remind people of their humanity. We proclaim boldly a counter cultural message — that a person’s value isn’t tied to material things, how much money they have, where they live, what they do for a job, or anything like that. Their value and worth come from the fact that they are human. We proclaim that God loves them and that they are not alone.

We do this because we are followers of Jesus.

Jesus spoke often about the value of people.

“Look at the birds of the air, that they do not sow, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not worth much more than they?” ( Matthew 6:26)

“Are not two sparrows sold for a cent? And yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father. But the very hairs of your head are numbered. Therefore do not fear; you are of more value than many sparrows. ( Matthew 10:29–31)

“What do you think? If any man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go and search for the one that is straying? And if it turns out that he finds it, truly I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine which have not gone astray. Thus it is not the will of your Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones perish.” ( Matthew 18:12)

“What woman, if she has ten silver coins and loses one coin, does not light a lamp and sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? And when she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me for I have found the coin which I had lost!’ In the same way, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” ( Luke 15:8–10)

Beyond this, there is the parable of the Good Samaritan. (Luke 10:25–37) There is Jesus talking about the second commandment — to love your neighbor as yourself. (Mark 12:31)

The list could go on. I didn’t even talk about the Beatitudes. (Matthew 5:1–12)

In only one place in the Gospel do we see a reference to Jesus calling someone a dog — Matthew 15:26. Yet, even in the interaction with the Canaanite woman, Jesus still heals. There are great commentaries on this passage of Scripture that are well worth reading. The point here is that Salvation is open to more than just the people of Israel — but also to all Gentiles.

Who has value as a person? Who gets to decide who has value? And who gets labeled?

Do we follow what Scripture says about each person? Or do we follow the way of the world — where value is assigned based on whether someone is a part of the right group or not. If a person can be considered an animal, then what is to hold us back from treating that person like an animal.

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. ‘Teacher,’ he said, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ He said to him, ‘What is written in the law? What do you read there?’ He answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.’ And he said to him, ‘You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.’

But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbour?’ Jesus replied, ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while travelling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, “Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.” Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’

(Luke 10:25–37)

Treating people with respect and dignity is easy when they are just like us — having the same skin color, nationality, language, belief system, ideology, etc. It’s easy to love a neighbor when they are essentially just like you. But what about those that are different. As the lawyer asked — who is my neighbor? Are they a person? Especially if they are different. Especially if they have different skin color, language, nationality, economic status, abilities, sexuality, gender, age, legal status, criminal background, etc.

Who is my neighbor? Is your neighbor a person? Or an animal?

Are you going to follow Jesus, or someone else in determining who is your neighbor and how you are to treat them?

I choose Jesus. How about you?

Originally published at laceduplutheran.com on May 18, 2018.



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Pastor Matthew Best

My name is Matthew Best. I’m an ELCA (Lutheran) pastor who attempts to translate church and churchy stuff into everyday language.