By J. David Franks
This column appeared in the December 5, 2014, edition of The Boston Pilot.
We all need God the Father to grant us amnesty (a word derived from the Greek for not remembering): “The LORD is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love. …He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor requite us according to our iniquities. For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is His steadfast love toward those who fear Him; as far as the east is from the west, so far does He remove our transgressions from us.” (Ps. 103: 8, 10-11)
The Father is merciful; upon each of us prodigals, He bestows amnesty. He does so in a way that still provides for the vindication of the victims of our sins, to be sure. It’s never amnesty at the expense of the preferential option for the powerless. But mercy is the end of all the ways of the Father.
Let’s consider the play of amnesty in two areas: first, the recent synod on the family; second, immigration.
In their final report, the synod fathers remind us that the Christian project is one of universal reconciliation. This must begin in the home, where it is often the most difficult to live out: “The pastoral work of charity and mercy seeks to help persons recover and restore relationships. …To know how to forgive and to feel forgiven is a basic experience in family life. Forgiveness between husband and wife permits a couple to experience a never-ending love that does not pass away. At times this is difficult, but those who have received God’s forgiveness are given the strength to offer a genuine forgiveness that regenerates persons.”
All love, especially domestic love, requires the granting of amnesty. What would any given day be like without the giving and receiving of mercy? It would be hell. And too many homes are riven with the fury of hell. Without mercy, the tensions of the long slog of self-transcendence build to cataclysm. But the home exists to provide the pacific atmosphere in which children grow up to be good citizens, of both nation and of the New Jerusalem, schooled in the art of reconciliation.
How does the rest of the Church respond to domestic breakdowns in reciprocal amnesty? “Strongly reconfirming their faithfulness to the Gospel of the Family and acknowledging that separation and divorce are always wounds that cause deep suffering to the married couple and to their children, the synod fathers felt the urgent need to embark on a new pastoral course based on the present reality of weaknesses within the family, knowing oftentimes that these are more ‘endured’ with suffering than freely chosen.”
The answer: we must each treat the persons coughing in the debris of a collapsed common life with mercy! Of course. This shouldn’t be controversial.
Nor should it be controversial for an American Catholic to be openhearted towards immigrants. The Catholic Church is the truth of cosmopolitanism (think New Jerusalem as the global city of Trinitarian communion), and America is THE globalized nation: American Catholicism should be universal solidarity squared. Americans should be proud to be Americans, not least because of the nation’s catholic openness. An internationalist nationalism is a novum, and an exquisite revolution in human affairs.
Emma Lazarus presents the Statue of Liberty, with Marian overtones, as the Mother of Exiles: “…Give me your tired, your poor,/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,/The wretched refuse of your teeming shore./Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,/I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” (“The New Colossus”)
The glory of America is that she is a free republic in which the powers of free men and women can have full play. We were once confident enough to want the nothings of this world to come, so that the charged social space opened up by our constitutional order could work its magic and bring to potent life what was despised by the world.
In any case, we have an injunction that surely belongs to that part of the Law retaining its full force: “When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. The stranger who sojourns with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.” (Lev. 19:33-34)
The essential ethos of xenia, of guest-friendship, of universal hospitality, was also recognized by the pagan world. Who knows when a god walks among us? (“As you did it to one of the least of these…”)
All this said, President Obama’s executive action on immigration is a grave violation of constitutional order. When President Reagan granted amnesty in 1986, it was through the signing of a piece of legislation (the Immigration Reform and Control Act), duly passed by Congress.
Why does the Constitution matter? Because America, this land of promise, is promising precisely because of her constitutional order, which gives effect to the American proposition, expressed in the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. --That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men...” This is the ideal of a democratic republic, which means that this is a nation under the rule of law, not under the caprice of men. Though pursuing a right end, the President has employed tyrannical means. This is a contradictory action: if we become a nation under the supremacy of presidents, we become slaves. Aren’t immigrants seeking freedom?
The complicated machinery of our Constitution is precisely meant to keep power from becoming too concentrated: the federal system (dividing power between national and state governments) and the checks and balances in which the legislative, executive, and judicial branches hedge each other. The arrogation by one these branches of the prerogatives of another, means the destruction of our constitutional order. This happens when a president decides to accomplish by executive fiat what is to be accomplished through legislative deliberation and action. Tyranny in a good cause is still tyranny. It always exposes the powerless. Remember, this is the most radically pro-abortion President ever.
And yet, Christians must not shy away from amnesty. We all depend upon it. Every day. We are all nothing, until someone looks upon us with merciful love. Then our lives begin to blossom.