Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Syrian refugees and the courage to be Christian

Syrian refugees coming ashore at Lesbos.
(Photo: Angelos Tzortzinis/Getty.)
Last week, longtime reader Michael asked me to do a fuller piece on the Syrian refugee crisis. A couple of mass shootings have happened in the meantime, one involving Islamic radicals. Nevertheless, the refugee issue hasn’t been settled; and the Muslim identity of the San Bernadino shooters has thrown more anger and panic into the mix.

The other day, Br. Anthony J. J. Mathison, OP, wrote an excellent essay on the matter, which sums up my thoughts with greater charity and knowledge than I possess. However, it’s too long to quote at length here; and I’m not sure whether Br. Anthony intended it for further publication. So let me confine myself to some general concerns that Br. Anthony and I hold in common. I'm not going to spend the time he did refuting ten common objections, since most of them assume a radical position that brings everyone in without screening or background checks ... a position few if any propose in any seriousness.

The principle of humanity inscribed in the conscience of every person and all peoples includes the obligation to protect civil populations from the effects of war. ...
A particular category of war victim is formed by refugees, forced by combat to flee the places where they habitually live and to seek refuge in foreign countries. The Church is close to them not only with her pastoral presence and material support, but also with her commitment to defend their human dignity: “Concern for refugees must lead us to reaffirm and highlight universally recognized human rights, and to ask that the effective recognition of these rights be guaranteed to refugees”.—Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church 505, cit. St. John Paul II, 1990 Message for Lent, 3

“I was a stranger, and you welcomed me ....” This is among six acts that Jesus names in the “Judgment of the Nations” passage (Matthew 25:31-46) as things done by the “sheep”, the righteous, who will “inherit the kingdom prepared ... from the foundation of the world.” In this passage, Jesus draws an unmistakeable “equals” sign between himself and the wretched, even the despised, of the earth, and tells us we may no longer overlook them, that we may no longer neglect them, that we may no longer judge them as lesser beings. Earlier, in the Golden Rule (Matthew 7:12), he told us to treat others as we’d like to be treated; now, we must treat these “least of ... my brothers” as if they were Christ himself!


The works of mercy are charitable actions by which we come to the aid of our neighbor in his spiritual and bodily necessities (cf. Isa 58:6-7; Heb 13:3). Instructing, advising, consoling, comforting are spiritual works of mercy, as are forgiving and bearing wrongs patiently. the corporal works of mercy consist especially in feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and imprisoned, and burying the dead (cf. Mt 25:31-46). Among all these, giving alms to the poor is one of the chief witnesses to fraternal charity: it is also a work of justice pleasing to God (cf. Tob 4:5-11; Sir 17:22; Mt 6:2-4).
He who has two coats, let him share with him who has none and he who has food must do likewise (Lk 3:11). But give for alms those things which are within; and behold, everything is clean for you (Lk 11:41). If a brother or sister is ill-clad and in lack of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what does it profit (Jas 2:15-16; cf. 1 Jn 3:17)?

“The sum total of the Christian religion,” wrote St. Thomas Aquinas, “consists in mercy, as regards external works: but the inward love of charity, whereby we are united to God preponderates over both love and mercy for our neighbor” (Summa Theologica, II-II, Q. 30, A. 4, ad 2). It’s precisely that love of God we show in welcoming the stranger, Jesus being the Son of God and the Second Person of the Holy Trinity; and when we welcome the stranger, we welcome Jesus — “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40). Likewise, when we turn the stranger away, we turn Christ away, and thus not only fail in our duty to our brethren but also in our love of Christ; for “as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me” (v. 45). Hence, the eternal separation, the “eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (v. 41).

Here someone might object that the injunction to welcome the stranger, as well as the many OT citations concerning hospitality (Exodus 23:9; Leviticus 19:33-34; Deuteronomy 10:18-19; 1 Kings 8:41-44; Ezekiel 16:49; Malachi 3:5), were applicable in the context of the Holy Land in Biblical times, but not to today. However, that hasn’t been the teaching of the Church for lo these 2,000 years; I would expect such “hyper-contextualization” from a liberal Christian or skeptic sniffing with chronological snobbery about Christian sexual morality, but not from a conservative Catholic about the corporal acts of mercy. The moral imperatives of natural law and the teachings of Christ only “sunset” with his Second Coming and the Day of Judgment.

