The Bible tells Christians to love their neighbors as they love themselves. But who is their neighbor? The man next door? Yes. The people who live across town? Surely. Those who live in another part of their country? Okay. People from another country who want to settle in their country? Erm…
And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.” But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’ Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.”
-Luke 10:25-37 ESV
The dilemmas posed by or facilitated by our modern world are vexing. The authors of the Bible could not anticipate a world in which human beings could create clones, build nuclear weapons, or move by the millions across the planet. While Rod Dreher has phrased his moral question in a way that invites heckling because it is virtually identical to that of the lawyer looking to justify himself before Jesus, he does identify a serious and difficult ethical dilemma: in a world where many Christians have the power to work and pray without ever leaving their homes or abandon their families to live on the other side of the world, how do we properly steward our resources and order our loves? What role do religion and nationality play in helping us understand our obligations to our fellow human beings? And finally, as Rod asks, “To what extent does charity require self-sacrifice?”
Neighbor, Culture, and Nation
We can begin with the question of nations, borders, and limited resources. As Christians, we do owe to Caesar what is Caesar’s and we ought not encourage lawbreaking unless it is in service to a higher law. However, the moral weight of national integrity is not particularly strong otherwise from a natural law or Biblical perspective. A very large portion of Scripture is dedicated to telling the stories of people who were migrating from one place to another, and the parts of the Old Testament that do speak highly of borders and walls describe God’s chosen people at an ebb in their military power keeping malicious invaders out so that they can survive as a people. Nehemiah, who demands that the rich sacrifice their profits to help their countrymen and fends off foreign-sponsored intrigue, is far more analogous to San Oscar Romero than to any current or former American president.
The defense of Israel’s borders in the Old Testament is intimately linked to the protection of Israel as God’s chosen people from outside nations and the judgment of God upon those nations, a theme that is transformed by the Great Commission as the Church becomes a kingdom of priests taking the Gospel to the outside nations. Our calling as believers is to proclaim the Gospel in word and deed, and we cannot disciple our children as Christians unless we are practicing that proclamation.
From a natural law and theological perspective, the issue is more straightforward but still limited. People are limited in their capacity to love, and we are born into families and communities that we are called to love first and foremost because of our proximity to them. God also created us in our different nations in order to glorify and enjoy him; the plurality of people glorify God with different ways of understanding and worshiping him. We are also able to better love and evangelize people with whom we share a culture and language.
These ends of our cultural differences guide our understanding of their value; one’s love for one’s nation is not an extension of one’s love for family or immediate neighbors so much as it is a love for other human beings that one is better equipped to love. Our love for our countrymen doesn’t occupy a particularly hallowed ethical space that automatically supersedes other loves. Matthew 25 and Galatians 6:10 would suggest that if one has any particular obligation to any other human being more than another, a person in need takes precedence over a person who is not in need and a fellow Christian of any nationality takes precedence over a person of shared nationality who is not a believer.
The other obvious and natural aspect of nations and cultures is that they change, and quite often do so through migration. History demonstrates that the integrity of a nation’s border or a people’s culture is flexible, responding to both internal and external pressures. People have migrated for the sake of greater economic and personal security long before national borders as we know them gained anything resembling ethical force.
Indeed, it feels quite silly to say from any natural law or Biblical perspective that the defense of a national border is somehow more important than a man feeding his family or protecting them from murderers. The only thing that ought to hold us back is the prudence of how many people can be reasonably accommodated and how to keep the internal and external pressures of change balanced so that the pace of change is tolerable by the people (both migrants and hosts) experiencing it.
People and the nations they constitute do have natural limits that must be respected. Consider the problem not from the perspective of the receiving nation but those who are fleeing: a refugee crisis is a crisis because people are not interchangeable and do not want to be. The pain and costs of migrating from one country or culture to another are quite real, and more so when this migration is forced. What we understand as “open borders” as a policy solution is wholly unfair to those fleeing insecurity because this often leaves behind those who cannot or do not want to leave their homes.
