One of my professors in graduate school defined sin as a “failure to bother to love.” In this description of sin, Rev. James Keenan, SJ, invites us to consider sin less in terms of breaking rules and more in terms of what we fail to see, think, feel, say, and do.
Looking at our southern border, it is clear that far too many of us are failing to bother to love.
The migrant caravan is not a national security crisis but a peaceful march of people – more than half of whom are women and children – uprooted from their homes by gang violence, economic deprivation, and political instability. These are people fleeing crisis, not trying to attack our border or organizing an assault on our country, as the President has falsely claimed.
The President’s dehumanizing rhetoric – describing migrants with denigrating terms, whether rapists and murderers, criminals or animals, or gangs and mobs – is not only inaccurate, but it is anti-Christian, as Cardinal Dolan pointed out more than three years ago. It is also dangerous for all immigrants, regardless of their nation of origin.
No doubt, this vilifying language is part of a political strategy to defend the escalation at the border, sending troops before the midterm elections at the tune of $200 million. It helps justify the Administration’s efforts to make it harder to seek asylum at our southern border, which is at odds with international law. ICE enjoys a budget of $7.6 billion, even while it abuses thousands of migrants physically and sexually with complete impunity (even destroying records that document abuse).
Christians cannot abide this kind of discourse, and certainly not the kinds of policies that separate children from parents (some of whom may have been ripped apart permanently), detain families indefinitely, or use tear-gas, which is a weapon of war (even though it is not unprecedented in its use at the border). It is immoral that companies are making huge profits in what is now a billion dollar industry of detaining migrant families along our southern border. It is unconscionable to profit from the misery of such vulnerable people, but this is what happens when people of faith remain silent.
This isn’t just about the migrant caravan or the separation of families. This is about a deep-rooted fear of the other, a xenophobia that has haunted America for years. It is linked to white supremacy, a fundamental distrust of black and brown bodies, a presumption of guilt against them, and legitimizing violence against them. The president has no problem calling himself a nationalist, even while it so often connotes such virulent racism and anti-black violence, which seems to be emboldening hate groups, generating more anti-Semitism and hate crimes.
Embracing fear is easier than understanding the root causes of why people are being forced to flee – especially when so many of those root causes point to US involvement in Central and South America. US demand for illegal drugs gives power to the cartels that inflict violence and practice routine extortion in many villages. US trade policies make it cheaper to buy US products than those made in Latin America, driving unemployment in places like Guatemala. US political involvement has destabilized countries like Honduras. The list goes on.
The populist nationalist understanding of American exceptionalism thrives on amnesia of our past abuses, sins of commission and omission. #AmericaFirst – ignoring our obligations to other peoples and nations – repeats a shameful history of turning our backs on people fleeing persecution and violence. “America First” is idolatry. It too easily becomes isolation, which does not result in peace and security. Not for us, not for others. Moreover, it is a failure of solidarity, the logical extension of the great commandment to love your neighbor as yourself. (There are no non-neighbors as Luke 10:25-37 illustrates; Christians are commanded to love even enemies – see Luke 6:35 – so no exceptions apply.) American Christians are called to a kinship that reaches across borders.
Most American Christians might acknowledge this in theory: that we are all equal in the eyes of God, all brothers and sisters in God’s family. The Mexican and US Catholic Bishops reinforced this message with their 2003 Pastoral Letter, “Strangers No Longer.” Pope Francis illustrated this call to unity in a profound way by celebrating Mass at the US-Mexico border in 2016. In his homily, he reflected on the need to reinforce the bonds of belonging to “one single family and one same Christian community.” If we are to end our failure to bother to love, we must embrace solidarity and join Pope Francis in demanding, “No more death! No more exploitation!” What a powerful image, to see the Body of Christ – united in a spiritual sense – divided not just by the border, but by fear and distrust of those who do not share citizenship with us. Our citizenship is in heaven, Saint Paul reminds us (Phil. 3:20). Our allegiance is first to Christ and the reign of God, not America.
This is not to suggest all American Christians are xenophobic, anti-immigrant, or failing to bother to love. (In fact, one Gallup Poll found that 75% of Americans say immigration is a good thing, but you don’t see that being reported much these days.) However, we need to confront the problems associated with some of those who profess to love the poor and support the Church’s social ministries, including in Latin America. Each year 2 million American Christians go on short term mission trips to countries like Mexico, Honduras, and El Salvador, raising and spending $2 billion. It’s laudable that so many Americans go – or support others who go – to places of great need. But these service trips risk becoming an ego trip for social media, a resume-builder, or a guise of the white savior complex, if they are not motivated by a sense of solidarity and respect for the dignity of all. Too often, they are more focused on broadening the horizons of those who go than offering meaningful assistance to those being served. Not only does that paternalistically make the poor pawns in the learning experience of American youth, but it creates a vicious cycle of dependence, a toxic form of charity.
If we really loved the poor, we wouldn’t love them on our terms, for the brief duration of a service trip, or from the safe distance of our homes, schools, and churches. Love requires freedom, which means creating the conditions for the poor to be agents of their own future. That means that we do more than hop on a plane, help out for a while, and then come home. People have a right to migrate and to seek asylum. They are entitled to seek peace, security, and freedom for themselves and their families, to flee persecution, coercion, and other conditions that cause premature death. Would any one of us silently succumb to the poverty that results from unemployment or the fear and violence perpetrated by gangs and cartels? Is there any limit to what we would do for our children to provide them safety and a better future? How can we fault these parents for doing everything in their power to do what we ourselves would also do if we were in their situation?
