High Road and Low Road


Recently, I participated in a forum on encouraging immigration reform (the legal issue) and more respectful and just responses to immigrants (relational issues, both personal and social). I was asked to open the forum with a brief introduction from a theological or faith perspective, which I did. Throughout the evening’s conversation, there was talk of appealing to people’s mind and hearts and, also, talk of public displays of strength and unity.

During the American Civil Rights Movement, a visiting lecturer who was engaged in the struggle told a class at Princeton Seminary that people make changes only as they become persuaded that those changes are in their self-interest. He advocated the “green power” of financial pressure, and I think he wanted us to see that not all people are moved by appeals to the mind (reason) and heart (compassion). From some, only money talks.

I think our instructor went too far by solidifying his insight into an ideological principle that whatever motivates people to change does so only by appealing to their self-interest. When students objected that some people are moved by appeals to justice and compassion, he countered that such an argument only proves that it is in their particular self-interest to see themselves as just and compassionate people. While in a pedantic way that reasoning could be maintained, it falsifies the ethical geography by leveling the terrain and turning the apparent higher road into just another self-serving low road. It’s unnecessarily cynical, respecting no differences in people’s attitudes or values and offering no redemption. It turns every appeal into a tactic, the means to an end.

We need to appeal to people’s minds and hearts if our goal is not merely to make room for a new group but to develop a better and more just society. We need to respect the people whose minds we are trying to change as well as the victims of their present intolerance and cruelty or indifference. Otherwise, we change nothing but only realign the boundaries of power and opportunity. The game remains the same.

At the same time, I think we do well to be realistic and know we cannot wait for all minds and hearts to change. Prejudices keep people from listening to reason (even sometimes from listening for the sake of their own self-interest), and bigotry’s disgust blocks compassion for those it declares disgusting. In a meeting not long ago, an otherwise compassionate woman said of the children of undocumented immigrants, “I don’t know where all this sympathy for them comes from.” It comes from our shared humanity, but she wasn’t seeing it, perhaps because of the perceived threat to her own people’s long and continuing struggle for dignity and equality, which is something we need to recognize as we talk about immigration reform and the fair treatment of migrant workers and immigrants.

So, let us continue to speak to minds and hearts, appealing to reason with people open to reason and urging compassion from those who value compassion and are not disgusted by it. But fairness and respect cannot wait until all minds are persuaded by reason and all hearts opened by compassion. So “green power” is something we need to keep in mind.

I could not help but notice that, even as people were grumbling about the increasingly frequent appearance of signs in Spanish, stores and banks put up Spanish signs in no time flat. Money was talking.

Shows of unity speak also in ways heard by politicians. A grouping of people without vote gains influence through solidarity with groups of people who do vote.

But expediency alone is perverse. We must continue to appeal to the mind and heart. Otherwise, we fall prey to the lie that the end justifies the means, and we dehumanize some people in the name of demanding human dignity for others. Yes, the reality is that some will listen only when money talks, but that does not mean we should let green power do all the talking