Thus, while prudence could lead national leaders to find limits to immigration for the sake of their citizens, it also urges us to find ways such that people all over the Earth can be born in a place where they will be not be subject to violence and not feel as though they must leave in order to eat and feel secure. When facing a crisis like we are now, it is all the more incumbent on those of us who are concerned about the pressures of migration to press for support and development in the places where people are migrating from so that people can enjoy healthy lives there.
Christianity and Civilization
Related to all of this is the question of “civilization”. While family, nation, and even culture may be categories understood by the Bible and natural law, it is difficult to say the same about “civilization”, which is even more amorphous a category than “nation” or “culture”. It is first necessary to distinguish “Western Civilization” from “whiteness”, since racism and white supremacy have long cloaked their ambitions in a respectable veneer of “defending Western Civilization” and it is thus easy to confuse whiteness with Western civilization or American nationality.
Whiteness is not a culture, for it is transnational and transcultural — it is an ideology, and one that has only ever been used to harm at that. The fact that nonwhite people were for a long time excluded legally from full participation in American public life has only reinforced the subtle tendency to treat nonwhite Americans as not truly American. The only hope that Christians have for battling racism is not to play footsie with it while we fulminate about “invaders”, but to recognize white supremacy as one of the evil powers and principalities that Christians must actively resist.
Couching one’s criticism of an enormous group of dark-skinned people with a phrase like “it’s their culture” and trying to hedge by saying that some of them might become “good American citizens” is a bait-and-switch version of racism — the racial equivalent of saying Christians aren’t homophobic, but their traditional doctrines are. Besides, as soon as you blink you’ll get people coming out of the woodwork to note “demographic” correlations. This is how racism works: a small number of people actually carry out unjustified violence and theft against another race while everyone else talks about how this just wouldn’t happen if the people of that race just learned to behave appropriately. It happened during times of slavery, it happened when ISIS ran the American South, and it is happening today. The effects, thank God, are less brutal but the process is still the same.
The nature of “defending Western Civilization” becomes even more untenable as the world changes. Are we defending Western Civilization’s current obsession with sexual libertinism by keeping out Africans and Central Americans who believe that marriage ought to be between a man and a woman or that abortion is murder? If you empathize more with a rich white man in Germany than a poor Christian mother at the border, that’s not civilization but white supremacy. The cultural friction of large-scale migration is real and requires prudence, but speaking of these largely Christian peoples as “invaders” is moral midgetry.
Just as foolish is neglecting the historical context of these migrations, such as the atrocities that were committed in living memory or decisions that were made in recent generations. Discussing the insecurity without wanting to hear about colonialism is like asking why we have a crisis of discipleship now without wanting to hear about the Enlightenment.
The corrupt governance and “tribalism” of many nations outside of the developed West can be directly traced to the legacy of colonialism; the justice systems set up in these countries prior to independence were meant to benefit a privileged elite and the only things that changed in the post-colonial era were the last names of the elite. Rich nations spent years extracting resources from these nations (sometimes with extreme brutality) while stoking antagonism and forcing rapid adaptation to the modernist assumptions that are tearing our own culture apart. Then they thoroughly insinuated oligarchic patterns of governance into the national political imagination, followed by a few decades propping up various autocrats that they now have the nerve to tut-tut about.
The local cultures in many of these places, while hardly exemplars of peace or prosperity, were nevertheless adapted to their local environments and appropriately resistant to the idea that someone else should displace their land and annihilate any custom that made life more difficult for colonial interests. Indigenous peoples all over the world had a firehose of liquid modernity turned on in their faces and did their best to adapt.
Some of the things we find unpleasant about these cultures are legacies of colonial exploitation, but others are reactions: whether it is fiercely defending their love for family and tradition or disregarding the customs that attend to modernity. It goes without saying that people who are more effective at resisting modernity are going to look a little off (and perhaps a little earthier) to those of who are are soaking in it.
