Welcome the Stranger


May 5, 2010


One thing we Catholics have known
since almost the beginning: Most statements in the Bible can be misread, misapplied, and torn out of context to serve as the pretext for hysterical balderdash. Martin Luther famously used his private reading of St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans to invent a whole new theology of salvation, personalized to soothe his aching scruples. Before that, poor Origen, the first great theologian of the Church, applied “If your hand causes you to sin, then cut it off” (Mk 9:43) to his problems with chastity . . . bless his heart! Today some of our bishops are telling us to do the very same thing to our country.
The subject is mass, unskilled immigration, and the phrase its enablers like to use (they titled one of their interminable, inevitable USCCB documents after it) is “Welcome the stranger” (paraphrasing Matthew 25:31-46). As someone who has actually studied the empirical effects that two million or so mostly uneducated immigrants are having on poor and working-class Americans, I am constantly confronted with this scrap torn from the New Testament, which earnest, otherwise orthodox Catholics wave around like snake-handlers justifying their latest romp in the piney woods with an ice cooler full of copperheads.

Marshal a series of rational arguments that demonstrate that our current immigration policy (designed by that great Catholic thinker Edward Kennedy) is a sin against prudence, and out will come the proof-text. Show that Catholic nations have for centuries, with the acquiescence or encouragement of the Church, restricted the influx of aliens in accord with the common good of their societies (St. Augustine, for instance, wanted the barbarians kept out of the Roman empire), and slurp — somebody whips it out again. Point out the fact that one of our once-richest states, California, has essentially been bankrupted by the tidal wave of undereducated non-English speakers — and whoop, there’s that hoary paraphrase. I’ve gotten so sick of this Bible abuse that I’ve lost every scrap of patience. Instead of engaging such proof-texts, I counter with my own. “‘You shall not suffer a witch to live’ (Ex 22:18). That’s in the Bible, too. Come on, let’s pass a law!”

