Christianity vs. citizenism
October 26, 2012 3 Comments
In my most recent post, I wrote the following passage:
I am certainly no citizenist myself. In fact, for purposes of the present post, I’d rather not admit what my attitude to citizenism as a meta-ethics is, because it would set quite the wrong tone. However, I feel I have to mention it in passing, because if I were to write a post on citizenism without mentioning it, I might seem to convey, implicitly, an attitude of moral tolerance for what ought not to be morally tolerated. So I’ll say it: I believe, for the record, that a thorough-going, principled citizenism is appallingly wicked, and diametrically opposed to Christianity, and that practitioners of a citizenist meta-ethics are in danger of hellfire. You see why, if I’m right, I felt the need to warn you.
On second thought, I should probably offer more explanation here. Of course, I am writing primarily to Christians here. Atheists (and people of other religious persuasions) don’t believe in hellfire (or have completely different guidelines for what deserves hellfire), and in that sense, they are just spectators for this post, although if they want to ask questions, everyone is welcome. This post is by way of clarification.
First, while it may sound like an insult to say “practitioners of citizenist meta-ethics are in danger of hellfire,” the point is not to insult anyone, still less to engage in careless and hyperbolic rhetoric to compel people to accept my point of view, but to state what I believe (tentatively, and with a great deal of qualification) to be a fact about what will happen to people as a consequence of certain attitudes and, especially, of certain actions.
Second, the phrase “practitioners of a citizenist meta-ethics” needs unpacking. I didn’t say “believers” in a citizenist meta-ethics because in the scheme of salvation I don’t think that abstract or ideological beliefs matter that much. If a US resident and citizen imbibes from the surrounding environment the notion that one should only care about the welfare of one’s countrymen, but all the people in his town are citizens, and he treats them very well, his indifference to the well-being of people he’s never met and whose lives he doesn’t consciously impact at all will probably have little impact on the state of his soul. If people actually meet foreigners, or consciously do things that affect them, and ignore the foreigners’ well-being, that’s where the danger lies.
Third, there is a difference between citizenism as a personal meta-ethics and citizenism as a political meta-ethics. Sorry for the jargon. What I mean is that there’s a difference between saying (a) “I only care about Americans” and (b) saying “The government should only care about Americans,” and while (a) is definitely un-Christian, (b) might not be. Someone who believed the US government should help Americans and put near-zero weight on foreigners’ interests, but who thought Americans as individuals are obligated to be generous to foreigners as well, and who is personally very generous, would probably not imperil her soul much by her political attitude, even if she is mistaken.
Jesus taught a gospel of universal love, and as Christians we are told to conform to His will. Only thus can we be saved. The stuff we are made of is corrupt, impermanent, transient, poisoned by sin. He has become one of us and (this is a mystery) given us His own self as a substitute for our own fallen and dying selves. We must, ultimately, if we are not to perish, live up to that, and give ourselves completely to love without reservation or limit, for only then will we be able to rise to accept the gift of eternal life. Otherwise we are doomed to decay and disintegration. But let me turn to the Bible, and in particular to the parable of the Good Samaritan, Luke 10:25-37, to make this clearer:
25 On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
26 “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”
28 “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”
29 But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
30 In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. 32 So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him.34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii[c]and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’
36 “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”
37 The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”
Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”
To begin with, observe what question the young man asks. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” So we are definitely talking here about salvation, and about conditions for salvation. Jesus’s interlocutor seems already to know the answer: first, loving God with all one’s heart, soul, strength, and mind; second, loving one’s neighbor as oneself.
I find it interesting how Luke imputes a special, not exactly wicked, but slightly embarrassing motive to the expert in the law: “he, wanting to justify himself…” At any rate, I’m glad he asked it, because of the wonderful response the question evoked from Jesus. But what is the answer? Who is my neighbor? A striking feature of the parable is that the one who is a neighbor is a Samaritan. As John 4:9 reports, the Jews had no dealings with the Samaritans, though they lived nearby. They despised them; they were enemies. So one thing the parable makes clear is that “love thy neighbor” doesn’t just mean love the person in the house to the right or left of one’s doorstep, nor does it just mean love all one’s fellow citizens. Perhaps it doesn’t quite mean “love everyone” either, else why the parable instead of a word, but it certainly means that love should overstep all boundaries of citizenship and nationality and creed, that everyone we encounter ought to be loved, especially those in need.
As I wrote in Principles of a Free Society:
Ultimately, I think the Bible, the New Testament, the Parable of the Good Samaritan, and in particular one detail in the Parable of the Good Samaritan, will force Christians to turn against the world apartheid system of border controls. When the priest and the Levite see the wounded man on the road to Jericho, they do not just fail to help, they pass by on the other side of the road– that is, they deliberately create physical distance between themselves and the suffering man in order to avoid incurring moral responsibility to help him.
But of course, this is exactly what migration restrictions do: they keep the world’s poor at a distance, so that we will not feel conscience-stricken and have to help them. But of course it is perfectly clear in the parable that the priest and the Levite only make themselves more culpable by trying to avoid moral responsibility; and so it is with rich countries that close their borders to poor immigrants. Christians cannot go on failing to see this indefinitely. Time for a Fifth Great Awakening? (Principles of a Free Society, p. 190)