Jesus tells the story of a man who is forgiven a great debt, but refuses to forgive a small debt in the parable of the unmerciful servant (Matthew 18:21-35).
The parable applies, unfortunately, to the way we often live our lives.
We make mistakes and want forgiveness. We expect that God in particular and the rest of the world generally should show us mercy.
However, when others mistreat us in even the smallest way, we demand justice without mercy. We’ve “got ’em dead to rights, and they’re gonna pay.” We’re not going to be suckers – “give an inch; they’ll take a mile.”
The Trump administration exemplifies this mindset in the way it is handling the immigration issue.
The president claimed at certain points in his presidential campaign and during his first days in office that he was looking to deport only those who had committed crimes more serious than crossing the border without permission. But this has proven not to be the case.
U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the administration’s decision to rescind the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy through a “wind down process” at a Tuesday morning press conference.
This process is expected to take six months, according to a CNN report, in order to give Congress time to pass legislation that could offer protection to those who were allowed to remain in the U.S. under DACA.
“If Congress were not to act, and DACA begins to expire, nearly 300,000 people could begin to lose their status in 2018, and more than 320,000 would lose their status from January to August 2019,” CNN explained.
Amid such headlines and decisions, it seems that each day I see another news story about one of hundreds of thousands of admirable immigrants who supports their family, is active in the community, works hard and cooperates with the government by periodically checking in – in short, who proves that he or she would be a good citizen if given a chance.
In spite of all this, the government deports the immigrant, tearing the family apart and causing great suffering.
Even as the president was mulling over his DACA decision, we heard the story of Houston teen Yasmin Medrano, who weathered the storm, only to possibly lose hope of attaining DACA status.
Immigration hardliners argue that we have to get tough to uphold the rule of law, drawing on the president’s false choice: “Either we have a country or we don’t.”
If 11 million are allowed to break the law with impunity, then the law has no meaning, according to this line of thinking. We are back to the state of nature, and something like “The Lord of the Flies” or “The Purge” is just around the corner.
There are two problems here.
First, the high immigration levels of the 1990s and early 2000s correspond with a historic drop in crime. The much browner America of today has a much lower crime rate than Reagan’s and Bush’s America did.
Trump supporters have a vague notion that the “great America” they want to bring back was alive and well in the Reagan years. Well, violent crime was much higher then.
The 1980s and early ’90s were the heyday of crack cocaine, gang wars and angry rappers protesting the conditions of the inner cities.
There are things to admire about Ronald Reagan’s America – he was quite pro-immigrant, for one – but low crime was not one of them. The rule of law argument is empirically wrong.
Second, the argument is hypocritical – a la the parable of the unmerciful servant – because the rule of law seems constantly under assault in the age of Trump.
He has demonstrated little regard for the rule of law or checks and balances. He seems to admire dictators much more than democratic leaders, who strike him as weak. He claims the right to fire the disloyal, pardon the loyal and pardon himself.
By this logic, the rule of law doesn’t apply to him, and much has been written about the danger the Trump administration poses to the rule of law.
This man, who has bragged about and been accused of sexual assault by more than 15 women, is willing to ruin the lives of children who are guilty of the crime of obeying their parents. All in the name of the rule of law.
Furthermore, Ken Paxton, the Texas attorney general who has pressured the president to end DACA, is himself under indictment for securities fraud.
Paxton is one of several state attorneys general who had threatened to file a lawsuit to challenge DACA in court.
The government official who attacks the vulnerable for transgressions committed in an attempt to feed their families is charged with using his political power for illegal personal gain. An unmerciful public servant indeed.
Similarly, the many “law-abiding” Americans are fortunate enough to pick and choose which laws to obey.
To offer a few anecdotal examples:
- I know very few people who regularly drive the speed limit.
- Two weeks ago, 2.9 million viewers illegally streamed the McGregor-Mayweather fight, which was won by a champion at least as well-known for his criminal treatment of women as for his boxing skills.
- The young people I teach tell me it’s quite easy to watch pirated movies.
- Led by Snoop Dogg and other pro-pot lobbyists, millions roll their eyes at the “backwardness” of laws against marijuana usage and proudly ignore these laws. In college towns all over America, fake IDs for freshmen and sophomores to engage in underage drinking abound.
- I have fished without a license quite a few times over the years, and I regularly forget to buckle up when driving.
In all of these cases, including mine, the “good Americans” who break the law do so because they feel like it rather than out of any sort of need.
Many immigrants, on the other hand, have broken about three laws: they came without permission, they work without a permit, and they drive to work.
They break these laws to feed their families, out of what they understandably see as moral necessity, not because they feel like it. Their transgression is clearly more noble – an action taken out of obligation rather than desire, convenience or hubris.
It is important to remember that DACA recipients are currently not breaking any laws. Many of the immigrants whose deportations have been in the news have cooperated with the government in every way they possibly can, regularly checking in with ICE to verify their location and good behavior.
And so, in this administration and in many of us, as Scripture warns, the unmerciful servant thrives: Mercy for the fortunate; inflexible justice for the desperate.
Sean McKenzie is a Methodist in Calhoun, Georgia, who teaches high school and holds a doctorate in political theory from the University of Florida.