WWJD: Feed a stranger & starve his kids?
Let’s return to the early days of the European migrant crisis. I had shared an article by Molly Hemingway entitled: “3 Tips For A More Civil Conversation About Syrian Refugees”. I received a fiery rebuttal to Mrs. Hemingway’s tips from an acquaintance, they especially took exception the following in the article:
“Thomas Aquinas discusses whether there is an order to charity. Must we love everyone in outward effects equally? Or do we demonstrate love more to our near neighbors than our distant neighbors? His answers: No to the first question, yes to the second.”
To summarize my acquaintance’s rebuttal, it went something like this.
“You and Thomas Aquinas are cherry picking your Christianity. You are totally ignoring the Gospel’s teachings that Christian love lacks any conditions. It literally says stuff like “love those that hurt you”. The point is that your sister or a sinner or a Syrian refugee are, in fact, equal in the eyes of God and certainly in terms of Christian charity. There is no coherent argument against this without obscuring or ignoring the gospels. From a Christian perspective, we should give all we have, to help the destitute. In the Christian ethic, even if all the refugees were known terrorists, we should help them.”
This is a perfect distillation of the shaming patriotic Christians with a sense of national identity face. It is a very Alinsky tactic whose fourth rule is “Make the enemy live up to their own book of rules. You can kill them with this, for they can no more obey their own rules than the Christian church can live up to Christianity.” It is a tactic that can be applied to any idealistic movement. Now to be fair, my friend is not a disciple of Alinsky, but we have been bathed in Alinsky for at least two generations. Reading the Gospels alone and in a vacuum one could be forgiven coming away with that interpretation of Christ’s teachings. Take for example Luke 6:27-30:
“…Love your enemies, do good to them which hate you,
“Bless them that curse you, and pray for them which despitefully use you.
“And unto him that smiteth thee on the one cheek offer also the other; and him that taketh away thy cloke forbid not to take thy coat also.
“Give to every man that asketh of thee; and of him that taketh away thy goods ask them not again.”
When considered literally and in isolation, how do you reconcile these with raising a family, with maintaining a nation, or even with something as basic as surviving a winter? I’d like to try and make the case that there is a sustainable Christian approach to charity, and that Christ was not calling us to join an altruistic suicide cult. I’d also like to address some particularly Mormon struggles with this line of argument.
First, let me make some personal reflections on these teachings of Jesus:
I believe these are to be considered general words of wisdom in dealing with our neighbors, family members, and brothers and sisters in Christ. When these teachings are taken literally things break down quickly. For example, how do we “give to every man that asketh” of us and then practically feed our children? These are children we have been commanded to “replenish the earth” with (Genesis 1:28). These are children who are called in the Psalms “an heritage of the Lord” (Psalm 127:3). The same Jesus teaches that even we, the wicked and fallen, know that we should not answer the pleas of our child for bread by giving them a stone (Luke 11:11). At some point one must say no or we will be broken and destitute, incapable of helping anyone – even our children. I believe here Christ is asking us to be generous in spirit, to strive for a charitable heart, and to not live life by a strict reciprocal ledger.
This reading does imply that there should be an order to charity and the other virtues encouraged in these passages in Luke, and I think this interpretation is supported by other recorded words of Christ and even more clearly by the Apostle Paul.
For instance, Jesus instructs us to turn the other cheek. Is this a literal call to non-violence? Reading elsewhere in the same book of Luke, before Jesus and his apostles go to the olive grove to pray, Christ asks his apostles to purchase swords:
“Then said he unto them, But now, he that hath a purse, let him take it, and likewise his scrip: and he that hath no sword, let him sell his garment, and buy one.
“For I say unto you, that this that is written must yet be accomplished in me, And he was reckoned among the transgressors: for the things concerning me have an end.
“And they said, Lord, behold, here are two swords. And he said unto them, It is enough.” [Luke 22:36-38]
These verses are a moment when Christ is fulfilling the prophecy in Isaiah 53:12, and there is a lot more going on in these verses, but I’d like to narrowly focus on one element: His disciples never went and sold their garments to obtain the swords because they already had two swords. Why did Jesus suffer his disciples to travel with him prepared with these weapons of violence if self-defense is a sin? The answer is clear: because it isn’t sinful to protect yourself and your loved ones from violent physical aggression. What is righteous is not escalating conflicts tit-for-tat within your community and family.
Your child died, it’s your fault, and you never went to the funeral
Secondly, we must properly understand the limits of what our shared divine parentage obligates us to do.
Going back to the refugee crisis, how do we as Christians look at the infamous and tragic images of the three-year-old who drowned attempting to reach Europe with his family, and then say no to the next three-year-old doing the same? Especially when “we are all children of God”; when “We are all brothers and sisters”. This is a particularly difficult struggle for Latter-Day Saints. Our whole cosmology emphasizes our shared origin as spirit children of Heavenly Parents, and that we globally, past, present, and future share a divine purpose. This background makes it challenging for modern, western, Latter Day Saints to vote for nationalist policies, or to think as a people with moral self-interests. It is also easily, and frequently, exploited by those seeking to push a Cultural Marxist, multicultural agenda on the historical pioneer stock of Deseret. Just watch a twitter stream of #LDSconf during general conference as an example.
