The prophet Nathan knew the power of a well-told story to transform.
After King David sinned against God and neighbor by sending a man to die in battle so that David could marry the man’s wife, Nathan realized that David needed to be told of his error in a way he could hear. Nathan wisely petitioned the king, who loved justice, with the case of a poor man who was robbed of his only beloved lamb by a rich man with many livestock. Outraged, the king declared this rich man must die and make four-fold restitution. Nathan teaches towards transformation with the words, “you are that man” (2 Sam. 12:7). Placing ourselves in the story has the power to transform, and this is why Jesus so often taught through parable.
I have personally witnessed this power of story to transform from an exercise I developed to teach about immigration called “Solidarity and the Shipwreck.” Recently, I had the opportunity to speak to an auditorium of Benedictine college students on the subject of immigration reform to kick off their Social Justice week. We did an abridged form of the exercise. I invited ten students to come up and stand close together. I then encircled the ground around their feet with a rope so everyone knew there was room for all inside. Next, I asked seven students to step outside the circle and set this scenario: the group within the circle become passengers on a luxury cruise near the Antarctic that comes upon a massive shipwreck. The group outside the circle become drowning sailors trying to prevent their deaths by getting onboard. Because the passengers have paid a lot of money for the trip, the captain lets them decide whether to save them.
I then asked the passengers on the imaginary ship what they decided. The faculty of this Catholic college will be glad to know that these students unanimously agreed to let all the drowning sailors on board, to much applause from the student body!
So, like Nathan, let me explain: as Americans, we are the ship; the drowning sailors are those who flee poverty, violence, or environmental devastation in their home countries seeking opportunities elsewhere; and it is this story that can open our hearts to the Church’s teaching on immigration.
The Catholic Church teaches that since all human beings are created in the image of God everyone has a right to pursue those things required for basic human decency (food, clothing, shelter, etc.) within their own country. However, when someone cannot acquire those things needed for human decency in his or her home country, be it for reasons of a depressed economy or well-founded fear of persecution, then that person has a right to migrate. The Catholic Church upholds the rights of sovereign nations to secure their borders but insists that this right is not absolute.
Nations, particularly wealthy nations, have a moral obligation to accommodate immigrants in dire circumstances in ways that still maintain the common good of their own country; preservation of wealth alone is not sufficient cause to keep people out. Just as the captain of a ship coming upon the wreckage of a vessel much larger than his would have an obligation to take on as many survivors as he could, but not so many that his own ship would sink, so also should nations look upon preserving the rights of immigrants. Consequently, the bishops of the United States encourage all Catholics, all people of good will, and particularly U.S. officials to look at the immigration issue in humanitarian terms.
I have presented this scenario to many groups and it never fails to transform the discussion from a partisan perspective to a solidarity lens that looks to how we can pragmatically love our neighbor. If you’d like to learn more or arrange such a dialogue go to www.archkck.org/socialjustice. Learn more about the Church’s teaching on immigration, and other ways to respond, at www.justiceforimmigrants.org.
Bill Scholl is the Social Justice Consultant for the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas