Ahead of what promises to be one of the most contentious election seasons in modern U.S. history, a panel of religious leaders at Georgetown University advised Oct. 2 that Christians should look to the Gospel, not just for guidance on how to vote but also how to respond toward others in a national political environment pushing division, not unity.
Panelists reflected on how Christians can respond to this environment by asking the question, "Who is my neighbor?"
"I think this is going to be the primary question in the divisive, hateful, polarized political season we have just entered into," said the Rev. Jim Wallis, a theologian and founder of Sojourners, a progressive social justice organization, which publishes a magazine by the same name.
Wallis, along with Bishop Daniel E. Flores of Brownsville, Texas, journalist Adelle Banks, and attorney and political strategist Justin Giboney, painted a landscape in which some Christians respond as actors in the current environment -- in which race, faith and religion play a part -- based on political affiliation and not on the teachings of the Gospel.
"Too often we have allowed our political affiliation to become religious in nature," said Giboney. "Our tribe, our political party, are really controlling us -- sometimes on moral issues, more than our faith is controlling us on moral issues -- because we want to be on the team."
But as Christians, the Gospel should be the north star that guides, not the party line, religious leaders said.
"Let the Gospel be the lens by which we interpret reality and not partisan elements," said Bishop Flores.
He said he urges those under his spiritual care to read the Gospel daily and to be guided by the life and teachings of Christ.
"Allow the Gospel, give it time in your own life and community, to transform your vision," he said. "It is a transforming grace, but it doesn't happen unless you invite the Lord and Holy Spirit in. Let that happen in your heart. You have to say 'Cristo es el Rey,' (Christ is King) and you have to let that form your vision."
For Bishop Flores, the answer to the question, "Who is my neighbor?" is found in the parable of the good Samaritan.
"The one who is in front of me and is in need. Period," he said. "There's no commentary or massaging of the message."
In a place such as the Diocese of Brownsville, near the Rio Grande, the river that divides Mexico and the United States, the answer to that question has come alive in the way locals answered the humanitarian refugee crisis at their doorstep, said Bishop Flores.
When the Rio Grande Valley received an influx of Central American immigrants, including many women and children who had traveled thousands of miles looking for safety or a better life, locals didn't respond with indifference or attacks, but by collecting food and baby shoes for their children, and organizing to help them reach loved ones in other parts of the country, he said.
However, some politicians are moving those in their political base -- including Christians -- in a different direction than the one the Gospel teachings point to, said Rev. Wallis.
"Jesus chooses 'the other' as his example of the neighbor ... your neighbor is the one who's different than you," he said. "We've got political leaders who are targeting, not just ignoring, but targeting those whom Jesus calls our neighbor, running against them, running against 'the other,' running against the immigrant, running against people of color. If we don't remember Jesus' answer to that question, we're going to be so polarized in this election year."
Some politicians are amplifying fears, saying "be afraid … be afraid" of others, but Jesus guides the world in a different direction, Wallis said, telling people "be not afraid." In that sense, the current political rhetoric goes against what Christ teaches in the Gospel, he said.
"White nationalism is not just racist. It's anti-Christ. We need to name it. The dehumanization of immigrants isn't just lack of compassion, it's anti-Christ," he said.
The growing divisions have produced acts, in part, motivated by that political rhetoric, including the targeting of Latinos in the deadly shooting in El Paso, Texas, the violent riots involving white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia, and in that light, "what does Christian witness look like in a moment like this?" asked Kim Daniels, of Georgetown University's Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life, which hosted the "Faith, Race and Politics" panel.
Such incidents "should break our hearts and it should challenge all of us, regardless of race, party or faith," said Daniels before introducing the panel, but "religious voters have a decidedly mixed record when it comes to race and politics."
It doesn't help that an influential minority of Americans increasingly lives in homogenous communities, interacts with those who look and think like them and have little interaction with others outside their circles.
Banks, a Washington-based reporter and editor for Religion News Service, quoted figures from a Public Religion Research Institute study earlier this year, showing that about one out of five Americans who responded to the survey said they seldom or never encounter people who don't share their religion or race.
Given that lack of interaction, we also could learn to see our neighbor as "the least person with whom you want to have a political conversation," Giboney said.
He added that "it's important that we think of our political opponent as our neighbor because it does something about how we see that person at the end of the day," saying that it can lead to a "mob mentality," fostering an even more divisive environment, one where "comrades are always right and enemies are always wrong."
"I do think we have to look at people we don't want to talk to and say, 'I take you seriously, I see your dignity' ... then they become to be your neighbor instead of your enemy," he said.
But even arriving at a consensus on what the Gospel says and stands for can be contentious when political parties step in. Bishop Flores warned that the kingdom of God is too big a mystery to fit into any political party, "much less the two we have now."
Instead, look at Scripture, at Jesus' words, he said.
"Jesus said a lot, and one of the things he said was make friends with the poor because they're the ones that are going to judge you," Bishop Flores said. "I don't know if you take that seriously. ... I take it very seriously. Make friends with people who have no power because they're the ones with whom the Word chose to identify himself when he became flesh. Jesus always wants the circle to be larger than Caesar would like it to be."