Currently in our country, with regarding the issue of migrants, we are seeing a similar sense of refusal to recognize others as “Thous” and are willing to regard them as threats or invaders or illegals.  Giving names like these makes things easier on a bad conscience.  But what happens after we learn their actual names and their actual stories?  What happens when we learn of their desire to protect their children from gang violence or drugs?  What would we be willing to risk, to protect our children, if we ever found ourselves and our families in situations like theirs?

Please consider these things from the point of view of Catholic teaching and the teaching of the Sermon on the Mount.  “What would Jesus do?” can be simplistic, and yes, we have a right (and in fact an obligation) to protect our borders and our citizens.

But several questions surface for me:

What are we afraid of, beyond the possibility of their being dangerous?

Is the policy of separating children from parents the best (or only) way to secure our border?

The process of legal immigration is time-consuming, expensive, and restrictive:  why have we not been able to produce legislation to reform the process?

We see the same kinds of phenomena in Europe, with people especially from Syria and Iraq fleeing the horrors of ISIS.  Would that make a difference to us if they tried to come to us?

We turned back boatloads of Jews fleeing Nazi Germany in the days just before and at the beginning of WWII, sending them effectively to their deaths.  Is this a record we want to repeat?  Is it one we should be proud of?

Let me be clear that I can be just as cold as the system I am critiquing.  I am in Rome, where the pedestrian underpass is filled with beggars, gypsies, homeless…  So long as I can regard them in that way, it’s easier to walk past them.  But what happens when I learn the names of some of them?  They become a “Thou” to me, and I can’t so easily ignore them.  The moral issue for me is:  can I see the other first as a “Thou” and only second as (potentially) an “It”?  How I perceive someone first is typically how my memory of that person will stay.  It makes all the difference, then, not so much in what I choose to do (or not do), but how and why I do it.

What would Jesus want us to do?  I saw the answer today, in two ways.  Walking through Trastevere, I saw some Africans sweeping the sidewalks (and doing a tremendous job—for my reflections on other areas of Rome and garbage, see my Facebook posts).  I stopped to talk to one, giving him some money.  He’s from Nigeria—a dream is the United States.  Meanwhile, he works as he can to support his family of 5.  So I made a small impact.

Far better was what I saw in the underpass from the Vatican to my hotel (I was totally soaked by a very sudden and violent thunderstorm).  There were “the usual suspects,” but there also were a couple of sisters, handing out sandwiches to them.  Clearly, they knew each other.  It was perhaps a small gesture, and perhaps (according to some) it made no practical difference.  But it was based on authentic encounter with a “Thou.”  Less so, I also had an “I-Thou” encounter.  And that, I think, is what Jesus would do (and did).

How would I finally evaluate the sisters’ and my behavior, according to what I’ve sketched out here?  I would suggest that the sisters initiated an encounter, the result of which they responded in love—this was a fundamentally moral action.  I, on the other hand, walking past them and effectively refusing any encounter, was not exactly immoral, but rather amoral—not exactly in imitation of Jesus!  If I had actually encountered them, for whatever reason, and willfully rejected them as people, this, I believe, would have been fundamentally immoral.  Within the realm of each of these three possibilities there is a range of degrees, but within each one there is a simple unity of kind.  My actions may not have been so amoral as other possible actions, but there it is:  I was certainly amoral:  neither sinful nor virtuous—just lukewarm.  I have to get better—we know what the Lord thinks of the lukewarm (Revelation 3:15-16)!