who do we defer to?

Most anyone who knows me knows one important thing about me: I care deeply about folks on the margins.

What that means is that people who are normally not in the main stream of power are my priority.

This also means different things to different people, but on the whole, people on the margins are more vulnerable than others. For me, this includes: people of color, those living in poverty and consistently under-resourced financially, those struggling with mental health issues, people with a range of disabilities, single moms and their children, people who live outside or on couches or floors because they can’t afford housing, LGBQT folks, women in many traditional power structures, victims of abuse, and the fringe-rs, the outcasts, the strugglers, the ones in the shadows.

On the whole, those on the margins are used to somehow being “under” others, whether that be interpersonally, within power structures, or in particular situations.

One of the most core values of my Christian faith is Jesus’ deference to the margins. His message, over and over and over and over again, was against the religious leaders of the land who were typically guilty of hoarding power, heaping laws on people to keep them set apart, and putting themselves “above” others.

Of course, I truly believe that Jesus loves the Pharisees as much as he loves the leper.

That he loves the religious and the irreligious and everyone in between.

However, his actions in the four gospels continually point to a priority toward the humble, the weak, the open, the willing, the vulnerable, the desperate, the broken, the sick, the eager, the teachable, the soft.

To me, what this means is that as a follower of Jesus the lens I look through is always toward the margins.

The sure-that-they-are-healthy don’t need a doctor, the 99 sheep safely huddled together inside the fence aren’t my top priority, and the strong are doing just fine building stuff.

Pretty much all my church experiences up until The Refuge included centering pretty much everything church-wise on those in the middle, those with resources and margin and a certain-kind-of-middle-class-moving-in-the-world. When making decisions, the questions were usually through the lens of regular attenders, the Bible knowledged, consistent givers, finances, elders-who-sometimes-tend-to-be-better-at-business-than-pastoring.

I get all the justifications for why that’s important:

If we don’t take care of these people first, we won’t be able to take care of others in need, either.
To keep our building, we need to ______.
We can’t be all things to all people.
We can’t make people too uncomfortable; otherwise, they won’t come.

I am not saying there’s no truth to some of that reasoning; of course, there’s a cost to not looking to the middle first, to making the comfortable uncomfortable, to stirring the pot of homogeneity and status quo. That does, indeed, need to be considered.

However, I believe in every fabric of my being that the Christian church is supposed to first and foremost defer to the margins.

That is the lens we are supposed to look at the world through.

That is the grid we are supposed to use to make theological and practical decisions.

That is the map that points us which direction to look.

It doesn’t mean that people who are white, educated, privileged don’t have value and worth and shouldn’t be considered, that the margins are the only ones who matter.

But to me it does mean that hopefully we would, as Christians, respect our privilege (whichever kinds we have) and willingly participate in looking through the lens of deferring to the margins, too.

That people of privilege wouldn’t be the ones always asking “What about me?” but rather our first question was, “What about my brother, my sister?”

Not “What about me?”

But rather, “What about my brother, my sister?”

Not what about me?

But what about my neighbor, my classmate, my teammate, my co-worker, my fellow citizen, all made in the image of God, worthy of dignity and respect.

What about that person on the margins?

I am heart sick, heart broken, disgusted, mad, and everything in between at what’s happening on the political landscape right now related to conservative Christianity and it’s entanglement with our current president, administration, and the push toward legislation that protects the powerful and privileged.

When I read comments on Facebook posts that talk about how Heaven has gates and walls and people are “vetted” and free lunches for hungry kids I want to crawl out of my skin.

And it makes me think of the thousands and thousands of conversations I have had over the last two decades defending people on the margins against the powers of the church in different ways.

I’m so used to hearing things like:

“But we’re not like ‘those people.'”
“They don’t come here anyway.”
“But the Bible says…”
“You’re so concerned about making x, y, or z feel safe that now I don’t.”
“Be careful of the slippery slope.”
“They make me feel uncomfortable.”
“What’s the plan to get them healthy?”
“They seem so angry.”
“What are they doing to help themselves?”

I don’t think these are the first things Jesus asks.

I don’t think this is the lens we are supposed to use as his followers.

I don’t think protecting our privilege and comfort and holding on to our theological security blankets should be our first response.

Jesus always deferred to the margins, and I think the western church needs to ask itself now, more than ever, who are we going to defer to?

Are we going to listen to those with margin and resource and power and privilege and rights and mortgages and passports and bank accounts and health insurance and a certain color skin and a certain kind of theology?

Or are we going to listen to the cries of the margins, the vulnerable, the oppressed, the discriminated against and do something about what we hear?

Kathy Escobar

Kathy Escobar co-pastors at The Refuge, a Christian community and mission center in North Denver and is the author of Faith Shift: Finding Your Way Forward When Everything You Believe is Coming Apart and several other books.

14 Comments

  • With limited time at the moment, I’ll just say “Amen, Sister”… to let you know I’ve read and totally agree. And trying to act on what you’re saying, at least in small ways, looking toward larger.

    Reply
  • Kathy, your viewpoint is that of a Christian who has not yet matured in her faith. When we are young (not in years, but experience) we tend to see through a lens that we build for ourselves, rather than seeing through Christ’s eye.
    You speak only of the oppressed of society as those on the margin…but any man who does not know Christ as his savior is on the margin. It has nothing to do with what race we were born into, what power we have on Earth…or what privileges we may be offered. If we are sick….we need a physician….and those who love us, take us to the physician.
    Please. Heed my warning…you are with a vulnerable heart right now.
    Remember what I say to you….
    We must love all equally….or else we do not know love at all.

    Reply
    • Todd, it is obvious that you don’t know Kathy and that you’re entirely missing the point of this post.

      Reply
  • Yes, Kathy. I know you know these people, as do we. So often they get the crumbs, and that includes from the church’s table also. Professing love for those on the margins is one thing, but doing something about it is quite another. Here we so often see government agencies, supposed charitable organizations and even churches who make a great show and have lots to say about helping these folks, but strangely the money they bring in to help disappears down a deep dark hole (known as “overhead” expenses), and those who need help end up with little but a PR statement that makes these groups look good.

    Reply
  • Thankyou Kathy you can hear the trancendent voice through all the distractions of current times you are awesome keep up the good work!!!!

    Reply

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