Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Go And Do Likewise: Refugees and the Good Samaritan

Today I saw images from Magnus Wennman's photo project, "Where the Children Sleep." It features photographs of children among the refugees fleeing Syria (about half of the 4 million refugees are children)--images like the two below, each paired with brief stories about the children depicted:

Take the time to scroll through all the images and accompanying narratives. Meditate on their meaning. These children are victims of ISIS and their ilk, victims of extremism and ideological hate, victims of the same agents of terror who attacked Paris on Friday. They are beaten and bloodied, stripped of their homes and possessions, some of them half-dead. They are lying on the side of the road.

And now meditate on these words from Luke 10: 25-37:

25 On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
26 “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”
27 He answered, “‘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, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”
28 “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”
29 But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
30 In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. 32 So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’
36 “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”
37 The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”
Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”
There are victims of terrorist violence lying on the side of the road. We might choose to pass on the far side, frightened by those who say that perpetrators of terrorist violence are hiding among these victims. Perhaps something along those lines inspired the priest: he saw the victim and thought, "The robber might be near, waiting to pounce if I pause to help this poor victim."

There are victims of terrorist violence lying on the side of the road. We might choose to pass on the far side because they're one of "them": Muslims, our enemies, part of an undifferentiated mass of "others" whose lives don't matter to us as much as our own. Perhaps the Levite thought something along those lines: "My life matters more."

"But wait," you say. "There are other reasons to stay on the far side of the road. What if the Samaritan had been traveling with his son? Would Jesus have praised the Samaritan then? Putting his own son at risk for a stranger? We have our own children to look out for. Our first duty must be to them."

I can't tell you what Jesus would have said had the expert in the law offered this "what if." Perhaps we've become better at justifying ourselves since that legal expert crossed paths with Christ. With enough time to meditate on His parables, we're better at coming up with rebuttals.

Could terrorists be lurking amidst the sea of refugees, masquerading as victims in order to slip into the US?

Sure. But that approach to piercing our borders would require that they risk their lives on tiny boats, court starvation on the road, sleep on the cold dirt for weeks alongside the weeping children and mothers who are the victims of their own acts of terror. They'd likely be placed in some out-of-the-way community not-of-their-choosing along with their victims, with few resources of their own and little control over whether they are situated with access to their terrorist network or the means of committing terrorism--assuming, of course, that they are still determined to commit acts of terrorism after months of surviving alongside their victims and building bonds of solidarity with them.

They might get in that way. Or they might recruit someone with a clean record who can secure a student visa. As noted in one article, "There are many ways to come to the United States. Comparatively the refugee resettlement program is the most difficult short of swimming the Atlantic." Of all the ways extremists might pierce our walls, this is hardly the most promising. There are so many other ways they might threaten our security.

Of course we must care for our children. But there are children lying on the road.

Of course we should be careful not to needlessly expose those in our care to serious threats. But threats are everywhere. Perfect security is impossible.

In a world with imperfect security, compassion is all the more crucial. The compassion of strangers may be the thing that saves our children in their moments of greatest need. It's certainly the only thing that will save those Syrian children in Wennman's photographs.

Let us not create a world where the vain pursuit of perfect security kills the compassion that is so crucial in a world of dangers.

This does not mean we shouldn't act to secure our communities. But in buying more security, how much compassion should we be prepared to sell for incremental gains? How many victims lying on the road should we hurry past? How many times should we offer rebuttals to Jesus' injunction to "go and do likewise"?

If rebuttals to Jesus are the currency of security, how many are we prepared to offer? A dozen? A hundred? Or--given the number of refugees--four million?

I don't know. What I do know is this: If the story of the Good Samaritan does not apply to this moment, it has lost its meaning.

Friday, November 6, 2015

US Bishops' Pastoral Letter on Marriage, Part 1: An Overview

Recently, my introductory ethics class was considering same-sex marriage. As part of that unit, I typically have them read key sections of the US Bishops' Pastoral Letter on Marriage, "Marriage: Love and Life in the Divine Plan."

The reasoning on display in that pastoral letter plays an important role in shaping much Christian opposition to same-sex marriage. As such, I think that any Christian who supports same-sex marriage, as I do, ought to engage with it seriously. Since I haven't done so explicitly on the blog, I thought I'd devote a series of posts to doing that.

This post is the first in that series. Others will follow as I have the time to develop them, which may not be right away. Here, I will simply offer an overview of what I take to be the key features of the views and arguments laid out in the Pastoral Letter, especially as they relate to same-sex relationships.

The Roman Catholic Definition of Marriage

The main aim of the Pastoral Letter is to articulate a Catholic vision of the sacrament of marriage, and to explore the implications of that vision. According to that vision, marriage is " a lifelong partnership of the whole life, of mutual and exclusive fidelity, established by mutual consent between a man and a woman, and ordered towards the good of the spouses and the procreation of offspring."

The Bishops argue that marriage is not merely a human institution but a divine one, authored by God for two interconnected purposes: conjugal union and procreation. That is, marriage serves to unite a man and a woman in a distinctive kind of bond characterized by mutual self-giving love, a love which culminates in the generation of new life and becomes the context within which that new life is nurtured into adulthood.

"It is the nature of love to overflow," say the Bishops, "to be life-giving." And so marital love is designed by God to produce new life: a child onto whom the love of the parents overflows.

