A recent letter to the editor complained that our local newspaper had printed six letters decrying the Trump policy of taking children from their parents at our southern border. The writer, doubly annoyed because an editorial in that same edition had also criticized the “zero tolerance” policy, hedged somewhat by offering up a self-absolving contradiction: I’m not in favor of taking children from their parents, but they brought it on themselves! What I see is the moral equivalent of football’s double reverse: start toward one side of the defensive line, hand off the ball to feign changing direction (we’re not really running that way), then hand off the ball again to, yes, really run that way.
To brutalize a group of people and feel justified in brutalizing them, one must first discredit empathy which is most easily done by telling lies about them. What makes people flee their homes and set off on a hard trek into dangers known and unknown, especially people with young children who will, beyond doubt, be frightened and unsettled? The plain answer is desperation akin to that which forces a family to flee their house which has caught fire, but that realistic answer could evoke empathy and so must be contradicted with slander. Paint these desperate people as opportunists or even invaders scheming to take away from us what is rightfully ours. Portray them as a horde of barbarians or savages so cruel that they will endanger their own children to attack us. The absurdity of such a depiction, while obvious to many, eludes detection by those who despise brown-skinned people who don’t speak English, who become enraged by the very sight of them in their communities or, perhaps, in more controlled reactions just bristle inside.
First dehumanize and other-ize, then blame the others who are not like us, who don’t fit into our mental pictures of our own communities and our nation, whose very presence makes us uncomfortable. “One of these things is not like the others” on the prejudiced mind’s picture page. How can desperate people be blamed for fleeing their homes to find refuge? Draw them as calculating, as people so bereft of moral decency that they would use their own children as shields to protect themselves from justice. It is, after all, about the law and only the law, is it not? No, it is not. Seeking asylum from violence, rape, and murder is not illegal, but when the desperate people fleeing such violence are not wanted, their action can be made illegal or made to appear illegal. Stop them before they reach the middle of the bridge. Jam up the process so they are tempted in their desperation to seek some way around. Do they understand the ramification of what they are doing in their desperation? I doubt they do, but prejudice just knows they have planned it all out.
The parents fleeing three frighteningly violent, destabilized Central American nations (El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala) are mostly indigenous people whose native language is not Spanish but some other, older on this continent, that most of us have never even heard named. These are peoples the Europeans displaced, slaughtered, or subjugated. They have been here far longer than we have. Without even going into the question of how these nations have been so destabilized (hint: back in the Reagan years, we played a significant role in the process), people who allow themselves to feel empathy can easily see how confusion and naive expectations of asylum add to desperation and the vague hope of somehow finding refuge and being safe. There is a land of safety. The way there may be hard, but reaching it offers some glimmer of hope. If only. So parents come with their children and try to present themselves to the border guards for acceptance as refugees seeking asylum.
But hope is cheated, and the children they are trying to protect are taken from them, shipped like cargo to unknown places, by night in secret. Put into detention camps. Caged. Not touched, not comforted. Damaged for life. Mr. Kelly tells us this way of treating children should serve as a strong deterrent.
But, “they brought it upon themselves.” How can such callousness justify itself? The law! They are illegals (not a word in English)! They are invaders! They are lesser human beings. Always the abused must be painted as lesser people, if human at all. Call them animals, then cage them. Blame them. Always blame them so we ourselves need accept no blame for what we are doing to them.
It works. It has always worked, and Donald Trump knows how to work it.
Lack of empathy is evil. Without empathy, a person has no compassion and feels no need for any. Without compassion, we become inhuman and as far away from God as people can get. God’s compassion is the driving force of the entire biblical story and, for Christians, the only hope we have in life or in death.
First, it is a lie that the asylum seekers have brought it upon themselves, that they deserve to have their children taken from them and sent off into a nightmarish limbo. All asylum seekers are doing is running out from the burning building their homeland has become for them, from the danger that drives them from their homes into an uncertain future. From a Christian perspective, however, even if the lie were the truth, it would not excuse us from empathy and compassion. Claiming we are so excused from empathy and compassion denies and renounces the gospel we declare we believe. As Christians, we confess that our hope for salvation is based upon God’s grace – that is, God’s unearned and undeserved compassion and mercy – not upon any assessment of what we deserve or have brought upon ourselves. We affirm that God takes no pleasure in the grief or death of anyone. Such commitment to empathy and compassion does not mandate so-called open borders, as Mr. Trump falsely asserts the critics of his policy want, but it does require the recognition of people as human beings loved by God, the administration of justice without cruelty, and humane treatment of the desperate and vulnerable. Surely special care should be taken with children. The tactical cruelty of the Trump administration, which brutalizes children and their parents to fire up the prejudice and hatred of his base and to extort Congress into wasting money on a wall, has no justification in a Christian view of life or in Christian treatment of people. What is more offensive to God than blatant cruelty? Perhaps the answer is pious cruelty that claims not to favor tearing children from their parents’ arms even as it mutters, “They brought it upon themselves,” thereby approving the policy and the damage it does. Double reverse.