Reinhold Niebuhr’s Christian realism, which was lately set forth in Matthew Schmitz’s “Immigration Idealism” (May), famously relegates Jesus’s social teaching to the realm of the ideal rather than the possible. Schmitz’s endorsement of this realism makes a mistake that commonly attends Niebuhrian arguments: that the commands of Scripture can be ignored for the sake of political exigency. We know that Jesus’s social teachings are unrealizable (so the argument goes) because if followed, they would turn the world upside down. Such an argument reinforces a bifurcation between the political and the spiritual—a bifurcation out of harmony with the direction First Things has taken in recent years.
Schmitz maintains that “not everyone can or should be admitted to any political community,” but perhaps only those who share the “indelible character” of the purported Christian state of America. This would seem to make Hispanic migrants, the vast majority of whom are Catholic, precisely the ideal candidates for immigrant status. It would also seem to make Christian refugees from the Middle East, the arrival of whom the Trump administration has cut drastically, ideal candidates for immigrant status. The Cato Institute reports that “the rate of Christian refugee admissions has been 50 percent lower under President Trump’s first two years than under President Obama’s entire term, and it is 25 percent the monthly rate under President Bush.” Yet readers of Schmitz’s essay search in vain for a denunciation of the Trump administration’s practices.
Schmitz laments that “immigration idealists valorize a kind of homelessness,” a mistaken view he attributes to William Cavanaugh. Will he also signal his disagreement with Augustine, who said, “This world is to all the faithful who are seeking their homeland what the desert was to the people of Israel”? Will he disagree with Aquinas who, in his Commentary on Hebrews, claims that we who are children of Abraham “are given to understand that we should live in the world as foreigners and strangers”? Might he beg to differ even with the apostolic writer of Hebrews who reminds his Christian readers that “here we have no lasting city, but we seek a city that is to come” (Heb. 13:14)? Are we to believe that Augustine, Aquinas, and the Apostle are sentimentalists? If not, it seems Schmitz finds himself in disagreement over the pilgrim status of the Christian not merely with Cavanaugh, but with the mainstream of Christian theological reflection.
new haven, connecticut
Christian conservatives of goodwill must strive to develop a uniquely Christian argument for an immigration policy that upholds national sovereignty and affirms strong borders. I applaud Matthew Schmitz’s attempt in “Immigration Idealism.”
However, deploying a sort of Niebuhrian Christian realism to make this case is a losing strategy. Christian realism, simply put, cannot systematically produce uniquely Christian positions on social policy. Schmitz is quite right that immigration idealists, like the Rauschenbuschians of yore, do not take human sin seriously. By taking sin seriously, Christian realism has provided the mainline Protestant ruling class with “Christian” political positions that allow America to “work.”
But this is the very problem with Christian realism: The starting point is always America, never God. The point of Christian realism has been to help Christians uphold America, not to help Christians faithfully witness against America. In an effort to create responsible Christian Americans, Christian realism ironically creates irresponsible American Christians. Christian realists are far too eager to accept America as it is and then work backward pragmatically to achieve goals that are merely proximate to “Christian” goals.
When applied to other social issues, such as sex, Christian realists produce positions that do not look uniquely Christian at all. Recognizing that traditional Christian marriage and sexuality in America is no longer “realistic,” mainline Protestantism upholds America-as-it-is by making peace with no-fault divorce, birth control, abortion, and gay marriage. Likewise, deploying Christian realism to defend strong borders feels a lot like the Church upholding America and not much like the Church bearing witness to America.
This does not mean that there are no clear Christian arguments for strong border security. Instead of Christian realism, the right argument is most likely grounded in an appeal to God’s creational goodness inherent in the diversity of human cultures, which are inevitably dissolved by a borderless, globalized anti-culture.
But in all of this, Christians must be prophetic witnesses to all Kingdom truths, not simply the ones that are useful for our political precommitments. While maintaining the sovereignty of the nation-state, we must also hold the state accountable for unjust treatment of immigrants and refugees. In this way, Christian political positions may ultimately feel contradictory, at least within America’s imaginary liberal-conservative binary. But this is a risk we must run to truly be witnesses to the complexity of God’s good vision for the world.
Grant R. Martsolf
As an Anglican clergyman, I understand Jacob Williams when, in the testimony of his conversion to Islam (“Why I Became Muslim,” May), he characterizes the Anglican Church of his upbringing as “tepid, half-believing,” and “a shadow of itself.” However, his conversion to Islam wasn’t just a repudiation of lukewarm Christianity, but a philosophically considered position. He writes, “How could this transcendent being be identical with the fleshy Messiah portrayed in the church, complete with his bloody stigmata? The mystery of the Trinity seemed to me a dark glass that made God’s majesty dimmer, not brighter.”
Let me offer a thought concerning majesty. We assign the most glory to those we deem most generous. And the most generous people we know are the ones who give of themselves. Giving that which is not costly to oneself may be appreciated, but it is not glorious, a point Jesus made when he honored the widow who gave her two last mites above the rich who gave far more money, but far less of themselves. As A. W. Tozer insightfully wrote, “Before the judgment seat of Christ my service will be judged not by how much I have done but by how much I could have done.”