This universal humanism robed in religious language can be countered with a proper reading of the 5th chapter of Paul’s letter to Timothy. We must consider that Christ’s gospels were not only recorded by his apostles, but they were then applied by them as well. I believe the first Apostles and early Christians struggled, as we do, to practically apply Jesus’ teachings that are often in tension with one another. However, because they had the fortune to have learned at Christ’s feet, we should study their interpretation and practice carefully. What does Paul write to Timothy?
“But if any provide not for his own, and specially for those of his own house, he hath denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel.” [1 Timothy 5:8]
Let me attempt to recreate a recent conversation with my children regarding this passage. We had just been over a history lesson, and we were gathered around the computer talking about groups of people being at war with one another.
My daughter made the observation: “So everyone has been fighting their own brothers and sisters.”
“Why?” I responded, “Is it because we are all God’s children?”
“Yes,” she replied.
“That’s true, but we aren’t all the same kind of brother and sister. God sent you kids to mom and I, and that means you should be special to us.”
I then asked her to read Timothy 5:8 out loud and asked her, “Who is our “own” who is our “house”? Our own is our family right here. God is telling us we can’t make someone else more important than our family.”
“Our immediate family, right?” she asked.
“Yeah then after mom and I take care of you, if we have the ability to help, we help our neighbors and our extended family, then our Ward, then our town, then our State, then our Country and then the World.”
I must have been miming concentric circles because she piped in with: “Like a bullseye!”
I then asked my son: “What if I said hey buddy, everybody is God’s children so I’m leaving you all here and,” flipping to the other side of the Google Maps globe, “helping some kids here. Bye! I don’ t know when I’ll be back, good luck getting money for food.”
“Nooooo!” He shouted.
“But, we are all God’s children!” I rhetorically replied.
My daughter jumped in, “But we are your children. God sent us to you!”
“Right! And God taught us to help our family first. Because the best way to help the world and God’s kingdom is to have a strong family. Then strong neighbors and extended family and so on. Like the bullseye.”
Sadly, it isn’t just children that need this basic order of obligation taught to them, far too many Latter-Day Saints, at least abstractly, think their obligations to Afghan children are morally equivalent to their own children. Paul was teaching how to practically apply the Christian charity Jesus taught.
Love as Virtue and Vice
Thirdly, Love is a virtue, the greatest, but like all virtues it can be malformed with excessive zeal.
Aristotle taught that virtues were a proper balance of behavior or feeling in a specific sphere. For instance, the sphere of confidence and fear: a proper balance in this sphere would be the virtue of courage. A deficit in this sphere would be cowardice and an excess would be rashness or foolhardiness. We can apply this to the question of charity. Charity in the bible is typically a translation of the Greek word for love. We are taught by Jesus that second only to loving God we are to love our neighbor (which in the Greek means those near you). If we are to view the sphere of love in this context of excess and deficit what would it be?
Selfishness <—- LOVE —-> Enablement
Enablement here is meant in its very modern sense. If we possess this excess of love, we are so selfless and “others focused” that we prioritize the other above all else we value. The pathologies of the target of our enablement are not considered; indeed, in this state of enablement they are even desired. The saying “the squeaky wheel gets the grease” is recast as: “The squeaky wheel gets the grease, BUT if I have nothing squeaking in m y life I’ll make sure to find or create something squeaky to “virtuously” burden myself with”.
Also, in this state of excessive love even those natural and healthy extensions of yourself must be sacrificed to the other. There was one mother I was acquainted with that embodies this excess of love. She had two biological children and anywhere from five to six very troubled adopted/foster kids at a time. She helped many kids out of terrible situations, but in turn her natural children were constantly subject to high levels of stress, drama, and constant babysitting of very troubled children. There was real resentment. In her efforts to help troubled foster children, she sacrificed the well-being of her biological children. Needless to say, her position on the refugee crisis was predictable.
Righteous love must be properly ordered, and we must mediate the competing goods with wisdom. Jesus teaches us to order our Love: First God, then our neighbor as our self.
More specifically on loving our neighbor Christ told the well-known parable of “The Good Samaritan” to answer the question, “who is my neighbor”. The Samaritan was a traveler on a highway who by chance encountered a traveler from Jerusalem in immediate and genuine distress after being attacked by thieves. The victim had already been passed by and ignored in his plight by two prominent Jewish travelers. The Samaritan dressed the man’s wounds and concluded that he had the means to pay for his lodgings for a time. Jesus concludes the parable by asking the lawyer who was a neighbor to the victim? The lawyer answers that it was the Samaritan who showed mercy. Jesus then commands us to do likewise.
We learn two things from the parable. One obvious the other not so obvious. First, less obviously is that not everyone is our neighbor, only those that act neighborly are our neighbors. Second, and more obviously is that Christ would have us “do … likewise” and be the merciful neighbor. However, like the Samaritan we must place this call to act as a good neighbor in a context of ordered virtuous tensions. Note that nowhere in the story does he invite the highwaymen who beat and robbed the victim into his own lands. Neither does he abandon his business to stay and personally care for the victim. He generously and practically helps the victim.
Welcome back to church
Again, Christ’s church is not an altruistic suicide cult! It is a church, the kingdom of god, built on the rock of Christ and his Priesthood. God did not want us to immolate ourselves, our families, and His church on a pyre of radical selflessness. If so, there would be no point in commanding us to be fruitful, there would be no need to establish a priesthood order; his church would be built on a foundation of sand.
The prophet David O’McKay famously taught: “…no other success can compensate for failure in the home.” It would seem to me that would include subordinating the needs of your children and family to another person’s child and family, or worse another nation and people’s children.