Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Would the real pro-life candidate raise your hand?

I present the following moral dilemma. Which is the true pro-life (read: anti-abortion) candidate?

Candidate A: 

He says he is pro-life on abortion.  However, he wants to reduce abortions solely through the mechanism of making abortion illegal. It is questionable how many opportunities this person will have once in office to address this issue. However, there may be some small legislative battles that can be fought.

However, he does not support legislative measures to improve rights and standards for workers and he is against any notion of a social safety net. He fears these would reduce "incentive to work" and interfere with the workings of the "free market." He believe people are poor and struggling principally by their own choice rather than through a lack of opportunity or systemic pressures of any kind.

Candidate B: 

He says he is pro-choice on abortion. He wants to "keep abortion legal" as part of his political platform. If the opportunity were to come up, he would support legislation further cementing abortion as part of our legal structure.

However, he supports policies addressing poverty and social alienation, such as higher wages and abundant social services. He wants to keep families together rather than see them split through mass incarceration or immigration enforcement. His policies promote strong workers rights, robust maternity/paternity leave and healthcare for all.

Which of these deserves the "pro-life" vote?

As the above illustrates, the issue is not so simple. Both candidates can claim that they are pro-life on abortion.

Candidate A wants to make abortion illegal but his other economic and social policies only serve to intensify the reasons people choose abortion in the first place. In other words, while working to make abortion illegal, he may create an environment where more abortion happens in the meantime.

The reverse is true for Candidate B. He clearly wants abortion to be legal, but his other policies directly alleviate the stressors that drive people to consider abortion. Fewer abortions may actually happen as a result of his policies.

If you vote pro-life, is your goal to reduce the number of abortions or is it to make abortion illegal? Those are not the same thing. Ideally perhaps you would want to do both, but those are not usually available options in the current partisan U.S. political climate.

It also highly questionable whether making abortion illegal would actually stop actual abortions from happening--probably some but not all. People could travel or find an underground provider.

The above illustrates a rough snapshot of the two primary political parties in the U.S. Usually, it has been assumed that the "pro-life" candidate is the one who wants to make abortion illegal. But if that person also promotes policies that may actually increase abortions, then that changes everything--especially when you consider that making abortion illegal may be an unrealistic goal at this time in history.

As a Roman Catholic, we are taught that the intentional taking of innocent human life is always wrong and should never be supported. So how do we apply that teaching to the two candidates above? Having legal abortion does not require anyone to have an abortion, but it does make it easier. In a very likewise, parallel manner, having good economic and social safety net policies does not force anyone to carry their pregnancy to term, but they make it much easier to do so. It has often been assumed that the person who merits the pro-life vote is the candidate who strives to make abortion illegal, but I hope the above illustrates that this should not be taken for granted. This becomes even more complex as there are many other ways that life is threatened besides abortion--the death penalty, euthanasia, war, immigration, poverty, etc.

Putting too much energy into legislative battles while supporting policies that drive people to consider abortion in the meantime is profoundly short sighted, to say the least. This is what gives the pro-life movement a bad name. This is what causes people to point out its hypocrisies. By having a single-minded obsession with making abortion illegal, they turn their backs on very effective ways of saving lives right here today. They support politicians and policies that may actually increase abortions. 

Some have told me this isn't a fair critique of the pro-life movement. They say it IS invested in pregnancy centers, prenatal support and so forth. While I know this to be true, I also know that the phenomenon of the "one-issue voter" tells us where the real priorities lie when the rubber meets the road--it's about legislative action.

Some Concluding Thoughts

I am not suggesting that the pro-life movement should simply give up the struggle for legislative support for pro-life positions. However, I do think it is counter-productive to attempt that when grassroots support for this legislation has not reached a high enough mark. There are many who resign themselves to thinking we should "keep abortion legal" and just try to reduce as many as possible. No, I am absolutely not saying that, but I also don't believe that legislative victories will yield the results the pro-life movement expects. But I am saying that as a strategy I think pro-life voters could prioritize reducing the numbers of actual abortions by alleviating the stressors, promoting a culture of life in the minds and heart of people and put legislative goals on the back burner. This is very feasible. Even though poverty is a huge, complex problem, we know from history that big improvements can be made in the short term with immediate results. We know what those stressors are and we know there are effective ways of addressing them.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

What If Roe v. Wade Were Overturned? 4 Recommendations for the Pro-Life Movement

Justice Anthony Kennedy is stepping down from the U.S. Supreme Court. President Donald Trump is poised to appoint Justice Brett Kavanaugh who could tip the scales and possibly overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that legalized abortion.

The pro-life crowd is excited about the possibilities--not only of overturning Roe v. Wade but an even more ambitious dream of a Constitutional amendment in their favor.

However, the single-minded determination of the pro-life movement to abolish legal abortion has blinded many to the complexities of the situation as well as other avenues of being pro-life. It is unlikely that overturning Roe v. Wade would deliver the results they anticipate.

I write as someone committed to protecting life from conception to natural death but standing outside the formal pro-life movement. Let's think through some likely scenarios:

What would happen if abortion were illegal? 

First, abortion would not automatically become illegal nationally just with a Supreme Court ruling. That decision would go to each and every state. The issue would continue to be complex at both the federal and state levels, as this link details. A simple outcome is not realistic.

In states that criminalize abortion, women of means who want an abortion will simply travel to another state or country to have to procedure done. That would be fairly easy to do. It isn't the 1950s anymore--even global travel is relatively simple and inexpensive.

