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"Love your neighbor as yourself."

God taught us to love our neighbor as ourselves. Do we really understand what this entails?

Let's start with today's first reading, from Leviticus, chapter 19 (verses 1-2, 11-18). Here we find the injunction…

The LORD said to Moses,
"Speak to the whole assembly of the children of Israel and tell them:
Be holy, for I, the LORD, your God, am holy.

"You shall not steal.
You shall not lie or speak falsely to one another.
You shall not swear falsely by my name,
thus profaning the name of your God.
I am the LORD.

"You shall not defraud or rob your neighbor.
You shall not withhold overnight the wages of your day laborer.
You shall not curse the deaf,
or put a stumbling block in front of the blind,
but you shall fear your God.
I am the LORD.

"You shall not act dishonestly in rendering judgment.
Show neither partiality to the weak nor deference to the mighty,
but judge your fellow men justly.
You shall not go about spreading slander among your kin;
nor shall you stand by idly when your neighbor's life is at stake.
I am the LORD.

"You shall not bear hatred for your brother in your heart.
Though you may have to reprove him,
do not incur sin because of him.
Take no revenge and cherish no grudge against your fellow countrymen.
You shall love your neighbor as yourself.

Notice the specific examples given of not wronging our neighbor. Note, too, that the injunction is summarized in the line, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." The previous line, however, "Take no revenge and cherish no grudge against your fellow countrymen," suggests that we can limit our attention to the needs of those others who are our countrymen. That, however, would not be true. Compare this with verses 33 and 34 from the same chapter.

When an alien resides with you in your land, do not mistreat such a one.
You shall treat the alien who resides with you no differently than the natives born among you;
you shall love the alien as yourself; for you too were once aliens in the land of Egypt.
I, the LORD, am your God.

The word translated as "alien" here literally means "guest" (as in the sense of "guest worker") , or, perhaps, better, "anyone who sojourns among you". Thus, we have translations like "alien" (as in this translation) or "stranger" (as in the RSV). The contrast with "the natives among you" is obvious.

Clearly, the emphasis in this teaching is "do no one an injustice", no matter who it is, and do not make up different rules of common justice for the native vs. the foreigner.

If we stop there in our analysis, however, we would be applying rules designed for ancient times to post-modern times, where governmental infrastructure is, by far, a much greater factor in daily life. In particular, in such ancient times (around 1400 years before the birth of Christ), there were no border patrol agents, customs officials paved roads or walls. Furthermore, actual migration was far more limited, compared to today, and that migration was motivated primarily by the search for a place where life can be sustained through one's own efforts (through labor or trade) and those traveling with us (typically family). At times, of course, it entailed fleeing from life threatening conditions of violence. No one was motivated, even in part, by the opportunity to sponge off of a federally built welfare system. No one was motivated to encourage such migration for political reasons (though there may have been economic ones, even back then).

Clearly, this raises all sorts of questions in our contemporary context. The most important question, however, is how do changing cultural and political circumstances color our obligation to our neighbor, whether foreign or domestic?

That question, I submit, cannot be adequately addressed without appeal to the lessons of today's Gospel reading, from Matthew, chapter 25, the metaphor of the sheep and the goats at the final judgment. In particular, let's look at verses 34 to 36.

Come, you who are blessed by my Father.
Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.
For I was hungry and you gave me food,
I was thirsty and you gave me drink,
a stranger and you welcomed me,
naked and you clothed me,
ill and you cared for me,
in prison and you visited me.

Clearly, Jesus does not stop with corporal works of mercy, but goes on to include spiritual works of mercy. In other words, Jesus is telling us we should be mindful, as he is, of the needs of the whole person, not just their material needs. I submit to you that politicians of all stripes fail miserably at this, and so do those among us who are particularly partisan, myself included (which has been the main motivation for my writing this post).

Clearly, there is the crucial related problem of dealing justly with people, whether foreign or domestic, who break the law. These include people who commit violent acts, people who rob (including people who defraud), people who enslave others (as in the sex trade or by selling addictive drugs), and people who take advantage of the ignorance of others for political gain.

Clearly the rule of law is essential to any society. Any system of laws should be just and, at the very least, make just provision for individual, community or institutional acts of mercy.

What does all this mean on a practical level for how we deal with foreigners who are here, legally or illegally, as long as they obey the law? In such instance, I submit to you, we should be mindful of their needs. These include…

  • Attention to their physical needs: food, clothing and shelter.
  • Attention to their cultural needs: learning the basics of our legal framework, our customs, our language and, to the extent that their stay in our country is lengthy, learning our history (especially of our founding) our philosophy of governance. Clearly, this is complicated by the sad fact that our philosophy of governance is currently in a state of turmoil and our teaching of history is undergoing ideologically motivated change.
  • Attention to their emotional and spiritual needs. Here we can comfort those in sorrow, offer hope to those who have none because of what they believe, etc.

When we leave it to government and to government managed institutions (such as the public schools or medical systems), we're begging for trouble and we leave ourselves open to evolving government oppression through ideologically motivated evolution or revolution.

In other words, we should be motivated to care for what Catholic social teaching refers to as the integral human development of our people and of the aliens among us.

I would add, too, that the chaos of border flows and the movement of those bent on destructive ends (e.g., revolutionaries, invading armies, criminal gangs) necessitates ensuring that we have control over those flows, whether through the building of walls, enhanced border security through policing efforts, etc. The many instances of failure of the system to stop those who break our laws and get deported, only to return to commit further mischief, is a sign of the breakdown of our legal system. No society that neglects such matters can long survive.

So, you see, there is no fundamental reason why justice and mercy cannot operate simultaneously, and in cooperation with each other, in our land.