If God is love, what is the extent of that love? If love is costly for us, do we assume that God loves without cost? Herein lies true majesty: The glory of God is not that God remained cloaked in transcendence, far beyond human sin and suffering, but rather that in Christ he drew near—Christ giving himself for others, even to the point of taking on flesh and dying a gruesome death. The Trinity surely contains mystery. Should we expect to be able to understand the nature of God completely? The Trinity also contains majesty, the majesty of love, seen most magnificently in the one who, in the form of God, loved us to the end—picking up a basin and a towel, washing his disciples’ feet, and wearing a crown of thorns as he willingly suffered and died for the sin of the world.
Love draws near. Love gives all. That’s what makes love glorious—and scary. I wonder if Christ crucified is so unappealing to many (and I have felt this myself) because of what he shows us about love. If God is like this, what might he expect of us?
Rev. W. Ross Blackburn
boone, north carolina
I was very impressed by Jacob Williams’s essay, “Why I Became Muslim.” A British man converts to Islam? I expected the usual aesthetic appropriations that many Westerners take on when they convert. But this clearly was not Williams’s case. I am generally suspicious of Westerners who convert to Islam because the impetus toward conversion is often a hatred for the West. This, too, was not the case with Williams, who expresses many principles of Sufism, especially oneness and perpetual remembrance of God.
One of the reasons the essay spoke to me is Williams’s certainty and unapologetic expression of his newfound faith. I am a Bosnian Muslim. It hasn’t been easy living in America because I am also conservative. I don’t fit simplistic ideological narratives. I have, however, received a great welcome from many conservative intellectuals and publications, which give me the opportunity to express my opinions and show that there are many different kinds of Muslims (secular, religious, ethnic). That said, being a Bosnian Muslim is not my primary identity. Although it will always remain with me because of war and the genocide of Bosnian Muslims, I am a naturalized American citizen first and foremost.
Williams writes that his “journey toward Islam thus began not with the rejection of Western tradition and inheritance but with a strong desire to affirm as much of it as might prove compatible with religious truth.” This comes from a man who has authentically, intellectually, and spiritually entered Islam. Some will read this as a contradiction. Perhaps there is a “clash of civilizations,” but given my experience of Islam, I know that many Muslims reject religious fundamentalism and have a dialogical approach to other people.
Intellectual and political discourse is polarized, and nuanced thinking is almost impossible to find. I applaud First Things for contributing to the possibility of intellectual discourse. Most important, by publishing Williams’s essay, you have affirmed a face-to-face relation in which one is not dehumanized, but rather elevated in his humanity.
east aurora, new york
In “Why I Became Muslim,” Jacob Williams echoes several common arguments in defense of Islam. He begins with God’s oneness, calling the first part of the shahada “an uncompromising statement of pure monotheism.” I live in a predominantly Muslim country, and have encountered this line of thinking before. Such a claim betrays a curious devotion to monotheism, as if it has value in and of itself. But the value of monotheism isn’t that it is inherently better than polytheism or pantheism. The value is that it’s true.
Williams invokes C. S. Lewis’s oft-quoted trilemma, applying it to Muhammad instead. The problem is that, while Christ is above reproach to the point that he could have only been Lord, Liar, or Lunatic, there is ample room for alternatives when it comes to Muhammad. Williams moves too quickly to affirm the prophet’s actions. He claims to have taken an honest look, but I question his conclusion.
But the greatest flaw in Williams’s article is the idea that Islam can aid in the preservation of British culture and the Western canon. In making such an argument, Williams throws out the baby in order to preserve the bathwater. The inherent value of Shakespeare, Constable, and others is in how they point to the one true glorious God in Christ. Any culture derives its ultimate value thus, in proper relationship to its Maker.
I am saddened that the Anglican Church failed Williams, though I question the zeal with which Williams pursued truth in Christ given the network of robust, vigorous theological traditions that exist in England, Europe, and the world over.
To be sure, “progressive zealots” who seek to rid the world of religion abound. But as far as I am concerned, they can have the Western canon. Jacob Williams can have his “simpler, purer” Islam. Just give me Jesus. It is in him that I find my ultimate purpose, my ultimate value.
Jacob Williams replies:
The Rev. W. Ross Blackburn eloquently explains the intrinsic appeal of Christianity. There is no love lost in the God who gives of himself even unto cloaking himself in flesh. The loss we fear is logic. Can the Trinity be reconciled with God’s perfect simplicity? If Jesus told us not to call him good, doesn’t that suggest he saw himself as a messenger? This is not a new argument. God himself puts it as such:
Say, “He is God, the One.
God, the Absolute.
He begetteth not, nor was He begotten
And there is none like unto Him.”
I share many of Emina Melonic’s feelings about being a Muslim in the West. If Islam were only about the trappings of Arab culture, it would not be a universal gift for humanity. We live in a strange time. Many people in the West find Islamic theology plausible, but take issue with what they assume are its culture and values. We must address this misperception if Islam is to take its place in the public square.