The factors that have shaped culture and politics across the world are incredibly complex; anyone genuinely interested in learning about them would do well to read books like King Leopold’s Ghost, The Sacrifice of Africa, and The Locust Effect. (Readers, please comment with other books that you would recommend on this topic, particularly on Central America!) Opining about over a billion people based on the impressions one has gotten from the notoriously un-comprehensive news media and a handful of comments is like basing one’s opinion of Christianity on what one reads in Newsweek and the Westboro Baptist Church website. Entire continents — especially those that are full of people who take care of their elders and have a lot of very germane things to say about just how bad liberalism, globalism, and modernism can be — deserve more attention and respect.
Charity and Self-Sacrifice
The final question of what charity requires is the most important. The simplest answer is that every Christian ought to be willing to die for another as Christ died for us, and that the life of Christian love is one of sacrifice even if it is not unto death. Consider the examples of some of the first Christians:
During the Plague in Alexandria when nearly everyone else fled, the early Christians risked their lives for one another by simple deeds of washing the sick, offering water and food, and consoling the dying. Their care was so extensive that Julian eventually tried to copy the church’s welfare system. It failed, however, because for the Christians it was love, not duty, that motivated them.
The first Christians not only took care of their own, but also reached out far beyond themselves. Their faith led to a pandemic (pan = all; demos = people) of love. Consequently, at the risk of their own lives, they saved an immense number of lives. Their elementary nursing greatly reduced mortality. Simple provisions of food and water allowed the sick that were temporarily too weak to cope for themselves to recover instead of perishing miserably.
Everyone will wrestle with conflicting desires in their life. Sometimes this struggle may be between outright sin and honest virtue, but more often it is between two poles of goodness. Parents struggle between nurturing their children and smothering them. Those of us who carry smartphones struggle between using our devices to better our lives and being controlled by them. People working in jobs where they can serve others often struggle between the endless work of caring for people and being a good spouse and parent – or even caring for their own bodies with enough sleep.
Similarly, the problem of migration creates a struggle between loving our neighbors who are slightly farther from while ensuring ourselves, our children, and our proximal neighbors are safe. It is similar to the problem of concentrated poverty in America. For both issues, a change of heart among Christians is necessary if we are to obey God’s directives to love our neighbor. When we welcome refugees, choose to be involved in the lives of the poor, or live in places of concentrated poverty, we run the risk of being hurt or having our children suffer the same malign influences that children who have no choice about where they live suffer. But those are risks that we must take if we are to be faithful to God’s call.
Political crises are not the same as individual encounters with the needy, and every family will have to discern for themselves how to respond. A willingness to sacrifice ourselves, however, is absolutely necessary if we want to be faithful stewards and servants addressing the injustices that have come before and still go on. If anything a political crisis sparked by the suffering of millions requires an even greater and more coordinated response from Christians.
In Dreher’s own words, “[W]e still must look at the past — our past — squarely, and do whatever is right to atone.” Whether that is in regards to American meddling in Central America or the legacy of racism throughout our country, I think he’s exactly right. For now, I’ll only consider the choices that individuals and families can make, but I think this moral reckoning with the past and present will also require supporting policies that decrease the hyper-concentration of poverty and allowing people who fear for their lives into America while we sort out how to best stop the hemorrhaging in their home countries.
Dreher, who has considered this problem before, asks, “This is a call to active compassion, certainly, but does that compassion require people to welcome the poor into their own neighborhood? Does compassion require one to move into a poor, chaotic neighborhood with one’s kids?” Yes, it does! Dreher talks a lot about moral therapeutic deism, a term described by sociologist Christian Smith that describes a belief in God designed to make you feel good without challenging you to submit in obedience to the difficult moral strictures of faith. One of the lies of moral therapeutic deism is that you can worship God but make your foundational choices around where you live based on all the same criteria as your pagan neighbors. And it is the lie of liquid modernity (another one of Dreher’s ideological arch-nemeses) that you can help from afar without sacrificing yourself or that you can close your borders to the people fleeing the violence in their own home countries.