In addition, there will no doubt be an underground market of abortion providers for those of lesser means.

Despite that, making abortion illegal will almost certainly stop some abortions and save some lives--but only in the short run, in my opinion. I have doubts about whether that would be true in the long run.

A culture with illegal abortion would be a lot like the prohibition of alcohol in the 1930s. An illegal market would thrive and it would also come with other secondary negative consequences. When alcohol was illegal it created an environment that allowed mobsters like Al Capone to proliferate. It wasn't just the prohibition of alcohol itself but rather the whole underground culture that went along with it that was the problem. Something similar would probably happen if abortion were to be illegal again. The whole effort will so thoroughly hated by so many people that a Constitutional amendment will indeed come, but I predict it will be on the pro-choice side. In other words, legal abortion will return with a vengeance and it will be legally cemented more than ever before. The pro-life movement will be set back decades, if not permanently.

How do I know this?  It's easy:

I've done a lot of grassroots organizing. You always have to build a base before you attempt to pass a law. That's just Grassroots Organizing 101. Otherwise, the law won't be accepted by the people and passing it will just erode the credibility of our institutions (government, law enforcement, etc). Forcing a law upon people who clearly do not want that law will end in disaster.

A law will not stand unless the hearts and minds of the people have been opened to support it. After all, a law is only an attempt to codify the will of the people, especially in a representative democracy. Perhaps some obscure laws can be pushed through by a small group of determined activists unbeknownst to the rest of the population. But the issues around abortion impact so many people in such a visceral way that any laws around it must have the support of the people. That is simply not the case right now.

We know that over two-thirds of Americans favor some access to legal abortion. The pro-life movement need not despair, because those same polls also show that similar numbers want some limits on abortion. There is a lot of room for growth here, but the culture is not ready for a dramatic law reversal, yet. However, there are many life-saving things that can be done in the meantime.

Trying to force people to change their behavior by imposing a law on them is short-sighted and would only have limited success. You have to win the battle for the hearts and minds of the people.

Recommendations for the Pro-Life Movement:

In light of the above, here is a strategy I would recommend for the pro-life movement. None of this requires anyone to change their beliefs about abortion. It is simply a prescription for a different method of approaching the issue. This is not a "watered down" approach. In fact, I believe this may very well be more successful than current methods.

1. Work to reduce the number of actual abortions by addressing the drivers. We know what the drivers are. There are social factors--such as social stigma, shame, isolation and social pressure. There are also economic factors, such as access to health care, job security, ample pay, reliability of child support, maternity/paternity leave, etc. We know we can reduce abortions by directly impacting these factors. Let's do that. I even think both pro-choice and pro-life supporters could join together on this.

One example of a social factor: Much of Christianity may be staunchly anti-abortion, but it is also staunchly shame-based when it comes to a pregnancy that occurs outside of certain parameters (marriage, etc). It may preach an anti-abortion message from the pulpit and have some success convincing people. However, the fear of facing scorn and shame from family and community members may drive others to consider abortion, thereby neutralizing the pro-life preaching.

Economic factors: We know that there are legislative solutions that increase rights for parents in the workplace and a safety net for people who fall on hard times. Many women say they would not have chosen abortion if they didn't fear losing their ability to care for themselves and their families. They simply don't see a way forward. Can we help them?

2. Build a grassroots support for a culture of life. The current pro-life movement is never going to do that. Admittedly, it has done the impossible: It has engineered a cultural stalemate. That's amazing given that many assumed the pro-life movement would have disappeared by now. However, it will never really "win" as it is now. But a holistic, consistent ethic of life approach can build the credibility the movement needs.

I know that sounds counter-intuitive, as it seems few Americans hold a truly consistent ethic of life, but it is the only position with sound theology--the individual wins when the community wins, and visa versa. Current ideological debates have the mother pitted against the unborn child in a zero-sum scenario. America is individualism on steroids, but one individual's freedom often impacts another individual's freedom. We have to be realistic about the limits of individualism and instead embrace a communitarian vision that seeks the common good. A new paradigm is needed, or perhaps an old one. 

3. Limit legal interventions for now. The movement can spend some energy on legislative outcomes but should limit its focus on extreme cases for now, such as late term abortions. You could argue that Roe v. Wade as it stands now allows for more abortions than most Americans would support, and that is a fair point. I'm not a big believer that we can address abortion legislatively, but if folks want to go that route, the key here is to only advocate for legislation when grassroots support has reached a critical mass.

4. Reconsider legislative approaches for the future. Once that grassroots culture of life from #2 above has been nurtured and grown, there may come a time in the future to introduce legislation around abortion once again. However, if the culture of life were really strong, a law might not even be needed.

Hypothetical question: Does it really mater if abortion is legal or not if no one has one? I get it that the laws on the books say something about who we are as a people and what we value, and some would argue that if something is legal there are people who will utilize that option. But there is no law preventing anyone from supporting and safeguarding life right here and right now.


Many in the pro-life movement have been so focused on trying to make abortion illegal that they have become blinded to these other realities. I am convinced that a law at this time would be mostly unsuccessful and certainly unsustainable in the long run. I am also doubtful that this is an issue that can be addressed primarily legislatively.