Others might object that to use the federal government in this way is to violate the separation of Church and State. However, this is to put an interpretation on the “establishment clause” that was never intended by James Madison or the First Congress, and which if pursued logically would frustrate all Christian attempts to participate in government. For, as Br. Anthony points out, if the “establishment clause” prevents us from using the government to welcome the stranger, then it also prevents us from using the government to protect the unborn. Indeed, it’s just such a construction of the “establishment clause” that certain legal theorists propose to exclude Christians from the democratic process, to strip us of our representation in government (at least so far as we oppose their preferred legislation) and effectively make us second-class citizens.

Another argument holds, “I lock my door at night, not because I hate what is outside but because I love what is inside.” St. Thomas Aquinas would respond that “all fear arises from love; since no one fears save what is contrary to something he loves” (STh II-II, Q. 125, A. 2, co.). However, “if a man through fear of the danger of death or of any other temporal evil is so disposed as to do what is forbidden, or to omit what is commanded by the Divine law, such fear is a mortal sin ...” (ibid., A. 3, co.; bold type mine). We are commanded to welcome the stranger; therefore, we must cast aside fear: “Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is right? But even if you do suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed” (1 Peter 3:13-14).

If there’s anything we should have learned from Church history, it’s that discipleship costs. There’s always the risk that we’ll suffer for doing what’s right — whether you’re Christian or not. “He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and he who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10:37-39; cf.  Matthew 16:24-25). There’s always the risk that doing the right thing will have unanticipated, even unpredictable, consequences, not just for ourselves but for others as well. But while prudence dictates minimizing the risk as far as is possible under the circumstances, refusing to do one’s Christian duty because someone — you, your loved one, the King of Belgium — might get hurt isn’t prudence but rather timidity.

The average American’s chance of dying in a domestic terrorist attack, under the current conditions, is insignificantly small — certainly less than his chance of dying in a collision with a drunk driver, or from a gunshot as the result of someone else’s run-of-the-American-mill criminal activity. No one has yet established that the actual increased risk of terrorist attacks in accepting the Syrian refugees is proportionate to the level of fear being sown by those who would deny them aid. Daesh has already shown us that they don’t need the shelter of the Syrian refugees in order to carry out international terrorist attacks. And, as Br. Anthony reminds us, “the communities where we are most likely to have Daesh-inspired terrorists are not the refugees so much as the rich, rather affluent Sunni communities already here[bold type mine]. The fact that San Bernardino terrorists Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik had successfully passed screening only points out what we should have known beforehand: that no screening process devisable by humans can be 100% effective. A standard of 100% effectiveness, at any rate, is not only inachievable but unreasonable.

But we’re seeing in America today the growth of a “fortress mentality”: the idea that, if we build strong enough walls along our borders and put thick enough doors on our gates, we can live out our lives free from enemy attack. A serious study of military history teaches us that, eventually, fortresses fail at this purpose: they fall, taken from within by treachery or from without by siege and conquest. The coastline of Normandy and the border between France and Germany offer us the most recent monuments to the futility of the “fortress mentality” ... the Berlin Wall having been totally demolished. We can do more to diminish the threat of domestic terrorism by devising more effective and appropriate gun-control measures than by attempting to make our borders impermeable to terrorists.

The belief that we can build a “Fortress America” free from terrorism comes not from confidence and vision but from weakness and timidity, the refusal to engage a hostile cancer on the world that we helped to create with our blindly blundering Middle East policies. Such a “Fortress America” wouldn’t be the “land of the free and the home of the brave”; rather, it would be the land of the trapped and home of the frightened. Moreover, “Fortress America” would cease to be a Christian nation in any meaningful sense, because it would indicate that, as a people, we no longer possess the courage to take the risks that a life of faith in Christ demands. No; we’d rather hide behind locked doors and barred windows, where we can eat and drink and drug and fornicate ourselves into insensibility, rather than go out and risk suffering by doing good to others.

I for one would rather not believe that the courage to be martyrs is completely lost in America. Like Franklin D. Roosevelt over eighty years ago in another time of crisis, I believe “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance” (Inaugural Address, 4 March 1933). What we need now, more than anything else, are leaders — men and women of courage and faith who will stand up in the face of uncertainty and hostility, say “Follow me,” and march “toward the sound of the guns” ... with the cross of Jesus going on before.

To be a people of faith, we must first be a people of courage. Let’s find the courage to do the right thing — to give shelter to the homeless and to welcome the stranger.