It’s Not Demonic to Close Churches to Protect Human Lives and the Vulnerable

In First Things, RR Reno writes, “There is a demonic side to the sentimentalism of saving lives at any cost.” Is this sentimentalism? Or is it the care for the human person that Jesus showed by healing the sick? Jesus identifies his mission as the promotion of life in abundance (John 10:10). The Catechism states that our vocation is life in the Holy Spirit, expressed by divine charity and human solidarity (CCC 1699). The Holy Spirit will not abandon us even while churches remain closed.

His colleague Matthew Schmitz writes, “Unless religious leaders reopen the churches, they will appear to value earthly above eternal life.” Why this dualism between earthly and eternal life? Our bodies are a temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 6:19), so care for our health is a spiritual duty. While it is true that bodies do not have an absolute value (CCC, 2289) this immediately follows: “Life and physical health are precious gifts entrusted to us by God. We must take reasonable care of them, taking into account the needs of others and the common good” (2288).

Church closings ensure public health as a safeguard for the most vulnerable. If the quarantine were lifted and the coronavirus spread, we don’t have the capacity to care for the sick and the dying. Such a disregard for the sanctity of life and the common good would be sinful.

Schmitz says that since breweries and supermarkets remain open, churches should be too. But churches are not places for consumption; parishes are not places where sacraments get dispensed. We go to church to gather and that is the exact risk of spreading the coronavirus. One can pick up beer or buy groceries without interacting with anyone else, but liturgy literally means “the work of the people.” It is a corporate event: we pray together, sing together; by standing and sitting together, we demonstrate our communal worship together. We don’t go to church to “get” the Eucharist; we go to church to be reminded who we are before our God, what God has done for us, and to petition God’s presence and power. Augustine tells us to “become what you receive” in the Eucharist: churches form us as the Body of Christ.

Do I miss Eucharist? Absolutely. And this experience puts me in touch with millions of Catholics all over the world who cannot count on receiving the Eucharist on a daily or weekly or monthly basis because they cannot get to a church or the Sacrament cannot get to them.

I am consoled by the Catechism, as it reminds us the Mass is a cosmic event, taking place across space and time. It unites us with the whole church—past, present & future—so that we participate in every celebration of thanksgiving, past, present, and future (nos. 1367-1372). The Catechism also reminds us that our conscience—the Vicar of Christ—must be ordered to the good of all (2039). We are responsible for each other (2259) and for establishing peace and justice, including the commutative justice of rightly relating to each other (2304).

Healthcare experts tell us that quarantine is necessary for the preservation of life and that this time is the most essential for protecting the vulnerable and preventing the overloading of our healthcare system. It would be sinful and barbaric to reject this counsel. God knows what’s in our hearts and the impact of our decisions on others, especially the least among us (with whom Jesus identifies in Mt 25:31-46). God is not offended by us being unable to celebrate Eucharist, especially when we do this for the good of the People of God. Because love of God is also love of neighbor (John 15:12). God holds us in this difficult time, sustaining us by the grace that is always and everywhere present, reflected in the imago dei of each and the community of persons that reflects our Triune God (CCC 1702). We can and should be witnesses of the essential nature of being church, even while the buildings are closed. According to Irenaeus of Lyons, “The glory of God is the human person fully alive.”

Stay home. Save lives.


The Unfinished Work of Saint Óscar Romero

Two unfinished Masses are linked to the legacy of Saint Óscar Romero, pointing to his unfinished work to see Christ in and be Christ for the poor, marginalized, and excluded.

Forty years ago, Óscar Romero was murdered while he celebrated Mass in the Divine Providence cancer hospital chapel. The Gospel was from John 12:23-26: “Unless the grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it remains only a grain. But if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their own life will lose it; those who hate their own life in this world will keep it for life eternal. Whoever wants to serve me must follow me, so that my servant may be with me where I am.”

In his homily, Romero quoted from Gaudium et spes, asserting that building a “better ordering of human society” is “of vital concern to the kingdom of God … a kingdom of truth and life, of holiness and grace, of justice, love, and peace” (no. 39). He continued:

Dear brothers and sisters, let us all view these matters at this historic moment with hope, that spirit of giving and of sacrifice. Let us all do what we can. We can all do something, at least have a sense of understanding and sympathy … This holy mass, now, this Eucharist, is just such an act of faith. To Christian faith at this moment the voice of diatribe appears changed for the body of the Lord, who offered himself for the redemption of the world, and in this chalice the wine is transformed into the blood that was the price of salvation. May this body immolated and this blood sacrificed for humans nourish us also, so that we may give our body and our blood to suffering and to pain—like Christ, not for self, but to bring about justice and peace for our people.

The archbishop proclaimed these words while a car idled outside the chapel and an assassin trained his aim on Romero’s heart. Romero stared at his killer and uttered his last words: “Let us join together, then, intimately in faith and hope at this moment of prayer for Doña Sarita [it was her memorial Mass] and ourselves.”

At that moment—at 6:15pm—an assassin, a graduate of the notorious School of the Americas at Fort Benning, GA, fired a single bullet that ripped through Romero’s aorta and by 6:26pm he was declared dead.

A first Mass never finished.

The following Sunday, more than 250,000 Salvadorans gathered in the square outside the cathedral in the capital. It was Palm Sunday, and they were laying to rest their beloved “Monseñor Romero,” whom they recognized as a saint.

