Wednesday, August 4

General Patton Meets Mister Rogers At The Border

In my experience, most Christians – on the left no less than on the right – believe in whatever kind of God they want, or often need, to believe in. Fine. Fair enough. But in that case, neither left nor right can claim the name “Christian” and, at the same time, cite the Bible as, in any sense, being authoritative. If you are playing tennis, then you must abide by the rules of tennis. Therefore, you cannot play tennis and simultaneously claim to have defeated your opponent with a score of 5 under par. I.e., you cannot claim to worship God according to the dictates of your own private, idiosyncratic conscience, however enlightened such may be, and simultaneously play the “Christianity-game” by the rules of the publicly examinable document known as the Bible. If, as you claim, the Bible is, in some sense and to some degree, authoritative, then the rules of your game must conform to the rules therein. By claiming the public title “Christian,” you forfeit the option of playing by private rules. I trust that that is clear. Yet I see people on both the left and the right attempting to do just that in the matter of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) practice of warehousing the children of parents attempting to cross the border. Both parties, left and right, appeal to their respective theologies. Both theologies -- in other words, neither of their theologies -- is justified by the Bible.

On the one hand – in particular, on the right – there are people like the current Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, who claim the authority of the Bible to justify the practice of enforcing the criminal law by placing the children under forced confinement. In the case of minor children, this presumably means that their parents are criminally culpable. This practice raises several questions, some of which were touched upon at one of the verbal rules-free professional wrestling matches, euphemistically described as “news conferences,” convened by Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders.

o Absent other prosecutable offenses, e.g., drug- or gun-running, the mere act of crossing the border is a civil, rather a criminal, matter to be adjudicated by civil courts. (See, e.g., here and here.) How did a civil offense -- crossing, or attempting to cross, the border illegally, usually on first offense a misdemeanor -- get transformed into a hard-core crime?

o In what sense is it consistent with the US Constitution … one hopes you do, at least sporadically, remember that … for any member of the civil government to cite the Bible as a justification for enforcing a secular, civil law? Conservatives should be especially hostile to this practice, if for no other reason than that it smacks of replacing secular law with, e.g., Muslim shari'a law.

o And speaking of the Constitution … which hardly anyone does anymore … how does the practice of confining children, even minor children, in any manner whatsoever square with the 5th and 14th Amendments:  No person shall be . . . deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law (5th Amendment) and nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law. (Note carefully that in neither Amendment is there any reference to citizenship status, only to "person[s]," i.e. the right to due process applies to "person[s]," irrespective of citizenship or naturalization status. Undocumented immigrants -- even those who cross the border illegally -- are nevertheless  "person[s]" and are therefore constitutionally entitled to due process.)

But let's consider the matter from a purely theological perspective.  Even if, arguendo, secular law does require religious validation, then -- to give credit to the right wing -- there is considerable justification for the mistreatment of children, as evidenced by the God of both Testaments on numerous occasions adopting just such a practice, or commanding that such a practice be adopted. Four examples:

o As part of the run-up to the Exodus, and as the root of the Jewish ceremony of Passover / seder, God slaughtered the firstborn of Egypt, many of whom must have been children like those presently being detained in, e.g., repurposed Wal-Marts

o God commanded the Israelite armies to commit genocide against the Amalekites, and when God judged that King Saul's obedience to this command was less than perfect, commanded the Prophet Samuel to kill the Amalekites' king in Saul's presence.

o God stood idly by shortly after the birth of Jesus and did nothing while King Herod's soldiers killed every male child three years of age and younger

o Jesus as the White Horse Rider in Revelation who slaughters unbelievers with a sword that proceeds out of his mouth

(Yes, yes, of course:  for the infinity-th time, I do not regard these narratives as historically factual, but as theological proverbs illustrative of the biblical authors' conception of God's character. Nobody believes the young George Washington chopped down his father's cherry tree, either, but most adults do manage to apprehend that the point of the story is not to convey historical facts, but an estimate of Washington's character as a man of exceptional integrity. There is even a technical term for this kind of writing:  it is called "literature".)

The point? Only that there is scant basis for concluding, as leftist / progressive Christians often do, that the Bible forbids any and all acts of divinely mandated child abuse. In a kind of left-handed, though manifestly incomplete, way, the right does have the Bible on its side. Admitting this hurts, but ignoring it is arrant intellectual dishonesty.

However -- you just knew there had to be a "however," didn't you? -- the other side of the argument, the progressive, "bleeding-heart left", side of the argument, must be given equal weight. For, while there are biblical texts that advocate a "kick ass and take names" approach to foreign relations -- and to the discipline and treatment of children -- there are also, and equally, texts that espouse a "kinder and gentler" approach. So ... I will see you your Amalekite genocide and your conquest of Canaan and raise you ...

o Matthew 18:6 -- But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea.

o Luke 18:15-17 -- Now people were even bringing their babies to Jesus for Him to place His hands on them. And when the disciples saw this, they rebuked them. But Jesus called the children to Him and said, “Let the little children come to Me and do not hinder them! For the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, if anyone does not receive the kingdom of God like a little child, he will never enter it.”

o II Samuel 18:33 -- The king asked the Cushite, “Is the young man Absalom all right?” And the Cushite replied, “May what has become of the young man happen to the enemies of my lord the king and to all who rise up against you to harm you.” The king was shaken and went up to the gatechamber and wept. And as he walked, he cried out, “O my son Absalom! My son, my son Absalom! If only I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!”

