I want to respond carefully – not to him, but to you. I have a lot of respect for you.
In 2012, I was shocked when I realized that the leaders of the fight against immigration (or for low&slow immigration) in Maryland were all pro-life leaders. I left teaching to push back against this painful inconsistency. Since the 1980s, I had seen abortion as one excrescence of the eugenics movement – and immigration restrictions are another. I had fought population control measures, and I thought I had been able to get some great things done – particularly in Bangladesh, a Muslim nation that I had helped to protect from a Western-inspired and Western-imposed (and Western-deceptive) measure that would have killed millions of Muslim babies. The push for immigration restrictions has been a key element of population control for a century. Pro-lifers fighting for immigration restrictions looked like a complete betrayal to me – although I understood that many pro-lifers (nearly all??) had been pulled into this stupendously murderous movement unawares.
I think it may be worthwhile if I sketch out how I built my response. I think it may answer your question about my reaction to Synesis. So let me sketch my search, in six or seven steps. They overlapped, but it’s easier to understand them if you can pick them apart.
My thought was that I might be able to do something that most pro-immigration activists could not do. I thought I could reach some fierce and determined folks way off on the political right, people who identified themselves as conservative politically and religiously. I thought that I could get a hearing, because I am a pro-lifer – even though I do not consider myself a conservative.
Step #1. I was intent on reaching beyond the Catholic Church, so I started with Scripture. I searched for teaching about “immigration,” and found nothing. I floundered a bit, then bumped into Matthew 25, the Lord’s description of the Last Judgment (including the verses about strangers – care for immigrants and meet my Father, or don’t and go to hell). I was fascinated by the passage, because it was so familiar, but I had overlooked what it said about strangers/foreigners/migrants/pilgrims.
Step #2. Why did Jesus put strangers in that short list? When people recall that list, thy usually leave out strangers. Even the best teachers in the Church leave it out sometimes. For example, Msgr Robert Barron (now bishop), in his video series entitled Catholicism, reads Matthew 25 about the Last Judgment, then puts the Bible down and repeats the list for emphasis. When he repeats it from memory, ten seconds after he read it out loud, he skips strangers. I do not mean in any way to criticize him! He knows Scripture, and he lives it; he is among the best (among the saints of our age). My point is, if Msgr Barron skipped it, everyone skips it. Why? Well, I don’t know, but I think we skip it because it doesn’t seem to fit. Jesus thought it fit there, but we don’t agree.
So I wondered, why did Jesus interrupt the flow to insert this stray idea? What is this “stranger”? I went back to the Old Testament, hoping to understand why he put strangers in his short to-do-or-go-to-hell list. I searched for everything in the Old Testament mentioning strangers – and I was completely blown away. I spent a couple of months digesting what I found. Not digesting: just scratching the surface, starting to understand them a little. I read hundreds of passages.
(a) Moses describes the key moral lesson from the Exodus in terms of strangers. The deepest lesson is about God: he is our protector. But there are also lessons about how we should behave, and Moses built the lessons around strangers: Welcome strangers, because – remember! You too once were a stranger in a strange land.
(b) God has a particular concern for a familiar pair: widows and _____ . Everyone can fill in that blank. It’s a part of the language now. Word processing programs can toggle on widow/orphan protection. But about half the time, this duo is actually a trio: widows and orphans and _____ . I realized slowly that anyone immersed in that culture who heard “widows and orphans hrrumph” would fill it in easily: widows & orphans & strangers.
(c) I was bowled over by what I found in Leviticus. It’s the broccoli book of the Bible: good for you, but not too tasty. Rules all over the place. But about strangers, Moses says a couple of things. One: don’t even think about treating them as second-class in the eyes of the Law, or I swear God will punish you severely. And second, there were some funny rules about harvesting olives and gleaning fields of grain. Moses said, be sloppy about harvesting, so that widows&orphans&strangers can get some food there when you are done. Why? Because: remember that you too were once a stranger in a strange land. Feed them, and protect their dignity. Feed them, because they are just like you when God rescued you. When I saw the tenderness in the broccoli book, I wept.
I worked to understand 200 passages about strangers. These three examples are just that – examples. It was one of the most joyful periods of my life.
Step #3. When I started trying to get a handle on the teaching about strangers, I listed all the passages that used the word GER, Hebrew for stranger. But when I thought I understood the idea a little, I expanded what I read, and looked for passages about hospitality to strangers, with or without the word GER. (Second time through the whole Bible.)
Some highlights (again, just examples out of dozens and dozens):
(a) The story of Abraham meeting God at Mamre is a story of hospitality. This first feast in the Bible foreshadows the Last Supper. To understand the Mass, you want to understand Abraham and his preparation to sacrifice his son Isaac, which foreshadows the new covenant sealed with the blood of Abraham’s descendant Jesus. But you also want to understand the feast.
(b) The Our Father includes requests that God feed us daily, and forgive our sins. Jesus, who taught the prayer, is Lord and Savior. Savior: forgive. Lord: feed us – like a king spreading a feast, and feeding his courtiers every day. The kingship of Jesus is not about spears and bombs and power and pomp; it’s about hospitality. Hospitality – feeding us daily, at every level of human existence.
