Friday, January 28, 2011

Pilgrims and Aliens

The debate over immigration into the United States seems to be heating up a bit -- whether this is a function of increased violence in the north of Mexico, or the polarized nature of American politics, or both. Arizona's recently instituted law has been defended as just and prudent by conservatives and bitterly attacked as implicitly racist by liberals.

I do not claim any solid opinion on the matter, let alone an answer. However, I do feel strongly that Christians are allowing their judgment of the question to be unduly influenced by political considerations that are entirely worldly -- whether the worldliness is right-wing or left-wing is of no interest to me. The influence of the World upon the Church is my bete noire; something with the persistence of a pet peeve, the enmity of a jealous rival and the seriousness of blasphemy.

In the hopes of remedying that, rather than attempting to provide a solution to the problem -- which, given my poor understanding of politics, I could not plausibly expect to do -- I would like to lay out seven principles that seem necessary to the proper framing of the problem. This has the advantage of making the problem clear; for, in this as in most political debates in our nation, each side is starting without any defined terms or defended premises; they exhibit only passionate rhetoric based on a mixture of power and ideology, which are not the same things as statecraft and ideas. This causes much hatred: never having bothered to realize what our own premises are, let alone examine them, we are then so shocked by others having different premises that they have never examined that the only possible explanation for their revolt against all common sense is that they are malicious or pinheaded demagogues. This does not make for mutually intelligible discourse, let alone civic civility.

But I digress. One of the roles of the Church in society (Dante, though today famed chiefly for his Hell, outlines this in his treatise On Monarchy) is to form the consciences of all men, and most especially of Catholics. The Church as an institution does not and must not wield temporal power, but she does wield influence upon the temporal powers indirectly, by helping all men to see the realities of right and wrong. Or, as C. S. Lewis says somewhere, theology (whether natural or revealed) tells us what ends are desirable; politics tells us what means are effective; and theology tells us which of these means are consistent with justice and love.

Taking several points of Catholic theology (though I imagine these would be acceptable to Orthodox or Protestants also), as well as several points of American history, I think we can at least put ourselves in the right frame of mind to answer the question of immigration justly.

1) A nation does have the right to protect its borders. Both military invasion and the incursion of criminal individuals are violations of the rights of nations, which may be met if necessary with violent force. It has, more generally, the right to enforce its own laws, provided that they are just; there is, of course, no point in having laws if one does not enforce them, something that God says plainly He instituted governments to do (Rom. 13.1ff). (Enforcing an unjust law is of course an act of injustice. Enforcing a neutral law, or one made for practical rather than moral reasons, is just.)

2) All human beings are made in the image of God; nations are not. Now, this does not mean nations are simply conveniences or fictions -- they have traditionally been regarded by Christians as being spiritually guarded by an order of angels, called Principalities. However, nations are not, like men and women, made in the image of God. Nations exist to serve persons, not the other way around; even if a man serves his country by dying for it, he is ultimately dying for his fellow citizens -- that is, other people -- rather than an idea. It is worthwhile to keep in mind that every nation will cease to exist before any person will; for persons will never cease to exist. Every one of us is immortal, stamped with the image of God. No nation is.

3) Welcoming the poor, the disfranchised, and the alien is an act of mercy, one which was not only encouraged but assumed in the Old Testament, which contains the only set of laws for a government that can be unequivocally called Biblical. When God tells His people, "You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt" (Ex. 22.21), He is not only requiring the Israelites to treat foreigners justly. He is doing that; but note that there is no "if." It is taken for granted that there will be aliens within their gates. This was in-keeping with the ancient notion of hospitality that has withered practically to nothing in our own day. Nor was ancient Israel unique in this regard; every ancient culture set great store by hospitality, and many associated it with the commands of the gods -- as in a Greek variant of the Flood myth, in which wrath is visited upon mankind because of his refusal to show hospitality to gods disguised as poor strangers. Our own rejection of the long human tradition of hospitality is bizarre -- and, it may be added, unchristian (cf. Hebrews 13.2).