After a peaceful procession through the streets and prayerful start to the liturgy, soldiers began shooting into the crowd. Bombs interrupted the homily and people began to flee. It’s unclear how many people were killed, but eye witnesses report that more than 80 Salvadorans lost their lives.

A second Mass never finished.

Last week I was in El Salvador and got to spend time with Lolo Guardado, who was baptized by Romero and who was still a boy when Romero was murdered. In Spanish, Lolo told us that even though he is shy and still trying to heal from the wounds of El Salvador’s civil war, he tries to live up to the legacy of Romero’s courage. Lolo recounted stories of Romero as a “friend and good shepherd.”

Lolo, who survived a massacre that killed hundreds of women and children and wiped out more than sixty percent of his family, told us how Romero inspires him to discover his voice, tell his story, and speak the truth of the brutal effects of so many years of fear, hatred, and violence in El Salvador. In moments of uncertainty, Lolo told us, he can hear Romero urging him onward: “Adelante!” Lolo acknowledged, “If I do not speak up, it is not as though the rocks will speak for me. I must speak for myself.”

Lolo insists that Romero is alive in his commitment to sentir con la iglesia (to feel with the church), especially the unfinished work to draw near the poor, the vulnerable, the nonpersons. The ones made to feel invisible, the ones without security, voice, or agency.

Lolo described Romero’s bravery and cool-headedness during a late-night standoff in May 1979 at the Church of the Rosary. He brokered a peaceful exit that soldiers betrayed, firing bullets through the glass and metal doors (the bullet holes remain visible today), killing dozens who are buried in a mass grave in the floor of the church. My students and I were moved by the bullet-pierced tabernacle, which still hangs on the back wall of the church.

Thomas Merton referred to the church as a “body of broken bones” but in El Salvador, bullet holes and embodied wounds direct our gaze to the “crucified people” past and present. A Salvadoran woman named Anita shared her work to honor the legacy of Romero and so many other Salvadoran martyrs. She assured us, “Where there is a wound, there is God.” Romero is so beloved because he was so attentive and responsive to the wounds of his people.

As we remember Romero on the 40th anniversary of his martyrdom, there may be a temptation to domesticate his legacy. It’s important to honor his words and actions, verifying the record of what inspired and sustained him.

Romero’s unfinished work is a call to grow ever deeper in faith, hope, and love by sharing our life with those who suffer, people who question if they count, matter, or belong. In 1977, Romero insisted, “A church that is fulfilling its duty cannot live without being persecuted.” We cannot run from difference or discomfort; we cannot be afraid to disagree or convince ourselves that the kind thing to do is remain silent, to avoid rocking the boat. Less than a year before he was killed, Romero claimed, “The Gospel that the Church preaches will always provoke conflicts.” Jesus promised as much (Matthew 10:16-36). This is not a challenge to a select few; it is part of our shared call as disciples, a responsibility on all our shoulders. It comes with being church together, a reason for us to support each other and hold one another lovingly accountable to a Gospel that requires we never become complacent with an unjust status quo.

Romero’s unfinished work is to live out a faith filled with courage, compassion, and solidarity. To become a church that is genuinely of and for the poor. To have our hearts moved by those whose humanity is questioned, whose dignity is undermined, whose freedoms are constrained. And to work for a world that rights wrongs, heals wounds, and creates the conditions for each and all to freely and fully flourish in right-relationships.

In a digital age, it’s easy to give our attention to a person or cause and then swipe or scroll on to something completely different. Screens can become portals for distraction, escape, and entertainment, tempting us to ignore, deny, or even erase suffering – whether our own or others’.

Romero’s legacy is a challenge to be present to those pushed to the peripheries, to listen and learn from them. To help them discover their voice and develop it so they can speak their own truth and be heard. To build relationships rooted in mutual respect and responsibility such that the lines that distinguish “us” from “them” are erased by the bonds of cariño (tender affection), confianza (sacred trust), and conjunto (togetherness).

40 years removed from his last breath, it will grow easier to put Romero up on a pedestal, to light a candle in his honor, and to remember him for saintly piety and the selfless sacrifice of his life as a witness to his love for Jesus Christ and the people of El Salvador. But we cannot dilute or whitewash Romero as if he were predestined to sainthood, wholly set apart from the rest of us. He experienced struggle, doubt, and fear. He could have chosen to be silent or to sidestep his prophetic words to denounce injustice and violence. But he didn’t. Telling the truth came with a price. To continue the unfinished work of Saint Óscar Romero is to follow his example by telling the truth of reality, analyzing the root causes of injustice, mining sources of moral wisdom from Scripture, tradition, logic, and human experience, and working for justice on the personal, social, and structural levels.

Jon Sobrino, SJ, insists that while the Church honors Romero by recognizing him as a saint, “It is not the Church that graces Monseñor, but Monseñor who graces the Church and elevates it.” Romero calls us to an ever deeper love of God and neighbor, a love of God expressed by loving our neighbor, especially the one in greatest need. As the words of his prophetic homilies continue to echo from the past to the present, he urges us onward: “Adelante!”

Romero’s legacy—including but not limited to the two unfinished Masses in March 1980—reminds us: “Each one of you has to be a microphone for God” knowing that “no one can kill the voice of justice.”


