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By Gilbert Meilaender and Peter C. Meilaender, First Things, August 2018

In his famous speech (in Acts 17) to “men of Athens” at the Areopagus, St. Paul speaks of the providential ordering of God as including different nations, each having its particular boundaries. God “made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel their way toward him and find him.” This may seem jarring today, when many have grown accustomed to thinking of themselves as citizens of the world or talking in terms of a global ­community. And we know, of course, that the significance of nations and national boundaries—and migration across those boundaries—is often the subject of heated political disputes.

Seldom, however, do these public arguments notice that without a sense of boundaries and limits, we may lack the language needed to express cosmopolitan desires and beliefs. It is hard to talk about the importance of “the human family” unless we have some experience of life within our particular families and the intensity of familial attachment. Without the experience of particular friends to whom we are especially attached, can we really have any idea of what it might mean to think of “friendship to all the world”? Nor could we even try to think coherently of ourselves as “citizens of the world” or members of a global community unless we had learned this language of belonging within smaller, more particular and bounded political communities. Without such focused, located experience, the “neighbor” would remain largely an abstraction—no doubt easier to love than particular individuals, and sometimes appealing for just that reason.

To say everything that we want to say, we seem to need both a sense that we are kin to all other human beings (made from one man, as St. Paul says) and a sense of allotted periods and boundaries—that we stand in special relationship with and have special duties toward only some from among that one human family. We want and need to side both with the speaker in Robert Frost’s poem (“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall”) and his down-to-earth neighbor (“Good fences make good neighbours”).

Although our political debates may not often invite reflection on basic facts about the organic structure of human beings, a little reflection on it makes clear why we cannot say only one thing about particular bonds and more universal duties. Human beings are living bodies. We have location. We inhabit particular places. Yet we are not rooted in place as plants are. Unlike or more so than any of the other animals, we can see, reflect upon, and desire things not immediately present to us; hence, we always to some indefinite extent transcend the place (and the community) that locates us. Indeed, we quite naturally yearn for what is more than human, what is divine.

If these simple observations are true of us, we would do an injustice to our humanity if we had no sense of special obligation to those closely connected to us by nature or history. There would be something inhuman about missing entirely the moral significance of the body as the place of our personal presence to others. But there would also be something inhuman—something not true to the sort of being we are, a being different from plants or the other animals—if we recognized no duties toward those with whom we have few special attachments, those whose chief connection to us is simply the common humanity we share.

In short, to be human is to recognize a seemingly permanent tension between the particular and the universal in our loves, our loyalties, and our commitments. Recognizing the tension does not tell us how best to address it, but it should at least make clear to us that—however difficult the problem of immigration may be for us—we cannot make it go away by supposing that the borders of our community are unrelated to our peculiar and particular identity as a nation. We may or may not need walls that separate us from others, but we probably do at least need some fences. To have entirely open borders is to have no borders at all. Yet the idea of open borders is an appealing one to some.

That appeal has been nicely captured by the political theorist Joseph Carens in a classic essay defending open borders. Expressing something of the unease we may feel at the practical reality of borders, Carens opens his essay with a simple ­observation: “Borders have guards and the guards have guns.” More often than not, those guns are pointed at entirely harmless men and women, people whose needs are frequently severe and who want little more than to share in the freedoms and opportunities that those of us in prosperous Western democracies take for granted. What business do we have pointing guns at such people? Carens’s arresting comment makes it clear that “borders” are not simply lines on a map, or even physical barriers in a desert. Rather, for those who experience them from the outside, they represent the exercise of naked coercion.

But open borders may appeal to many people for a deeper reason than our mere reluctance to point guns at those who wish us no ill. Open borders seem to hold out the promise of a world in which people of all races, colors, and languages could live peaceably as friends and neighbors, a world in which age-old barriers of national and ethnic hostility have been overcome. Surely Americans—we who “hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal”—must find the vision of such a world appealing. And Christians especially may be drawn to it as a foretaste or image of the kingdom of God. Anyone who has ever worshipped in a large, diverse congregation, joined together in prayer and song with men and women of many different cultural and linguistic backgrounds, has experienced the pull of this vision.

