Monday, September 28, 2020

Law and Life

Welcoming the stranger and respecting the law


We now turn our attention to the fourth topic to consider as conscientious Catholics before voting this November, namely, immigration and welcoming the stranger. We have already touched upon several sensitive subjects the last three weekends, such as abortion, racism and marriage and LGBTQ persons. But in some ways, immigration is a little more personal for me, since I am an immigrant from India and I have had to navigate the whole legal process of entering the country. One of the toughest questions I was asked at the immigration exam was whether I would take up arms to defend this country from foreign invasion. Suddenly, the thought flashed through my mind of the U.S. and India going to war, and possibly shooting a soldier from India. I hesitated for a moment, but don’t worry, I answered correctly that I would defend this nation. Now, I pray every day that the U.S. and India never go to war!

Being an Indian immigrant makes me acutely aware of the importance of both sides of this difficult debate: welcoming the stranger and respect for the rule of law. On the one hand, welcoming the stranger has long been a distinguished part of our national history. Indeed, most of us were immigrants or children of immigrants, especially here at Immaculate Conception Church. We are happy someone welcomed us when we were the strangers. But on the other hand, we Americans have a great respect for the rule of law, which maintains our equality as citizens because we are all treated the same before the law. The law not only asserts we are “created equal” but ensures we stay that way. One blessing that brings so many immigrants to this country is precisely the rule of law, which is egregiously abused or entirely absent in their home countries.

The U.S. bishops equally emphasize both “welcoming the stranger” and “respecting the rule of law.” In their document, “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” they wrote: “The Gospel mandate to ‘welcome the stranger,’ requires Catholics to care for and stand with newcomers, authorized and unauthorized, including unaccompanied immigrant children, refugees and asylum-seekers, those unnecessarily detained, and victims of human trafficking” (no. 81). That comprehensive description covers virtually everyone who steps foot on our shores, or even on our riverbanks. We warmly welcome all the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” because we were once huddling too.

The bishops also insist on comprehensive immigration reform, that is, new laws. Why? People respect the rule of law when those laws are good. But if the laws themselves are broken and ineffective, it is hard (and at times unreasonable) to respect them. An unjust law is no law at all. Thus, the bishops continued in the same paragraph: “Comprehensive reform is urgently necessary to fix a broken immigration system and should include a broad and fair legalization program with a path to citizenship; a work program with worker protections and just wages; family reunification policies; access to legal protections; which include due process procedures; refuge for those fleeing persecution and violence; and policies to address the root causes of migration.” In other words, Congress has the unenviable but urgent task to make the laws of our land conform to the lives of desperate immigrants. When they succeed in their task, it becomes easier to both respect the rule of law and welcome the stranger at the door.

It is imperative to remember that laws can and do change. Human laws are not divine laws. The Constitution was written on paper, the Commandments were chiseled in stone. If you want to read a brief history of the evolution of immigration laws – which have changed dramatically over 250 years – I highly recommend John F. Kennedy’s book “A Nation of Immigrants.” Kennedy himself was a great grandson of immigrants fleeing the devastating potato famine in Ireland (like many initial IC parishioners). He embodied what immigrants and their descendants could achieve in the US if given the chance. Kennedy insisted immigration laws should be fair and flexible, and then concluded: “With such a policy we can turn to the world, and to our own past, with clean hands and a clear conscience.” That is exactly what the Catholic bishops ask, too.

Another insight into the relationship between law and life was made by Archbishop J. Peter Sartain, our former bishop in Arkansas. He once commented with a smile: “John, there are laws and then there are laws.” He did not elaborate but I took him to mean that sometimes we select which laws to obey and which ones to skirt. I hate to admit this in public but I usually drive on the interstate 5 to 7 miles per hour above the speed limit. I’m sure no one else does that. But one law I cannot tolerate people breaking is the rule that the left lane is for passing only.

I remember once when someone was cruising slowly in the left lane with a long line of cars behind them. I became so angry, that I passed the person in the right lane, got in front of them, and slowed down to 50 miles per hour forcing them move over to the right hand lane. I casually violate the “speeding law” but I cannot stand anyone breaking the “left lane law.” Be careful of a “hidden hypocrisy” when we complain about the violation of immigration laws while we blithely break other laws. If we fix our broken immigration laws, we won’t have to pick which ones to obey. The whole controversy about immigration is at root a concern about making just laws.

In 2015 Pope Francis visited the United States and spoke before a joint session of Congress. Behind the pope sat two prominent Catholic politicians: Vice President Joe Biden and Speaker of the House John Boehner. During his speech, the Holy Father pointed to the full-faced figure of Moses, the ancient law-giver in the Old Testament, and observed: “Moses provides us with a good synthesis of your work (meaning the work of Congress): you are asked to protect, by means of the law, the image and likeness fashioned by God on every human life.” Notice how the Holy Father tied together the two terms “law” and “life.” The law exists to safeguard life. The pope was prodding Congress to pass legislation – including new immigration laws – that would inspire more Americans to both “welcome the stranger” and “respect the rule of law.”

If you watched that speech you noticed how visibly moved John Boehner was. At one point he wiped his eyes and nose with his handkerchief. Clearly the pope's words touched his heart. In fact, it made such a deep impression on him that the next day Boehner announced his resignation as Speaker and from the House of Representatives. The pope did not tell Boehner to resign. But he awakened his conscience so Boehner could make that decision. That is how these homilies work. They are not intended to tell you how to vote, but to awaken your conscience so you can make a better decision.

Praised be Jesus Christ!

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