A Reflection on Corpus Christi - Legalism and the Immigration Debate
What do all these scenarios have in common? They are all examples of law-breaking. Moreover, they are cases that, were any of us in those moral dilemmas, we would do the same. And in each case we would break the law thinking it the right thing to do. It would be very odd were anyone to complain afterward that we undermining the rule of law. Odder still if we were labeled “illegals.”
These common sense examples point to the fact that that any particular law, while assumed to be good in itself, is not the ultimate measure of morality. All laws serve a greater good, namely, our common human dignity. Good laws are sufficiently humane, reasonable, and enforceable that instances of their needing to be broken are rare.
Millions of foreign-born people have decided that the only way to care for, or stay with, their families is to cross an international border into the U.S., without legal authorization. Many risk their lives in the process because they know a job awaits them. The debate over immigration reform has made it clear that many American citizens have no sympathy for those immigrants’ dilemma. Their response to arguments for respecting their courage, sacrifices and contributions with a pathway to citizenship is typically something like, “we are a nation of laws, and lawbreakers must not be rewarded.”
There are coherent arguments for offering a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants in the U.S. There are arguments for doing less. It seems to me that, in itself, “they broke the law” is not an argument for anything. The real issue is whether or not existing immigration laws are in fact humane, reasonable, and enforceable. I have yet to hear anyone say that they themselves, were they in a similar survival situation, would chose to respect an international border over the physical and spiritual welfare of themselves and their families.
Ideas have, for better or worse, a remarkable power to shape our imaginations. It seems that the idea of law is particularly powerful, and not always in a healthy way. Some American citizens who from time to time need to break laws condemn foreign-born law-breakers whose human need is much more dire and obvious. They are legalists, that is, they regard statutory law as the supreme measure of morality—for others. Jesus was regularly confronted by legalists, who rejected and finally killed him because he did not keep Jewish law. Law is good and necessary; legalism is morally toxic. St. Paul pointed to religious legalism as the antithesis of genuine Christian faith. The debate over comprehensive immigration reform has demonstrated the incredible power of legalism to enchant and blind otherwise intelligent and well-meaning people.
Last Sunday some people from my Catholic church took part in a traditional religious procession to celebrate the Feast of Corpus Christi. (It was mischaracterized by some media as a protest march.) We carried the Blessed Sacrament—for Catholics the real presence of Christ—in public. In doing so we offered a vision of a Christian community united not around an idea, but around the person, vision, and values of Jesus Christ. We proclaimed that our unity in Christ transcends any differences in language, culture, and yes, even immigration status. Further, we proclaimed that this holy bond transforms us into the Body of Christ! To paraphrase St. Paul (Gal 3), in Christ we are neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female.
We are indeed a nation of laws. But law must serve the greater, common good. A vision of why and how we should reverence each one another is, from my faith perspective, precisely what the vision of the Body of Christ is all about. It is as beautiful to behold as it is difficult to live. I wish more Christians could see it.