‘When Did We See Thee a Stranger?’

Illegal immigration and families separated are both huge problems, but they need to be solved in a way that brings about the common good.

Ellis Island
Ellis Island (photo: Credit: 'Laslovarga', CC-BY-SA-3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Many Catholics have recently considered what our response should be to President Trump's executive orders regarding immigrants and refugees. Kathy Schiffer and Msgr. Charles Pope, for example, considered the issue in light of their reading of the Catechism of the Catholic Church and some of the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas. I previously addressed this issue as well, arguing that we Christians have a duty to care for immigrants, but I think more needs to be said on this issue.

I agree with all parties to the conversations that our nation has a duty to protect the common goods of her citizens. Our government should regulate immigration in a way that brings about the good of our nation and of those coming into our nation. We should care for their needs, as we are able, as is clearly stated in the Catechism (see CCC 2241). It is clear that we cannot sustain an unlimited number of immigrants as a nation. So, I agree that reassessing current regulations and law and seeking to enforce it well are good things. However, it is also clear that we are obliged to do so in a way that is least detrimental to those refugees who really need our help. A period of 120 days may be the difference between life and death for some people, as presented in the stories in this article by Peter Jesserer Smith. Immigration reform can be done without placing a ban on immigration to the detriment of those who need our help now and of our foreign relations with these nations and the people within them.

Taking action to help refugees is a separate issue from protecting our nation from those who would truly seek to harm us through terrorist acts and drug and human trafficking. So by all means, let us screen the people seeking entry into our country.

However, there are already people in our country, legally and illegally, who are sending aid to their families in other countries, such as Mexico. It is easy to look at those people and begrudge them their income being sent abroad, but rather than blame them for harming our economy, should we not look with generosity on the people being fed and clothed. We are in danger of being like the rich man to the poor man Lazarus that Christ spoke of in the parable in the Gospel of Luke. Lazarus sat at the rich man’s gate day in and day out, and the rich man never lifted a hand to help Lazarus. When they both died, Lazarus was shown the mercy he never received from the rich man, and the rich man was sent to a life of eternal torment (Luke 16:19-31). Who are we, a rich nation, to not care for those poor families. Illegal immigration and families separated are both huge problems, but they need to be solved in a way that brings about the good of all involved, the poor and the rich.

There is a fear among many Catholics that Muslims who immigrate to our country are seeking, in the end, to make our nation a Muslim nation. It makes sense a faithful Muslim would seek to follow the laws and teachings of his or her faith. In the same way, we as Catholics follow the truths of our faith above those of our nation. We petition for religious liberty when asked to violate our consciences in paying for contraception and abortion with our taxpayer dollars or in our private businesses. We worry about what our children might learn in the public school systems where falsehoods about gender, marriage, and sexuality are taught. We pray and seek the conversion of our whole nation. We, too, as people believing that our faith is the means of salvation for all humanity, seek our laws to be in accord with truth.

But since we know by faith that Christ will triumph in the end, we should let the radical charity that Christ calls us to trump the fear that we have of living under sharia law. We should welcome with Christian charity those of other faiths seeking refuge here, and seek to evangelize them and provide for their material needs, even at the risk of our own lives and those of our children. Jesus calls us to take up our crosses and follow him on the way of charity, and having done so, we are not to worry about tomorrow.

A passage from St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae, Question 105, article 3 of the Prima Secunda, has been cited in support of keeping particularly those who are Muslim out of our country. However, the use of this passage has been taken out of context. In this part of the Summa St. Thomas is explaining the precepts of the Old Law and justness of it for the Israelites, and it is from here that arguments have been drawn against immigration of those who could be our enemies. When read in context, however, in the previous Question 104, which lays the groundwork for Question 105, St. Thomas explains how the law of the Old Testament no longer holds in the New Covenant.

The judicial precepts did not bind for ever, but were annulled by the coming of Christ: yet not in the same way as the ceremonial precepts. For the ceremonial precepts were annulled so far as to be not only "dead," but also deadly to those who observe them since the coming of Christ, especially since the promulgation of the Gospel. On the other hand, the judicial precepts are dead indeed, because they have no binding force: but they are not deadly (I-II, q. 104, a. 3.)

