As I thought about the Gospel reading this week, the thought occurred to me that one of the reasons there is so much division in our country today is because, as a people, we have idolized politics. In some ways, we have placed all of our hopes on the political process.
People often say they don’t like politics because they recognize how inhumane it can cause people to treat each other. Power can corrupt. But we also recognize that we have a duty to be civically engaged, to vote and have our voices heard. It seems we have a hard time maintaining balance. It is difficult to be civically engaged without giving our political hopes space that should be reserved only for God.
The Gospel reminds us that this is nothing new. We see in it the struggle for political and religious power. The Pharisees come up with the perfect trap. There is no right answer. If Jesus says, “Pay the tax,” one group will be angry with him. If he says “Don’t pay the tax,” they will inform the Romans that he is inciting rebellion against them. Either way, they hope to capitalize on the anger against him and, ultimately, silence him.
But Jesus sees them coming and gives that famous line “Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.”
There is irony in the reason Jesus gives for that response. He asks, “Whose image is this,” on the coin? In the RSV translation he asks, whose “likeness” is on the coin?” The language of “image and likeness” should be familiar to us as it was no doubt familiar to the Pharisees. This is the language that is used in Genesis when God creates Adam and Eve, “Let us make human beings in our image, after our likeness.”
So while the Roman coin bears Caesar’s image, the question is, whose image does Caesar bear? He bears the image and likeness of God, as do the Pharisees and all of us as well. So Jesus is not drawing a distinction between those things that belong to God and those things that do not, rather, he is saying that all things, rightly ordered, belong to God.
The Church’s role influencing public policy is to shine a light on the dignity of the human person made in the image and likeness of God; to illuminate that dignity at every stage from the very beginning of life, until its natural end.
Last year, the Wyoming Legislature passed HB182 which ensured that agents who refer and or provide abortions in Wyoming would inform mothers that they have the right to see an ultrasound of their child and listen to his or her heartbeat. The passage of this bill was significant because the unborn do not have a voice. But a picture really is worth a thousand words. And while this law does not guarantee that a mother will choose to see that picture, at least she will know that she has the opportunity to see one. And studies have shown that once a mother sees the ultrasound, she is much more likely to decide to carry her child to full term. Like our faith, life in the womb is not an idea, it is an incarnate reality.
Last Monday and Tuesday night, I drove to Laramie to listen to a panel discussion on immigration and the DACA program. Until recently, I had never heard of DACA. It stands for the Deferred Action of Childhood Arrivals. It is a program that was instituted under the last administration in 2012.
There is a significant population of children in America whose parents came to the U.S. illegally. Many of them came with their parents when they were very little. Some have no memory of living anywhere else but in America.
The DACA program did not give them amnesty. It was a temporary program that these kids could apply for, pay a $465 fee and if they were given DACA status, they could live, work and go to school in the U.S. without fear of being deported. And every two years, they would have to reapply and pay the fee again, until they were able to meet all of the requirements for citizenship, which is an extremely complicated process right now. It’s not like going to the rec center and applying for an ID card. It can take many, many years, depending on an individual’s circumstances.
In September, the current administration suspended the DACA program. It will completely lapse in March of 2018. This will ultimately affect about 800,000 immigrant children and their families. The President has called on Congress to pass legislation to fix the problem with a more permanent solution.
People Over Politics
Understand DACA allowed these kids to come out of the shadows. Put aside for a moment our feelings about the politics surrounding the issue. Because of DACA, for the first time, these kids became visible. Like the unborn revealed by an ultrasound, DACA revealed these very real flesh and blood children. It’s not about passing blame or pointing fingers. But we have to realize the government has gone back on its word and these families are scared. They gave the government, in good faith, their information, including their home addresses.
At the panel, several UW students told their stories. One young lady talked about growing up in Loveland. They were very poor, but she didn’t know it. She didn’t know she was any different than anyone else. Then one day her school was offering a trip. She wanted to go but her mom told her she couldn’t. She sat her down and explained to her that she was “illegal.” She said she didn’t know what that meant but thought it sounded pretty “cool.” So, she proceeded the next day to tell anyone at school that would listen that she was “illegal,” after which, she said, her mom sat her down for another discussion.
Another young lady remembered crossing the border as a 5 year old. She had no idea what was happening. But her family moved to Wyoming. And this has been her home ever since.
One after the other, these brave University of Wyoming students came forward and told their stories. Most of them spoke perfect English. You would never suspect that they weren’t American citizens. Most of them work multiple jobs. Since receiving DACA status, they pay into social security. But, without citizenship, they will not receive it. They pay sales tax. They contribute, all the while, furthering their education.
The strength of the prolife movement has been that we have maintained that the sanctity of human life comes from the inherent dignity of every human person. In other words, the dignity of the human person is not bestowed by the government, it is given by God. And a law is just or unjust based upon the degree to which it recognizes that God-given dignity.
Yet, when it comes to the DACA issue specifically, or immigration more generally, some prolife Americans are rationalizing the mistreatment of human persons, the violation of basic rights, and the tearing apart of their families based upon the fact that they are not U.S. citizens. In other words, because they haven’t been bestowed with the same government-given-dignity.
Some will say, “Ok, we don’t blame the children for the sins of their parents. But their parents broke the law.” That is true. But in thinking about this I ask myself two questions. First, “To what extent would I go to ensure the safety, well-being, and the future of my children.” Second, “Have I ever broken a law for a lesser cause?”
None of this justifies the breaking of the law. But right now, there is no clear path to citizenship. It is an extremely complicated process that is undertaken from an atmosphere of fear. And until we consider the plight of those who risk so much, it’s very difficult for us to understand.
If we rationalize the mistreatment of even one person, or one family, we will be culpable for having devalued the dignity of every human person.
It is difficult to engage in complex political matters like abortion and immigration. We are tempted to either become apathetic and disengaged or to become wholeheartedly engaged placing all of our hopes on particular political outcomes. However, to disengage is to allow the voice of Christ within us to be silenced. To place all of our hopes on political outcomes is to give space to something that, by right, belongs to God alone. What will we become in the process? How do we find the proper balance? These are the questions. (It is never far from my mind that it was precisely political motivations that caused Judas to betray Jesus.)
A government has the responsibility and the right to secure its borders and to ensure the safety of its citizens. But it does not have the right to disregard the inherent dignity of even one human person, created in the image and likeness of God. We can give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, provided that we give to God what belongs to God.