Remembering the UCA Martyrs: The Costliness of Jesuit Education

I’ll never forget standing in the rose garden at the UCA—the Jesuit university of El Salvador—and being hit with the costliness of Jesuit education. On November 16, 1989, six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper Elba, and her teenage daughter Celina, were dragged out of bed in the middle of the night, taken into the courtyard of the Jesuit residence, and murdered. This barbaric event followed fifteen years of death threats issued against the Jesuit community plus countless letters, phone calls, and radio announcements calling for the expulsion or murder of the Jesuits. Bombs had been placed around the UCA campus more than a dozen times in the preceding fifteen years—in the library, printing press, and computer center—to discourage and destabilize the Jesuits’ approach to education. The Jesuits’ call to end the civil war through dialogue and a commitment to peace was perceived as a betrayal and a threat to those in power. The Jesuits refused to be silenced. They paid the price with their lives. And this week, we remember them.

I return to El Salvador this week to commemorate the life and death of Joaquin Lòpez y Lòpez (age 70), Ignacio Ellacuría (age 59), Segundo Montes (age 56), Juan Ramón Moreno (age 56), Amando Lòpez (age 53), Ignacio Martín-Baró (age 47), Elba (age 42) and Celina (age 15) Ramos (the women stayed the night in the Jesuit residence because they thought it was safer than venturing home and they were killed following a military directive to “leave no witnesses”). This week delegates from several AJCU institutions will learn what these eight people lived and died for. We will reflect and pray with photographs of their bloodied bodies, wincing at the brain matter strewn over the grass, an intentional act to warn against the “danger” of being “subversive” like these scholars, teachers, and pastors. We will gather in silence in the rose garden, where bushes covered in blooms signal new life and hope: resurrection triumphs over violence and death. I am in awe of what the Jesuits sacrificed in love for the people they taught and served.

The Jesuits died in solidarity with 75,000 Salvadorans who were threatened, tortured, and killed during the civil war lasting from 1979 to 1992. This war was propped up by $4.5 billion in aid from the United States, with many soldiers trained at Ft. Benning in Georgia. Some analysts suggest the Jesuits’ death helped spur the end of the civil war, since it garnered international attention and a Congressional investigation led by Rep. Jim McGovern. The Stations of the Cross in the UCA chapel depict the crucified people of El Salvador enduring a brutality that Jesus unmasked and intended to end by his own suffering and death. In reflecting on the death of his Jesuit brothers, Jon Sobrino explains that the Jesuits were killed because they challenged the idols of wealth and power, interfering “with the idols by telling the truth about the situation [of the ordinary Salvadorans, the poor and oppressed], analyzing its causes, and proposing better solutions.” Sobrino adds, “This is essential work for a university and central to our faith. If I have learned anything during these years in El Salvador, it is that the world in which we live is simultaneously a world of death and a world of lies.…These Jesuits wanted to free the truth from the slavery imposed on it by oppressors, cast light on lies, bring justice in the midst of oppression, hope in the midst of discouragement, love in the midst of indifference, repression, and hatred. That is why they were killed.”

As a professor at a Jesuit university, I wonder how well we honor the legacy of the UCA martyrs. What are the idols in our cultural context that we need to unmask and destroy? What lies keep people from embracing their inherent dignity and freedom? What are the chief obstacles to hope, love, and justice? Are we living up to the “higher standards” for Jesuit higher education, as articulated by Dean Brackley, a Jesuit who volunteered to serve in El Salvador as a successor to the Jesuits who were killed? Do our Jesuit schools and universities put prestige above solidarity? Are our college budgets driven more by basketball operations or a robust bottom line than by making our institutions accessible to all, especially those who may not be able to afford tuition? Are we more focused on national rankings and reputations than social analysis and social (and ecological) responsibility? Do our goals and strategies focus more on currying favor among parents and alumni (to secure donations) than the unending conversion to ever more transformational love? Yes, Jesuit education should aim for excellence (academic excellence is needed to solve complex social problems, Peter-Hans Kolvenbach would remind us), but Jesuit education is about much more than ensuring rigor or assessing outcomes; it is about humanization, reconciliation, and liberation. The Jesuit value of magis is not about doing or having more, but creating a world that more closely reflects God’s hope for the fullness of life for all, aspiring toward a truly global common good. As Dean Brackley proposed, the measure of our success lies in who our students become, evidenced by their “downward mobility” in showing up to the marginalized and excluded, taking responsibility for healing a broken and sinful world.

In his 1982 commencement address at Santa Clara University, Ignacio Ellacuría, the president of the UCA and primary target in the November 1989 attack, proclaimed:

We as an intellectual community must analyze causes; use imagination and creativity together to discover the remedies to our problems; communicate to our constituencies a consciousness that inspires the freedom of self-determination; educate professionals with a conscience, who will be the immediate instruments of such a transformation; and constantly hone an educational institution that is both academically excellent and ethically oriented … A Christian university must take into account the gospel preference for the poor … the university should be present intellectually where it is needed: to provide science for those without science; to provide skills for those without skills; to be a voice for those without voices; to give intellectual support for those who do not possess the academic qualifications to make their rights legitimate.

