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Debating Compassion

By November 29, 2011 No Comments

As I type this it is Thanksgiving Day morning and I am taking a break between peeling potatoes and prepping a turkey.   This is, of course, a day when we Americans pat ourselves on the back for being a God-fearing, God-thanking nation.  As President Obama said as part of the annual silliness of pardoning two turkeys, Thanksgiving Day is uniquely American, a day that is “our own” in that we invented it (and the folks in Canada and elsewhere who have similar days are guilty, apparently, of producing just a cheap knock-off imitation from the American Original).

As I said in Thanksgiving Day sermons over the years, we Christians need no national holiday, no presidential proclamations to give thanks.  At least we ought not need such prompts.  As Jamie Smith pointed out in his Thanksgiving Day blog here on The Twelve, the entire third section of the Heidelberg Catechism is one long prompt to let God’s saving grace that comes gratis overflow into lives of gratis-tude.  And so if America at some level reflects this impulse–and if behind all the outer folderol of Thanksgiving Day that impulse is still active–that is a good thing and I don’t mean to knock it.

But in the very week of Thanksgiving this year, I find myself struck by the juxtapositions and crosscurrents that are present among even some who probably would be the loudest cheerleaders behind the idea that America is somehow a “Christian nation,” a shining city on a hill, a beacon of God to the world.  Because this week for the second time in the never-ending series of debates among the Republican challengers for the presidency a candidate found himself in trouble on account of stating something that was, all things being equal, a pretty solidly Christian sentiment of compassion and mercy.

Newt Gingrich suggested that compassion and understanding should be proffered to immigrants who–even if they came here illegally for whatever the reason once upon a time–have lived here for 25 or more years, have children and grandchildren here, belong to a church, etc.   But this went over no better than a handful of debates ago when Rick Perry offered another Christian nod toward compassion when he said that the children of illegal immigrants should not be blamed for what their parents did and so these innocents deserve to be fed and educated just on account of their being here.   Their very presence, Perry suggested, puts on obligation on the rest of us.

That sounds about right.  

But not to most of those who will vote for a Republican candidate in 2012.  Both Gingrich and Perry were pilloried for this soft-on-crime stance and the rebuke came from some of the same people who might be the first to get teary-eyed during the opening prayer at Nascar events and who see someone like President Obama as anathema to the values of Christian America.

The immigration issue is fraught with complexity.  I spent over two years on a study committee wrestling with the ins and outs of it all and so I would be among the last people who would ever want to treat as simple or straightforward a legal and moral issue that is actually rather complicated and prolix on some levels.   Still, even if a civil government needs to take a certain approach to issues surrounding immigration, those of us who claim to be Christians and who want to honor God in how even this country operates cannot help but bring our Christian sensibilities and compassion and mercy to bear on this issue, especially when it concerns children and when families are involved–families who love each other as much as any of us love our fellow family members, children, grandchildren, parents.

A few years ago I met with a representative to Congress to discuss immigration reform.  One of the members of the group that met with the Congressman that day along with me was a mother of three young children who had married a man who had come to the U.S. illegally from Mexico.  To try to make things right, he went back to Mexico to get the necessary documents only to be slapped with a series of penalties that may make it impossible for him to come back to the U.S. for a decade or more.   The woman wept as she told her story and pleaded for Congress to do something.  The Congressman listened quietly, lightly rapping his fingers on the table.   When she finished her heart-rending story, the Congressman said but one thing: “But he had come here illegally, right?”

And that was it.

We can all be inconsistent in applying our faith to politics.  I have never yet cast a vote that did not conflict with something or another I believe to be right.   But sometimes it seems that in this nation that prides itself on pausing to give thanks to Almighty God, the compassion of that God could be on much better display than it often is.


Scott Hoezee

Scott Hoezee is Director of the Center for Excellence in Preaching at Calvin Theological Seminary.

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