A politics of purity versus a politics of compassion.
That was the fundamental disagreement between the Pharisees and Jesus, according to biblical scholar Marcus Borg (1942-2015) in his book, “Conflict, Holiness and Politics in the Teachings of Jesus.”
“Conflict between Jesus and some of his Jewish contemporaries (especially but not only the Pharisees) over ‘the shape’ of Israel provides a more comprehensive context for interpreting Jesus’ words and deeds,” Borg wrote.
Shape refers to “Israel’s social-political structures, cultural dynamics and historical directions: in short, ‘politics’ in the broad sense of the word.”
He explained, “The conflict was about politics and justice, about whether compassion or purity was to be the core value shaping Israel’s collective life.”
The Pharisees (among others) advocated for a politics of purity, Jesus for a politics of compassion. Competing visions regarding the national ethos brought them into conflict.
Borg’s argument is compelling, providing greater insight into the Gospel narratives and the ministry of Jesus.
This dichotomy of competing politics also seems relevant to understanding disagreements taking place in the U.S. today.
Before proceeding, let me note that I’m applying Borg’s concept of divergent politics causing conflict due to contrasting visions to the present-day U.S. in the broadest terms.
I’m neither equating the views and actions of the Pharisees with those of today’s elected officials who seem to be guided by a politics of purity, nor those of Jesus with those who seem to act based on a politics of compassion.
It should also be noted that Jesus’ conflict with the Pharisees was not a disagreement between faith traditions but within Judaism.
Jesus is not critiquing Judaism as a whole (a formal split between Christianity and Judaism would not happen until later), but rather a particular expression of Judaism.
Finally, neither Jesus nor the Pharisees spoke for or represented all of Judaism.
This qualification is necessary due to the painful and tragic history of anti-Semitism in Christian (and world) history.
Noting this is also constructive because the U.S. is facing an intramural conflict about our nation’s guiding principles and the shape of its collective life.
Too often, patriotism is misconstrued as “defend and support your nation’s actions no matter what,” with those voicing critique being told, “If you don’t like it here, move somewhere else.”
We are discussing, debating and, sometimes, dividing not over what nation we associate with but over what it means to be this nation, this people, this union of states.
There are many visions of what it means to be a U.S. citizen, with politics of purity and politics of compassion being one framework to explore this topic.
Borg’s framework of competing politics – one based in purity and one in compassion – is informative regarding the debate taking place today regarding how the U.S. will respond to immigrants, whether they come to our borders pulled by economic / financial opportunity or pushed by violence, hunger or poverty.
It can help us see what is at the heart of this public policy debate.
We’re seeing nationalistic slogans like “Make America Great Again” being widely embraced, physical border walls being championed as vital to national security and partial government shutdowns resulting over demands for billions of dollars to fund the construction, elected officials referring to immigrants as “dirt,” political commentators asserting that immigrants make the nation “dirtier,” and President Trump repeatedly associating immigrants with disease, drugs, crime and sexual assault.
It’s easy to recognize a politics of purity informing such rhetoric, with purity being shorthand for keeping “the other” (non-U.S. citizen) out, apart, separate, away.
A politics of purity erects boundaries – sometimes physical, oftentimes metaphorical but no less real and restrictive.
It has frequently been a driver of U.S. immigration policies, with anti-immigrant sentiment rooted in fear and a desire for purity guiding decisions on the number of outsiders legally permitted to cross our borders (often restricted by country of origin).
A politics of compassion, by contrast, seeks community with “the other.” It breaks down barriers, walls and divisions, seeking to expand the reach of one’s fellowship and friendship.
It seeks to see oneself in “the stranger” and to treat others as you would wish to be treated.
It would make decisions on immigration not from fear but from fidelity to a guiding vision of being a land of hope and opportunity for “tired … poor … huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
Jesus’ practice of table fellowship with those outside, or on the margins, of society was a foundational means by which he embodied his approach to politics.
“It was a political act of national significance,” Borg wrote. “To advocate and practice a different form of table fellowship was to protest against the present structures of Israel.”
Translating inclusive table fellowship into political acts – acts that “protest against the present structures” of one’s nation – happens when people of faith protest immigration policies that separate families at border crossings and advocate for the protection of “Dreamers” (people brought to the U.S. as children), and when houses of faith become sanctuaries for immigrants living in fear of deportation under a convoluted, confusing and broken system.
A politics of purity has characterized much of U.S. history related to immigration policy.
A politics of compassion has been the exception, in part because it is less instinctual and in part because it is often misunderstood or mischaracterized.
For example, politics of compassion related to immigration policy should not be construed as open borders. Rather, it would look like Catholic social teaching on immigration and national borders:
- Targeted: “Narrowly tailored, focusing on the dangerous and criminal elements” and “not rely[ing] upon ethnic and racial profiling and should not be so overly broad as to curtail basic rights.”
- Proportional: Not enacting “unnecessary penalties or rely[ing] upon unnecessary force,” which might “drive migrants to risk their lives or violate the due process rights of migrants.”
- Humane: Respecting human rights and dignity as much as possible, prioritizing family reunification and protection of vulnerable peoples, and offering “meaningful protection to refugees and asylum-seekers.”
People on both sides of the political aisle have, historically and presently, advocated for purity-driven politics in various areas of our collective life – particularly related to immigration.
No party can claim moral superiority, and it will require a wider embrace of a politics of compassion by all governing bodies and elected officials to set a new course.
The shape of our nation, and its standing in relation to the rest of the world, will be determined by the choices we make.