This vision of Jesuit education is what the world needs today. Too many people think that college is a commodity, reducing it to preparation for a profession, a hoop to jump through to land a job. Some people are more interested in “return on investment” than the process of education that sparks and shapes personal development, critical and creative thinking, and social transformation. In a time of rising social fragility and fragmentation, we need people living as witnesses to Jesuit values like cura personalis, “women and men for and with others,” and serving a “faith that does justice.” We need people who do more than look for faith, hope, and love; we need people who become sources of faith, hope, and love in their everyday lives.

This is why it is so important to remember the UCA martyrs, who were not simply fated to suffer a cruel death. They were people like you and me who put love in action. Sobrino describes his Jesuit brothers as men of spirit, men of service, and men of courage. The Jesuits worked tirelessly to meet the needs of the Salvadorans because they genuinely loved the Salvadoran people. He reflects, “they believed in a God of life, who favored the poor.” True to the Jesuit charism of “seeking God in all things,” they found God everywhere, and especially “hidden in the suffering face of the poor…in the crucified people.” He adds, “They also found God in those acts of resurrection, great and small, by the poor. And in this God of the lowly—God ever littler—they found the God who is ever greater, the true inexhaustible mystery, which impelled them along untrodden ways and to ask what had to be done.” Sobrino recounts, “They saw the poor from God’s point of view and walked with them toward God.” For this reason, they were not only “contemplatives in action” in the typical sense, but “contemplatives in action for justice” so that those deprived dignity, rights, and the fullness of life would not continue to be ignored, silenced, and trampled. The Jesuits were killed “because they had become the critical conscience in a society of sin.” They could not be intimidated or threatened into conformity, silence, or inaction.

Thirty years later, we remember the legacy of the Jesuits’ fidelity, love, and commitment to peace. But it is not enough to remember how they lived or died; we should emulate their spirit, service, and courage. We should join their fight for truth, justice, and freedom. We should share in their willingness to endure persecution. We should be partners in mission as agents of humanization, reconciliation, and liberation. We should settle for nothing less than personal and social transformation. This is what it means to embrace the costliness of love.

 

* Quoted material is from: Jon Sobrino, Witnesses to the Kingdom: The Martyrs of El Salvador and the Crucified Peoples (Orbis, 2003), 58-97.


How to Really Understand the Parable of the Good Samaritan

This Sunday’s Gospel (Luke 10:25-37) might be Jesus’ best-known story. How many times have you heard the phrase, “Good Samaritan”? Even non-Christians know the term suggests someone who is kind, generous, or brave. But few of us fully understand – much less live up to – the demands of Jesus’ teaching. Here are 10 things we too often miss in this story:

  • This is no ordinary story: A lawyer asks Jesus, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” There is no question more important for a Jewish person to ask. This story is not just one among others; it stands with Matthew 25:31-46 as essential for salvation. As Jesus makes clear in this story, when it comes to eternal life, what matters isn’t what one knows or believes, but what one does or fails to do.
  • Love God by loving your neighbor: The lawyer answers his own question: the way to eternal life is loving God and our neighbors (Luke 10:27). Or, another way of saying this is: we love God by loving our neighbors. Dorothy Day puts a finer point on this: “You love God as much as the one you love the least.” Jesus responds to the lawyer, “Do this and you will live” (Lk 10:28). It’s not enough to know this; you have to do it.
  • Who is my neighbor? is the wrong question: The lawyer pushes further. He asks, “Who is my neighbor?” a question that we might take for granted. But this is a limit-seeking question. It aims to identify the non-neighbor, the one beyond my moral obligation. In other words, the lawyer wants to know: who are the ones I’m not expected to love like I love God? Jesus takes this question and turns it on its head. He does this in two ways: first, by using a Samaritan in the story (see #6) and second, by changing the question around: “Who was neighbor to the robbers’ victim?” (Lk 10:36). The lawyer views neighbor as an object, the recipient of duty. Jesus views neighbor as a proactively loving subject. Who is my neighbor? is the wrong question to ask. Instead, we should ask: What kind of neighbor am I? or To whom am I a neighbor?
  • Move from judgment to compassion: Jesus tells the story of a man traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho, the only parable with a specific geographic location. Why? Because the road to Jericho was notoriously unsafe. It descended from the heights of Jerusalem via switchback curves, ideal for ambush. In other words, Jesus’ audience had no sympathy for the man who was beaten, stripped, robbed, and left for dead. He was a fool to travel the road alone; he got what was coming to him. Jesus tells the story banking on his audience’s contempt for the robbers’ victim, seeking to replace that judgment with compassion.
  • Confront the sin of indifference: Jesus says a priest and Levite see the robbers’ victim but “pass by on the opposite side” of the road. In other words, they create more distance between themselves and the man left for dead. These religious leaders were charged with loving their neighbor (Leviticus 19:18, which the lawyer cites in Luke 10:27) but fail. Maybe they were running late, thinking about their to-do list, or more concerned about remaining pure for their ritual tasks. Whatever the case, nothing should come before showing concern for someone left for dead. Pope Francis cites the priest and Levite as examples of the “globalization of indifference.” Whenever we think “that’s not my problem” or “they don’t belong to me,” we’re acting more like the priest and Levite than the Samaritan.
  • “Good Samaritan” makes no sense: We know this story so well that once we hear the word “Samaritan,” we know the hero arrives on the scene. But for Jesus’ audience, a Samaritan was the most despised outcast they could imagine. It’s hard to come up with a contemporary analogy, but a modern-day Samaritan would have to be the kind of person who would make your stomach turn and your skin crawl. This is the last person on earth you would imagine Jesus to endorse.
  • These kinds of actions matter: The Samaritan’s actions receive more detailed description than anyone else in the gospels, aside from Jesus. Why? Because Jesus is describing what it means to be a neighbor: to act with courage (going into the ditch, where the Samaritan could’ve been ambushed), compassion (this is what moves the Samaritan to offer assistance – a visceral reaction to another who is suffering), generosity (the oil and wine to heal his wounds and the payment for his recovery at the inn), and boundary-breaking solidarity (enlisting others in his care, showing that we’re in this together, even though the Samaritan would’ve been received with suspicion if not hostility at the inn).
  • Do what you can, where you are: The Samaritan wasn’t out looking for people to help. And he doesn’t quit his job or abandon his family in order to make the road to Jericho safe for other travelers. He saw someone in need, went out of his way and into the ditch to ease his suffering, and went on his way. This isn’t a story about a superhero; it’s a story about doing what you can – no more and no less. Everyone can and should be like the Samaritan.
  • Mercy is who God is and what God wants: When Jesus turns the question around, asking the lawyer, “Who was neighbor to the robber’s victim?” the lawyer is so embarrassed that he can’t bring himself to say “Samaritan.” So instead, the lawyer responds, “The one who treated him with mercy” (Luke 10:37). This reflects a central theme in Scripture: mercy is who God is (Exodus 34:6) and what God wants (Luke 6:36). Put differently: our piety or holiness is measured by our mercifulness.
  • Do likewise: Jesus ends the story by saying, “Go and do likewise.” He doesn’t say, “Go and do exactly the same thing” or “go and do this once in a while.” Too many people think that being a “Good Samaritan” means volunteering, doing random acts of kindness, or helping strangers in an emergency. This is not why Jesus tells this story (especially not a story framed by inheriting eternal life). Rather, Jesus teaches his followers to apply the Samaritan’s courage, compassion, generosity, and boundary-breaking solidarity in their everyday life. What would the world be like if we thought the state of our soul were determined by our consistent emulation of the Samaritan?