John Thomas suggests there is “ample room for alternatives” in applying Lewis’s trilemma to Muhammad (peace be upon him), but he does not tell us what these alternatives are. I cannot think of any way that a man who falsely claims to have Revelation could not be either deceptive or deluded. Culture points us to the universal Creator, but it does so in a local grammar. This is what I wish to preserve—not the theological argument. When the first Britons converted to Islam in the nineteenth century, they composed songs of worship in the style of the Anglican Hymnal. This kind of meaningful renewal is surely the way forward.
Love and Justice
I immensely enjoyed R. R. Reno’s article on Henry James’s The Bostonians (“Made for Love,” May). Several years ago, I read the novel and quickly realized that it is tragically underrated, likely due to its conservative message. Many of today’s narratives about social issues appear to be almost lifted from its dialogues, especially those between Basil Ransom and Olive Chancellor. In addition, The Bostonians is an exploration of the conflict between the personal and political, and how much we are willing to sacrifice in either direction in pursuit of the one goal or the other.
I was delighted to learn that Reno and I read the novel through the same lens, and I loved his line, “The conservative social and political way of thinking seeks to honor the sanctity of the given. It is primarily concerned with giving status to the status quo.”
However, I respectfully disagree with Reno’s conclusion that the choice is definitively about choosing love over justice. James leaves this more of an open question than Reno lets on. The novel concludes, “But though she [Verena Tarrant] was glad, he [Basil] presently discovered that, beneath her hood, she was in tears. It is to be feared that with the union, so far from brilliant, into which she was about to enter, these were not the last she was destined to shed.” Are these tears of a lost career in the footsteps of Miss Birdseye, a forlorn friendship with Olive Chancellor, or an unfulfilling marriage with Basil Ransom?
new york, new york
In “Made for Love,” R. R. Reno reflects on the ways in which the avid pursuit of social justice can leave a person unfulfilled and bitter. He further argues that “progressives” are prone to oppress people in their personal lives similarly to their opponents in the public realm. These points are well taken.
However, by rejecting the feminist slogan “the personal is political,” on the grounds that it inhibits the possibility of an intimate personal life, Reno stops short of providing a full picture of human flourishing. The intimate love that exists in personal relations turns false if it reinforces unjust structures such as domination and oppression. Reno would not want to suggest, I think, that one’s personal loves should be immune to considerations of justice; and yet, he is surely right that a focus on power will undermine any attempt at a healthy relationship.
St. Augustine’s conception of love as that “on which hangs the whole law” illuminates an important middle way. For Augustine, love is at the heart of all human action and emotion—everything we feel, think, and do is a result of our love. In order to live well, our loves must be “rightly ordered.” That is, we cannot attach ourselves too much or too little to those we love. Justice, on this view, has a critical role to play, as it is a function of love that seeks right relationships. Justice is the virtue by which we can maintain right order within ourselves, but it is also a virtue that works to make manifest right relationships in the external world.
The pursuit of justice, then, should be always directed toward facilitating right relationships. Seeking justice in the public sphere should help us to engage in more holistic ways in our personal lives, while enabling others to do so in theirs. If our actions perpetuate domination or bitterness, they are not just or loving—love without justice is misguided, while justice without love is incomplete. In this sense, the personal always will be political, and vice versa, since love is at the root of it all. By keeping the focus on facilitating right relationships, however, we can engage in domestic life and public affairs with openness and grace. Reno is surely right that “we are made for love,” but it is a love that demands justice.
R. R. Reno replies:
The last sentences of The Bostonians are enigmatic, as Alec Goldstein points out. But I don’t read them along the lines he suggests. I think it implausible that Verena weeps over a foregone public career as a feminist. Over losing Olive? Perhaps. But more likely, Verena weeps over love’s burdens and the terrible risk of giving oneself to another. The further tears James says she is destined to shed? I do not read this as signaling a failed marriage. James was not foolish enough to imagine that we choose between a loveless public life and a blissful private life. Both are proper spheres of human endeavor. Both are full of peril. Neither delivers unmitigated happiness, even in the best of circumstances. And however much James disliked militant feminism, he recognized that Ransom’s rigid patriarchal ideas were likely to make Verena’s circumstances less than the best.
Love and justice do not join hands as easily as Kathleen Bonnette suggests, at least not in the wake of original sin. As Jesus teaches, love turns the other cheek; love goes the second mile. In the unfallen world, love perfects justice. In a fallen world, love accepts injustice in order to overcome it. (1 Cor. 13:7: “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”) For this reason, a public official cannot govern on the basis of this kind of love, for it entails accepting injustice. (St. Paul makes this clear in Romans 13.) However, within the covenant of marriage, love can reign. (See St. Paul yet again: Ephesians 5.) This is why I reject the feminist slogan “The personal is the political.” The more we draw domestic life into the domain of public justice, the more the language of rights replaces the language of love.
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