The focus on making abortion illegal while ignoring the drivers just gives credence to the notion that the movement is more about shaming women than saving lives. This is especially true when the politicians who want to make abortion illegal are the same ones who are likely to increase the factors the drive people to consider abortion in the first place--withdrawing economic safety nets and chipping away at workers rights, for example. This puts people into impossible situations while others sit back and judge if they make the "ethical" choice or not. It feels like watching gladiators in the Roman coliseum. Let's not play games with lives! Instead, let's "create a society where it is easier to be good" (Peter Maurin).

Further, the focus on making abortion illegal is a way, I believe, for the pro-life movement not to get its hands dirty. To create a culture of life would require ALL of us to change, not just "those people over there." Most of us find it easier to point fingers than do the interior work on ourselves. If the pro-life movement wants to be successful, the only path forward is to embrace a consistent ethic of life. It will require everyone's "all in."

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

How Christianity Can Heal the Nation

The cross here is higher than the flag:  The right relationship.

July 4th. A day we celebrate overthrowing the government and, of course, breaking all its laws in the process. The colonists basically broke into someone else's house and kicked them out. Or maybe it was their house all along. Confusing, isn't it?

That gets us off to a shaky start and erodes the moral credibility of our nationbut there is a way to make it right! I'll get to that in a sec. Before we can do that, the first step in overcoming sin is to admit it.

We should hold the following truths to be self-evident:

* Our nation was conceived by violently overthrowing the government and breaking all its laws.
* It was settled by the systematic method of ethnic cleansing of native peoplea process which never fully ended.
* It was built by establishing the apartheid state of chattel slavery, the disparity maintained still by segregation and mass incarceration.
* America has been a haven for tired, poor and huddled masses of immigrants, who are thrilled at the opportunity but make every excuse in the book to close the door tightly to anyone after them.
* It's citizens celebrate freedoms at home but suppress freedoms and disrupt nations abroad.

So now I hear "we're a nation of laws." We are on pretty thin ice to make that claim, if you ask me.

I think that's why so many Americans are terrified that immigrants are going to "break in, invade the country and take it over." I hear that kind of rhetoric all the time. Those words seems to be on the paranoid fringe that don't match the on-the-ground reality of actual immigrants if you get to know them. 

So where is all this paranoia coming from??  It all makes sense when you understand the dynamics of karma. The Biblical way of saying this is "you reap what you sow." It's cause and effect. 

We're basically afraid that everyone else is going to do to us what we have done to them. Psychologists call this "projection."

You see this not just with immigration. Other examples: Remember all the paranoia surrounding how our first African-American president was supposedly going to "forcefully take away everyone's guns"? I also hear the same baseless fears today when people think that Muslim immigrants are going to "force their religion on us" and "establish Sharia Law in the U.S."

Remember, it was the white Americans who disarmed African Americans. It was Christian settlers who imposed Christianity on the land (and still continue to do that in the name of religious liberty).

We've done a poor job of owning up to any of this. We don't take responsibility for our actions. We don't repent, confess, make amends and offer restitution. We've done very little of any of that, and what we've done has always been the bare minimum, and on top of that we only do it while kicking and screaming through the whole process (see the Civil Rights movement for ample examples). Yet, repentance, confession, and restitution are the pathways to freedom. Only when we do that will we be free.  This is the truth that will set us free, if we accept it.

This is where Christianity can help the nation heal. It has language and tools found in few other place. It speaks of this dirty word called "sin." It calls us to seek truth and it tells us that the truth will set us free. It has a process of confession and renewal, through God's grace. It can help us see the light and repent. Other religions and faith traditions can also be a partner in this good work as they have insights and credibility to share along these lines, as well.

This is the true path to freedom.

This is the true path to freedom.

Monday, July 2, 2018

7 Reasons Why "They Should Come Here Legally" Doesn't Work

Imagine your neighbor falls out of a tree and is critically injured. You struggle against all odds to hoist him into your car. You break every traffic law possible to get him to the hospital in time, even turfing part of the hospital's lawn making a sharp turn to enter. When you arrive, a policeman is waiting for you saying, "You should have just come here legally." The hospital refuses to admit you and the policeman takes you both to jail.

That feels horribly unfair. It feels like a cheap shot. The police and hospital are exploiting a technicality while ignoring the grave situation in front of them.

Most debates about immigration in the U.S. invariably feature someone who says:  "Why don't immigrants just come here legally?" That seems like a reasonable position at face value, until you start looking deeper and see that it fails to grasp the situation.

Here's why:

1. Enforcement. The law and enforcement of the law are two very different things. Much of the criticism today has to do with enforcement. Current U.S. immigration enforcement methods have been unnecessarily brutal and punitive, to the point of violating basic human rights and the right to due process. This is a major alarm that the faith community has raised in a unified voice. The US Catholic Bishops, the Southern Baptist Convention, and most denominations have spoken out against it, even staunchly conservative leaders such as Franklin Graham.

Controversial enforcement policies include President Trump's "Zero Tolerance Policy" as well as his executive order calling for indefinite detention of families. Previous policies were also seriously problematic, but these two new ones have raised concerns substantially.

Imagine if Child Protective Services came to your house and took away your children permanently just because you got a speeding ticket. The punishment has to fit the crime. On top of that, there is no law that forces us to abuse families. We always have the choice to enforce the law with mercy and civility.

2. Asylum seekers have not broken the law.  People have the right to come to the border--and even cross it--to request asylum. This is legal. This is a universally standard practice consistent with international treaties that the U.S. has signed. Migrants have a right to seek asylum and nations have an "obligation to help" (per the link).

So not only is enforcement unnecessarily extreme, but if often targets people who are not law breakers in the first place.