With this story, Jesus issues a radical challenge to his followers: there are no non-neighbors. There is no one you can write off as “other” or “outsider” or “outcast.” We have to shatter the illusion that keeps us from seeing that we belong to each other. As Fr. Greg Boyle, SJ reminds us, “There is no ‘us’ and ‘them’ – only ‘us.’”

This is a tall order. Especially in a time of hyperpartisanship where winning is seen as more important than a shared commitment to the common good. Political polarization reinforces an “us versus them” tribalism that has nine in ten Americans saying the nation is more divided now than at any point in their lifetime. In a 2018 poll, roughly half of Democrats described Republicans as ignorant (54%) and spiteful (44%) while a similar proportion of Republicans described Democrats as ignorant (49%) and spiteful (54%). 61% of Democrats labeled Republicans racist, sexist, or bigoted while 31% of Republicans applied these terms to Democrats. Perhaps most concerning of all, more than twenty percent of Republicans (23%) and Democrats (21%) called members of the other party “evil.” Only four percent of both parties think the other side is fair and even fewer describe them as thoughtful or kind. We have normalized the demonization of people on the other side of the party aisle, making it harder to recognize that we belong to each other, rely on each other, and will ultimately be judged by how we treat each other.

Social fragmentation and fragility continues: by sex, gender, and sexual orientation; by class and creed; by ethnicity and race; by nationality and legal status; by age and ability, etc. A few examples: Christians are more than twice as likely as non-Christians to blame the poor for their financial struggles, a judgment that creates distance from them. Half of Catholics say the U.S. does not have a responsibility to welcome refugees (despite Pope Francis’ global “Share the Journey” campaign). Only 31% of Republicans say that migrants from Central America should be able to seek asylum in the U.S. (which is a legal right) and 62% of Republicans approve the way that migrants are being treated at the border, even though conditions are so gruesome that 24 people have died in the custody of immigration officials. Manufactured fear ascribes disease, crime, and violence to migrants without basis in fact. It is used to justify cruelty in separating families, indefinitely detaining children in cages, and threatening deportation raids that inflict terror and trauma on countless people seeking the same things we want: peace and security.

Dehumanizing rhetoric and shrinking understandings of what we owe each other contribute to what Pope Francis calls a “throwaway culture.” We disregard those we see as different, as other, as not belonging to us. But the example of the Samaritan resists throwaway culture; instead of discarding others in need, he draws near them. The Samaritan replaces judgment with compassion, fear with courage, self-interest with generosity, and separation with solidarity.

What keeps us from going out of our way and into the ditch, to care for those who have been beaten, stripped, robbed, and left for dead? What keeps us from speaking up for the poor and marginalized, being their advocate and ally? What keeps us from drawing near those we consider “other” or outside our network of belonging?

If we call ourselves Christians, then we have to evaluate the depth of our commitment to “Go and do likewise” (Luke 10:37). Not just once in a while or in an emergency, but wherever we are, however we can – no more and no less. Because how we treat others (including those we might dislike or even despise) is how we treat God.


