On Immigration, Winning Cheap Grace

By Jason Scott Jones Published on February 7, 2017

The great theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote scathingly of “cheap grace,” which is the warm fuzzy feeling we give ourselves, and the praise we win from others, by making little virtue-signals that cost us almost nothing — and might well impose suffering on innocent third parties. Jesus Himself denounced it when He saw it among the Pharisees, but Christians are not immune.

In Bonhoeffer’s time, German pastors won cheap grace by safely denouncing Communist atrocities, while pretending that the same crimes weren’t happening just down the train tracks from their churches, at the hands of their own Nazi government. Catholic philosopher Rene Girard spoke of a similar psychological trick, which he called “victimism,” or the cynical use of weaker people’s suffering to aggrandize yourself and win power.

Speak Soothingly to Power

Cheap grace can always be gained by signing on with the sins that are popular with the powerful, and denouncing some evil that is distant or widely despised. Hence pastors in the segregated South could safely denounce the crimes of Josef Stalin, while ignoring the “strange fruit” that hung in their own towns’ trees after brutal lynchings of black men. How many pastors piled up cheap grace aplenty in the 1980s by fighting apartheid in faraway South Africa, and ignoring the abortion clinics that killed black babies by the thousands right down the street?

Now open borders Christians, such as the media-savvy Fr. James Martin, SJ, are gathering cheap grace in bushel baskets on the subject of immigration. In a shrill, moralistic screed that The Stream already analyzed as contrary to Catholic doctrine, Fr. Martin told Americans that it is simply and blankly un-Christian to secure our country’s borders, enforce its labor laws, or carefully vet refugees to keep out those committed to terrorism or sharia.

That is meant to end the argument, to threaten us with eternal damnation if we don’t accept Fr. Martin’s political program — one which no Christian government has enacted anywhere for almost 2,000 years. As a leader in the movement to really implement Christianity for the first time, ever, on immigration issues, Fr. Martin claims his place as one of the best Christians in history. Or so he would like us to see him.

We Learn, 2,000 Years Late, that Borders are Un-Christian

Does Fr. Martin, or any of the bishops who echo him, really believe that no Christian may vote to secure his country’s borders? Is it sinful for Mexico to police its border with Central America? For Latvia to guard its frontier with Putin’s Russia? For Israel to police the crossing into Jordan? I’ve never read any such statements, and I think I know the reason: It’s perfectly obvious that international borders require the rule of law, that sovereign countries deciding who comes and goes is part of what we must “render unto Caesar.”

It doesn’t harm Fr. Martin, in his cozy Manhattan office, that drug cartels and people smugglers control the U.S.-Mexico border, honeycombing it with tunnels and planting it with “rape trees,” with the clothes ripped off young women. Nor does he find himself exploited in an underground economy, where greedy employers turn away poor American workers with enforceable legal rights, then fill their factories or fields with docile, frightened foreign people whom they can threaten with deportation.

Fr. Martin doesn’t have children whose public school is in chaos, overburdened with the hopeless task of trying to assimilate and educate kids in a dozen different languages. Fr. Martin’s health insurance is covered by the wealthy Jesuit order, so he never needs to worry about what it will cost him to use an emergency ward — at a hospital which treats long lines of undocumented and uninsured workers, and so has to soak its few paying customers to avoid going bankrupt. Fr. Martin will never lose his job at America magazine to a lower-paid foreign priest who came in on an H1-B visa, whom he is forced to train.

It’s easy for Fr. Martin and others like him to call for utopian policies, wave Jesus around to silence our reality-based objections, and refuse to examine their real-world impact on the poor and the vulnerable.

The Cheapest Grace in the History of the Church

There is a long list of people, both foreign and American, who pay a heavy price for our blithe acceptance of immigration chaos. Few such people have columns in prestigious magazines, or get hired as faith consultants by Martin Scorcese — which Fr. Martin was, for the movie Silence. (As you’ll read here at The Stream, that movie’s ending was an icy apologia for priests who renounce Jesus, betray the Faith, and make a comfortable living helping pagans to persecute the church.)

Those people exist, from the villages emptied of men in rural Mexico, to the ghettos of America where black and Latino teens cannot find entry-level jobs. But it’s easy to ignore them.

Likewise it’s easy for Fr. Martin and others like him to call for utopian policies, wave Jesus around to silence our reality-based objections, and refuse to examine their real-world impact on the poor and the vulnerable. Better still, they can wield their “high-minded” demands to blunt the force of the growing pro-life movement, by insisting that all of us swallow their Seamless Garment poison pill, before we’re allowed to stop killing a million children each year. That wins them points with their powerful friends like Joseph Biden and Tim Kaine, both Jesuit allies and pro-choice Democrats. So men like Fr. Martin coast through life on a cushion of unearned praise and cultural privilege, while sneering at their weaker fellow citizens as “un-Christian,” cruel, and selfish.

I’ll give this to open borders Christians: They have found the source of the cheapest grace in the history of the church. Simon Magus would be proud.

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