3. What path to entry? The notion that "they should come here legally" assumes that there actually is a way to do that.  The implication being that people just chose not do it the legal way, raising concerns as to why they would opt for the “deceitful” route. However, there is almost no legal path to entry for a poor farmer from Mexico or Central America. Further, some citizens from war-torn countries like Colombia do not qualify for refugee status, even though most human rights groups would say they should.

There are many people who need and want to immigrate. There are many businesses that want to hire them. The government should assist this demand by creating pathways, not by interfering. However, the laws are increasingly making it more difficult to immigrate, not less.

Virtually all immigrants would be glad to chose the legal route--if there was one. 
4. Respect life or respect the law? If our laws are not just, the human spirit--led by God's grace--will find ways around them to preserve the sanctity of human life. Families are faced with an impossible choice: Either respect the law or cross the border and save the lives of their family. They may face crippling poverty, violence of even death to stay in their home country. What would you do?

The best thing we can do is make sure our laws are just in the first place and enforced with abundant mercy. Many Church traditions (such as the Catholic Church) freely acknowledge that people have the right to migrate, especially when their lives are at stake. It's an expression of the right to life.  Even further, the poverty, violence and political instability which are driving migration are often the direct result of U.S. foreign policy. We reap what we sow.

Slavery was once legal. Both escaping from slavery--as well as helping escaped slaves--were serious crimes. Today, we call the people who participated in the Underground Railroad "heroes." 150 years ago, they were called "illegals." It's astonishing to see the parallels in language and rhetoric between the issues of slavery pre-Civil War and undocumented immigration today. The same terminology was used. Many of the same Scripture verses were used (Romans 13, for example). History is repeating itself.

5. Proven track record of peaceful residence in our communities. The peaceful, law-abiding participation in our communities by undocumented immigrants tells us that their intentions in coming here are truly noble. These are not "criminals" but rather good people who made the best choice in a difficult circumstance.

Undocumented immigrants have been in the US for as long as the U.S. has been in existence. As a whole they pose virtually no national security risk. Today, undocumented immigrants are even convicted of violent crime at substantially lower rates than native-born citizens. 

We should spend our resources tracking down the people who truly are dangerous rather than mercilessly stalking innocent farm workers and their families. Deporting peaceful farm workers and their families is misguided, wasteful, cruel and not likely to make us any safer.

6. Politics of Division. The level of concern is not consistent. There are many “illegals” in the US from Canada and Europe. Few Americans seem worried about that. It’s just the immigration from non-white races and non-Christian religions that seems to be the issue. This suggests that anger over immigration has more to do with xenophobia than it does with national security or concerns over laws.

On top of that, undocumented immigration is lower than it has been in years.  For example, border crossings are only 25% of what they were just a decade ago. They were low long before Trump took office. Many are concerned that the hysteria over immigration is just a red herring designed to find a scapegoat for other problems.

7. Who are we? The situation with immigration says more about who we are as a people than it does about those attempting to migrate. What kind of nation are we? Do we value the creative energy of new people who have a thirst for freedom and an entrepreneurial spirit? Can we justify hoarding our ample land and resources when tired, sick and hungry people are knocking on the door?

I grew up regularly hearing about the Berlin Wall and the Iron Curtain. We in America knew there was much more strength in a free society where people can move about with few restrictions. The USSR imploded when it wasted so many vital resources trying to unnecessarily control its people and cut them off from the ideas, creativity and vitality of the rest of the world. To me, the proposed wall with Mexico is no different than the Berlin Wall, and the Muslim travel ban is not much different than the Iron Curtain restricting movement to and from the Soviet states. Why are we attempting to repeat some of histories greatest mistakes?


Regardless of where you are on the political spectrum, we can probably agree on one thing: We’d all like immigration to happen legally. Nevertheless, the issue of legality does not adequately address the concerns we have today. No law can cover every contingency or possibility. As a result, laws serve as a guideline but should never be taken to a hyper-literal extreme. They need to be enforced with love and mercy.

Just like in the opening example of the hospital, many people use the law to play "gotcha" games with people's lives. Every law is pushed to its limits and beyond to justify cold, quick and harsh exclusion. Why? 

Instead, we should step back and look at the situation as a whole. There are many complex issues in play and the consequences to human lives are serious.

We should reform our system so that it can safely and adequately address current immigration needs and then enforce it only with abundant mercy.

Saturday, June 30, 2018

One People Living in Two Worlds

Jesus calls his disciples into one people, 
yet immigration concerns remind us how far we have to go to achieve that.

My family and I participated in an interfaith prayer and march for immigrant families last night.

I had some fear when we started out. Were we putting ourselves at risk? What if some random people saw the march and decided to get violent? Events like this are seldom dangerous as they are in fact protected speech in the Constitution. However, tensions are building in this country and threats are rapidly becoming much more common. It's worth pondering whether the rules still apply anymore.

That’s when it dawned on me: We have the luxury of choosing to take a risk or not. We could just as easily have stayed home. Many of our neighbors do not have this choice. They live with risk every dayand much larger risks. Many immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers flee for their lives from life-threatening circumstances only to live here in constant fear of harassment, violence and arrests. Those arrests may be severely punitive and lead to family separation for years while people wallow in detention centers or are deported back to hostile areas.

As it turns out, the vigil was very calm and safe, but we just didn't know that before packing up the car and going. Maybe I was worrying needlessly, but I consider these things differently when my decisions impact my whole family and not just myself.

