Summary of the Law (said at every Sunday Mass)

Hear what our Lord Jesus Christ saith: Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all thy soul, with all thy mind, and with all thy strength. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like unto it: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

The Stranger Within Thy Gates

And if a stranger sojourn with thee in your land, ye shall not vex him. But the stranger that dwelleth with you shall be as one born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.

Leviticus XIX.xxxiii-xxxiv

But the seventh day is the sabbath of the LORD thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor the stranger that is within thy gates.

—Exodus XX.xx

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Watching the charismatic train-wreck that is Trump's campaign for the presidency was funny at first, though its persistence has begun to make it edge into the nauseating. His remarks, both off-the-cuff and considered, about immigration have been peculiarly sickening; and coming from a Caucasian, one cannot help feeling that it is in questionable taste to complain of the ill-effects of foreigners coming into our land and taking our shit.

The ongoing debate over immigration—by which (let us be frank) we mean immigration from Latin America into the United States—seems to me to be both muddled and a little pathetic. I'd like to lay out a few things that seem to me to be essential principles for the Christian to have in mind, in order to arrive at a just, intelligent, and charitable opinion on the subject. Some are perennial ideas; others are based in the facts of American life as it now is.

1. Nations exist to serve people, not people to serve nations. As C. S. Lewis pointed out in The Weight of Glory, on the Christian view, every human person will outlive every nation, culture, class, and ethnicity; and we, unlike the societies we form, are each individually made in the image and likeness of God. Any political policy, of whatever kind, must be grounded in this fact if it is to have any claim to consistency with Christianity. That isn't to say that practical compromises can't ever be made; but they must be compromises starting from this defined point, not a dismissal of the principle as false or unimportant. No law can be justly made that promotes the state's rights at the expense of human rights; and, as St Augustine said, an unjust law has no force -- not even if it is enforced.

2. More specifically, nations exist to serve their own people. No nation has ever been given a charge from God to take care of all other nations and peoples—unless we adopt Dante's view, that the Roman people were divinely chosen to provide for all humanity temporally, as the Jews were chosen to provide the eternal Savior; however, this view is (outside its MediƦval context) not an obvious one, and not one that has successfully recommended itself to the conscience of Christendom.1 That aside, every community, nations included, is only responsible to its own people and their well-being, not to the general welfare of the whole earth. No authority could take on such a task, unless it were an authority that were drawn from the whole earth and had competence to address all its problems. And individual nations, in serving their own people, do also have the right to protect their borders.

3. Every person has the right to life, and accordingly the right to pursue the means of life. The deranged assertions of Donald Trump's page on immigration reform notwithstanding, the truth is that most of the people who come into this country on any kind of permanent basis are doing it to find work. Central and South America have never been as comfortable or prosperous as the United States or Canada (partly perhaps because of their longer history of colonialism). There are criminals who dart back and forth across the border, certainly, but the notion of Latinos creeping over the Rio Grande en masse for rapine and pillage is farcical, and the claim that the Mexican government has been ‘export[ing] the crime and poverty in their own country’ into the US, as if crime and poverty could be shipped north like bananas, is worthy of a bad stand-up comedy routine. The reason that long-term immigrants come north is to find work, resources, safety—in short, a future—that they can't get in their home countries. And historically, America has always been the place for that; most if not all of us are descended, at least partly, from downtrodden Europeans who decided that an unknown future across the Atlantic was better than starving for food and dignity alike at home.

4. Middle- and upper-class American life depends on the abundant and underpaid work of illegal immigrants. It was right and necessary to abolish slavery legally, and we did that a century and a half ago. What we have thus far failed to do is abolish the thing. People can caterwaul about illegal immigrants taking our jobs if they like, but most immigrants are taking jobs that Americans mostly don't want, or consider ourselves too good for; harvesting vegetables and fruit, for example. Like agricultural workers throughout American history—indentured servants in the first century of European settlement, slaves from Africa and the Caribbean in the eighteenth and nineteenth, and migrants legal and illegal since the Civil War—they are a disenfranchised population. They can't vote, becoming a citizen (or even a permanent resident) is stupidly hard, they're paid less than minimum wage2 to do their jobs, the work isn't reliable (varying by season and location), and if they stand up for themselves in any way, they risk being reported to INS3 and kicked out of the country; and all of this is just the ones who work in agriculture. But all of this isn't slavery because we don't call it that.