Question 105, which considers how Israel was commanded to deal with foreigners, is about these judicial precepts of the Old Law. These precepts no long have any binding force. It is true that St. Thomas says that these precepts "are not deadly"--that is, while they are no longer binding, it is permissible (but certainly not required) to follow them. However, I think that if we want a more complete picture of how we should consider such laws and how they could be applied today, we must look at them (as St. Thomas himself does) in light of what Christ taught us in the New Testament. We should remember that the Old Law, with its prescriptions regarding foreigners, was given by God to train his people for the coming of Christ, but in the New Testament, Christ asks us to raise our love of neighbor to a new level.

""You have heard that it was said, `You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?And if you salute only your brethren, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:43-48)

The radical love of the Gospel is a much higher call than that of the Old Testament. And perhaps it sounds a little scary to love those who could be our enemy. The Islamic State and terrorism are real threats to our physical lives. Christians in predominately Muslim countries face the threat of the loss of their lives everyday. Yet, this potential threat in our country is one that should not keep us from extending radical charity and hospitality to those who come to us in real need regardless of their faith or their intentions. St. Thomas even states in the Summa in the Treatise on Charity that it is necessary for our salvation that we assist our enemies when they are in urgent physical need (see II-II, q. 25, a. 9).

In some ways I envy Christians who live under a more outward and physical persecution than we do in the United States. They can live more radically the call to persevere in their faith under a persecution.

 If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man, if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life? (Matthew 16:24-26)

Christians in the United States have lived under the persecution of the cloud of the last eight years of a government hostile to our religious liberty, our consciences, with an agenda contrary to God’s Law. Yet, now that some are starting to feeling that this cloud is being lifted, we are losing sight of charity. We are still called to live charitably, to love our neighbor, even if we are afraid.

Christ tells us many times in the Gospel who our neighbor is. Take the parable of the Good Samaritan as an example.

And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, "Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?" He said to him, "What is written in the law? How do you read?" And he answered, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself." (Luke 10:25-27)

The lawyer proceeds to ask Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” Christ responds with the parable of the Good Samaritan. If you recall, the story begins with a man going from Jerusalem to Jericho who falls among robbers. He is beaten and left half dead. Then two separate Israelite men, those who know the law and neglect charity for the sake of ritual cleanliness, pass this man on the road. Then a Samaritan comes along, a Samaritan who is an enemy of the Israelites. This Samaritan puts his own life at risk on this road frequented by robbers and his other enemies to bind of the wounds of the man, his traditional enemy. He brings the man to an inn and leaves money to pay for the care and recovery of this man.

[Jesus asked]“Which of these three, do you think, proved neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?" He said, "The one who showed mercy on him." And Jesus said to him, "Go and do likewise." (Luke 10:35-37)

The call of Christ to love those who hate us, those who are our enemies, is not an easy one. It is a much higher call than the regulatory laws of the Old Covenant. But it is also a reminder that there is much more at stake than our physical well being, while that is important, the life of our soul is not worth losing over the safety of our bodies. Yes, I am serious about this. The call to radical charity is one that we cannot overlook even in the face of danger. There are refugees seeking the aid of our country who are not Christian, a lot of them are Muslims, but we are called to love and welcome both. The global common good is a common good greater than that of our country. And each human being on this earth of ours is a human being made in the Image of God; every single one demands charity from us because they are human beings.

I think about the kind of nation I would want my children to live in, and while I would love for them to have peace and prosperity, I worry more about their immortal souls than whether or not they will be persecuted. I know that they will be. There is no denying that. Christ told us so: “In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). The Christian has always been persecuted. The model of radical love is one that I want them to follow rather than that of cowering in fear behind the secure borders of our country.

It is time to overcome our fears and meet those different from us with radical charity, so that we might hope to be among the righteous.

Then the righteous will answer him, `Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink?

 And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee?

And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?'

And the King will answer them, `Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.' (Matthew 25:37-40)