Despite this pull, however, the vision of a world without borders overlooks much that is of moral significance. Different national cultures are not mere obstacles in the way of a broader cosmopolitanism. They are also the very fabric out of which we construct meaningful lives. They are vehicles of ­poetry, art, and song; they supply patterns for our work and leisure, our loving and our dying. Moreover, the open borders argument, if it proves anything, proves too much. Without the stability of bounded communities, we are unable to defend or sustain many other things that most of us consider valuable. We distribute food stamps and Social Security checks to members of our own national community, but not to the countless others around the world who might benefit from them. We provide schools to educate our own children, but not those of neighboring countries. We build our own interstate highways, deliver our own mail, clean our own rivers and streams. All these collective endeavors presuppose the existence of a “we,” a community of fellow citizens sharing a common life. Restricting access to any of these goods, no less than restricting it to the nation’s territory, rests ultimately on the implicit possibility of coercion on behalf of that common life. Most of the time this possibility remains implicit and is therefore easily ignored; restrictions on immigration only make it visible and remind us that it undergirds all of our civic activity.

To think of ourselves as fellow citizens whose common life is fenced off and distinct from that of other groups who share their own common life, we do not have to picture the kinship we share with fellow citizens as a kind of blood tie, simply unavailable to those who lack the DNA that marks our tribe. To some degree, our common life in the United States is formed by the constitutional structure we have inherited—a set of commitments that we share, whatever our other differences. And to that degree, anyone prepared to affirm those commitments and that structure is, at least in principle, suited to be one of us. Thus, in the measured, almost didactic prose of his First Inaugural Address, Lincoln characterized “the Union” in terms of a series of political structures:

The Union is much older than the Constitution. It was formed in fact, by the Articles of Association in 1774. It was matured and continued by the Declaration of Independence in 1776. It was further matured, and the faith of all the then thirteen States expressly plighted and engaged that it should be perpetual, by the Articles of Confederation in 1778. And finally, in 1787, one of the declared objects for ordaining and establishing the Constitution, was “to form a more perfect union.”

But those structures do not tell the whole story of a nation. Harder to define and pin down, but at least as important and perhaps more fundamental, is a shared cultural history that makes us recognize one another as having a kind of kinship based not on blood but on the defining stories we share. Of course, part of our shared cultural history is surely the story of our political arrangements—how they came to be, their peculiar and even unusual character. But still, in order to say all that he needed to say, Lincoln also spoke of “the mystic chords of memory,” appealing more poetically at the end of that address to ties that penetrate more deeply into national life than political arrangements alone can reach.

The theologian Russell Moore has captured something of those ties, though he was writing about familial rather than political community. When he and his wife adopted two sons who had been orphaned in Russia, friends and acquaintances encouraged them to be sure to teach the boys about their cultural heritage—meaning by that the story of their Russian roots. The Moores, however, took a different approach. “As we see it,” he wrote, “that’s not their heritage anymore, and we hardly want to signal to them that they are strangers and aliens, even welcome ones, in our home. We teach them about their heritage, yes, but their heritage as Mississippians.” So the boys learned about their grandfather, a Baptist pastor in the South, their great-grandfather who raised cotton, and the civil rights movement. The point, even if overstated, is clear: A shared history over time creates a kind of kinship. To be sure, had there not already been in the Moores’ marriage something that does not love a wall, they could not have created such familial bonds. And yet those bonds establish a boundary—a fence that identifies us and separates us from others. Something similar is true of any political community that endures over time.

