Posts Tagged ‘immigration’

Cruelty and the Law

June 19, 2018

I’ve been surprised by the controversy over separating children from their parents at the border. Not surprised by the cruelty. Surprised that evangelical leaders have spoken against it.

I thought there was nothing that evangelicals couldn’t stomach. I thought, if hush payoffs to porn stars don’t lead Christians to temper their tub-thumping enthusiasm for Trump, nothing will. But I failed to account for the appeal of children.

It remains to be seen whether the criticisms Republicans and evangelicals have levied against the policy of tearing children from their mothers’ arms will lead to any larger reevaluation. Trump supporters are very strong on the importance of obeying the law. (This doesn’t apply to sagebrush rebels who drive federal agents off public lands at gunpoint, but never mind, none of us is entirely consistent.) Jeff Sessions led the evangelical charge with his comments that Romans 13 instructs us that God has empowered government to enforce the law. In his worldview, the Law is all. It justifies anything.

As any moderately well-instructed Bible interpreter knows, Romans 13 tells us that God has ordained government for the purpose of order, and therefore its laws deserve our obedience. Except, of course, when they don’t. When the law tells us to go against our faith, we are supposed to disobey it.

David Brooks writes in Monday’s New York Times that conservatives have consistently warned that big government leads to situations like this, where the Law becomes inflexible, inhuman, and bureaucratically obsessed with observance. What Trump and Sessions are doing isn’t conservatism. It’s certainly not Christian. I’ll leave it to you to name it.










November 11, 2016

No more gridlock! With Republicans controlling all three branches of government, we will see action on all kinds of fronts.

I realize that making predictions is a fool’s game, but I’m writing down what I expect to see in order to test myself. Nothing would delight me more than to be wrong on many of these prognostications… but we’ll see.

Health care. Obamacare is toast. Mostly we will revert to the status quo ante, which was not good. The one piece I can’t quite foresee is whether Republicans will repeal the law requiring insurance companies to insure everybody, regardless of pre-existing conditions. The one piece I am sure of is that they will repeal the mandate that everybody buy insurance. Without that mandate the economics of the insurance-based system don’t work, especially if the insurance companies have to insure everybody. Obamacare tried to patch up the existing system; it was questionable whether it could succeed even if encouraged. We’ll never know! I predict that health care will be in crisis within Trump’s first term. Eventually (in the next decade) we will end up with single-payer insurance, which we should have had in the first place.

Trade. Not much will change. There will probably be a show of saber-rattling, maybe with China, but Republicans are the party of big business and business interests are strongly for maintaining the status quo. .

Immigration. Not much will change. There will be an early show of building a wall—a Potemkin wall about 10 miles long somewhere in Texas. Immigrants, legal and illegal, will continue to come, but there will be a great reduction in the number of refugees accepted through legal processes. The millions of immigrants living without papers will continue doing as they have done; they will not be deported—business and farming interests will make sure of that–nor will they be given a path to citizenship.

Tax reform. Taxes will be cut, especially for the rich along the lines of Paul Ryan’s proposals. This will result in huge deficits, which will result in legislation cutting programs for the poor. The deficits will continue to mount until we reach a financial crisis.

Infrastructure. We will finally get money for roads and bridges. This will last until huge deficits catch our attention, probably in 2-3 years.

Regulation. The regulatory apparatus of the federal government will be reduced in every area, but especially regarding banks and financial institutions, consumer protection, and the environment. The impacts of these changes will be diffuse and hard to measure, except regarding banks and financial institutions, where they will inevitably create a crisis that will require a bailout. How long before this happens is hard to predict, but that it will happen is as close to a sure thing as we know. Banks and financial institutions have not learned how to regulate themselves; and Republicans both hate regulations and love banks and financial institutions.

Climate, coal, solar. Attempts by the federal government to slow climate change will end. Problems with climate change will continue to grow (as they probably would even if we did our best). I can’t foresee how cataclysmic the problems will be, nor how soon they will become cataclysmic. The coal business in America will continue its death spiral, as fracking spreads (with less regulation!) and keeps the price of energy low. Solar and wind energy will grow due to their efficiencies and also because some large states (California) will subsidize their use.