Migrants Are Fighting for Survival

In 2005 and 2006, my wife and I led a group of high school and college students to Guatemala for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. We learned about Mayan culture and what refugees endured during a 36-year civil war, and we saw firsthand the widespread poverty, unemployment, and other social problems (substance abuse, domestic violence, gang activity, lack of access to health care, etc.) that made people desperate enough to leave their homes and flee northward—knowing all the dangers they’d likely encounter along the way (extortion, kidnapping, torture, sexual assault are all more likely than not). In recent days, we learned that a seven-year-old girl, Jakelin, died in the custody of Customs and Border Protection, and she was from Raxruhá, a town we visited on those trips.

I remember asking one parent how he persisted in the face of so much suffering, and so many reasons to despair. He looked me in the eyes and said plainly, “Hay que luchar.”

“You have to fight.”

Who among us wouldn’t do everything in our power for our children? That’s what these families are doing in the migrant caravan: they’re fighting for survival. The President and his accomplices are manufacturing fear (of violence, disease, crime, etc.) so that Americans turn their backs on the humanitarian crisis at the border. Christians cannot succumb to fear or indifference. We are commanded over and over again to love others as we have been loved—without stipulations, such as those that rely on legal technicalities—and in fact, love is the measure by which we shall be judged (Mt 25:31-46).

That is why I wrote this recent reflection on the subject. If you haven’t read it, I’d ask that you give it a few minutes of your time, and if you have and you agree with its conclusions, perhaps you could share it with someone you think would benefit from thinking about how we can more courageously and compassionately respond to this modern-day Exodus event.


Learning and Living Magis

I am the product of 14 years of Jesuit education. I see the world through the lenses of Cura Personalis and “Women and Men for and with Others.” I am who I am because of Jesuits – and many lay partners in mission – aspiring to be ever more attentive and responsive to God’s activity in the world.

The Jesuits didn’t teach me what to think, but how to think. We read challenging texts, learned how to account for our biases and presuppositions, considered arguments from a number of perspectives, and engaged in lively debates about issues that matter for human dignity, loving and just communities, and the common good. We learned to see faith and reason as complementary rather than competing, much like religion and science. My eyes were opened to the grandeur of creation and my responsibility to help take care of it. I was fortunate to have teachers and mentors who saw great potential in me, challenged and encouraged me, and motivated me to use my interests and abilities AMDG (Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam), for the Greater Glory of God.

We learned about the Jesuit ideal magis, which I understood as “striving for the more.” For a long time, my favorite quote – attributed to Saint Ignatius of Loyola – was: “Pray as if everything depends on God. Work as if everything depends on you.” (Later, a Jesuit would kindly mention to me that this line likely inverts what Ignatius intended to communicate.) Magis inspired me to maximize every opportunity and experience. Never be complacent. Never settle. Always aim for more.

But magis isn’t about the best, the most, or the greatest. It can’t be reduced (as it often is) to banal or bourgeois terms like generosity or excellence. Magis actually gets distorted when we conflate it with doing more. Magis is more about being than doing, and more interested in becoming than achieving.

* * *

One of the most formative experiences of my life happened in a garbage dump in the Dominican Republic. I was 17 years old and part of a team of 10 students who raised funds to build a school for a rural community. To prepare for our time in the campo, we learned about Dominican culture in the capital city, Santo Domingo. We visited a lighthouse built to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ landing on the island, and right after that, we took a trip to the city dump. I didn’t understand why we were driving through these piles of garbage, until I began to see that people were living there. In the garbage. Our Jesuit teacher, Fr. Brennan, explained that these people used to live where the lighthouse stood, but their housing was demolished to build the tourist attraction, and the local government provided them no assistance to relocate, so many families were forced to make their homes among other people’s refuse.  I don’t think I’ve ever felt so distant from other people as I did in that moment: me, a white, middle-class boy from the suburbs of Milwaukee, driving in an air-conditioned van while other people look through garbage for anything they can eat, use, or sell. Then Fr. Brennan stopped the van and told us to get out.  We opened the van doors and were hit with a wave of heat, smoke, and stench. The dump was called “Cien Fuegos” because it was perpetually on fire, in order to make room for more garbage. The heat and stench were sickening. But we weren’t able to dwell on it for long because in seconds, we were tackled by children who lived there: kids wearing rags who hugged us like we were old friends.  We were human jungle gyms for the next few hours, holding kids by their hands and swinging them in circles, playing tag, and acting like we were family.

Eventually, a man approached Fr. Brennan and asked him if he would bless his home. So we walked through the garbage, greeting people as they hunted for anything of value amid the smoldering trash. When we reached the man’s home, we saw it was a small cave in a hill of garbage. He invited us into his tiny shelter, just room enough for some towels, linens, and clothes – where he and his family slept – and there was a table, a chair, and a framed picture of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. The same image that was hanging on the wall of my home parish.

I’m ashamed to admit this, but it took that image of Jesus for me to recognize God’s presence in the garbage dump, in the people that we had met. I have long thought about that icon and what it’s like for Jesus to look through that image at us, a world marred by divisions and unjust inequalities, as well as what Pope Francis calls “the globalization of indifference” at the suffering of so many of our brothers and sisters. The man who invited us into his home grabbed our hands and said, “Hermanos, rezemos.” (Brothers, let us pray.) Magis is the power to shatter the illusion that we are separate from each other, even when it looks like we’re living worlds apart.