We want to make this process wholly voluntary, an opt-in for those who feel truly called or don’t have young kids. Given our human tendencies to justify ourselves, intentionally choosing to live with and among the poor ought to be an opt-out process and who we choose to reject at the border ought to focus on the people who would pose a violent threat to others. Dreher rightly recognizes some of the dangers that are posed by our hyper-mobile society; we won’t ever be able to ward off those dangers if we don’t resist the geographic and social divisions between rich and poor that modernity has democratized, legitimized, and accelerated. And we have to accept that every moral choice we make will affect all of our neighbors.
I took my young children to West Baltimore and South Sudan along with many other children and anyone else can do the same if they have good support and friends in that place who have already been working to heal their own community for a long time. We also have the resources to welcome many more refugees and immigrants in America; we only need to trust Christ and his love to sustain us as we sacrifice ourselves to welcome people in. This is not about moral heroism; it is a matter of simple obedience to Christ.
Will there be consequences for our fellow Americans if we choose to welcome more people fleeing violence and hunger? Certainly. Such is the nature of living in the world, especially the world as we know it today: there are not many corporate decisions we can make that don’t affect others both near and far. However, these possible effects are hardly certain and do not seem to have the same moral force as saving the lives of people threatened by violence.
America, at least, is large enough and wealthy enough to take in more vulnerable people — and if our nation would somehow be destroyed by receiving tens of thousands more asylum seekers per year, then our nation is probably doomed anyway. But if Christ would truly have us sacrifice ourselves for the sake of our brothers and sisters like the plague survivors did, then truly he will sustain us. It is quite possible, even likely, that by the example of Christians choosing to sacrifice themselves for the sake of vulnerable people that hard hearts will be turned to Christ.
The Camp of the Saints imagines masses of dark-skinned people as a threat to civilization and Christian obedience as weakness; God tells us to join Christ “outside the camp” in humiliation that he may be glorified among all the nations. As our brother James might say, it does no good for our brother born into poverty and violence to wish him well and tell him to stay away from drugs but to shudder in fear when his mother wants to move in next door and his sister wants to play with our kids. It does no good for our sister that we urge her to study hard and not get pregnant when the only person who shows affection for her is a drug dealer five years older. You can scream at the top of your lungs all day long about how awful the culture in Appalachia or the inner city is or Central America is, but that’s just a clanging cymbal until you are willing to share in the pain, risk, and heartache of those broken families.
Dreher’s big idea (which I almost entirely agree with) is the Benedict Option: forming small communities of people committed to loving one another to resist the tidal wave of modernity that is threatening to drown us all in despair and isolation. If we want to survive this tidal wave, we’ll have to do it the places most devastated by it so far. A Benedict Option community that has studied the Bible carefully will rejoice at the news of a subsidized housing project next door as an opportunity to love and serve their neighbors.
By contrast, if we teach our children that it is right and good to actively avoid the people who have been knocked off their fight by the storm surge, we are scraping lead paint off redlined houses onto their formational plates and telling them it’s spiritual food because it tastes sweet to their naturally inclined tongues.
There is a better way — choosing to love our neighbors and bringing our kids along with us. Welcoming the stranger, the alien, and the refugee is difficult. There is a real cost, and there are real questions about the prudence. But it does us no good to talk about our brothers and sisters in Christ as invaders or to work ourselves into indifference with lawyerly questions. Rather, let us cheerfully embrace the personal and corporate sacrifices we need to in order that the Gospel may be proclaimed, the prisoners may be set free, and the hungry may be fed. These sacrifices are expected of those who follow Christ outside the camp no matter the political order — and they are an opportunity to proclaim his love and severity to a world desperate for both.