That we live in times and places allotted us by the providence of God, that such particular loyalties in large part shape and identify us—none of this means that there is not also in us something that does not love a wall. That openness is built into the organic structure of human life, but, more important still, Christians discern something of that openness in God’s action within history, something that should discipline our inclination to grant a kind of ultimacy to our particular political loyalties. “Scripture tells us,” St. Augustine writes, “that Cain founded a city, whereas Abel, as a pilgrim, did not found one. For the City of the saints is up above, although it produces citizens here below, and in their persons the City is on pilgrimage until the time of its kingdom comes.” We owe loyalty to our nation, but we do not belong to it to the whole extent of our being. This should remind us that, even when we are inclined (or tempted) to think of our political community as exceptional, our ongoing effort to share a national identity must also have the character of a continuing experiment, as the Puritans who came to these shores (and had their share in fashioning those mystic chords of memory) believed. If God has a stake in preserving our community, as the Puritans believed he had in theirs, that can only be because our common life exists to serve, wittingly or unwittingly, his purposes, not ours.

Moreover, although Jews must decide for themselves whether a loyalty that is deep but not ultimate also characterizes their understanding of life within community, scriptural texts seem to point in that direction. We can, for example, note a tension right within the oracles of the prophet Amos. On the one hand, Israel’s Lord says to “the whole family that I brought up out of the land of Egypt: You only have I known of all the families of the earth” (3:1–2). And yet, mysteriously, Amos also suggests that the same God who had brought Israel out of Egypt had likewise brought “the Philistines from Caphtor and the Syrians from Kir” (9:7). More directly still, in Deuteronomy (2:5), Moses reminds Israel that the Lord who had promised a land to Abraham and his descendants had also given a land “as a possession” to the Edomites. And, of course, the servant who, according to the prophet (Isa. 49:6) will restore the tribes of Jacob and the people of Israel has a yet more expansive task: to make Israel “a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” Somehow, evidently, even the most important of fences serve, in the providence of God, not as ­barriers to shared life but as invitations.

More generally, if our borders cannot simply be open but must, nevertheless, be porous enough for outsiders sometimes to join us as insiders, how can and should we think about the inevitable tension between what is particular and what is universal in our loves and loyalties? There are, roughly, three ways we might try to come to terms with it.

We might, first, try to begin from a cosmopolitan perspective for which particular attachments based on shared cultural history, and the fences that sustain them, are always in need of special justification. There are Christian versions of that beginning point. Thus, for example, John Calvin discerned in the parable of the Good Samaritan the teaching that “the term ‘neighbor’ includes even the most remote person” and that, therefore, “we are not expected to limit the precept of love to those in close relationships.” Augustine found a similar teaching in the creation story. “God created man,” Augustine writes in the City of God, “as one individual; but that did not mean that he was to remain alone, bereft of human society. God’s intention was that in this way the unity of human society and the bonds of human sympathy be more emphatically brought home to man, if men were bound together not merely by likeness in nature but also by the feeling of kinship.”

But then an obvious question arises. How, within that feeling of universal kinship which thinks of “even the most remote person” as a neighbor, do we make place for the “allotted periods and the boundaries” of different peoples that St. Paul acknowledges in his Areopagus speech? Augustine suggests that we think in terms of what one might call a divine lottery. Given the limitations of our finite condition, we should think of time, place, and circumstance as “accidents” connecting us and obligating us in special ways to some of those many neighbors with whom we share a universal kinship. We must, he says, think of this as determined by “a sort of lot, according as each man happens for the time being to be more closely connected with you.”

Simply as a matter of reasoning, this may work. Beginning from an obligation to include all others within the scope of our love, but recognizing the limits that time and place put upon us, we can think of our special obligations to some as a specification of the bond we share with all but cannot for the moment enact with all. Fences are an unfortunate necessity, a concession to our limitations, but they do not cut deeply into our identity. The problem, though, is those mystic chords of memory to which Lincoln appealed. A shared allegiance grounded in the accidents of time and place, reasoned though it may be, can hardly account for the kind of bond citizens of a nation often experience. And surely, it is unlikely to move many to be willing to die for the sake of that bond. It seems to make our shared national identity the conclusion of a process of reasoning rather than a premise that underlies our thinking.