And Scripture affirms not only the command to welcome, and to some extent provide for, the stranger (cf. Deut. 24.19-22), but warns us with terrible solemnity that if we ignore God's command, we will be punished. Traditional Catholic catechesis included a mention of "sins that cry to heaven," one of which was said to be the sin of the Sodomites. Nowadays people usually think of, well, sodomy, but Ezekiel illuminates it for us: "Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, surfeit of food, and prosperous ease, but they did not aid the poor and the needy. They were haughty, and did abominable things before me; therefore I removed them when I saw it" (Ezek. 16.49-50; cf. Deut. 27.19). The duty of almsgiving is especially incumbent upon the citizens of a wealthy democracy -- for we have unparalleled freedom to behave generously and unparalleled resources with which to do so. In the frightening parable of the sheep and the goats, it seems to be the hook on which everything hangs.

4) Every person is obliged to live justly and lovingly toward all other men. We have, however, a hierarchy of obligations: our obligations to our family, for instance, outweigh our obligations to strangers. And one of these special obligations is love of our country, and love of our compatriots. Yet we must be vigilant and examine our consciences to be sure that we are not allowing any particular obligation to obscure the universal obligation that still impinges upon us. Every crackpot morality, every claptrap heresy, is the result of allowing some particular truth to muscle other particular truths aside -- in so doing, destroying our perception of universal truth. (For instance, the Gnostic heresies took the truth that human sexuality has to be disciplined, sometimes severely; and went off the deep end, declaring sexuality as such to be depraved, the work of an evil being.) Oversimplifications like this are tempting because they are, intellectually and practically, a great deal easier than the rigorous balance that is essential to Catholic doctrine. Everybody finds falling off easier than walking on a tightrope, regardless of which side they happen to fall on.

5) To be blunt, there is a point at which hostility to immigrants becomes rank hypocrisy. I am not asserting that our cultural attitude has reached that point, or that laws in Arizona or elsewhere have reached that point, nor positively denying it; I am only saying that there is such a point, and that that fact ought to be kept in mind. For -- with apologies to any of my audience who are of purely Amerindian stock -- we are a nation of immigrants; we are the children of immigrants, some of us immigrants ourselves and others only one or two generations removed; our nation purchased the stolen liberty of immigrants for two centuries; we thrust the original inhabitants of the lands we live in from their places, making them immigrants somewhere else; and for a long time we congratulated ourselves on the generous welcome we extended to immigrants. One of our most prominent national monuments, the Statue of Liberty, has this written on a plaque near its base:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

Is this a binding statement of American law? No. But it is certainly an expression of our national heritage, our national identity; and if we are serious about our national borders on those grounds, it is an expression we must honestly reckon with.

It is easy to reply -- and, in the case of those who would thus reply, true -- that it was not we, but our ancestors, who made the decision to immigrate; we were born here. We cannot be held responsible for their decision. That is true, up to a point. We cannot be held directly responsible for the actions of another, whether a relative or not; but we can be held responsible for whether we approve of their actions or not. And if we approve of their actions, we ought to take a philosophically consistent stance on comparable actions. Furthermore, their actions have secured for us great prosperity and liberty: we live in one of the wealthiest, most powerful, and most democratic nations on the face of the globe. We must, therefore, acknowledge that we cannot treat our own ancestors' decision as a matter of indifference to ourselves; we have a vested interest in it; it cannot be summarily dismissed as irrelevant. Do we approve, or not? And are our attitudes toward contemporary immigration, over the Rio Grande rather than the Atlantic, in harmony or discord with our attitudes towards our forefathers, and why?

6) There are prudential questions to be considered; that is, questions of practicality. Many who cross the border are criminals -- seeking victims, or a market for their wares, or refuge from their own police. Not all are by any means -- indeed, given that many criminals make a habit of darting back and forth across the border, it is doubtful whether any significant proportion of permanent immigrants are criminals, and a considerable proportion come specifically to seek employment. Nevertheless, the depredations of foreign criminals are serious, and such problems as this deserve the most careful deliberation.

7) Finally, one thing we are very apt to forget in every political discussion is that we are talking about human beings. It is easy to lose a sense of others' humanity when we talk about movements, tendencies, policies, means, laws, demographics, sectors, interests ... the mind reels. Remembering that we are discussing not "immigrants" but real, living, breathing human beings will not decide the issue for us, but it will both cloud and clarify our minds: cloud them momentarily with emotion, and then, when we have conquered emotion, we will perhaps remember the real import of our decision, precisely because our hearts have been roused to the moral dimension of dealing with other people, and not with labeled counters. This question brings itself to bear upon human beings, not upon a cost-benefit ratio. Of course the practical effects do not determine what is just; but it is well to bear them in mind.