Throughout history, people have traveled from country to country, trading with one another over long distances, returning home with the goods, habits, and even the idols and religions of far-off peoples. People knew that crossing a border was not a neutral event. They were fearful of change, knowing some changes become assaults on the spheres that define their identity. They expected that the exchanges of goods and ideas would sometimes lead to conflict. Whether they were superficially about religious differences, greed for land and treasure, or lust for power, fundamentally the clashes were always about identity: people fighting to maintain who they were and to reject what they were not.
Our current civilizational clash is also about identity, but the terms of the conflict are different. Though many argue that globalization has improved the world economically, it came with a price that no old-fashioned trade route ever demanded from a people: the breakdown of national barriers. The universal secular ideal assumes that all people are more or less the same, deep down — or would be if they were better informed. Likewise, the modern ideal of a world without borders denies that there are profound differences between peoples. In attempting to break down barriers to bring people together, it denies the validity of the differences that define cultural and individual identity, and demands that they be set aside in the interest of a peaceful, unified, global society. But this denial leads to a far deeper conflict than the acknowledgment of difference ever did.
Invalidating differences invalidates people, diminishing the human person’s dignity and identity. Demanding that Jews and Catholics, for example, conform to an anti-metaphysical social structure does not make them better neighbors. Instead, it breaks the bonds between them and their God, and so between one another. As discussed above, the bond between a person and his God gives that person his foundational identity, on top of which everything else is built. That relationship may look a little different for the Jew and the Catholic, and they may confront obstacles on their way to being neighbors in light of those differences, but their personal identities centered on their relationships with God are absolutely necessary to living peacefully together. And that is because respecting their differences reinforces their human dignity. They become healthier people knowing who they are and what they believe, which leaves them better able to respect and love others who are not like them.
In an anti-metaphysical culture, these differences are denied. And so for devout immigrants, this clash of cultures becomes a personal identity crisis. An immigrant has already left family, community, and state, moving and attempting to adapt to a new community and state. More often than not in the modern world, the immigrant is also crossing a civilizational boundary from a society steeped in metaphysics to one that is disdainful of it. Therefore, in order to assimilate to his new world, most if not all of the spheres that make up his identity must be broken down, including not just his national identity, but also, to some extent, the individual’s relationship with his Creator, of which his national identity is a part. These ties are the very foundation of a believing person’s identity, which is part of why immigration is so wrenching for the individual immigrant.
What this reinforces to me is that no matter how much Western countries may want to be “open” to immigration and being a refuge for those who are in need, it is still profoundly terrible it is that so many people feel the need to leave the land they were born in and their own people in order to feel secure or feed their families. If we in the West do not address the global inequalities that are pushing people to migrate and only focus on welcoming those who make it to a better place, not only are we shrugging off the plight of those who can’t or won’t make these terrible journeys, but we are also demanding that people undergo an incredibly painful process for the sake of basic economic security.
Matthew Loftus teaches and practices Family Medicine in Baltimore and East Africa. His work has been featured in Christianity Today, Comment, & First Things and he is a regular contributor for Christ and Pop Culture. You can learn more about his work and writing at www.MatthewAndMaggie.org