(c) Luke: when Jesus was born, angel knew what was happening, and so did a handful of strangers, shepherds. Matthew: when Jesus was conceived and then born, Mary knew, then Joseph, then Elizabeth and John, then some strangers – the Magi. John: when Jesus was born, his own people treated him as a stranger.
(d) Moses asked that we exercise our memories and imagination, to get inside the experience of strangers. Jesus said the same thing, in a slightly different way. Jesus didn’t talk about strangers, but about neighbors; but the boundary between native and stranger is the same thing as the boundary between neighbor and non-neighbor. Same question, different terms. And Jesus, just like Moses, asks us to get inside the experience of the stranger. Who was neighbor to the man in trouble? See the question from the stranger’s perspective! Then do what another stranger (the Samaritan) did.
Step #4. When I was looking at the story of Mamre, I noticed that the story of Mamre and the story of Sodom are parallel, in at last 13 ways. Reading the story of Sodom without Mamre is silly; they go together – and once you see how thy fit, you can’t un-fit them. So Sodom is also a story of hospitality, and that got me looking at punishments for inhospitality. (Third pass through the whole Bible.)
(a) Sodom is about inhospitality to strangers. Homosexual gang rape is about as inhospitable as you can get. So the perpetrators were obliterated in fire and brimstone.
(b) The story of Gibea (Judges 19-20) is parallel to the story of Sodom. Same inhospitality. Sam attempted homosexual gang rape. Murder. Obliteration. It’s worthwhile reading the story if you are inclined to scoff at the idea that Sodom isn’t just about “sodomy.” (There are 40 references to Sodom in the Old Testament, and none refer to same-sex activity. Three prophets and two Gospels link Sodom to inhospitality or selfish luxury or injustice; two epistles link Sodom to homosexuality.)
(c) I already mentioned the Exodus. Why did God wipe out the Egyptian army at the Red Sea? It takes a book to tell the whole story, but when Moses wants to catch the whol experience in a phrase, he says we shouldn’t do what the Egyptians did – so welcome strangers, because – remember! – you too once were a stranger in a strange land. Slavery, genocide, tyranny – Moses lumps it all together in terms of hospitality.
(d) When the prophets threatened or explained the exile in Babylon, they talked about several sins of the people of Israel, including: idolatry (of course), and injustice (pretty broad), and abusing the poor, and mistreating strangers. The lists of sins vary a little, but the lists are short, and references to strangers are a constant. One reason (among several) for the exile was abuse of strangers.
(e) Why did Jesus say that you risk eternal punishment when you are careless about strangers? Well, part of the answer is, he was Jewish. Our culture may not protect strangers the way his did; but that’s our problem, not theirs.
Step #5. Enough grim stuff. What are the upsides of hospitality? (A fourth pass through Scripture.)
I already mentioned the Our Father, the Three Kings, the Eucharist. But just to pull it together: what Jesus said was, when you welcome a stranger, you welcome God. Not sometimes, like Odysseus or Abraham, but always. Jesus is explicit about it: we will not recognize him most of the time when he comes to us in a distressing disguise (Mother Teresa’s phrase). But it is always him. Whatsoever you do for a stranger, you do for me. Whatsoever.
Step #6. I’m a Catholic, and I don’t approach Scripture without the Church. What does the experience of the Church say? (Although I am putting this sixth, I was reading this material concurrently with the search for GER in Scripture, step one.)
The Desert Fathers talked about welcoming Christ in strangers all the time. Every 15th story?? It’s in the Rule of St. Benedict: welcome strangers as Christ. St Martin of Tours gave half his cloak to a stranger, and Christ accepted the gift. St Francis kissed a leper, Christ.
In 1915, Benedict XV inaugurated the annual World Day of Migrants and Refugees. There’s a rich body of teaching in the annual statements, although only 60 years or so are easily available in English on line.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church is forceful and balanced on the issue.
In 1989, when I was working as the executive director of the American Bioethics Advisory Commission (ABAC – a pro-life response to President Clinton’s National Bioethics Advisory Commission, or NBAC), I collected the encyclicals that dealt with bioethical issues, including immigration. I can’t find the list, but it’s in the archives of the NBAC. But what is easily available today is the tremendous pastoral letter of the American and Mexican bishops, writing together, “Strangers No Longer.” The bishops’ letter says the same things about Scripture that I am saying, although they are much more confident and efficient and practical in their teaching. Gabriella, you asked for my response to Synesis, and I gave mine; but it might have been better to say simply, read the bishops’ letter.
Step #7. In progress now. I have come to understand that hospitality is one of the themes in Scripture that is like “covenant” or “sacrifice” or “marriage.” It’s a mystery – a mysterion, not an unanswerable question, but something so rich that the more you see, the more you know there is far more to see, for eternity. You know those pictures and icons of the Lord that show light emanating from him, from his hands or his heart? Sometimes the rays are specific – gifts of chastity or gifts of martyrdom – different gifts. I think that hospitality is one of those. It’s not a decoration that Emily Post or Amy Vanderbilt can teach; it’s something that comes from the radiant heart of God.
So. You asked about my response to Synesis, who says people like me shouldn’t misinterpret the story of the Good Samaritan. I think he has overlooked a few other passages.