I think of the other fathers and mothers who pack up their children to make the trek north to the United States. It’s both a risk to stay in their home country and it’s a risk to make the journey. They want to do what's right, they want to do what's legal, but they also have to keep their family as safe as possible. They are caught between the choice of following the human lawwhich has literally drawn a line in the sand with few legal ways to crossand their obligation to follow God's law to care for their families.

These are good people faced with no good options, and they make the best choices they can in desperate situations. The choices, and the stakes they are facing, are so different from those of my family. Our risks are small and we can often opt out if we want to.

This is not the kind of discipleship Jesus envisioned. Jesus wanted us to be close to the poor. In fact, he expected it (Mark 14:7). Being close to the poor is where we will find him (Matthew 25:31-46). The New Testament is filled with stories of Jesus reaching out to people who have been marginalized, excluded and demeaned in one way or another, and he is clear that he wants us to follow in his Way.

Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. (Romans 12:16)

I think back to the interfaith march. We were worried whether the juice in the sippee cup was a cool enough temperature and if we remembered to leave the TV on so the dog doesn't feel lonely. The immigrants we are praying for are worried about how many rapes they may have to endure on the trek north to save their family from an even worse harm. They hope against hope that the days with little to no food will not have a permanent impact on their children.

Jesus calls one people together over and over in Scripture, but it is clear we live in two worlds. There are far too many Christians living a comfortable lifestyle with middle-class means who feel they are in a position to make decisions about the lives of immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers. These Christians have not done one of the most basic requirements of discipleship mandated by Jesus himself:  Being close to the poor, so close that onlookers would think you were one and the same. This march reminds me that I have a long way to go in my discipleship. It reminds me to be humble along the way and not pretend to be an expert on the lives of people who live and work near me but whose lives are sometimes unimaginably different.

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Secure Borders in a Christian Context

Image taken from here. 

Jesus commanded us to "love one another." A lot of Christians today talk about having "secure borders" in response to immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers.

Loving one another and having secure borders are not necessarily oppositesbut they can be.

Most Christian schools of theology affirm that people have the right to private property. Along with this right comes the notion of having secure borderswhether those are the walls of your private home or the borders of the nation.

However, we can fall into the trap of assuming that the command to love one another and having secure borders are somehow opposites held in tension. It's like we instinctively know that anything that forcefully separates us from our neighbors with locks and armed guards is antithetical to the command to love. But that's only because we don't properly understand "secure borders" in light of the Gospel. They don't have to be opposites when done properly.

Most Christian theology affirms that the right to private property comes with strings attached. It's not open-ended. You have the right to private property so that you can use it for the common good. For example, you can buy a piece of land so you can chop down the trees to make lumber to build a shelter for refugees. Without the right to make decisions about that property, you may not have the agency to fully live out your Christian vocation to "welcome the stranger" (Matthew 25:31-46), for example.

God may respect your freedom to do nothing with that land and lumber while refugees suffer outside in the cold. However, that may be a sin. You certainly have the freedom to sin, but that doesn't make it right.

[I highly recommend Pope John Paul II's Laborum Exercens for a riveting and detailed look at the dignity of work and where I got the ideas of the relation between private property and Christian vocation, especially.]

Americans like to celebrate the notion of freedom. However, Christian freedom is not simply the absence of oppression and restraints. It is the freedom for living out our Christian vocation. In other words, it's not just freedom from a problem, it's the freedom for doing something good. It is in this way that all rights bestowed on us by by Creator are dovetailed with responsibilities. God wants us to have the right to freedom so that we can exercise our responsibility to live out God's commands.

We can have "secure borders" so that we can love one another, offer mercy to refugees and make peace in the world. If the borders do not accomplish that, then they are not of God.

Therefore, all this talk of "secure borders" must be in service to the Greatest Commandment to love one another which Jesus directly tells us should be our chief concern. We can have secure borders not to keep out and abuse vulnerable people but rather to protect people who need to enter for safety. In other words, the purpose of the border is to create a space to allocate resources to help them, not to exclude them. In extreme circumstances the border may be necessary not to exclude refugees but to keep out the ones persecuting them.

Because of the commandment to love, it is our duty to make room for those who are seeking refuge from a long season of running for their lives. Since love if our chief responsibility, the only times we should be talking about exclusions are in very dire, desperate situations. Those may include times when there is simply no room or resources left and when the threat to everyone else is extreme. Obviously we are nowhere near the position to make that claim in the United States:

  •     We are the richest nation in the history of human civilization. 
  •     We have plenty of open, available land. 
  •     We have several decades of experience with undocumented immigrants living in our nation with virtually no national security risk to speak of. Despite the hype, they commit far less violent crime than even native-born citizens.

As you can see from the above list, it is hard (if not downright impossible) for a Christian to justify exclusion at this point in history based on Gospel values.

Besides, a "secure border" does not mean we keep everyone out. It means we reform our immigration system so that people can smoothly come in and out as they need without interference from the government. Part of the reason our border now is insecure is because our current immigration system is too rigid and hostile and fails to respond to current economic and human needs.

But what happens if our secure borders interfere with our ability to love one another and care for the common good? If loving one another and having secure borders ever become opposites, then the Christian responsibility to follow Jesus's Greatest Commandment must come first, as it has a significantly greater standing than the right to have borders. Yes, the Christian tradition affirms the right secure borders, but that right is never absolute and is always secondary to the dignity of the human person, the common good and our exercise of Jesus's Greatest Commandment to love one another.

