In a recent sermon I discussed how the President's statement that MS-13 gang members "are not people, they are animals" posed a problem for followers of Jesus who seek to live in line with His gospel. I thought this important since I have seen several people who claim the name of Christ defending the president's remarks. Based on a couple of subsequent interactions, I am convinced this is a conversation that needs to be broadened in order to move it out of being purely a political shouting match and so I wish to provide some further context and clarification of my comments.
1) The Significance of Words
At the outset, the President's defenders seemed to suggest that this was an off-handed remark, and thus did not merit scrutiny. Additionally, as has been the case so often with this president, it was suggested that his actions and not his words are what matter. Two passages come to mind that disallow us from taking such a casual stance. The first is Jesus' statement that "out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks....on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned." (Matthew 12:34-37 ESV) The second is from Jesus' little brother James who expands on this idea in ways very relevant to the president's words: "(The tongue) is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, these things ought not to be so." (James 3:8-10) Here James identifies the impossibility of the same heart pouring out blessing and cursing sincerely and sites the problem of cursing people as being an offense against the image of God in them. This idea bears some further exploration.
2) Bearers of the Image
In referring to MS-13 members as "animals" the president entered a dangerous realm. It is clear he meant what he said since the white house posted a detailed defense of the remarks (which you can see here). He doubled down again on Tuesday night at his rally in Nashville when he asked the crowd "What did I call them?" and they shouted back "Animals!" The defense offered is that their heinous behavior renders such a label appropriate. Indeed, one professing believer I know cited the following statement from Dennis Prager in a column published by Investors Business Daily (full article here):
"Calling the cruelest among us names such as "animal" or any other "dehumanizing" epithet actually protects humans. The word "beastly" exists for a reason and is frequently applied to human beings. By rhetorically reading certain despicable people out of the human race, we elevate the human race. We have declared certain behaviors out of line with being human."
This sentiment strikes against a foundational truth of Scripture: human beings are made in the image of God and as such have a dignity that cannot be lost, ever. Even Jude, in condemning false teachers, says only that their behavior resembles that of unwitting animals who are destroyed by following their instincts (Jude 10). As harsh as that statement is, he is not removing the false teachers from the human race. Scripture no where suggests that the image of God in humanity can be lost or forsaken and thinking it can opens us up to potentially grotesque violations. While it feels satisfying to designate MS-13 as animals, being guilty of the heinous crimes they commit, such satisfaction hides either a self-righteousness in thinking we are unlike them or a defense against our awareness that we are.
3) The Bearer of the Cross
It is this thought that makes the president's remarks most repugnant to a follower of Christ. Christ came into a world populated by nothing but people guilty of the most heinous crime: seeking to overthrow the eternal, living God from ruling his creation and subjecting it to a holocaust of death and carnage. You are guilty of that. I am guilty of that. Humanity as a whole stands condemned and worthy of eternal suffering because of our flagrant rebellion against the beauty, kindness, goodness and truth of God's loving nature. We replaced it with hate and selfishness and greed and lust and malice and strife. The doctrine of depravity should caution us in how quickly we condemn others in their essence and write them off, because we find ourselves in those same crosshairs.
That is why we need the Cross. If any people deserved the appellation of "animals" the society that invented, perfected and widely practiced the public execution form known as crucifixion certainly did. Jesus subjected himself to this barbarism precisely in order to save the ones guilty of it. From the cross he did not cry out "You animals!" He cried out "Forgive them!" He did not write them out of the human race in order to elevate the human race. In inexplicable compassion, he still saw His Father's image indelibly printed on them and thus saw them worthy of redeeming. So in a singular act, he endured the scorn of being regarded as an animal, a "lamb lead to slaughter" (Is. 53:7), and his form "marred beyond human semblance" (Is. 52:14). In doing so he made possible the redemption of those who had scorned God's image so that we might be made new into the image of Christ (Rom. 12:1-2) and become a new humanity in him (1 Cor. 15, Eph. 4, Col. 2).
The gospel can only be good news for those who have the image and so to "read them out of the human race" is to put them beyond the gospel's reach. But if they are out of the reach of God's grace, I'm afraid we all are. Lord have mercy!