The Beloved Criminal

One of the criminals hanging alongside cursed him: “Some Messiah you are! Save yourself! Save us!”

But the other one made him shut up: “Have you no fear of God? You’re getting the same as him. We deserve this, but not him—he did nothing to deserve this.”

Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you enter your kingdom.”

He said, “Don’t worry, I will. Today you will join me in paradise.” Luke 23:39-43

This version of the moments right before Jesus’ death stands out from those in rest of the Gospels. In the other three, the criminals appear as joining the crowd in mocking Jesus, but in Luke, one of them stands up for him and Jesus blesses him making a bold claim: “Today you will join me in paradise.”

This is one of my favorite passages in the Bible. It is usually interpreted as the proto-conversion; a glorious repentance right before dying. But the thing is, we don’t know when this outlaw began believing in Jesus; he might as well been a follower of Jesus from the start of his ministry. We know little about the charges against him, or about his circumstances and his character. All we know is that he believed Jesus’ story and that he stood up for the guy who was being bullied.

And that is my favorite part of this passage–all of the background story did not matter; Jesus welcomed him anyway. So if Jesus welcomes everyone, why do we pick and choose who we help?

“Felons not Families” said President Obama last November when he announced an executive action that would provide [some] relief to [a few] undocumented immigrants [temporarily]…

Regardless on your opinions on Executive Action or the attempts to stop it (yep! there are miserable people in this world), the distinction between “felons” as opposed to “families” is a great example of our flawed understanding of charity.

We hardly notice this flaw because we are too busy congratulating ourselves for the amazing human beings we are for caring about the issues. But a closer look at the narratives that sustain our calls to action reveals a problematic attitude: we demand people to qualify for our charity. They must be found innocent, or their transgressions must fit within the framework of a higher moral goal for us to even begin to pay attention to their plight.

“Felons not families” dehumanizes the first as disposable, and obscures the unjust judicial system that streamlines neighbors of color from school to prison.

But this attitude is not unique to immigration justice, it is pervasive among the narratives of social causes, often serving the purpose of “humanizing the issue.” Which means, people won’t mobilize just for anybody–they will mobilize only for deserving humans; those who are unquestionably innocent or radically heroic.

Take human trafficking for example. (Caution: this analysis is merely on messaging. Serious advocates do not see the issue in this manner.) The cause has been extremely successful among evangelicals by following this simple formula: innocent victim + evildoer + sex + we can be the savior = overwhelming support.

The story goes like this: “Innocent children are being taken or sold to perverse traffickers for sexual exploitation. You can save these victims.”

Please note the lack of active verbs on the part of the victim, because if she or he chose to leave with the trafficker, then their innocence is put into question by public opinion and we must begin to explain the actual complexity of their lives, which may make our pitch over 30 seconds long and right there we missed you as an audience.

Or consider that sexual trafficking is merely a fraction of the cases compared with the amount of labor trafficking victims most of them from Mexico and Central America–but we hardly ever hear about them in Justice Conferences because it’s not “sexy” enough.

On immigration, we prefer to catch your attention by telling you about women and children, and only include men under “families.” We may as well call our campaigns “Puppies and Babies” to cater to a wider sympathetic audience. Because no one wants to know about the hairy, sweaty, hardworking man; much less after Muhammad Yunus convinced us that ONLY women were worthy of our time.

So the invitation is this: As Christians we are called to love unconditionally and to show solidarity with those who are poor and oppressed regardless of what the cause says about us.

Let us not use our causes like self-serving accessories. Let us not engage in justice work as a market of products to buy, choosing and picking which one is more appealing, whose website is better produced.

Let us not look at our human fellow beings as pets at a pet store, picking and choosing which one is cuter.

Let us instead follow Jesus in adopting an attitude of bold solidarity, understanding that we find our Lord in our brothers and sisters anywhere and in any circumstance. Most crucially, that we are all part of the Body; we all have something to give, no matter how terrible our social circumstances are.

Back to our beloved criminal, he not only was deserving of Jesus’ grace by virtue of being human.

He also had a role to play, something to offer to the ministry–he stood up for Jesus against a bully to allow some space for Christ die in peace.

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