So what do we do?

Let them in! Offer a warm welcome. And help them get started building and rebuilding their lives here in the U.S.

The Smile Test

Can you say it with a smile on your face?

Whenever I made a decision about serious topic, I always ask myself:

Can I say it with a smile on my face?

I use this tool whether it's a decision about politics, health, relationships or anything.

It's certainly not the only way to know if I have made the right decision, but it's an important factor. If I can't say it with a smile on my face, that troubles me greatly. Why not? Is my conscience trying to tell me something? Have I become too cold and hard-hearted? Is the decision being made with fear or with an open heart?

Take the situation with asylum seekers at the U.S.-Mexico border. I know I could go up to them with arms outstretched, saying:

Welcome! Let's look after you! Here is food and water and fresh clothing. Here is a clean bed to rest from your journey. Please tell us your troubles and we will do our best to be good neighbors and help the best way we can.

Despite the seriousness of their situation, I could see myself smiling while saying those words, at least, smiling on the inside.

By contrast, I can't imagine how someone could say the following with a truly open, warm smile:

Go back to Mexico! Lock up the children! Kick them out of our country and tell them follow the laws! That's what they deserve! We don't need to listen to them, just send them back!

Those words are filled with angeraggressivenessmeannessa refusal to listena refusal to acknowledge the good in others. The wall has already been built, and it is inside their hearts. They have to spend a lot of energy maintaining that wall.

People with this attitude do not simply have a disagreement with a policy decision. They have some kind of resistance built up inside of them. My mentor would always tell me that there's a huge difference between disagreement and resistance. Does someone disagree with your message or do they resist it? Resistance always tells you there is more to the storymost likely they are not listening to their heart or conscience.

The smile test is not perfect. I have had to bite down on my smile while making a decision a time or two, but I still think those were the right decisions. But I know why I had to do it, and I had to balance several competing factors when making those decisions. But who knows, maybe I was wrong and perhaps I should have listened to my body language more?

I'm sure there are some people who can prove me wrong. Bullies can beat up a helpless person while mocking and jeering at them. I have even heard horror stories of crowds laughing while African-Americans were being lynched. But these are not the open-hearted smiles of warmth. They have a sinister edge.

On the flip side, not all anger is bad, either. There are times for righteous anger. But righteous anger always has to come from a place of love.

Look at the graphic at the top of this post. I can't help but smile when I see it. I like that feeling. When I talk about politics, religion, or any other important issue, I want to make decisions with that same feeling in my heart.

Friday, June 22, 2018

A Prayer for Immigrants, Refugees and Asylum Seekers

Photo by USA Today

I was participating in a social media discussion with someone who began his comment with, "I love my immigrant brothers and sisters, but..." He then proceeded to write a couple of extremely long paragraphs about all the ways he wants to exclude them, is suspicious of their motives and wants to deny what they ask for. He complained about what he perceives is their lack of assimilation to his culture and language. He felt he had valid concerns in the context of securing borders.

Where exactly is the love in all this?

Imagine going up to your wife and saying, "I love, you honey, but here's a list of two dozen behaviors of yours I want you to change pronto, thanks." 

You may indeed love your wife, but you are not showing love at that moment in time.

Despite this person's claim of having love for immigrants, he gave no evidence for it. There was no talk whatsoever about how he shows love to these people or even his desire to show love. There was no evidence that he was struggling over how to better demonstrate love for immigrants.

Love is not easy. It takes time, attention and lots and lots of work. It is a goal we should apply ourselves to every day. It is a concern we should bring to prayer. You can't just say "I love them" and shrug your shoulders as some kind of a blow off. Love involves constant work and attention.

A counselor once told me that a loving relationship is one where there are 10 positive things said for every negative thing. Given this, can most Christians say they are acting in a loving way toward immigrants?

If love if your focus, that's where your attention would be. Think about and write about all the ways you can learn to love your neighbor in even better and bigger ways that you did before. When your attention is on all the exceptions, exclusions and disclaimers, that is not a good witness to Christian love.

Perhaps that person has never been shown how to bring these concerns to prayer . . .

A Prayer for 
Immigrants, Refugees and Asylum seekers

I've visited lots of churches of various denominations. Many Christians have strong opinions about immigration, ranging from the most conservative to the most liberal. However, I can't recall many times when the congregation has bowed its head in prayer and brought its concerns to God in an open way simply asking God to provide guidance in light of His Divine Word in the Bible.

Let's do that now:

Loving Father, we give thanks to you for all you have given us:  

The gift of life and the gift of creation around us,
The gift of your son Jesus who shows us how to love as sisters and brothers, and
The sanctifying grace of the Holy Spirit in our world and in our lives today.

We acknowledge that all we have is through your grace alone and not by our works.

Lord God, you command us to love one another and you tell us that this command is the command on which all the others hang. 

In your Beatitudes, you tell us to be humble, to be merciful to others, to be peacemakers of your Kingdom "on earth as it is in Heaven" and to look to and prefer the poor. You tell us to hunger and thirst for righteousness and justice.

In the Parable of the Sheep and Goats, you tell us to welcome the stranger, feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked and look after the imprisoned and sick.

We acknowledge the words you have spoken to us and the seriousness of your commands.

Teach us how to do this. 

