Borders and the Order of Charity

By John Wahala on April 1, 2020

As the Wuhan coronavirus spreads like wildfire across the globe, sickening untold numbers of people while upending lives and devouring economies, countries are closing their borders. The Trump administration has shut down non-essential travel to and from Mexico and Canada and has halted the resettlement of refugees, the issuance of visas, and much of international travel. Other countries have followed suit. Restrictions are in place throughout the Western Hemisphere and beyond. The liberal government of Canada has closed its borders, as have Mexico and several Central and South American countries. Even the transnational European Union has walled itself off to the outside world and their member states have put in place their own restrictions. In the United States, states and localities have enacted decisive measures to protect their residents. Outsiders are being kept out by checkpoints, bridge closures, and even police searches. Communities are looking inward and families are focusing on protecting their loved ones from this growing pandemic.

Instead of condemning these actions as hateful and bigoted (or questioning their constitutionality), the press has largely encouraged them. While still attacking the Trump administration for its border policies, they have now switched gears and are criticizing the president for not going far enough to stop the movement of people. The seemingly inexorable push toward globalism has been halted by a single bat from Wuhan. Overnight, the moral calculus has shifted from being a good citizen of the world to being a good neighbor. Necessity has dictated it. So has common sense. When those around you are in imminent danger it is right to prioritize their needs, even at the exclusion of others. And in the current pandemic, keeping your distance is mutually beneficial.

But should prioritizing the needs of those around you apply in times of peace and prosperity, when outsiders are not importing a deadly disease? Of course it should. One only needs to look at loved ones to affirm this principle. Whether we realize it or not, we regularly prioritize our commitments. This principle is only in question because our minds have been shaped by generations of post-nationalists, who ostensibly push for global institutions to promote a more benevolent international order but are driven largely by greed and power. In the premodern world, the principle of prioritizing those closest to us probably never had to be explained. But for our sakes it was, by some of the most venerable thinkers in human history, including medieval philosopher Saint Thomas Aquinas, who laid out the order of charity in his magisterial Summa Theologica.

As one commentator points out, Aquinas explains that there must be a hierarchy of how we express duty and devotion, and all the other qualities of love, because we are finite creatures with a limited ability to give of ourselves. Aquinas writes, "We are bound to observe this inequality, because we cannot do good to all" and "since our neighbor is more visible to us, he is the first lovable object we meet. ... Hence it can be argued that, if any man loves not his neighbor, neither does he love God." These words echo Scripture: "For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen." This principle can be applied in more general terms to the polity. If government officials do not care for those they are sworn to serve, how can they care for those in other countries? Or as former British Prime Minister Theresa May once declared, "If you believe you're a citizen of the world, you're a citizen of nowhere."

This hierarchy of devotion should not create conflict or invalidate goodwill. As Aquinas points out, "[W]e love all men equally out of charity: because we wish them all one same generic good, namely everlasting happiness." C.S. Lewis explained this concept on a temporal level, "[P]atriotism of this kind is not in the least aggressive. It asks only to be let alone. It becomes militant only to protect what it loves. In any mind which has a pennyworth of imagination it produces a good attitude toward foreigners. How can I love my home without coming to realise that other men, no less rightly, love theirs?"

Nationalism, at least practiced as Lewis describes, is the order of charity properly expressed in today's public realm (with a healthy dose of federalism in the American context). And yet nationalism is typically misunderstood or caricatured by pundits and politicians who relentlessly push global perspectives. Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than on the issue of immigration. Resettling in the United States is increasingly seen as a human right. The migrant's prerogative takes precedence over the socioeconomic conditions of Americans. This was recently articulated by Joe Biden, who told an audience that people who entered the country illegally "are more American than most Americans are." As my colleague Mark Krikorian pointed out, Biden probably doesn't understand or believe his current position on immigration. Like many prominent Democrats, he held reasonable positions on the issue not that long ago, but has chosen to embrace the radical direction in which his party is headed.

The terrible Wuhan coronavirus has halted this radicalism, as leaders and communities have been forced to put the needs of their own first. It remains to be seen if any lasting public good comes out of this crisis, if government officials will embrace a healthy nationalism, one that is open and attuned to the world but protects its own. On immigration this would mean establishing a policy that prioritizes our own citizens. This is the moral thing to do. This is the order of charity.

Topics: Religion