Even though migration is legally protected (and ardently defended by Pope Francis), Christians still object. They say migrants should follow laws, that immigrants will bring more crime, take away jobs, demand handouts, and change our culture. But we should also consider that not every law is moral. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. raised this concern in his Letter from Birmingham City Jail, reminding those who objected to his peaceful protests, boycotts, and other nonviolent public demonstrations that everything Hitler did was perfectly legal. King enjoyed very little support during the Civil Rights movement (including just 13% of black churches), which he often attributed to those who preferred order to justice. But, “justice delayed is justice denied,” he countered. We have a broken immigration system, and while partisan differences persist, Americans overwhelmingly support immigration reform. But Congress has failed to make progress in this area. One thing every one of us can do is to hold our elected officials accountable to a more humane immigration system. Not open borders, but a system that works for those who want to come here to work (many of whom want only to stay a short period of time and return home), to be reunited with family, or to create a new future by contributing to American society. Every church and school should be on board with this effort, in defense of human dignity and the principle of solidarity. Boosting foreign aid – not cutting it, as Trump has promised – could also help improve conditions in Latin America, which would make people less likely to leave for the US border.
It should be pointed out that most immigrants do enter the country legally, per federal data. At the same time, the complex, overloaded process, for legal immigration includes numerous obstacles. Unauthorized immigration should be seen as an act of desperation more than deception. El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala have some of the highest murder rates in the world. Imagine the agony a parent experiences at the prospect of either staying to endure violence or risking it on the journey. When journalists interview those who come to our border, they routinely say, “We will be killed if we stay.” Leaving home is their last resort for survival. If the Catechism (no. 2408) teaches that theft is not a sin in a situation of necessity, then we should not be so quick to judge those who believe the only way to survive is to brave a most perilous journey northward.
While it might be easy to condemn parents for not following the rule of law (“But they’re illegal!”) or be indifferent to the crisis at the border (“It’s so far away! What can I do?”), consider also the reasons why they leave their homes and the horrors they endure along the way for the peace, security, and freedom they seek: they risk injury and death, extortion, dehydration, extreme weather conditions, getting separated from their family and sold to traffickers, and for as many as 70% of women and almost as many children, sexual assault. For some, there is no legal path. In light of these realities, perhaps it would be more accurate to treat these families as refugees than migrants.
Anti-immigrant myths lead folks to believe that immigrants steal jobs and commit crimes. They do not. Immigrants pay more in taxes than they receive in benefits. They are much less likely to commit crimes than native-born citizens. And while they sometimes compete with low-skill workers, they mostly take jobs most Americans don’t want and make many positive contributions to the economy.
But we shouldn’t welcome immigrants because it benefits us. We should welcome them because it is what Christ commands. Matthew 25:31-46 depicts the Final Judgment not based in piety or prayer, but love. The sheep (those who are saved) are just as surprised as the goats (those who are condemned) that they are welcomed into the kingdom of heaven because they fed the hungry, clothed the naked, and welcomed the stranger. And if that was the standard even before Jesus offered this instruction to his disciples, then so much so will it be for us who have been warned. This scene represents a fitting test or examination of conscience for whether we are failing to bother to love God, self, and neighbor as Jesus commands.
In our American context, we too often restrict our moral duties to our immediate family members and friends. This stands in stark contrast to Jesus’ teaching in the gospels. While Jesus affirmed the respect owed parents and elders (Matthew 15:4), he also minimized the importance of blood ties by saying, “Whoever does the will of God is my brother, sister, and mother” (Mark 3:35, Matthew 12:50, and Luke 8:21). Going even further, Jesus reminds us that the demands of discipleship supersede family obligations (Mark 10:29-30, Matthew 10:34-37 and 19:29, and Luke 12:51-53 and 18:29-30). He warns, “If anyone comes to me without hating his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:25-26). While this can sound rather harsh to modern ears, it is a prophetic admonition intended to keep family bonds from becoming idolatrous, preventing us from being attentive and responsive to the needs of those we fail to recognize as kin. Jesus expands his followers’ conception of family so that it is no longer defined by blood, but love—a love that “has no alibi” when it comes to others in need. That doesn’t mean that we love migrant children the same as our own, but it does mean that we are called to make room to love the children whose need is far greater than that of our own.
We need to be honest with ourselves about our failure to bother to love. And we need to get to the bottom of why it’s so hard for us to love people who are so different from us. Maybe it’s because we don’t understand what it’s like for them to be who they are, to face these struggles, and to make choices that might differ from the ones we’d make. But the command to love our neighbor as our self – the Greatest Commandment, as Jesus taught – means that we don’t impose qualifications or differentiate between who is worthy or unworthy. As Thomas Merton wrote, “Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. That is not our business, and, in fact, it is nobody’s business. What we are asked to do is to love and this love itself will render both ourselves and our neighbors worthy.”
When we fail to bother to love like this, we sin. It’s not enough to acknowledge that; we have to repent and make amends. We should financially support direct service to those in need along the border and participate in the campaign for hospitality to #sharejourney with migrants and refugees, to welcome, protect, promote, and integrate them into our communities, as Pope Francis has urged. We extend God’s welcome to all because, as Scripture reminds us, we were strangers once. We belong to each other, as members of one single community, God’s family. Each one of us will have to answer for how we used our freedom and the limits of our love, just like the sheep and goats in Matthew 25:31-46. Just as God never fails to bother to love us, so we must keep striving to bother to love as much as we can.