* * *

The meaning of magis is complex. In a thorough study of magis in the Jesuit heritage, Rev. Barton Geger, SJ suggests the best translation of magis is “the more universal good.” This definition can be traced all the way back to Saint Ignatius, who advised the early members of the Jesuits to discern how their choices could be guided toward what is most conducive to the “greater service of God and the universal good.” Magis is inseparable from the unofficial motto of the Society of Jesus, Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam (often abbreviated as AMDG), which means “for the Greater Glory of God.” Geger explains that the “glory of God” refers to “God’s truth, beauty, wisdom, and power becoming evident to human beings.” Truth, beauty, and wisdom not only bring us closer to God, they also make us more fully human. For this reason, it might also help to recall Saint Irenaeus of Lyon’s claim that the “glory of God is the human person fully alive.” In this way, AMDG or magis implies a call to work for the fullness of life for all, the conditions that allow individual persons and communities to flourish. Magis is a religious and moral responsibility to defend human dignity, deliver on human rights and responsibilities, and dedicate ourselves to the common good of all.

Standing in that garbage dump, I more fully grasped how magis is tied to solidarity and justice. If we take seriously the claim that God is our Source and our Destiny, this makes us siblings with every other person on the planet (past, present, and future). Moreover, this means that we are all equals in the eyes of God; those children searching through garbage for anything they can eat, use, or sell have the same share of dignity as I do. Magis reminds us there is no “us” and “them” – only us. The “greater good” is the good that includes everyone, leaving out no one. This isn’t a utilitarian position that calculates the trade-offs between what is good for the many at the expense of the few. That risks trampling over the equal dignity, rights, and hopes of those who may not have as much privilege, power, or opportunity. It usually pits the weak against the strong and does little to dissolve the categories of “us” and “them.”

As Fr. Gregory Boyle, SJ suggests in his most recent book, Barking to the Choir, magis “refers to an affection for God,” a “devotion” that takes the shape of a “pervasive familiarity and union with God, a desire to want what God wants.” God’s heart must break to see precious little ones with no choice but to live in that garbage dump in Santo Domingo, surrounded by squalor, deprived of not only dignity, but freedom. The same is true for anyone denied dignity and freedom, those who are discriminated against or excluded because of their race or ethnicity, social status or economic class, sex, gender or sexual orientation, physical or intellectual ability, mental health, religion, or age.

It’s not enough to lament the state of our unjust world; we have to discover the root causes – the sinful choices and systems that exclude and oppress – so that we can prevent and solve these problems. This is what it means to desire what God wants, and this is the purpose of Jesuit education. Fr. Jon Sobrino, SJ attests, “To believe in God is not just to love life, but to work so there is life.” God wants life in fullness (John 10:10) for each and every person. Jesuit education cannot be reduced to acquiring knowledge or preparing for a profession; it is training to become more aware of reality so that we can take responsibility for transforming it.

Rev. Peter-Hans Kolvenbach SJ, the former Superior General of the Jesuits, described his vision of student formation in this way:

You are called by the Society of Jesus to be men and women who reflect upon the reality of this world around you with all its ambiguities, opportunities, and challenges, to discern what is really happening in your life and in the lives of others, to find God there and to discover where God is calling you, to employ criteria for significant choices that reflect godly values rather than narrow, exclusive self-interest, to make decisions in the light of what is truly for the greater glory of God and the service of those in need, and then to act accordingly.

This view of Jesuit education provides a fundamental horizon of meaning (to be in relationship with God), calls each of us to be partners in mission (for inclusive human flourishing in justice), and empowers us to think, speak, and act with moral responsibility For the Greater Glory of God. Magis reminds us that who we are is God’s gift to us, and our gift back to God is what we do with who we are, especially when we work for justice for those deprived dignity, rights, and freedom. Pope Francis discusses magis as “the fire, the fervor of action, that rouses us from slumber.” It is what drives us “to leave an imprint or mark in history, especially in the lives of the smallest.”

This is not an easy mentality to maintain. We’re bombarded with images and messages that convince us that self-interest is best, that we should view others as competitors for scarce resources and fear vulnerability. This makes it easier to close ourselves off to others or create distance, reinforcing categories of “us” and “them,” those who we can care about and trust and those we can disregard or distrust. Worse, we’re told that the poor deserve their fate because they’re lazy or just want to cheat the system – which couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s far easier to judge other people than try to understand them. But judgment won’t bring change. As Fr. Boyle writes, “We are at our healthiest when we are most situated in awe, and at our least healthy when we engage in judgment. Judgment creates the distance that moves us away from each other. Judgment keeps us in the competitive game and is always self-aggrandizing. Standing at the margins with the broken reminds us not of our own superiority but of our own brokenness. Awe is the great leveler. The embrace of our own suffering helps us to land on a spiritual intimacy with ourselves and others. For if we don’t welcome our own wounds, we will be tempted to despise the wounded.”

Magis implies humility, the grace to know the truth about ourselves, the whole truth that includes our strengths and weaknesses. It means being authentic instead of trying to impress. It requires that we accept ourselves and others, that we practice patience and trust, courage and compassion. Instead of fearing vulnerability, it demands it, because without vulnerability, it’s impossible to accept ourselves and others, be open to learning and growing, and cultivate relationships of mutual respect and responsibility. Magis invites us to build communities that are ever more inclusive and equitable. In the face of so much division, distrust, and despair, magis means asking ourselves if we can really imagine belonging to each other, even across real differences.