But the goal of argument by Bible scrap isn’t rational discourse. People who wield autistic scripture snippets aren’t trying to further the conversation; they want to end it. Whatever rational processes were going on in your mind are supposed to screech to a halt the moment they chant the mantra, as you blush and admit that the “call of the Gospel” is meant to “bring us to a place beyond narrow calculations” of the common good, justice, patriotism, or prudence. Instead of using the brains God gave us, you’re meant to swoon, feel guilty for thinking in the first place, and secrete a miasma of vaguely generous sentiments — which reward you by making you feel really good about yourself. Aren’t you being charitable . . . not like those nasty, hateful fill-in-the-blanks: “rednecks,” “bigots,” “Arizona voters.” I call this phenomenon the “pink cloud,” and it’s the main pollutant emitted by the Amazing Catholic B.S. Generator.
Let me huff and puff once more in the hopes of dissolving this smog. A majority of Americans, as every survey taken on the subject indicates, believe that it simply isn’t prudent to admit millions more unskilled workers into a country that has outsourced its factories to Asia, mechanized its farms, and otherwise dried up opportunities for unskilled native workers to earn what the Church calls a living wage. The evidence bears this out: Adjusted for inflation, wages for working-class Americans of every race have stayed flat for more than 30 years — while Wall Street, Silicon Valley, and the entertainment industry have multiplied salaries for even their mid-level workers. The law of supply and demand says that when you flood the market with something, the price goes down. We flooded the market, and the price went down — and American workers are suffering.
At the same time, our taxes and deficits are rising, as communities struggle to care for uninsured hospital patients, to expand or maintain their infrastructure to accommodate rising populations, and to offer bilingual education in up to 15 languages (as in Los Angeles). As Harvard economist George Borjas documents, the only social class gaining from mass, unskilled immigration is . . . the investor class. That is, the people who make their livings by clipping stock coupons. The upper-middle class is not much affected (they can move to gated communities with private schools), while the middle class and the working poor are suffering. It’s that simple. (If you want the long form with all the links to exhaustively support these claims, check out my two previous detailed articles on this topic.)
The case is proved. Nobody argues that a mass influx of cheap labor is helping America’s poor, making our society more cohesive, or in any other substantive way benefiting America. Open-borders types are typically reduced at this point in the argument to pointing out how much they enjoy eating out at ethnic restaurants and paying somebody $2 an hour to mow their lawns.
Since they have no rational case, proponents of de facto open borders, such as Roger Cardinal Mahony, Archbishop Jose Gomez, and Archbishop Charles Chaput are reduced to Bible abuse. They chant, “Welcome the stranger” as if this were one of the Ten Commandments — not that even those can be rightly read out of context . . . unless you agree with the Iconoclasts, and want to rip all the images out of our churches.
So let me challenge theologians on their home turf. What would it mean to take this biblical mandate seriously? Instead of conducting an elaborate thought experiment, let me turn to the riches of Church history to show how it really has worked. I’ve written before of the dangers involved in trying to pervert the evangelical counsels (poverty, chastity, and obedience) into universal commands — and the toxic side-effects of using the rhetoric of the theological virtues to violate the natural ones.
But there is one group in the Church that has made its business living out the evangelical counsels to the letter and pursuing the theological virtues rigorously: monastic communities. Indeed, the Church holds up religious as the very people called by God to witness to the next life through their embrace of the “hardest sayings” that came from the mouth of Our Lord. The first major monastic order in the West, which preserved Western culture through the Dark Ages, was the Order of St. Benedict. Conveniently for this case, the Benedictines did more than simply embrace poverty, chastity, and obedience. They also took literally the very mandate we’re considering here: “Welcome the stranger.” Across the world, the Benedictines are famous for offering hospitality to visitors — who, to this day, can drop in unannounced at Benedictine communities and receive a warm bed and hot meals, no questions asked.
You know what the Benedictines don’t do? They don’t let large groups of strangers move in permanently, flout the rules of the community, claim the status of monks, and help elect a new abbot. Had that been part of Benedictine hospitality, the Vikings wouldn’t have needed to batter down the walls of places like Lindisfarne in order to steal all the sacred vessels. They could have simply turned up, moved in, eaten the monks’ food and drunk their wine, and waited till they had the numbers to vote in Bjorgolf as abbot. Sure, he might change all the monastery’s rules, loot its treasury, and divide its land among his warriors . . .
But that’s the price of “welcoming the stranger” in the style that’s being demanded of us today. In a mass democracy where new citizens can vote to raise our taxes, confiscate our property, subject us to discrimination through affirmative action, force us to adopt bilingual laws, and otherwise remake our life as a community, mass immigration threatens to transform America against the wishes of its citizens. And foreign governments are complicit in the process — as Mexico purposely shoves across our borders the citizens with whom it doesn’t wish to share the wealth. It’s as if a mischievous fraternity had decided to flood a Benedictine abbey with its pledges, until they could vote in one of their members as the abbot, and turn the monastery into a really awesome gothic tequila bar.
Convents have historically proved even more reluctant to offer unconditional and permanent welcome to strangers. Especially males. When a band of helmeted, undocumented Scandinavian migrants in search of hospitality arrived at the women’s abbey of Coldingham, England, in 879 — and announced their proposed changes to the community’s rule of chastity — the abbess Ebbe gathered the nuns and told them about this proposal. Then she sliced off her nose in the hope that it would deter the Vikings from raping her. All the other nuns did the same, and Ebbe led them through the gate to confront the ruddy warband. Appalled, the Vikings didn’t rape the nuns but sent them swiftly, en masse, to heaven. She is now known as “St. Ebbe.”
So when people tell me that Arizona voters have cut off their nose to spite their face, it reminds me of good St. Ebbe. Let’s invoke her intercession for the citizens of that state under siege. Viva Arizona! Sancta Ebbe, ora pro nobis.


  • John Zmirak

    John Zmirak is the author, most recently, of The Bad Catholic’s Guide to the Seven Deadly Sins (Crossroad). He served from October 2011 to February 2012 as editor of Crisis.

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