Perhaps a different approach can do more justice to the tension between particular and universal obligations. We might think of the bond we share universally with all other human beings not as a cosmopolitan starting point but as a protective limit. That is, the most meaningful ties, the ties that move us deeply, are the narrower and more particular ones to those with whom we share a cultural history—stories and loyalties that mark us off from other peoples and make us not necessarily better or exceptional, but distinctive. We have special obligations to fellow citizens because of that complex web of social and historical relations into which we were born or chose to enter at some point. Yet of course, we know well that such particular loyalties can sometimes blind us to the legitimate claims of outsiders, and we can forget or ignore our obligations to all those others whose only obvious tie to us is the general bond of humanity we share with them. That universal bond, our shared humanity, sets a limit to what we may do to anyone even for the sake of those to whom we are most closely attached.

Without a sense of universal obligation that controls what we will do in the name of particular commitments to those with whom we share mystic chords of memory, there could be no limit on what we might do for the sake of national survival. An exaggerated sense of the claims special moral relations make upon us, as if they fenced us off entirely from connection with those outside our community, would simply dissolve the tension between the particular and the universal in our loves. Then we would have blunted entirely our sense of something within us that does not love a wall. We would be thinking of ourselves almost as rooted in place—more like plants than ­human beings.

This second approach has its own difficulties, however. The ties and obligations that we have to all children of Adam are not really given their due if we think of their function only negatively—as a kind of limit that protects against injustice. For surely they are more than that. Universal love has its own dynamism; it calls us out of contented life within our allotted time and place, not allowing us to rest content with those to whom we are specially attached by historical circumstance.

Is there any third—and better—way to deal with the tension that marks our life? We can take our hint from a fact we noted earlier. Only because we feel loyalty to those bound to us in special ways can we understand why members of other national communities might have a similar loyalty to those with whom they share a history. And only then can we even begin to consider that our particular loyalties may have more than one purpose. They are intended, surely, to enrich our lives, but also to play a role in the education of our commitments. Without attempting to derive particular attachments from a cosmopolitan starting point, but also without making the obligations we have to all little more than a boundary-setting negative principle, we may come to see our special loves as a training ground in which we can learn just a little about what it means to care for any human being.

This third way—building up from particular loyalties to more universal ties—corresponds well to the teleological thrust of the overarching biblical narrative. Against the background of the loss of the peace of creation and the scattering of the nations, God begins with Abraham the long, slow process of gathering the nations once again into a single people. The culmination of this extends, of course, beyond history as we know it, but it is clear that what begins in very particular kinds of belonging has a universal dimension. “The princes of the peoples gather / as the people of the God of Abraham,” the psalmist says (47:9). Discerning the same divine intention, Jesus says (Matt. 8:11), “Many will come from east and west and sit at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.” Different loyalties are not obliterated, but they turn out to contain within themselves more expansive possibilities than we could have imagined.

To what degree those possibilities can be lived here and now is never easy to say. Still, the fact that they cannot be fully realized in human history, and that we would be profoundly mistaken to imagine otherwise, does not mean they should be ignored. Taken ­seriously, they will shape and reshape our sensibilities in ways hard to predict, ways that will not always lead in a single direction. To take this third approach, then, is to see our communities as always on the way—­never having fully established identities, but more than insignificant stopping points where we merely catch our breath for the rest of the journey. We must and should make distinctions among neighbors, but those distinctions will constantly be reworked and refined; they never have the last word. Good neighbors, we might say, make good—albeit porous—fences.

Gilbert Meilaender is Senior Research Professor at Valparaiso University. Peter C. Meilaender is professor of political science at Houghton College.

Photo by Tomas Castelazo via Creative Commons. Image cropped.