Your children—our sisters and brothers—come to our door as refugees, immigrants and asylum seekers. Show us how to love more deeply, to welcome more warmly and to grow in tenderness and mercy.  Help us to look after their needs as they undergo their perilous journey longing for peace, safety and wholeness for their families. 

Help us to open our ears to hear their concerns better, 
and open our eyes to see their struggles more clearly,
So we can discern—with your guidancehow to respond as Christian disciples.

God the Father, how can we love refugees more today than we did yesterday? 

Jesus our brother, how can we show mercy to the asylum seeker knocking at our door and be the good neighbor you call us to be?

Through your grace in the Holy Spirit, how can we help cultivate peace in a world torn apart by war, poverty and violence?

Some borders and divisions may be regrettably necessary in this fallen, limited world. Help us to discern that whatever borders and locks we choose will only exist to serve your will and help foster the Kingdom "on earth as it is in heaven."

We pray to be your instruments in this world, giving to others out of thanks for all that you have given us. Without you we would have nothing. You remind us when you say:

Do not oppress a foreigner; you yourselves know how it feels to be foreigners, because you were foreigners in Egypt (Exodus 23:9).

For the gift of discernment 
     of your will 
          and not ours, we pray.



Scripture references (unless cited above):

Greatest Commandment: Matthew 22:34-40
Beatitudes: Matthew 5:3-10
The Good Neighbor: Luke 10:25-37
Parable of the Sheep and Goats: Matthew 25:31-46

Thursday, June 21, 2018

The Words of Jesus We Ignore

Imagine a person praying at bedtime. He is confused. Unsure of what to do in life. What are his next steps, he wonders? He prays fervently to God for direction.

Amazingly enough, God answers!

Love God
Love one another

The person praying listens. Stops. "Okay, God, I still have no idea what you want me to do..."

Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, visit the prisoner, look after the sick

"God, I beg you... please give me some direction, anything..."

Do good to those who hurt you
Love your enemies
Forgive over and over again
Turn the other cheek 

"Anything, God..."

Hunger for righteousness, don't be afraid to mourn, be a peacemaker, 
Be merciful, meek and pure of heart
Always look to the poor, prefer them and celebrate those persecuted for justice...

The person stops praying and shakes his head, frustrated by the emptiness he feels. He rolls over and falls asleep, hoping that by some miracle God might provide some kind of answer in the future.

You can laugh, but this is how many Christians actually respond to Jesus's words to us.

Let's break it down:

Most Christians believe that Jesus is God—and not just in some metaphorical way, but literally God in actual flesh and bones.

Many of Jesus's words are recorded in the Bible. Most Christians believe that the Bible itself is the Word of God.

Going further, many of Jesus's words in the Bible are actual commands to us.

Some Christians take the Bible literally. All followers should take it seriously.

What I find so puzzling is that so few Christians seem to pay much attention to what Jesus said at all. That's a very strange reaction to a guy most Christians claim is actually God who walked among us in flesh and bones. I mean, here's God actually coming down to our level and talking to us. He lays out the path. He tells us what to do. He even helps us prioritize:

Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’  This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” 
 (Matthew 22:37-40)

I don't know how to be more clear. Jesus himself—you know, God—directly says it is a command. On top of that, he makes it clear that it is the greatest of all the commands. And then going further, to erase any possible doubt, he describes that everything else hangs on it. Love comes first and then all other considerations are not only secondary but dependent on it. So any other command, rule or doctrine you find in the Bible must be viewed through the lens of the Greatest Commandment.

Did I mention that this was a command? By God. A command by God.

After that comes the Sermon on the Mount, found in Matthew 5-7. It begins with the Beatitudes:

Blessed are the poor in spirit,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
    for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
    for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
    for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
    for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
    for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
    for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,

    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Then there's the The Works of Mercy (Matthew 25: 31-46):

Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, visit the prisoner, look after the sick

The Bible is full of commands, advice and assorted lessons of all types. It has profound understandings that only open up to us as we pray deeply, do our Christian work and grow in our discipleship. It speaks in riddles, parables and paradoxes. It speaks out of a context that is thousands of years old. Even with a lifetime of constant study you will never mine all the depths of its teachings.

But some things are clear! Especially when Jesus himself is quite direct about it.

Even with those commands, life can still be extremely difficult to navigate. Jesus tell us to love doesn't tell us how to do it. He does not micromanage but rather gives the blueprint. That can be frustrating, but I think that's the point: Jesus probably doesn't want us to passively check activities off a list but rather put our whole heart, soul, mind and hands into what we do. We are to struggle with the question. With every step we take, every decision we make, we should be constantly asking ourselves—am I serving the Greatest Commandment in this action or not? Do my actions reflect the Beatitudes? How can I apply the Works of Mercy right now in this situation? Those should be our first considerations always and never an afterthought. We are never without some advice from God as to what to do next.


So how do we apply these teachings to important issues today?

Many Christians are worried about refugees and undocumented immigrants coming into the U.S. I assume that Christians bring these concerns openly to prayer before coming to a conclusion: "God, what shall we do?"

Love one another. Be merciful. Welcome the stranger. Be a peacemaker.

"But God, what about securing our borders?"

Love one another. Be merciful. Welcome the stranger. Be a peacemaker.

The Christian tradition acknowledges some value in securing borders, but it's certainly not mentioned as a direct command of Jesus. His commands were more about expanding borders to find ways to make room for all. Securing borders should never be our first concern! First: Welcome, show mercy, be a peacemaker, look to and prefer the poor! Then later, much, much later, there is some value in having a border and having some kind of regulations for crossing it but only if that border allows us to love abundantly and show mercy.