Social issues. Abortion will continue unabated, though perhaps the Supreme Court will allow more restrictions in Southern states. Gay marriage will be universally accepted. There will probably be more latitude for people and institutions to discriminate by, say, refusing to bake a wedding cake or make facilities available for gay marriages, but people will care less and the issue will all but disappear. Marijuana legalization will continue to spread; problems with illegal drugs like heroin will also continue to grow. Over all, America will continue to move toward more liberal and hedonistic values, as seen on TV.

Social Security and Medicare. There will be benefit cuts. Social security’s finances will be stabilized, probably by raising the age of retirement; and Medicare will continue to grow hugely more expensive, prompting even more cuts. See Health Care, above.

Foreign relations. Not much will change. There is no appetite for “boots on the ground” nor for a policy that enables Iran to build a nuclear bomb. The world will be slightly friendlier for dictators, but they weren’t doing badly before. Terrorism will continue unabated for the foreseeable future; the problems of the Middle East will continue and the refugee crisis will grow.

The unknown. By definition, the unknown cannot be predicted, except for this: we will be confronted by problems that we do not anticipate. Some possible areas: financial meltdowns, events of nature (storms, earthquakes), cyber disasters, terrorism, war. But there may well be categories that we don’t even know exist. How will the new Republican/Trump administration respond? That is hard to foresee, but recent history does not encourage a rosy view of Republicans’ ability to cope with reality. For the last eight years Republicans running Congress have majored in outrage, not in governance. And President Trump has no experience in governance at all. He does not seem to be a calm and measured person. The category of “unknown” is by far the most frightening of all—as it always is.



Two Kinds of Justice

September 11, 2014

In my last post I made the point that we typically use the word “justice” differently from the way the Bible uses it. Our justice is limited to the ideas of fairness and just desserts. Everybody gets treated the same, and everybody gets what’s coming to him. This is justice suited to the courtroom.

God’s justice is much broader, incorporating mercy and charity. Its aim is to set the world right, by all means. Care for the poor is not voluntary, it is a requirement —as justice always is.

What practical difference does this expanded understanding of justice make?

First, though this may not seem very “practical,” a wider view of justice enables us to understand the Bible as a unified book. How many times have you heard the remark that “there are [pick a number] 900 verses about caring for the poor in the Bible?” One Bible highlighted all such verses in orange—a sort of red-letter edition for justice.

Indeed, if you pay close attention you will be overwhelmed by how much of this kind of “justice” can be found in the pages of the Bible. But most of us read Scripture as mainly about God and personal salvation, and it’s hard to say what those verses on justice have to do with that. Justice appears to be just a seasoning to flavor the main meal.

If you accept the broader meaning of justice, however, you see that justice is the main story line of Scripture. God is setting the sin-sick world right. He is in the business of causing all his creation to flourish, and doing away with all evil. And we are to join him in that! There is no real division between personal salvation and creation care or the welfare of the vulnerable. They are all part of God setting the world right, doing justice at every level: personal, social, ecological, spiritual, physical, economic.

As I say, not everybody will see Bible comprehension as very practical. But these different views of justice permeate politics and society. It makes a very large difference which definition you adopt.

The attraction of narrower justice is the ease with which it can be applied. It’s useful in court. You can adjudicate it according to rules. Fairness and equality can be defined with some precision. Crimes and punishments can be codified. Whereas, wider justice is imprecise. To set the world right—who knows exactly how to do that? It’s like carrying water in a leaky bucket. You are always drizzling, and you never can get enough water where you want it.

You see both kinds of justice in our debates about illegal immigration in America. One kind of response takes its cues from the law. Undocumented aliens have done wrong; they should be punished. The illegality of illegal immigrants overwhelms every other response. Christians who make this kind of response—and I suspect the majority of American Christians do—hunt the Bible for texts to reinforce their viewpoint. The main thing they find is Romans 13: “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established.”

Indeed, Paul (and Jesus) were not rebels; they obeyed the law unless it was deliberately counter to God’s word, and so should we. But Romans 13 doesn’t say too much about illegal immigrants; it tells me I ought not to be one, but nowhere does it say (nor does Paul or Jesus hint anywhere) that I should be vigilant to make sure that my neighbor isn’t one.

Yes, we are to obey the law. No, legality is not the sum of everything good. Love is.