Don't believe me? Imagine that six, or seven, or eight out of every ten agricultural workers went on strike. That's how many are here without the documentation and interview processes for getting here legally, on account of those processes taking a couple of years and thousands of dollars that they don't have, and can be rejected over utterly Byzantine details. Try putting food on the table—try buying food—when there are only a quarter as many available in the grocery store of everything not Cheez Whiz (which, with a certain generosity of spirit, may be regarded as food).

5. The Scriptures are full of the injunction to love the alien within our gates and treat him as our equal. It may be said, reasonably enough, that this injunction was addressed specially to Israel as God's elect. However, if we propose either to regard America as a Christian nation or to let our politics be formed by our faith, it's an injunction we have to take to heart, because it lays out how God wanted an earthly society to work when it was based directly on His revelation. We cannot dismiss that and then proceed to claim Christian authority for any other political idea we espouse.

Does any of this mean that a believer must approve of breaking the law? Well, I think we have first to inquire whether the law is just and wise. If it is both, then no, we shouldn't approve of lawbreaking; if the law in question fails in either way, or both, pay no further attention to it. What is right ought to be the pattern of life for the Christian, and the pattern of law for the statesman; if, and to the extent that, laws interfere with what is right, it is the laws that are at fault, not rightness.

It's hardly a secret that I think our policies on immigration are both unjust and stupid. Biting the hands that feed us is neither good tactics nor good morals, and will eventually lead to judgment. But I certainly admit that a person of sense and good will, considering the facts, could come to a different conclusion about what the fairest, most practical solution is to the problem. What we must cure ourselves of, however, is the perennial temptation in politics to surrender to mere cynical pragmatism. Doing what's practical is good, if by practical we mean beneficial to the greatest number of people; all too often, we mean only beneficial to our own group's advantage. It would be better that America should be smashed to pieces than that, serving it, a man should damn himself.

O beautiful for pilgrim feet
Whose stern, impassion’d stress
A thoroughfare for freedom beat
Across the wilderness!
America! America!
God mend thine ev’ry flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law!

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1This is not to say that there is nothing to be said for Dante's view, especially if we add that his conception of Roman election was one of the supremacy of the Roman idea of the rule of law, not a nationalistic (still less a racial) notion. It might be pointed out that one of Dante's own arguments in the De Monarchia—namely, that God Himself chose to be born under the dominion of the Roman Empire, submitting His human nature to its authority, and even offering answers to Pilate as much as to the Sanhedrin while entirely ignoring Herod—may seem frivolous to a modern reader, but is curiously hard to get round when you start thinking about it.
2Minimum wage, remember, not necessarily being even a living wage itself.
3Immigration and Naturalization Services, whose primary occupation is of course to prevent naturalization by deporting immigrants.


  1. When I was in high school (1956-60) the glee club sang a musical setting of the last lines of "The New Colossus" (beginning at "Give me your tired") and we meant it.

  2. hi there! can you review my friend Stephen Lovatt's book? it defends gay marriage from a traditionalist catholic perspective:

  3. Oh, I didn't say I wouldn't like the book; I might or might not. But liking doesn't come into it much, when I'm reviewing something theological or philosophical; for me, the primary questions are "Is it true?" or, if it's something about which truth isn't clearly obtainable or at least hasn't yet been obtained, "Is it consistent with known truth?" Believing, as I do, that the Holy See has been granted the grace of infallibly preserving divine revelation, and that the Church's teaching on the sacrament of Marriage and the moral shape of sexuality has not been ambiguous since the descent of the Holy Ghost, I consider the thesis that gay marriage is right and sacramental a heretical one, whether expressed in traditionalist terms or not. I have great reverence for Tradition, and very little for traditionalism.

    In saying this, I don't wish to pass judgment on Mr Lovatt's soul (nor could I, not being God, but I also don't want to try to or appear to). When I call his thesis heresy, I am speaking about what I consider a matter of fact; where his heart is in assert that thesis, I couldn't possibly say with certainty, even if I knew him well enough to say with probability (which I also don't). In any case I can't really see a friend of his enjoying a review which frankly treated his book as heretical.

  4. "The reason that long-term immigrants come north is to find work, resources, safety -- in short, a future -- that they can't get in their home countries."

    I think very few Americans would object to immigrants coming here for that purpose. I think the main objection is to the idea of allowing immigration without limits, which is what we have de facto when we have no control over how many people come.