Monday, August 08, 2011

Faith and the foreigners

Retreat ended last evening; today we women formerly known as retreatants have become the housekeeping crew. We are all over the place scrubbing, sweeping, polishing and washingr not just to keep the place in good order for our next week of community updating, but because by Saturday the retreat house will be filled with relatives in town for our sisters' Jubilee celebration. (Just to reassure you that I am not dawdling over a keyboard while everyone else is laboring, my duty is in the laundry room, where the last load of sheets and towels is now in the dryer, all others having been duly folded and put away.) (Besides, it's time for a break!)\

I was catching up on some Catholic news, blogs, etc. earlier, and found a typically insightful post from Jennifer Fulwiler. She is answering the accusation that Catholics, with their positive view of big families, are threatening the fragile balance of the environment. After all, there are only so many resources to go around, and if you have too many babies, you are going to eat up more than your fair, replacement-level share of the goods of the earth. Her reflection (and the other blogs she cites, which I highly recommend you visit) coincided thematically with a talk I was listening to as I folded the above-mentioned sheets and towels. In the presentation from the Theology of the Body congress, Dr. John Crosby explains what is meant by "personalism" (which is so vital to the thought of Pope John Paul II and the theology of the body). He also cites Blessed John Henry Newman's contributions in that area. But I am not putting all this down for your philosophical enjoyment: it also connects strongly with a theme that came barrelling out at me from today's readings, and it has very real-world implications.

For starters, I could ask, "What are your convictions about immigration?" And I wouldn't be surprised to hear expressions of concern, anxiety, sorrow and also a few words of indignation, distaste, fear, severity... you know, the stuff we hear in political speeches on the topic. The Responsorial Psalm even speaks about border security! ("He has granted peace in your borders..." Ps. 147.) But the first reading hints at the source of that peace: not from the absence of immigrants and aliens, but from the way God ordered that they be treated. Moses tells the Isrealites that they must imitate God who "befriends the alien, feeding and clothing him."
I can already hear howls of protest over this, but we can't get away from it: it's an explicit command from God. Might the Gospel moderate this "Old Testament" rule the way it did other matters?

In the Gospel, Peter is approached for his share of the fee that all observant Jews contributed to the upkeep of the Temple. The collectors can't resist a little dig at the impecunious Master, Jesus: "Does not your teacher pay the Temple tax?" Peter sputters an automatic reassurance that the Master neglects none of his responsibilities to society and then turns away in haste. Back in the house, Jesus doesn't let the matter rest. He hints that, as the Son of God, he is exempt from a tax that logically should be paid by outsiders. And yet he doesn't take a hard line! Instead, he sends Peter, the fisherman, out to fish: Peter's everyday work became the means of a miracle of providence that paid not only Peter's Temple tax, but Jesus' as well.

If I had been Jesus, I probably would have made a public case for my rights, demonstrating mv case insistently, repeatedly and unanswerably. I might have even been tempted to ratchet up the rhetoric and resort to depersonalizing terms and figures of speech to refer to those who would deny, question or disregard my right, characterizing them by their accent, language, cuisine, modes of transport, or simply tainting them by association with others. There would have been no concession from me! Jesus, though, sees his position of privilege as a reason to make concessions generously.

Catholics should be tortured by the questions today's first reading raises. Those who wholeheartedly and aggressively embrace a hard ligne that gives priority to human and political values are absolutizing the political at the expense of divine revelation.

And yet most people I know who do this very thing would never consider treating an actual immigrant the way they might speak about "immigrants" in the abstract. That's where the "personalism" comes in. Faced with a real live person who has made incredible sacrifices for his or her family, all they would see is the weary face of a father or mother, son or daughter: a person we are not allowed to sacrifice to any other good (or any other "god"). In Newman's words, "He has a depth within him unfathomable." And that's a beautiful thing, a kind of acknowledgement of the Incarnation and the mystery of the Body of Christ.

Obviously, I don't have a solution to a situation that has been brewing for decades (and that our current economic crisis seems to be solving in its own unfortunate way), but is there a way for us as believers to let God establish the values by which we approach this and every other social question? Can we let faith (and people of faith who are actively attempting to bring about workable solutions) challenge us on the practical level to balance the rights and expectations and even the demands of citizenship with the call to imitate God in dealing with others? Otherwise..."do not the Gentiles of this world do the same?"

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