Saturday, January 22, 2011

My Kingdom

The shooting two weeks ago of Rep. Giffords has once again, though in a convoluted way, focused national attention on illegal immigration. The connection supposedly lies in an association of ideas: just as violent rhetoric by conservatives led to the attempted assassination, so the generally violent rhetoric about defending our borders seems to have a particular place in the intemperate political atmosphere of Arizona. But if rhetoric on cable news shows housed in New York can animate response in the Southwest, repressive laws in the Southwest can suggest action elsewhere; the Mississippi State Senate, for example, passed just two days ago a law-enforcement bill very similar to the controversial law that went into effect last year in (where else?) Arizona.

To believe the arguments given above takes a great leap of blind faith: most obviously this argument about rhetoric and violence assumes that people act badly because of opinion they hear expressed in the media. (The even larger practical matter is that the shooter was, if anything, not conservative but left wing--but let that pass, since we are speaking theoretically here.) The liberals making this claim, however, are the same people who have for decades fervently asserted as a central pillar of their faith that offensive programming in media does not affect people's behavior. Despite the fact that children are more impressionable than the 23-year-old Jared Lee Loughner, hours and hours of Real World, Tila Tequila, Skins, and Jersey Shore have no effect at all on adolescent behavior. The inconsistency is startling; it casts great suspicion on those who now want to claim that a single phrase or electoral map by Sarah Palin would be responsible for an act of violence.

But since we are speaking of tenuous connections, we should look again at the matter of illegal immigration. (I should point out, with great modesty, that my second post at this blog outlines what I still think is the only reasonable solution to the problem of illegl immigration--a solution both just, sane, and compassionate.) In particular, I would like to look at the arguments made by the Catholic Church on the matter. It is possible that the Church has a practical vested interest in the matter, since so many American Catholics are now Hispanic: a large percentge of the local Catholic population in the neighborhood of Meridian Heat, for example, consists of illegal immigrants. (Once again, to illustrate the complexity of this blog's views of the matter, the writer of TMH is godfather to a child born here to parents who immigrated illegally.) At any rate, the Church speaks frequently on the matter, and it often speaks on the matter by saying that since Scripture commands us to be generous and hospitable, so the United States should be hospitable to illegal immigrants. At least in the local Catholic press, however, I have never seen such assumptions themselves examined.

Like all assumptions, however, they need to be examined carefully before we adopt them as principles of action. Many in the Catholic Church seem to argue that since the Bible commands a certain action, our nation should follow it. The New Testament, however, says little about what nations should do: what it commands, it commands of individuals, and it is not at all clear that what it commands of individuals it commands of nations. One example that springs readily to mind is the commandment in the Sermon on the Mount that we should turn the other cheek when someone has hurt us. Obviously Christ was talking at that point about relations between individuals: if someone has treated you unjustly, you shouldn't strive to retaliate but to diffuse the situation with kindness and model the same sacrifical love that Christ did when He died for us. But to lift that commandment out of its context and apply it to nations would obviously lead to preposterous results. Did the Japanese commit an immoral attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941? No matter: turn the other cheek. Perhaps if we refuse to retaliate, they will learn that they, too, should lay down their arms. Sadaam Hussein invade and take over an ally? I think that we should turn the other cheek. Certainly we shouldn't respond in kind to Al-Quaeda's attacks on 9-11.

Such a misapplication of the Scriptural principle is obviously inane; less obvious is an injunction of the type that Christ gave to the rich young ruler to sell all he had and give it to the poor. If the United States, as a nation, were to follow this injunction, there would be chaos in our streets. To take all the nation's wealth and transfer it to such poor nations as Zimbabwe or Tanzania would do nothing for the starving in those nations and would extinguish all the lights in that shining city on the hill that has done more to inspire human excellence and goodness than all the foreign aid in history. Nevertheless, such passages have been used in the past by Church officials to promote certain left-wing policies of a socialist nature. But do these passages apply to nations as a whole? Are they not rather directed at individuals who ask Christ such questions as "What must I do to be saved?" And is not Christ's response about what the individual must do to be saved? While the Old Testament sometimes suggests that nations can achieve salvation, the New Testament seems to teach much more clearly that salvation is a matter of individual, not national, standing. The Church Herself teaches that at the end of time individuals will be judged for their actions; it doesn't seem clear that nations as a whole can achieve salvation.

Christ Himself on several occasions seems to say that He came to earth to deal with individuals, not nations. When he was asked about the payment of taxes, His response indicates that the things of God are directed more at individuals than they are at nations, which last fall under the rubric of the things of Caesar. And when brought before Pilate, who understandably worries that Christ's teaching may have a social dimension that would upset the tenuous political arrangement in first-century Palestine, Christ says, "Regnum meum non est de hoc mundo" ("My kingdom is not of this world"). Finally, when the crowd following Jesus wanted to institutionalize His teaching, as it were, and make Him a political ruler, He fled from them, presumably because reading His commandments in political terms would obscure the fact that they aren't supposed to be carried out for us vicariously by people on Capitol Hill but that they are meant to transform our lives, individually, by getting us to make the hard changes to our souls necessary to fulfill His will.

I don't, however, wish by any means in this post to repeat the old shibboleth of "separation of Church and State." What I mean to say is this: the argument that our nation must pursue a policy BECAUSE Christ enjoins that practice in the Gospels is fallacious. To call something a fallacy doesn't necessarily say of it that its conclusion is wrong. It does, however, say that the argument just given doesn't support the conclusion. In the case of illegal immigration, there may be very good reason to allow complete amnesty to all those who cross into the United States from Mexico, but if there is it will be for reasons other than Christ telling us individually to love our neighbors. Too many in the Church seem to think that if they can find in a passage of the Bible a keyword that belongs also to the compassionate side in a political debate then they have shown that we must also take that side of the political argument. But that isn't necessarily true at all. It is very likely that what Christ says in a given passage He says to individuals, and individuals, even all of them together in a particular place and time, are not the same thing as a nation, which is greater than the sum of its parts. As shown by the example of turning the other cheek, what is good for one is not necessarily good for all together, and to claim as a matter of course that it is can lead to something even worse than sloppy thinking.

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