The Bishops maintain that same-sex marriage violates God's purpose for marriage. In fact, they hold that it "poses a multifaceted threat to the very fabric of society, striking at the source from which society and culture come and which they are meant to serve." (By contrast, terrorism only kills people and destroys infrastructure!) To make this case, the Bishops rely on two key premises, what I call the Inseparability Thesis and the Complementarity Thesis.

The Inseperability Thesis

The Inseparability Thesis holds that one cannot separate the two purposes of marriage (loving union and procreation) without doing violence to the nature of human sexuality and the marital union. As the Bishops put it, these two purposes "cannot be separated without altering the couple's spiritual life and compromising the goods of marriage and the future of the family."

This inseparability cuts in both directions, according to the Bishops. It's not just that the procreative aim is harmed if mutual self-gifting love is absent between the sexual partners (because children are then brought into the world in less-than-ideal conditions, lacking the stability and overflowing love that conjugal love brings). It's also the case, they think, that conjugal love itself  is undermined if the couple's intimacy isn't properly directed towards reproduction. It is the latter claim that is particularly crucial for making the case that same-sex marriage (not to mention contraception) is unacceptable. Insofar as same-sex couples cannot be procreative, their intimacy cannot be directed towards reproduction. And this, the Bishops maintain, entails that the kind of love they can have for each other is diminished and cannot be of the marital sort.

The Complementarity Thesis

The Complementarity Thesis holds that men and women are designed by God to complement one another in a distinctive way, such that when a man and woman form an intimate partnership there is a natural fit, a way in which they complete each other. Male and female are, according to the Bishops, "distinct bodily ways of being human" that have personal and spiritual implications (since the body cannot be separated from the rest of the person). The result is "two distinct yet harmonizing ways of responding to the vocation to love." 

And these two ways of being  human were "made for each other," created by God to suit each other uniquely "as partners and helpmates." The idea is that there is a distinctive kind of union that is possible only between a man and a woman because of how men and women are differentially designed. And according to the Bishops, the conjugal union simply is this distinctive kind of union--and hence is not possible at all for same-sex pairs.

Key Concessions

In the course of developing their case, the US Catholic Bishops make a couple of important claims that I will call "key concessions." I call them concessions because they express strong moral intuitions that Catholics don't want to give up, but at the same time they create prima facie problems for the arguments sketched out above. In a sense, they are concessions to human decency, made because of human decency, even though they create some difficulties for their position. Typically, Catholic thinkers treat these as soluble problems: while they might appear to generate contradictions, this is only an appearance, one that evaporates when the right distinctions are made.

The concessions are these:

1. The Infertility Concession: Infertile heterosexual couples can have marriages that are in no way defective, but are fully valid and complete. The Bishops recognize that some married couples who learn they are infertile "may be tempted to think that their union is not complete or truly blessed." The Bishops reply that this is a false impression. "The marital union of a man and a woman is a distinctive communion of persons," they say in response. "An infertile couple continues to manifest this attribute."

2. The Gay and Lesbian Dignity Concession: The Church stresses that "homosexual persons" have a "human dignity" that needs to be treated with "respect, compassion, and sensitivity." Implicit here (and explicit elsewhere in Roman Catholic writings) is the acknowledgment that a homosexual orientation is not a perverse choice but a discovered condition--that just like a heterosexual orientation (or a bisexual one, for that matter), a homosexual orientation is a feature of a person's lived reality that they cannot ordinarily change. Although Catholics teach that homosexuality is "intrinsically disordered," what they mean by this is that it is a kind of disability in the way that blindness and deafness are. In this respect, it is like infertility: an unchosen feature of one's life that one can't wish away but must live with. This is why, in general, the Catholic Church urges gays and lesbians to pursue celibacy and "chaste friendship" rather than attempt a doomed heterosexual marriage (doomed insofar as a homosexual orientation would thwart the unitive end of such a marriage).

The first of these is a concession to the human needs of infertile couples. It is one thing to face the often difficult challenge of infertility, something else to be part of a religion that would dissolve your marriage over it (or forbid you from marrying in the first place if they knew about it in advance).  A Church that did that--that barred you because of some disability from pursuing your human longing for conjugal love and life partnership--would, we might say, be rather monstrous, certainly not a Church that seeks to faithfully live out Jesus' ethic of love.

Likewise for the second concession. It is one thing to discover that you are gay, something else to be part of a religion that vilifies you for something you can't help, casts you out and refuses to offer you a place of dignity.

Hence, I think it is quite clear that the Catholic Church should not back down with respect to either concession. They should insist that infertile marriages are fully valid. They should insist that gays and lesbians have a human dignity that demands respect. Were I feeling hyperbolic, I might say that failure to do either of these things would "pose a multifaceted threat to the very fabric of the Christian love ethic, and to the Catholic Church's claim to represent the love of Christ in the world."

But although the Catholic Church thinks these concessions to decency are wholly compatible with their broader argument about same-sex marriage, I think, on the contrary, that they are not. Together with other considerations, I think these concessions help expose some very fundamental problems with the Roman Catholic conception of human intimacy and sexuality.

More significantly, they highlight that an impulse born of love has only been incompletely carried through. Jesus' call to love has the power to shatters walls, to break down calcified ideas that get in the way of love's fullest expression. But sometimes love hits walls of resistance and only succeeds in making cracks. But the cracks have a trajectory.

Likewise, the concessions above have a trajectory. If we follow them, I think we will see that what Christian love demands is something more than what these concessions allow.

I will begin exploring why I think this in subsequent posts.