You don't get to talk about securing borders until you have done the other things! Only after you have welcomed and loved and shown mercy abundantly are you in any position at all to talk about what a "secure border" can and should look like given the circumstances and the people involved. And that "secure border" must serve love and mercy, not the other way around. A secure border can only be legitimate if it serves the God who commands us to love, show mercy, make peace and look after one another. If a border allow us to do that, then it is just. If it doesn't, it is not of God.

Love of God and neighbor is the greatest commandment and all else hangs on it, as Jesus says above. Let's imagine that the Greatest Commandment is a tree. We hang "secure borders" on that tree as an ornament. Those secure borders are not just a secondary consideration, but they are also dependent on the tree for structure and support. We can only hang them on the tree if they do not break or disrupt the tree on which they hang. It is in this way that love is primary and all else is not only secondary, but in a dependent position to love.


Keith Giles wrote a fantastic piece entitled Christless Christianity. I love his words and they help inspire this post. They resonate with topics I've explored elsewhere, particularly in my series "What Makes a Christian." 

Monday, June 18, 2018

Christians, the Law and Romans 13: Immigration Considerations

The Apostle Paul in prison . . .
writing favorably about submission to earthly laws?

What part of 'illegal' don't you understand?

Romans 13 has been getting a lot of attention lately in the U.S. immigration debate. To paraphrase what I hear: We're a nation of laws, and too bad if you get punished, because you shouldn't have broken the law! It is often used in an attempt to shut down discussion about the economic, political and cultural drivers of immigration into the U.S., especially humanitarian concerns.

At this point, some Christians like to add theological muscle and cite Romans 13 as a command to blindly follow all the laws of the land. They read that passage as saying that earthly authorities are all divinely appointed by God and that citizens must accept that this is God's will for them at this moment in history. That certainly seem to be what Romans 13 is saying, at first glance.

However, you don't have to be a scholar of the Bible to realize that there must be another way to understand this passage. There have been (and still are) all sorts of cruel and inhumane governments all through history. Do you think that the North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un was appointed by God to be a brutal dictator?

In most communist countries, it has been illegal to practice religion at all. That presents more than a small logical conundrum. That would be like saying: God commands in Romans 13 that you don't believe Romans 13. It's the theological equivalent of an M.C. Escher painting.

In Nazi Germany, it was illegal to helps a Jewish person escape the concentration camps. After World War II, Nazi soldiers were put on trial for crimes against humanity. In their defense, many said that they were just "following the law." That argument did not hold at the Nuremberg trials.

We don't have to go that far to find examples. If that strict read of Romans 13 were true, that would mean that every action by Barack Obama, Donald Trump and every other president and Congress has been "divine inspired" and deserving of our blind obedience. I'm sure virtually all Americans would not be okay with that statement, regardless of their political party affiliation.

Scripture itself gives us a clue that there must be another way to understand Romans 13. There are plenty of instances where God encourages people to go against the law of the land. In Exodus, the captive Israelites rebel against the commands of Pharaoh, just to give one of many examples. Blind obedience to the law of the land does not seem to be what God is asking of us.

Further, Jesus told us to give to Cesar what is Cesar's (Matthew 22:21), but his idea of what belonged to Cesar seemed to be different than just following blindly the letter of the law. Jesus broke both Jewish and Roman laws: He fed the hungry on the Sabbath (Matthew 12:1-13) and overturned tables in the temple (John 2:15, among other passages). He said that love of God and neighbor are the greatest commandments and that "all the law and the prophets hang on these two commandments" (Matthew 22:40).

So then what does it mean when Romans 13 seems to tell us to submit to government authority? Apostle Paul, right in line with Jesus, gives us the right lens himself at the conclusion of this passage. He writes: "Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law" (Romans 13:10).

Slavery was practiced in North America for nearly 400 years. In the U.S., People faced severe consequences (even to the point of death) to assist runaway slaves in any capacity. Today, we call those folks heroes. Why? Because the laws were unjust. This is key. The underground railroad may have been violating the law of the land, but it was right in line with God's law.

I am not suggesting that Christians should go around breaking laws willy-nilly. But we also can't shrug out shoulders and say, "too bad, that's the law." Unjust laws have no right to exist and must be changed. People who break unjust laws should be given extreme leniency, if not an outright pardon.

So yes, people have the responsibility to follow the laws, but the nation has a responsibility to enact only just laws in the first place. Both are required for an ordered society. I think this is actually what both the Apostle Paul was trying to tell us in Romans 13.

Thomas Aquinas and Government

Catholic teaching has typically had a favorable view of government. As my grad school professor in Catholic Social Teaching taught:

People in the U.S. often say that 'government is a necessary evil.' In Catholic teaching, we would simply say that it is 'necessary.'

America has that strong libertarian and isolationist streak. By contrast, the Catholic tradition is aware of the problems that can come by and through governments, but it also is aware of the good. In addition, it recognizes that there is no getting around the necessity of humans having to learn to work together. Government is one of the major ways in which we do that.

However, that favorable view is not open ended.  Theological juggernaut St. Thomas Aquinas weighs in from the 13th century:

“... in so far as it deviates from right reason it is called an unjust law; in such case it is no law at all, but rather a species of violence."

Government may be necessary, but not all government is good. We have a moral duty to oppose unjust laws, which, as the great Dominican saint tells us, is really just a form of violence.