Does wider justice help me know what to do with illegal immigrants? Yes and no. The problem with wider justice is that it merely tells me I ought, with God, to set my community right. It tells me to be kind and generous to those in need, particularly the immigrant. It doesn’t specify policy. If my job is to figure out how to set right the mess we are in—to help create just communities—that’s a very difficult assignment, with perhaps 12 million undocumented aliens, some of who came here when they were in diapers. I don’t know anybody who has a policy that claims to perfectly set that situation right. It’s all messy. In that respect, wider justice—God’s justice—isn’t morally satisfying. It never leaves me thinking that I know exactly what to do, nor do I feel justified after I’ve applied it.

Consider the parable of the prodigal son. Who ends up with clarity and righteousness? The older brother, I would say. He knows it is not fair that his brother gets a party, while he never did. He knows that his brother should be treated as he deserves. His brother, you might say, is the illegal. The older brother knows he is in the right and his brother in the wrong.

The father’s idea of justice doesn’t really disagree—he’s not defending the prodigal as though he were innocent. But something larger is at stake. The father knows that the prodigal is wrong, but he also knows that he is his son; he knows that the older brother’s justice won’t set their family right. There’s no hint that the father has a clear policy in mind, but he knows that love is the right response. Who stands for justice in this story? The older brother stands for our justice; the father stands for God’s.

I don’t know what policy exactly will solve our immigration dilemma. But I know that an older-brother response will not heal us. It will simply further tear apart our communities.

Narrow justice has a very deep appeal in our human psyche. It is what animates every child who ever wailed and moaned over perceived unfairness. And it is not wrong! Evil must be punished. Fairness should be rigorously applied. The law should be obeyed. But in the Bible it coexists with a larger justice known for forgiveness and mercy and kindness and humility. How do the two fit together? I know of only one point where they do: at the cross. There mercy and judgment meet, absorbed in the sacrifice of the Son of God. If we want justice, that is where we have to begin. We have to follow Jesus, and become like him.

The Success Trifecta

January 28, 2014

The Tiger Mom, Amy Chua, is at it again. She and her husband Jed Rubenfeld have written a book about the qualities that make some groups successful in America.  (Here’s a piece they wrote summarizing their idea for The New York Times.) Mostly they are thinking about the usual suspects, i.e. Chinese, Indians, Koreans. But they add others, most interestingly Mormons.

Their idea is that it’s not ethnicity, it’s culture–and in particular a Trifecta of qualities: Superiority, Insecurity, and what they call Impulse Control but which we might as well call The Work Ethic.

Security and Insecurity are paradoxical. On the one hand, you need to believe that you have The Right Stuff, because of your ethnic heritage, your IQ, or whatever. (God’s Chosen People may also enter here.) On the other hand, you need sufficient Insecurity to always feel you must try harder than everybody else. That’s where Work Ethic comes in: it’s not enough to believe you must try harder, you must actually try harder.

These are all classically attributes of immigrants–at least, of some immigrants. They are highly motivated because they have taken an incredible dare and it is incredibly hard, particularly if they are learning a new language. If they didn’t believe in themselves, if they weren’t incredibly motivated and didn’t work incredibly hard, they probably couldn’t do it at all.

I find it interesting to think about these qualities not just in ethnic groups but also in families. For instance, my family. There was certainly a moderate amount of Superiority. I remember my dad telling me that it would be an insult to get a B in school. He meant, for us. My mother passed on a sense of Superior Scottishness: Scots were tougher than other people. Insecurity? Not much on the Scottish side, but some coming from my dad’s growing up very poor. There was a bit of chip on the shoulder. Most fundamentally, though, a lot of work ethic. My mother insisted on taking us out to the fields to pick grapes when we were little, just so we would know what hard work is. She picked with us. It was about 150 degrees. Hard work has never been hard for me, or for my brother and sisters.

A word of caution: this approach can turn into racialism. There are other factors that lead any group to experience success: educational base, network of supportive contacts, financial capital, cultural capital. This Time Magazine article is critical of Chua on this basis. It’s a helpful corrective.

Nevertheless, I think Chua is touching on something important, just as she did in her Tiger Mom book on parenting. There are inspirational, aspirational aspects of living that may make all the difference in families and even in individuals. Yes, there are other factors at play, often societal. But the Success Trifecta focuses on qualities that can be inspired or caught. A good teacher, a determined grandparent, a Boy Scout Leader, a pastor may foster them in others.