Against the backdrop of the Nativity of Christ, on the day that we commemorate His circumcision in the flesh, my first article of 2018 reflects on the plight of immigrants and refugees, and asks what a non-theocratic “Christian politics” might properly look like in a secular democracy.
In the days leading up to Christmas the Wisconsin Budget Project published a short report by Tamarine Cornelius on immigration. In focusing on the needs of Wisconsin’s dairy industry—and even on the need of the cows themselves for caregivers!—she adds yet another important voice to the substantial body of literature testifying to the economic benefits of generous and humane immigration policies. These kinds of studies shed needed light on complex questions of whether and how to integrate newcomers into the fabric of national, state, and local life—whatever their place of origin or the circumstances of their arrival.
As necessary as these statistical analyses are to the formulation of good policy, capitalist calculations of an immigrant’s usefulness to the body politic cannot suffice for those of us who aspire to the name of Christian. The Gospel never reduces the human person to what we can extract from him or her for our collective welfare, to a nameless and faceless cog in the gears of a dehumanized economic, social, or political machine. The Gospel places us in an encounter between two persons face to face, the eternal God and Creator appearing in human flesh and the human creature which He has lovingly fashioned in His own image.
Yet this direct encounter between heaven and earth, the Divine Person and the human person, quickly deteriorates into no encounter at all, an occasion of pietistic feel-goodism and self-delusion, if it fails to bear fruit day by day in the transformation of how we see, respond to, indeed identify with our neighbour—especially the neighbour most at risk of falling through the cracks of social, economic, and political structures over which he or she has little control.
The parable of the last judgment makes clear who our neighbours are, whom the Gospel commands us to love as ourselves: the hungry, the thirsty, the foreigner, the naked, the sick, the prisoner. Our response to their hunger and thirst—as to our own hunger and thirst (for surely this is what “Love your neighbour as yourself” must mean?)—to their uncertain status in a new land, to their lack of adequate clothes and shelter, to their need for human companionship in their illness and even in their incarceration, provides an infallible measure of our love for the eternal Son of God who came to dwell among us in a hungering, thirsting human body but found no place to lay His head.
From bumper sticker inanities like “Happy Birthday, Jesus!” and “Jesus Is the Reason for the Season!” to the absurd politicization of Christmas greetings and messaging on disposable coffee cups, what masquerades as “Christianity” in so much of America has lost its way in its race to spiritual impotence. The little Lord Jesus who laid down His sweet head away in a manger grew up; and as a grown man—or rather, the God-man, as we call Him in traditional Christianity—He laid out for us a straight and narrow path to become by grace all that He is, for which reason He became by nature all that we are: a path on which there is no place for mere hearers of His commandment to love God and neighbour, but only doers; a path which never bypasses, can never bypass, our fellow human beings in any kind of bodily, emotional, or spiritual need; a path that takes us straight from the baptismal font and the eucharistic chalice—and straight from worshipping at the manger in Bethlehem—to the most socially and politically despised of our newborn God and Saviour’s brothers and sisters.
The oft cited xenophobia of our social and political discourse—the “fear of foreigners”—finds its curative in the New Testament philoxenia, the “love of foreigners.” This is the “hospitality” of Rom 12:13 and Heb 13:2 in the original Greek, by which “some have entertained angels unawares.” Unanimously the early Fathers of the Church considered the concrete, practical love of foreigners and other disenfranchised persons to be so fundamental to Christian faith that a living faith could not be said to exist without it: “So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead” (Jas 2:17).
If a “Christian politics” has a legitimate role to play in the life of a secular democracy—a role consistent with the spirit of the Gospel—it cannot be a politics of coercion, privilege, and exclusion. “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you.” Ours must be a politics of welcome and service and inclusion, a politics grounded in humility, a politics that labours tirelessly to create a world that works for everyone. Any other kind of politics is simply not Christian, and most certainly not evangelical—because evangelical, as a word, means pertaining to, derived from, inspired by the Gospel.
And finally, a politics that does not forget the cows. 800 years before His human birth in Bethlehem, God chided Jonah: “And should I not pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?”
Giacomo Sanfilippo is a PhD student in Theological Studies at Trinity College in the University of Toronto and an editor at Orthodoxy in Dialogue.