(The point of the Absolom text is that, not only was Absolom not an undocumented immigrant, he was King David's beloved son, who nevertheless raised rebellion against his father. But David not only forgave him, but mourned Absolom's death bitterly.)

o Isaiah 1:17 -- "Wash and cleanse yourselves. Remove your evil deeds from My sight. Stop doing evil! 17Learn to do right, seek justice, correct the oppressor, defend the fatherless. plead for the widow. Come now, let us reason together,” says the LORD. “Though your sins are like scarlet, they will be as white as snow; though they are as red as crimson, they will become like wool.

o Exodus 23:8,9 -- Do not accept a bribe, for a bribe blinds those who see and twists the words of the righteous. 9Do not oppress a foreign resident,since you yourselves know how it feels to be foreigners; for you were foreigners in the land of Egypt.

For some reasons that are no doubt passing strange, the former "General Patton" texts advocating abuse are invisible to progressives, and the latter texts advocating a "Mister Rogers" approach are equally invisible to conservatives. 

So which choice is correct? General Patton or Mister Rogers? As far as I can tell, if you are intellectually honest and refuse to cherry-pick, the only legitimate answer is "Both ... And", not "Either ... Or".

The question attains an even sharper edge when you reflect that, according to the historical and orthodox Christian interpretation of the Bible, specifically the Gospels and the Epistles, Jesus Christ was the Incarnation of both. (I have written about this at greater length elsewhere.) So ... yes ... as long as you are playing the game called "Christianity" and refuse to play a game called "Taoism" or "Buddhism" or "Hinduism" -- all of which would, I would argue, resolve the dilemma -- you have to affirm "Both ... And".

You cannot appeal to the Bible to justify a universal ethic of kindness when the very Bible you want to cite to justify such an ideology is replete with instances where insensate cruelty and violence are not only tolerated but actively advocated (e.g., see the concluding verses of Psalm 139). Nor can you justify indiscriminate violence against undocumented immigrants and their children, be they Mexicans / Central Americans or Palestinians / Philistines, by appealing to a biblical text containing stern warnings against cruelty to the stranger in one's midst. As I said above, "Both ... And". Always "Both ... And". If that does not make sense to you, then ... well ... so much the worse for your precious sense! If you find ambiguity intolerable, then read a table of logarithms, not the Bible. Nobody ever said this is easy!

So it is irresponsible for conservatives to accuse progressives of wanting "open borders" merely because progressives are opposed to warehousing kids in gulags of repurposed Wal-Marts furnished from Ikea. (I frankly sympathize with child-care people in these shelters, because they are not allowed to touch or hug or otherwise express affection for the kids. Imagine the consequences of -- real or imagined -- child abuse in such a context, the consequences for an innocent child-care worker not least.  Think "priest pedophilia" here. In such cases, as a matter of practical fact, to be accused is to be found guilty.) It is equally and no less irresponsible for progressives to accuse conservatives, especially conservative evangelical Christians, of acting contrary to Jesus Christ and His God by failing to emulate Mister Rogers. The biblical text accommodates both equally. Of course, you can take a page from Captain James T. Kirk's book and use an analogue of his approach to the Kobayashi Maru conundrum:  abandon the Bible altogether. But then you can no longer claim the title "Christian," which was -- see first paragraph -- the defining parameter of this column.

I would argue that -- in actual, "existential" practice -- this is what everyone, conservative and progressive alike, does:  they abandon the wholeness of the biblical text and opt for General Patton or Mister Rogers. The kicker is that they all do so while stoutly maintaining that they are Christians, notwithstanding. That "kicker" is where intellectual dishonesty assumes control of the discourse. They insist on the name of Christian while nevertheless lopping off half of Christianity's animating paradox:  lopping off General Patton or lopping off Mister Rogers, and at least implicitly opting for "Either ... Or". This is the equivalent of Jim Kirk simply changing the Kobayashi Maru software:  if you cannot solve the problem, then change the problem.

My solution -- arguably a variation on the Kirk solution -- is to ignore the Bible and do (what I conceive to be) the humanly compassionate thing and the thing that enables me to sleep at night:   while complying with all relevant border-integrity laws, subject only to the preservation of human dignity and consistent with "First, do no harm":  leave the kids with their parents, i.e., exercise what the Catholic Church might term a "preferential option" for the weakest and most vulnerable among us. Not because of what "the Bible says," but because of what my conscience says.

James R. Cowles

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