Many of us might be at a loss for how we can reach those on the other side, but Fr. Boyle suggests that we first ask ourselves if we’re willing to be reached by them.  He explains:

We always seem to be faced with this choice: to save the world or savor it. I want to propose that savoring is better, and that when we seek to ‘save’ and ‘contribute’ and ‘give back’ and ‘rescue’ folks and EVEN ‘make a difference,’ then it is all about you … and the world stays stuck … The good news, of course, is that when we choose to ‘savor’ the world, it gets saved. Don’t set out to change the world. Set out to wonder how people are doing … stop trying to reach them. Can YOU be reached by THEM?  Folks on the margins only ask us to receive them.

What would it take to make ourselves available to others we have trouble understanding?  Take, for example, rising racial tensions in our country. Surveys show that white people don’t fully understand what people of color experience in this country, how the pervasive and pernicious effects of racism extend from personal bias to systematic segregation and injustice. It’s worth considering that a study found that three-quarters of white Americans didn’t have a single black friend and that two-thirds of African Americans didn’t have a single white friend. How can we build empathy and understanding across the color line (or the class line or party line) if we don’t know what it’s like to be something other than me? Magis moves us out of our comfort zone, not just so we encounter others who are different from us, but so that we realize our good is bound up with the good of others. In the work for justice, we don’t choose to have skin in the game; we have skin in the game because we belong to each other. Our humanity is diminished when we become numb to the suffering of others, when we accept injustice as inevitable, and excuse ourselves from showing up, speaking out, or stepping in. As Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in his Letter from Birmingham City Jail, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

* * *

When I was in college, I had the opportunity to spend some time with Archbishop Desmond Tutu. He shared about his experiences fighting apartheid in the pursuit of peace and reconciliation so that we could be leaders in this kind of work in the world. He stated, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” Tutu continued, “If an elephant is standing on the tail of a mouse, your neutrality does nothing to help the mouse.” Justice is not a fight for any one individual on his or her own; instead, we should think of justice like an orchestra: it takes many hands and each one of us has an instrument to play. I remember being a little disheartened by the metaphor because I have no musical talent and the rhythm of a tree stump. But Tutu exhorted each one of us to figure out what role we have to play in the orchestra of justice. He told us to find our passion and make that our instrument – even if it’s the triangle. Then play the hell out of the triangle for justice, he told us.

What makes an orchestra great is not just what each musician is doing on his or her own, but the effect produced by each member playing together. If someone were left out, the orchestra would be impoverished. The image of the orchestra reminds us that not only do we need each other to do what we can’t on our own, but life is more beautiful when it is shared through the gifts each person has to bring.

Magis isn’t about the best, the most, or the greatest. It’s not an exhortation to give more generously, raise our standards for excellence, or add more items to our to-do list. Magis is less about doing for others – especially when it is inspired by the white savior complex – than it is about being with others. This is how we come to better understand who people are, what they most deeply desire, and how we can partner with them to work toward that end. Not to be the voice of the voiceless (which may be well-intended but can nonetheless be paternalistic), but to be advocates, allies, and accomplices in the work for justice and peace.

My time in the garbage dump in Santo Domingo stays with me. It shaped my trajectory for what I studied in college and the clubs I joined. It inspired me to pursue graduate school and study ethics, especially in the tradition of Catholic social teaching that highlights inherent human dignity and responsibilities to the common good. It is part of my vocation: how I understand my purpose in life, what I most deeply desire, and what I’m willing to endure. It’s a major reason I’m passionate about teaching theology at Xavier University and it also extends beyond my job; it shapes the kind of husband, father, friend, and family member I want to be. I don’t just feel like I belong to the people I met in the Dominican Republic. I feel accountable to them. If we were to trade places, I often wonder, what would they do with my education and opportunities? How much good could they do with my salary or social media networks? What are the kinds of things they would hope that I think, feel, say, and do?

* * *

Magis is about being the kind of person who contemplates who God is and what God wants and who acts to be ever more attentive and responsive to participating with God in making this reality here and now. (Ignatius would approve this integration of contemplation and action and surely magis is a worthy goal for our ongoing formation as “contemplatives in action.”) If we belong to each other, then the “greater good” is a matter of interdependence and solidarity, not a cost-benefit-analysis based on self-interest or the greatest good for the greatest number. Magis requires careful discernment in order to pursue what will promote greater dignity, freedom, and responsibility for ourselves and others – or what will alleviate the suffering of others. It is allergic to the popular phrase, “I do me, you do you” which makes tolerance and nonjudgmentalism the greatest goods. Justice will not be accomplished by merely tolerating the existence of others; “live and let live” just as easily becomes “live and let die” or “live and let suffer.” Instead, magis guides our careful work to identify, analyze, and apply the beliefs and values, practices and relationships, systems and structures that ensure everyone has adequate access to the rights and duties necessary to flourish. This is, after all, what God wants.

Magis is learning and living in order to become more fully aware of reality so that we can take responsibility for transforming it. This is how we help realize what Jesus called the “reign of God,” or God’s dream for creation: the fullness of life for all. This is the gift and task of the Jesuit tradition we have inherited and must now pass on to others. AMDG


Manufactured Fear vs. the Christian Call to Solidarity: Failing to Bother to Love

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 aidnot 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.